For decades, NFL players and coaches have pored over black-and-white overhead photos of in-game formations from the sidelines. Team photographers take two "Polaroid" photos — one directly before and another right after the snap — and runners throw together paper binders and rush them to the field for analysis. This season, the NFL's finally upgrading to tablets.
At every game (starting with today's Hall of Fame match between the Bills and Giants), each team will be provided with a temperature-controlled locker filled with 13 modified, field-ready Surface Pro 2 tablets. 12 additional tablets are available for coaches watching the game from above. Each is wrapped in a chunky protective rubber case that makes them waterproof.
That's not the only thing that makes these Surface Pro 2 tablets different from what's on store shelves. The NFL's rules currently prohibit all computers and video devices from the field — hence why teams still use Polaroids. To convince the NFL that tablets on the sidelines won't make it easy to cheat, Microsoft has developed private wireless networks in each stadium that are only used by the game tablets. The devices are also locked down. Players and coaches will only be able to use a single, custom-made photo viewing app that will allow them to zoom and annotate color images of formations. (Video is still off limits.) And to prevent tampering, teams won't keep the devices. They're owned by the NFL and will only be in teams' hands for the few hours during game time.
The tech upgrade comes as part of a reportedly $400 million, multi-year deal between the NFL and Microsoft that was announced last year. That lucrative contract saw Surface branding plastered around NFL stadiums last season, and it's brought NFL apps to devices like the Xbox One. But teams won't be forced to leave those paper binders behind: the Surface tablets will be provided, but teams can ignore them if they'd like. Teams will likely make the switch though: the new tech, at the very least, gets images to the sidelines 15 to 25 seconds faster than those Polaroid photos of old.