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Technology takes NFL from Wellington Mara's socks to sideline tablets

Members of the media take photos and shoot

Members of the media take photos and shoot video at the unveiling for Microsoft Corp.'s first new Xbox in almost eight years in Redmond, Washington, U.S., on Tuesday, May 21, 2013. The player, called Xbox One, is set to go on sale later this year and will use voice commands and motion sensing to recognize users and let them switch seamlessly between games, live TV and Skype video calling. Photographer: Ron Wurzer/Bloomberg (Credit: Bloomberg Ron Wurzer)

When Tom Coughlin first started drawing up football plays, he did it like all the other coaches of his time. On papyrus. With hieroglyphics.

Ok, maybe that’s an exaggeration and a friendly tweak at the NFL’s oldest head coach. But if he sticks around much longer, Coughlin will find himself smack dab in the beginnings of the digital age of NFL sidelines. The league announced a deal with Microsoft on Tuesday that will not only change the way fans experience the game through the soon-to-be-available Xbox One interactive television system, but the way the game is coached. Gone will be the antiquated days of looking at still photos of formations to determine what opponents are scheming. Now, coaches will use a Surface tablet or hand-held mobile device to flip through digital images and even call up a variety of camera angles to dissect any play from the game.

That’s a far cry from the days when Wellington Mara took photos of plays from the top of a stadium and put them in a weighted sock to be dropped to the sideline so they could be studied by players and coaches (a true story, unlike the hieroglyphics one-line above!).

“When you think about the sidelines, what is most important for us is how you make the game of football better, make what the coaches and players do better, using technology but preserving the competition," Brian Rolapp, chief operating officer of NFL Media, told the Associated Press. "The challenge is how to bring technology to make it a better experience for them and for the fans. You can start with how we communicate with each other, whether it's game officials or coaches. Coaches can look at formations as they develop.”

Could this be an advantage for coaches who have grown up in a technological world and have a certain inherent astuteness when it comes to using devices like tablets and smart phones? More to the point, could coaches who are less familiar with these devices find themselves at a disadvantage? There are also other competitive issues that will have to be ironed out such as securing the signals and perhaps limiting the use of the images the way the NFL now limits the use of the sideline-to-helmet radio that allows communication directly from coach to player.

The rules may change, but the direction will not. The gadgets are coming!

"The tablets are a huge deal,” Marc Ganis, the president of SportsCorp, which does consulting work with the NFL, told the AP. “For a league that prides itself about being at the forefront of technology, having Peyton Manning look at Polaroids isn't exactly cutting edge. Having him look at a tablet is."

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