The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are pioneering a new frontier of NFL football, where Xs and Os interact with ones and zeroes.
Fitting for a team that boasts the youngest roster in the league, the Buccaneers are embracing a new arm of technology in a sport that has never shied away from the latest advancement. At wired-in One Buc Place there are swimming pools with treadmills in the training room, click-and-drag prospect boards in the draft room and state-of-the-art video systems in every meeting room.
And now there's an iPad2 playbook in the oh-so-willing hands of every player and coach on the team.
An iPad playbook is exactly what it sounds like. The Buccaneers have taken that iconic – and sometimes unwieldy – big binder of paper and replaced it with a 10-inch high, 7.5-inch wide, half-inch thick tablet computer that does everything the old playbook could do and much, much more. Every single player on the roster (there were 90 a few days ago, and 80 now) was issued one and told it was now their primary source for all football information. Most of them have since pushed their old binders to the darkest recesses of their lockers, likely never to be cracked again.
To say the young Bucs have welcomed the digital era is an understatement. Tech-savvy linebacker Geno Hayes, who just happened to be the youngest starting linebacker in the NFL in 2009, couldn't be more thrilled (he also happens to be an all-in Apple fan), and he's finding new ways to utilize the new tool every day.
"Oh man, I love it," Hayes enthused. "It's good that we got an opportunity to utilize the technology that's available. It's going to be huge, especially for young guys like myself. You can take it and you don't have to sit in an confined area. It gives you more leverage as far as watching film and listening to the music at the same time. You can flip different plays from the playbook on the screen. You can draw up the defense right on [a screen of] the opposing offense. You can put yourself in position on the play and do things right on the screen."
There are two main purposes for the iPad2 designed by the team's technology staff in conjunction with the coaches: playbook distribution and updating, and video review.
Every day, when a player enters team headquarters and turns on his iPad, it is immediately updated with all the new playbook information. For instance, on days when the offensive and defensive game plan is going to be installed, that entire plan is uploaded to the players' tablets upon their arrival in the morning. Linebacker Quincy Black discovered this feature quickly and fell in love with it; now he walks into the install meetings having already reviewed what is going to be covered.
After every practice and every game, the video department's cut-ups of every play are uploaded to the players' iPads as well. That means Hayes, Black and the rest of the Buccaneers can listen to their coaches' evaluation of their performance and review their own footage at any time, anywhere, as many times as they like. It is simply an invaluable tool for self-evaluation and improvement. And because the information is delivered on a device that many young players see as a source of fun and entertainment, it tends to make work somewhat addictive.
"We used to have paper playbooks and all that, but now having it on an iPad, it makes you look at your playbook more," said wide receiver Mike Williams, another unabashed techie. "You think you know everything and so you throw your playbook to the side sometimes. But having an iPad, It makes you look at your playbook and go and see extra plays. And they've got the video on there, too. It makes it even better.
"You can look at your playbook, then you can go watch video of practice. You can see the plays that you ran in practice and match them up with the playbook. You can watch game film, watch Detroit, watch who we're playing next."
The Bucs' digital playbook revolution actually started, ironically enough, out on the lonely road of the player scout, where the Moneyball narrative might lead you to believe that people cling to old traditions most stubbornly. Dennis Hickey, the team's director of college scouting, put iPads in the hands of his regional scouts over the past year, and before you knew it those scouts were passing on video of prospects to 34-year-old Head Coach Raheem Morris, no stranger to the iPad or any of the latest tech.
"I was in my office, watching those guys on my iPad," said Morris, "And then I would take that iPad with me on the road or I'd be sitting on the beach watching Mason Foster or Adrian Clayborn, or I'd be in my kitchen looking at Da'Quan Bowers and I just got real nosey."
Part of Morris' near-daily routine is a leisurely stroll around the One Buc grounds with Assistant to the Head Coach Jay Kaiser. Kaiser might bring up some detail of the weekly schedule, while Morris lets out whatever thoughts have been bouncing around in his head. One day, after he had watched another round of prospect video on his iPad, Morris had a new thought as he strolled the back yard with Kaiser.
"You know what would be cool is if we could put our playbooks on these iPads," he told his assistant. "Maybe put cut-ups on there and watch them. We could do it for the whole team."
