The only time a NFL ref goes under the hood next year may be to find out why his car won't start.
That would be thanks to the league's football operations IT crew. It appears they have found a way to speed instant replay decisions and continue to put the revamped process to the test.
The league has proven that it can replace the long-standing under-the-hood process with a more streamlined and efficient approach that features Microsoft Surface tablets, wireless technology and a backpack-toting staffer who hands the mobile device to the ref he's shadowing.
"The goal is speed up the overall process by delivering the Surface tablet to the replay ref to handle replays wirelessly," explained John Cave, vice-president of IT for football technical solutions with the NFL.
That would seem to be the top priority when you consider many parties have been pushing to use instant replay to cover additional plays and situations. In fact, several instant replay expansion proposals were pitched at this year's owners' meeting. They were not approved, but expect to see them again with the possibility of new pitches.
A proposal to add cameras do the instant replay system for additional angles, which is being researched after being rejected for years, could push the process.
And with the league currently testing an extra ref in the offensive backfield to keep an eye on the D line, there's the possibility of additional penalties. (That's if the eighth zebra becomes standard operating procedure in regular season games.)
A Wireless World
Wireless technology continues to spread throughout NFL venues helping improve both the fan experience and assist in football operations. Coaches and staff use Bose wireless headsets. Tablets allow review of prior plays. Free stadium Wi-Fi lets attendees access timely content from their mobile devices. Smartphone apps let you find the shortest bathroom and concessions lines. The list goes on and on.
All that stands between the current approach and the new one is stress testing of the Surface tablets to ensure they can handle all weather conditions, are ruggedized and meet the screen resolution needs of referees who handle instant replay reviews.
That's good news for impatient fans in the stands and at home, who think instant replay (for booth-initiated review or challenged plays) is something of an oxymoron.
Testing, 1, 2, 3
As with many football tech products – such as Bose headsets– the ability to perform in all types of weather conditions and be ruggedized is of paramount importance. That's why the NFL decided to continue the testing it began at the 2015 Pro Bowl where the tablet system was the starter, but backed up by two other systems, including the under-the-hood system.
That game began at 6 pm local time on January 25 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, AZ, it was a starting point, but the in-door stadium's controlled environment didn't put the Tablets through the weather paces. It also didn't provide or mimic the lighting common to outdoor-only stadiums.
Glare in sunny conditions was identified as an issue by referees but can be addressed easily. The Pro Bowl refs said the tablet's resolution was as good as or better than that of the screen they are used to using when they go under the hood to review video footage.
The Surface 2 featured a 10.6-inch screen, while the newest unit, the Surface Pro 3 boasts a 12-inch screen size. As you might expect, the Surface tablet will be available in bigger, better and high-tech models going forward.
And like training camp players seek as many reps as possible, the NFL IT team wants the tablet system to handle as many replays as possible as soon as possible. This is primarily a test to eventually benefit replay officials with the process in hopes of generating maximum feedback for enhancements, tweaks etc., some of which have already been made through customization.
The Heat is on
The league picked 20 preseason games in which to test the Tablet system, primarily for its performance in the hot sun and high heat (and hopefully in rainy conditions). The four games where it was used for instant replay last weekend were held at outdoor facilities. The testing continues this weekend.
What the system won't get this month is experience in the cold weather, which is a large part of the NFL in the latter half of the season in northern venues.
IT would also love to get some duration testing with the tablets, which means seeing how they perform over time. This presents a challenge as Microsoft has equipped the league with the latest model, Surface 3. One option is to have the officials use slightly older Surface 2 tablets that NFL coaches used last season.
At the Pro Bowl, the IT folks had a staffer carry a backpack with heavy, off-the-shelf radio transmission gear needed to receive camera angles from the replay booth, along with the Surface tablet and shadow the ref as he moved. This was to attack a non-technical aspect of the replay process that can be time consuming.
"If it's a question of whether a player broke the end zone plane, the referee has to first talk to the coach and then run to the under-the-hood system that's usually on one of the two sidelines at about the 25-yard line before even beginning the actual replay," explained Cave. "Having the (shadowing staffer) simply hand he or she the tablet is much more efficient."
The ref dons the Bose headset for continual audio communications with the replay booth and can immediately view the play as it is seen upstairs. Other camera angles can be requested and delivered to the tablet, but, for now, the booth controls the playback. Expect that to eventually change.
Separately, the IT crew is working to find smaller and more portable radio transmission and related gear to lighten the backpack load for the staffer.
The Bottom Line
With broad interest in expanding the use of instant replay, speeding the process is a common-sense work-in-progress. Using technology to help make over a long-standing football operations process takes time and testing.
This promising undertaking is moving along a good clip. It needs to when you consider proposed extensions to the system itself – such as adding more camera angles – that have support and would require work beyond the above mentioned change from under-the-hood replays to ones handled on tablets handed to officials.
Change is the only constant and the football operations IT group is on the case.
Bob Wallace is a technology journalist with over 30 years of experience explaining how new services, apps, consumer electronic devices and video sources are reshaping the world of communications as we know it. Wallace has specific expertise in explaining how and why advances in technology, media and entertainment redefine the way football fans interact with the league, teams, players and each other. He's the Founder of Fast Forward Thinking LLC.