There is an old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. In the NFL, a series of pictures can be the difference between a win and a loss.
In the new era of the NFL, long gone are the old school Polaroids and glossy paper printouts of plays. They are replaced with Microsoft Surface devices, which provide players and coaches with images almost immediately after a play occurs.
The Bengals, and all NFL clubs, enjoy an enhanced partnership with Microsoft to bring technology to the field so that coaches, analysts and players can access real-time data from the sidelines.
"The Microsoft Surface devices are fantastic because as soon as the play is over and we have new down and distance, those pictures are uploaded onto the devices instantaneously,” said Bengals Video Assistant Brooks Santanello.
During each series on offense, defense or special teams, a team operator will snap a maximum of four pictures per play from two available video cameras set up on the sideline and end zone. Teams typically take between two and four pictures per play. The Bengals, and most NFL teams, will take two pre-snap shots, the exchange on a run or a pass and then one quickly after that.
At the completion of each play, the operator will then input the new down and distance, as well as any penalties, and send the new images (sideline and endzone) to all of the team's Surface devices via Microsoft’s servers located in each coaches’ booth.
Santanello said the Surface’s versatility and simplicity provide the best advantages for players and coaches. Users can zoom in or out of an image, highlight certain areas and draw on the photos, all options that were previously unavailable with the old photo system.
Another feature available once the plays are loaded onto the Surfaces is the coaches’ ability to draw up plays using the Whiteboard feature to show corrections. The coaches are able to favorite specific images and scroll through a series to tailor their message to the team.
Microsoft launched Surface in 2012, showcasing versatility and key product features such as a removable keyboard, pen and the ability to toggle between tablet and laptop modes, among others.
When Microsoft partnered with the NFL, they set out to revolutionize the game by giving players, coaches, assistants and announcers access to information instantly. For years, the NFL has operated with black and white printed images for play review and/or pen and paper. The Surface introduced new ways to understand plays and personnel efficiently and reliably.
Microsoft specifically makes these products for game day usage and each Surface device is ruggedized to withstand all elements of the NFL environment, including extreme weather. The Surface devices are further customized, limiting access to the game day application and system monitoring and diagnostic tools.
“It can be pouring down rain and we would be able to use them like they were in the office,” said Santanello.
The Microsoft Surface devices are managed by Purple Hats at each stadium. Purple Hats are information technology operators hired by each team and work with NFL to oversee game day Microsoft Surface Sideline View System operations and provide onsite support for the Surface devices throughout the game. The NFL and Microsoft make sure each team possesses equal access to the Microsoft Surface devices on the road or at home.
One of the biggest concerns about replacing paper printouts with Microsoft Surface devices was security, but teams are seeing that the devices are safer than paper, which can easily be copied. The Surfaces rely on ultra-secure encryptions and run on their own dedicated WiFi network at every stadium, with all data being wiped clean immediately following each game
Teams can still use the printouts if they prefer. However, with the devices, coaches can look at plays from any point of the game, and have access to the photos much quicker, which can prove to be invaluable for adjusting on the fly.
“The power and simplicity of the Microsoft Surface devices and the Sideline View System has made life not only easier for players and coaches, but for the operators as well,” Santanello said. “There are no delays and they are simple to operate. The Microsoft Surface devices are extremely beneficial to the success of the team.”