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IT staff virtually indispensable in a unique NFL offseason

A video board displays the text "THE PICK

A video board displays the text "THE PICK IS IN" for the New York Jets during the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft at AT&T Stadium on April 26, 2018 in Arlington, Texas.  Credit: Getty Images/Ronald Martinez

As the news reports kept getting more ominous, Tom Murphy knew he had to act. And quickly.

There were no stay-at-home orders at the time, but as the coronavirus epidemic began to mushroom into a deadly worldwide pandemic, Murphy and the rest of the Jets’ information technology staff had to prepare for the possibility that life as they knew it in the NFL was about to undergo a radical change.

“It was right around mid-to-late February, with all that was going on, when we started saying, ‘Wow, what if we have to work from home? How are we going to do this?’ ” said Murphy, the Jets’ vice president of information technology.

Within weeks, Murphy’s what-if scenario turned into reality. All NFL teams took their scouts off the road and shuttered full-time operations late on the afternoon of March 12. Now it was up to Murphy,  senior director of network services Steve Piazza, senior director of applications Paul Marsh and the rest of the technology team to set up a virtual operation just as the free-agency signing period was about to begin and teams continued preparing for this week’s draft.

It was a massive undertaking. Murphy and his IT team had to train every employee how to communicate from a remote location and set up meetings with  front-office executives, coaches, scouts and all the other departments who now no longer had the benefit of meeting in person.

“We’ll have multiple calls during the day, because things change so quickly, but we’re in constant communication,” Murphy said. “Most of the scouts and road guys we trained picked up really well, and they’ve been doing a great job with it.”

Using the Microsoft Teams application, meetings can be set up for everyone in the building — from CEO Christopher Johnson to general manager Joe Douglas to coach Adam Gase and right on down through the organization.

There will be virtual meetings with the players as all the NFL teams’ voluntary offseason programs begin. And there have been hundreds of “face-to-face” meetings with draft prospects who normally would travel to meet with teams but now must speak via computer or mobile phone.

“The IT department has really shined and really put us in a position to communicate seamlessly with all the different groups,” Douglas said this week. “I think we set up everything as close as possible to what we had at our facility at Florham Park.”

A similar refrain can be heard around the NFL about how essential the information technology community has been during an unprecedented time of upheaval.

“The IT folks have been rock stars throughout this, keeping it simple, keeping it clear and straightforward,” said Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s executive vice president, club business and league events.

O’Reilly is overseeing the league’s first virtual draft, which will have commissioner Roger Goodell announcing the picks from the basement of his Westchester County home and teams and draft-eligible players taking part from their respective homes.

O’Reilly expects the event to proceed smoothly, although there were some glitches during a conference call Monday that served as a test run. The league has set up technological redundancies that will address the potential for power outages and other disruptions that might occur, with two alternate people from each team permitted to make picks in the event the primary selector has communication issues.

The draft  also will include a fundraising component to benefit six non-profit agencies tasked with helping in the fight against COVID-19.

“We feel confident the overall technology is there,” O’Reilly said. “There will be backup upon backup. There are very thorough plans for protection on the cybersecurity front, really protecting ourselves in a way where best practices will come into play in the draft.”

It has been quite an educational experience throughout the NFL, as teams have transitioned from a hands-on approach during the offseason to a fully virtual operation.

“It’s been a little different logistically from where we’ve been in the past,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “It’s not normal, but we’ve accumulated a lot of information and had a lot of opportunity to talk about all the players and all the other things that are involved in this process.”

Belichick is the most accomplished coach in NFL history with six Super Bowl rings with the Patriots  and two others as the Giants' defensive coordinator under Bill Parcells. But when it comes to proficiency with a laptop, well, let’s just say he’s not up to speed on the latest technology. After all, this is a man who has incorrectly referred to various social media companies as “Snapface” and “Instachat.”

“Some are very proficient at what we’re doing, but others, like myself, are remedial,” he said. “I’m certainly better at it than I was four weeks ago. I mean, I didn’t know what half of this was. I get a little better every day, learn a new button or learn a new thing to click on and see what trick that does. It’s been very educational as a first floor — maybe even the basement — I’ve lived below the first floor. It’s been interesting to get educated on different technologies.”

It’s a mammoth undertaking for the technology professionals. Belichick credits Patriots IT director Dan Famosi  with navigating the many challenges of setting up a virtual operation.

“I mean, there’s the coaching side of it, there’s the scouting, there’s the playbook and preparing for the offseason program side of it, meetings and so forth,” Belichick said. “Just to be able to deal with so many people, putting things together on a lot of different levels for multiple groups and interactions . . . You know, some are one-on-ones; with some it’s five people, 10 people, 20 people, and we’re preparing for larger groups than that. There really are a lot of moving parts, and Dan’s done a tremendous job for us and tried to pull a lot of things together and help people like me that need a lot of help.”

The unique offseason rolls on. Next stop: the most unusual draft in NFL history.  

The Cincinnati Bengals soon will be on the clock.

The virtual clock, that is.

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