When the Baltimore Ravens signed Shannon Sharpe and Ben Coates before this season, it took head coach Brian Billick about three nanoseconds to find the perfect play to maximize the two outstanding tight ends.
"I asked the computer, 'Steve Jordan, where are you and where'd you get all those catches?' " Billick said of the former Minnesota Vikings tight end, who caught 498 passes in 13 seasons. From more than 8,000 plays that Billick has stored in his computer database during 22 years of coaching, came the perfect formation, a basic "drive route" that sends one tight end on a short pattern, another long, and attracts enough defenders to clear out a hole for a another receiver to maneuver in between.
The beauty of Billick's research was the ease with which it was completed. No dusty old playbooks, no film projectors, and certainly no more than a few minutes of time.
"It's all a matter of competitive edge," said Billick, one of a growing number of NFL coaches (including the 49ers' Steve Mariucci and the Raiders' Jon Gruden) who utilize computers to map out game plans, practice drills and basic instruction.
Almost every team uses a laptop to compile databases, and all teams are equipped with Avid, the cutting-edge digital film system that allows coaches to copy video of all their opponents' third-and-goal situations on a disk and hand it to a player to study on his laptop.
Today's coaches need all the high-tech help they can get. Players frequently change teams in the era of free agency, the season is longer at 16 games, coaching staffs turn over each season, and offenses and defenses are so complex that playbooks routinely exceed 200 pages. New players can't be expected to learn an entire playbook without some visual aids.
High-end graphics, animation and visual databases are familiar technology to modern players, most of whom were born after 1970. They are accustomed to moving pictures and getting information fast. Most have grown up with computers and are comfortable working with them. So watching a play run on their computer screens while looking at it diagramed in playbooks simply reinforces the lesson.
"With what you can do with (a computer), it's insane for you not to do it," Gruden said. "I've been at some places where the secretaries know more football than the guys on staff because they input the information."
Computer technology comes into play in various ways during a routine game week. For example, Gruden has a database that consists of different coaches' philosophies, lectures and strategies, including Bill Walsh's championship blueprint. Most coaches also still draft a game plan based on matchups. The computers allow the coaching staff to quickly select about 100 opponent-specific plays from a large library of options.
"Some people have a mistaken notion about us sitting at the computer and drawing up these cosmic plays," Billick said. "What the computer offers is a way to take large amounts of data and condense it to a working form. Its real advantage is it lets us present those materials by ways of tendencies."
But don't expect to see laptops on the sidelines or in the coaches' box at games any time soon. The league forbids the use of such equipment unless the opposing team has the exact same equipment. That has yet to happen. Some teams have been slow to adopt staff-wide computer systems. Compared to most Fortune 500 companies, NFL teams are in the computer dark age.
As one NFL assistant coach said, "the idea of computers whizzing away and getting plays directly to the quarterback, well, it doesn't work that way. But I also see it from the league's standpoint. They want to make sure there's a competitive balance with equipment and technology during the games."
By the time each team is equipped with staff-wide systems, however, don't be surprised if some coaches already have moved on to the next generation of technology: virtual reality.
Football players soon could be trained with simulators, like astronauts and pilots. The technology exists; it's a matter of compiling the database for the program. The quarterback would put on a headset and see an opponent's defensive sets. Without ever suiting up, he could practice his reads and check-offs.
"When they start developing the prototype for virtual reality," Billick said with a grin, "I'll be standing there."