How Surface tablets are changing the way NFL coaches work

Inside Microsoft’s $400 million digital gridiron


NFL sidelines are almost always entertaining to watch, but this year, it hasn’t been about the players and coaches — it's the new technology that has been catching viewers' eyes. If you've been watching NFL games at all this season, it's been hard to miss the bright blue Surface tablets, complete with giant “Microsoft Surface” branding, that team staff almost constantly use during games. Those tablets (which are not iPads) are in all 31 NFL stadiums and used regularly by all 32 teams. They’re the product of a partnership between Microsoft and the NFL to bring in-game analysis into the 21st century.

We recently got to take an up-close look at the tablets and how the NFL is utilizing them at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, just before the New York Jets took the field against the Miami Dolphins. Basically, the tablets are Surface Pro 2s dressed up in weatherproof gear and outfitted with a special app. (Microsoft says the NFL isn’t using the newer Surface Pro 3 because development on the project started before the 3 was commercially available.) They run Windows at their core, but it's hard to see that: there's no web browser, no Start screen, and certainly no Facebook app. Microsoft weatherproofed them inside and out and modified them to work in extreme heat and cold, conditions that often occur at NFL games. The Surfaces are stored in special cabinets that recharge them and further protect them from the elements, if need be.

NFL Surface tablet

Each NFL stadium is equipped with two cameras that help teams make play calls: one that provides a close up shot of the line of scrimmage, and another that offers a wide field of view so coaches and players can see the full play. Those cameras aren't new — they used to feed images to banks of printers that would spit out paper copies of each play during the game for immediate review by coaching staff. Paper comes with its own set of issues: it’s slow, wasteful, and falls apart in inclement weather. Now those cameras pipe images directly to the Surface tablets, eliminating the need for coaches to wait for the printers to do their jobs. Coaches can review images, mark them up using the Surface's stylus, and save them.

NFL Surface tablet

It was cold and rainy the night that we got to try out the NFL's Surfaces, and the tablets had no problems in the wet conditions. The rain didn't get in the way of writing on the screen with the stylus, which happens to be tethered to the case with a rope, and the display remained visible even with a fair amount of water on it.

But for all the advancements, it still feels like Microsoft and the NFL could take the idea even further. The Surface Pro 2 could easily handle streaming video clips, for instance, but coaches are limited to just still captures during the game. All of the communication that happens between coaches on the sidelines and management in the sky boxes still happens over radio, even though there are dozens of wirelessly connected tablets on each sideline. Coaches also can't access their playbooks on the tablets, leaving them to rely on memory or paper copies. Every NFL player is wearing RFID tracking tags this season, which could be used to review a player’s exact movements moments later on the Surface tablet.

There's also the hurdle of getting coaches and players adapted to the new systems. Officials from the Jets tell us that their staff has adapted to the tablets without issue, but during the game, we observed Dolphins staff quickly running to their paper printouts — which are still available as a fallback — at the first sign of connectivity issues. The NFL manages and maintains hidden, secure wireless networks in each stadium for the Surfaces, but even that doesn't always ensure that connectivity issues won't crop up during a game. (The Dolphins went on to win the game, but it's hard to blame the Surfaces for the Jets' performance this season.)

NFL Surface tablet

Still, the Surfaces are obviously a huge investment from both the NFL and Microsoft, and both say they’re committed to making them stick — but it’s an investment driven primarily by advertising, not by a fundamental desire to push football into the digital age. The vastness of the deal can’t be overstated; neither company was willing to discuss financial details, but reports have put it in the $400 million range. In other words, those bright blue tablets aren’t going anywhere any time soon — and professional football might just learn to wean itself off paper somewhere along the way.

Photography by Sean O'Kane