- Mike Sando, NFL Insider
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Imagine uploading thousands of broadcast-quality video clips into a virtual spreadsheet, filtering them by every way imaginable and viewing any combination almost instantly.
Imagine calling up an opponent's defensive plays over thepast two seasons, organizing by a specific coverage, matching the coverage to a defensive front, narrowing the focus to red-zone plays, sorting by down and watching every play in the order of your choosing.
All in a matter of seconds.
An NFL player, coach or scout could look pretty smart using that kind of setup, except for one thing. Everyone else in the league is using the same tools. Technology has turned every coach into a whiz, as if the NFL needed another instrument for parity.
"You're never really gaining an edge," Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "You're just keeping up."
In another era, elite coaches such as Bill Walsh and Joe Gibbs made opponents pay for what they could not reasonably know. Their reluctance to exchange game films put lesser strategists at a disadvantage. Now there are no secrets. League-mandated video exchanges and advanced software have turned film rooms into digital laboratories.
"You can drag and click and sort plays by down and distance, by formation, by personnel grouping, by outside runs, inside runs," St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. "Whatever you need to look at, you can make your own cutup and put it in your own locker."
The term "cutup" dates to a bygone era when teams shot games on 16-millimeter film. Coaches and video staffs would cut game films into as many pieces as there were plays. Watching an opponent's running plays meant splicing together 25 or 30 pieces of film. If the team had one hard copy of its game film, for example, a third-down run from the 2-yard-line could appear in the third-down cutup or the goal-line cutup, but not both. And good luck getting the film back in its original order.
By the late 1980s and into the 1990s, teams were mass-producing cutups on Betamax tapes. But the process took all night.
"Basically, you would have your four master decks and the tapes were striped with time code," Titans video director Anthony Pastrana said. "The linear system would have to fast forward and rewind through all of your game tapes to start building cutups. If a coach came in and said he needed something, it was going to take time to go through the tapes and pull it out."
Now some teams record games directly to 80-gigabyte hard drives called FieldPaks. They process the video on laptops in the locker room immediately following games. For the Titans, that means coach Jeff Fisher can leave the stadium with that day's game indexed and loaded onto his laptop.
"What it does for him is unreal," Pastrana said. "He has a chance Sunday night and Monday morning to glance over the game before he comes into the office and gets inundated and bogged down. Every road trip, he'll watch it on the plane on the way back."
The use of FieldPaks is becoming more common, but the league is not yet a tapeless world. That probably won't change until the NFL finds a more affordable way to exchange 90-minute video files, said Jeremy Swarbrick, director of media and team services for NFL Films.
Some college conference teams exchange game video online using Internet2 infrastructure used for research projects. The NFL has little incentive to finance such a network because the current arrangement is cheaper and works well. The league is similarly in no hurry to take its video system into the high-definition world, a process that would require adding storage, replacing hardware and experiencing Ted Washington in 1080p.
Under league rules, every team tapes each of its games from cameras located above the sideline and end zone. When a game ends, video crews record offensive, defensive and special-teams plays on separate tapes. Each play is shown from each angle, in sequential order. Plays are indexed for easier entry into team computer systems.
A few hours after each game, the home team overnights copies to its next three opponents.
Teams send additional copies to NFL Films. Using 35 Sony Beta SX recorders valued at close to $15,000 apiece, staffers Dave Paul, Pete Pino and Andre Johnson prepare tapes for rush delivery to the rest of the league. They copy, label and ship an estimated 130,000 pieces of stock per year, including NCAA and selected NAIA games made available for draft preparations.
Once the bright yellow tapes arrive at a team's headquarters, usually by Wednesday, employees load the video onto in-house servers. A team might have five, 10 or 20 terabytes of hard-drive space set aside for storage.
Quality-control coaches analyze and label each play across a long list of criteria.
When they are finished, the video can be sorted by quarter, series, down, distance, field position, two-minute situations, short-yardage situations, goal-line situations, passes, runs, completions, incompletions, scrambles, dropped balls, runner, receiver, penalty information, how the possession ended, personnel groups, shifts, formations, motions, audibles, coverages, fronts, stunts, twists and anything else a staff might consider important.
"Cover 2 is Cover 2, Cover 3 is Cover 3," Chicago Bears receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. "But as far as offense, how you protect it, how you pick it up and how you adjust to it, a lot of that is changing. … We have to know what defenses like to do when they go to 50 front when they're on a four-down (linemen), 3-4, all that kind of stuff."
Video technology has helped fuel a broader trend toward specialization. Coaching staffs have grown to 15-plus assistants per team.
"You can watch so many cutups and so many different things, you literally start worrying about, 'Oh, I saw this play,' " Haslett said. "It may be one play out of 1,100 plays and you are worrying about it. Finally, you just gotta say to yourself, 'Well, you know what, if we got this called and they run this play, they win.' "
Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.