Computers in the NFL

By Deane Barker on September 19, 2004

The Secret Of Their NFL Success: 60 Minutes had a great segment tonight about NFL coaches and the role they play in their team’s success. Apparently computers are playing an huge role in NFL team strategy.

They showed John Fox, coach of the Carolina Panthers, in front of his machine. He had a VB-ish app on the screen, and it apparently contained digital video of every game his upcoming opponent (the Packers, in this case) played last year. He said it could store three years worth.

Every play of every game had been analyzed, annotated, and fit into some data structure. Fox could query the data to find, for instance, video of every goal line offense the Packers mounted last year
(“WHERE line_of_scrimmage < 20 AND side_of_field = ‘opponent’” perhaps?). He could just scroll through them, and view the video he wanted to see.

Plays were apparently segmented by player as well, because Fox said that he used the system for scouting. If he was interested in a certain player, he can pull video of every single play the player was involved in and watch them all, one after the other. He could freeze the video, reverse it, slow it down, or just click to the next play.

They showed some clips of Fox’s mouse pointer scrolling through a grid control. The entries looked like “3rd and 3-5 pass” (I’m assuming the “3-5” is yards). The idea, Fox said is to “chart the tendencies” — draw out patterns so that, on Sunday, he knows what play his opposing coach is going to call in any given situation.

…every team spends millions on special video player supercomputers that allow every coach to scout every opponent’s every move.

Fox showed Stahl a game the Green Bay Packers played last year. “I could actually pick every game they’ve played and we can store up to three years,” says Fox.

Who knew that Vince Lombardi and his film projector would turn into this? The technology lets you go back, slow-motion, even sort by player. “If I’m evaluating a wide receiver, say his number is 85, I can push that, load it in and basically pull out all the plays he was involved in,” says Fox.

Each team now has a “quality control coach” whose job it is to analyze game video of their opponents and enter the data in the system according to the parameters the has set up. I suppose an actual NFL coach has to do this, because you need the analysis only football experience can provide. You can’t annotate or segment the data without experience in the domain.

Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes made the claim that NFL teams now have “more software engineers than waterboys.” I say draft ‘em. I can’t wait for the day when I hear, “And with the first pick of the NFL draft, the Oakland Raiders select Alvin Poindexter, database modeling specialist out of MIT.”