During Sunday’s win over the Giants, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw two uncharacteristic interceptions. Within minutes after each mistake, Wilson went straight to the bench and immediately had a Microsoft Surface tablet in his hands, figuring out what went wrong.
Welcome to the NFL in 2014.
Thanks to Microsoft’s $400 million, five-year contract with the NFL, players and coaches this season have started ditching the traditional paper black-and-white images of plays used to review previous possessions, and instead are taking advantage of a customized Surface Pro 2 that Microsoft built specifically for NFL sidelines.
We had a chance to check out the devices today, and the first thing I noticed was the sheer weight of the waterproof tablets, which have sturdy casings that add about two pounds and can withstand temperatures ranging from 120 to negative 45 degrees.
This is the definition of ruggedized.
“If a coach is really upset at something, he can slam the tablet on the turf and it will still work OK,” said Jeff Tran, director of sports marketing and alliances at Microsoft.
I spent a few minutes playing with the software, and it’s easy to see why these tablets are more efficient than the traditional paper printouts — 15 times faster, Tran noted. Images from each play — on offense, defense, and special teams — are labeled, with the ability to make annotations on each photo with the Surface Pen. Players and coaches can “favorite” specific screenshots that they want to bookmark.
There are 25 Surface tablets available at every NFL game now for each team — 13 on the sidelines, and 12 up in the assistant coaches’ booths. Devices on the sidelines connect to a private, secure in-stadium WiFi network, while assistant coaches hook up to a wired connection. All other features of a consumer-grade Surface Pro 2 have been stripped away. The tablets only allow access to a Sideline Viewing System app that provides the photos of recent plays.
Traditionally, images would be sent to a printer, and a team assistant would have to print the photos and compile them into a binder.
That’s all changed with the Surface. Tran noted that while some are adapting the digital tools slower than others — it seems some commentators haven’t caught on yet, either — 95 percent of coaches in the booths don’t user their printers anymore because they’re relying on the tablets.
Meanwhile, quarterbacks like Wilson, Drew Brees, Nick Foles and Blake Bortles have given Microsoft their stamp of approval.
“What we’re seeing is that with each passing week, more and more players are using it during critical moments of the game,” Tran said.
Some players and coaches have asked for video and playbook information to be loaded on the tablets, but it will be awhile before that happens due to the NFL’s stringent approval polices for that type of content. Still, Tran noted that Microsoft has the capability to add those features, which is part of why the NFL teamed up with the company in the first place.
“We are uniquely set up as a tech company to provide this solution simply because it’s not just hardware, or software, or back end — it’s the full stack,” he said. “And we’re just getting started.”