By Kevin Braig
The Quant Coach

The relationship between NFL football and video technology — film and its successors video and high definition digital technology — is one of the most successful relationships between business and technology in the entire history of human commercial activity.

Tonight the NFL Network will air the latest video masterpiece from NFL Films, Bill Belichick: A Football Life, which documents a year with the head coach of the New England Patriots.

We have come to expect such productions to be epics. Because NFL Films has so often delivered, its founder, Ed Sabol, was recently and deservedly enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Pro football’s relationship with video technology is deep and complex.

More than any other sport, the game not only feeds and nourishes video production, but video production also feeds and nourishes the game.

In The Education of a Coach, David Halberstam’s splendid biography of Belichick, the author noted how even as a first-year assistant coach with the Baltimore Colts, Belichick used video to shape the outcome of the game.  “He could watch all the film and not only get down what each play was, but perhaps more importantly, he understood what it all meant, what the thinking on the other side of the ball was.  That is, he could think like the opposing coach,” Halberstam wrote.  “From the preseason on, the [Colts’] coaches knew they had a young coach who was special, someone who had the skills that almost no one else had.”

Video has enabled athletically average men like Belichick to dominate the outcome of NFL games featuring athletically gifted men from a position outside the field of play since not long after Sid Gillman spent half a week’s paycheck to purchase a film projector at a pawn shop during his Depression Era honeymoon.  Gillman made such extensive use of film during games while coaching at the University of Cincinnati during the early 1950s that the NCAA ruled that he was affording his team and unfair advantage and outlawed the use of film during games.

Belichick the innovator felt the backhand of the regulators in 2007 when the NFL fined him $500,000 for videotaping the New York Jets coaching staff sending plays to their defensive players via hand signals.  But Belichick hardly was the first, nor will he be the last NFL coach to make such use of video.

In his 1986 book, They’re Playing My Game, former Kansas City coach Hank Stram openly noted that during a playoff game between the Cowboys and the Los Angeles Rams that he was broadcasting that “[e]yes and TV cameras follow the action upfield, all except the camera fixed on the bench of the team opposite our vantage point.  Its operator keeps the viewfinder trained on the far sideline and the zoom tight on the two assistants who motion signals to the quarterback on the field.  One of them is really signaling, the other is a decoy.  Both are being filmed.  Later the footage of their signals will be painstakingly matched with the plays to which they correspond, then analyzed, cross-referenced, and the signals decoded.”

In his preview of the 2011 NFL season, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King wrote that a defensive coordinator for an NFC team “says his video crew reviews telecasts and transcribes the presnap calls of opposing quarterbacks, and pairs those with the play.  The information is analyzed to see what patterns can be discerned.

“It’s perilously close to what got the Patriots in hot water during Spygate,” King added, “but because the audio is available over public airwaves, there’s no NFL rule against it.”

In the late 20th century, before Napster demonstrated how an entire industry could be changed overnight by outsiders who understood new technology, such coaching tactics simply were considered part of the game.  Indeed, in 1980, Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman wrote a story entitled “The Stolen Signals Caper,” in which Houston Oilers’ linebacker and defensive signal-caller Gregg Bingham claimed that the key to his team’s collection of five interceptions from San Diego quarterback Dan Fouts and resulting 17-14 playoff upset of the Chargers was the ability of Houston defensive coordinator Ed Biles to decipher the hand signals that San Diego used to transmit the play from the sideline to Fouts.

San Diego head coach Don Coryell hardly blinked when told afterwards that Biles may have broken the Chargers’ communication code.

“I don’t want to start making excuses,” Coryell said.  “But, if they did it?  Well, there’s no way we could have gotten them to give that information back to us.”

In the 21st, filming an opposing coach’s signals is an act of piracy because the value of private intellectual property is recognized and protected.  In the intellectual property context, Belichick’s Spygate was not a crime, but rather the signal that our perception of NFL play design had fully merged with our well-established perception of design in other creative arts such as filmmaking.  Both are now essentially protected by copyright.

In the end, as illustrated by Belichick’s football life, the evolution of the relationship between pro football and video technology has resulted the NFL attaining the equivalent of the commercial holy grail: An almost infinitely sustainable business model.  As video technology gets better, NFL coaches who use video technology to make the game better and, as the game gets better from these efforts, the game becomes a better video product. 

The combination makes the NFL, perhaps, the most sustainable business ever created.