The whole team plus not-inexpensive technology was not an idea to be instituted unilaterally, like a change to the pregame meal menu or a new airplane dress code. This was a major undertaking, but Morris thought it a worthwhile one, so he went directly to Buccaneers Co-Chairman Bryan Glazer with the idea. Glazer signed off on it within a manner of minutes, Kaiser quickly researched the economics and the team's technology and coaching staffs set out about fleshing out the idea.
"We got to camp [and] we'd already put some pieces of the playbook on there and then eventually it was all on there," said Morris. "And then we started adding memos from [General Manager] Mark Dominik and then we put the new CBA on there and video and cut-ups. We're still kind of growing with it. It's kind of getting out of control a little bit right now, because yesterday we had a little rain delay and I see one guy watching tape here and another guy over here playing solitaire…but he had his iPad."
Morris appreciated the extra work being put in by the player watching game footage, and he didn't even mind the brief solitaire diversion being enjoyed by the other, because both were getting used to having their playbooks on hand at all times. Morris hopes that the iPad playbooks will encourage his players to do some extra film study of their own at home…and it doesn't hurt that the team is saving a few trees at the same time.
"Sit down and watch the third-down cut-ups, watch the nickel blitz, watch the first and second-down run and pass," said Morris. "To get those guys to watch a little more tape and watch, to get them to get the information as they come into the building, I felt it would be a great idea. And we're going green around here."
The conversion to a digital playbook has gone even smoother than Morris had anticipated. He expected his players to still carry around a notebook in conjunction with the iPad, and a few of them do, but most are completely paper-free. Morris wondered if his players would be able to add notes to the pages, as they commonly do on paper, but they figured out that feature almost immediately. Morris knew his players were on the right track when he saw cornerback Ronde Barber and tight end Kellen Winslow easily adding highlights to their notes, just like they would have done last year with a piece of paper and a bright yellow marker.
Plus, Morris said the players have taken his original thoughts and expanded on them. Consider Hayes' enthusiasm, mentioned above, over the feature that allows him to pair a scouting report of the opponents' offense with his own study of the Bucs' defensive game plan.
"Say you have a team like Detroit and you're picturing a defense in your head," Hayes explained. "You can sit there and draw up your own defense and actually see yourself going and doing things versus their offense. That's one of the biggest things that I like about it. You can get the game plan, what we're going to call against certain downs and certain formations, and write the defense up on the screen."
That's exciting, obviously, but with new technology comes new worries.
The iPads could be lost, but then again, so could the old binders. In this category, the digital playbooks are actually superior, as a lost iPad can have its memory easily wiped clean from afar by a member of the Bucs' technical staff.
Then there's the matter of security, considering the daily transmission of sensitive information within the walls of One Buc Place. But that was an issue that Bryan Glazer pinpointed immediately, in that very first meeting with Morris, and the Bucs' staff has made the process completely secure.
Oh, and yes, these team-issued iPad2s have all the functionality of your own tablets. They can be loaded up with music, they can take you to the internet, they can tempt you with Angry Birds. And there they are at the fingertips of 80 mostly young men in one big meeting room, with the coach trying to command their attention with every word.
Is the temptation of entertainment thisclose a potential problem? The players just laugh at that question, and it's doubtful that any of them would jeopardize the chance to leave the old binders behind for a 1.5-pound tablet they can take anywhere and everywhere.
"That's the first thing they said – if they catch us in meetings surfing the web, they're taking it away from us," said Williams with a chuckle. "But it has all the iPad capabilities. It does everything – e-mail, you can get apps and play games, everything."
Said Hayes: "Actually, I already have an iPad, so I don't see myself having that problem. The only thing I really put on my iPad was more music."
Maybe it's not surprising that the latest NFL technological revolution came to the team that, in the last few years, has made rebuilding with youth its primary concern. This is a franchise and a coaching staff and a group of players that is more than willing to explore any new opportunity to find an edge where it counts – on the field on game day. The playbook on an iPad – it's an idea that has come to One Buccaneer Place, and come to stay. Before long, it just might be the industry standard.
"Yeah, exactly – flying cars and things like that," said Williams. "But, no, I think it's a revolution where everybody's going to start doing it. Everybody's going to have iPads and everybody's going to be on Twitter and watching video."