The NFL: A Digital Operation

The NFL’s Stance on Technology

In the NFL, Football Operations faces the difficult challenge of innovating, while respecting and preserving game traditions and maintaining the integrity and competitive equity of the game. Throughout the history of the NFL, there have been instances where a team has implemented a new technology, operating in the gray area of the rulebook, to gain a slight competitive advantage. As these instances have arisen, the NFL has condoned or condemned the use of the technology by creating rules to either ban the specific technology or to implement the technology league wide. Michelle Mckenna Doyle, NFL Chief Information Officer recently spoke regarding the approval and implementation of new technology saying, “I try to make sure it is not tech for tech’s sake, its tech to make the game better, safer, and move faster.” This approach has been used throughout the history of the NFL which has lead to the approval and implementation of many technologies that coaches and fans take for granted in the sport today including televised games, coach to player communication, instant replay, and Microsoft Surface tablets.

NFL NextGen Stats:



The NFL credits television for enabling many of the league’s largest advancements, and for generating increased exposure to the NFL which has lead to increased popularity and profitability for the league. TV paved the way for instant replay which was embraced by coaches, players, fans, and the league office. With instant replay fans are able to re-watch a play during a game, resulting in a better viewing experience. Coaches and players use instant replay while watch game film. It allows the teams to make better adjustments week to week, and it allows teams to better prepare for their upcoming opponent. The league office uses instant replay to improve NFL officiating, providing better training and a higher league standard for official’s performances. TV has also lead owner’s to build big screens and jumbotrons in stadiums to compete with the viewing experience of  TV.

NFL Redzone:


In-Game Electronic Communication 

In 1956, Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown was the first to attempt to use electronic coach to player communications during a game. He placed a radio receiver inside his Cleveland Brown’s quarterback’s helmet so that plays and substitutions could be relayed directly to the quarterback. Later in the game the transmitter was identified behind a light post. There was no rule against the transmitter, and in the three games that followed other teams began to attempt to develop their own versions of the device. The NFL banned the device after the fourth game because teams were competing on the basis of technology, not purely football. In 1994 the NFL reinstated the use of electronic coach to player communications from a coach to a designated offensive player across the league in the hopes of reducing time used on the play clock and reducing the amount of time outs taken. Their effort was successful and the speed of the game was improved. In 2008 communication between a coach and a designated defensive player was approved to increase fairness. In 2014 all on field officials were provided headsets to that they could communicate wirelessly and make calls more accurately and more quickly.

The Green Sticker Identifies the Helmet with Electronic Communication Capabilities:


Instant Replay

Instant replay has been approved and removed a number of times throughout the history of the NFL, and most recently, it was approved in 1999. The development of HD TVs and freeze frame technology, has lead to an increased use of cameras from all angles of the field. This allows the league to make calls more accurately than ever before. As a result the league has been able to expand the types of plays that get automatically reviewed as well as the types of plays that can be challenged by a coach. One of the newest improvements of this system has been the implementation of the end zone pylon cameras which give officials a better view across the goal line to see if the ball has crossed the plane of the end zone before the player is down.

NFL Pylon Cameras:


Microsoft Surface Tablets

Recently the NFL has partnered with Microsoft to provide specially designed Microsoft Surface tablets for the sidelines. The tablets allow coaches to get an instant overhead view of formations on the field, and coaches are able access previous plays from the game. The tablets allow coaches to zoom in on, annotate, favorite, and draw on plays as they progress throughout the game. The tablets are specially designed to withstand heat, cold, rain, and glare. They also hold a charge throughout the game and they block access to the internet and apps that would otherwise provide a team with an unfair competitive advantage. The tablets are designed to withstand being dropped, and they provide trainers access to important medical tools and information like concussion tests, injury diagnostic tools and medical records.

Screenshot of the Microsoft Surface Tablet:


Belichick Spiking the Tablet:

Bill_Belichick_rages_THROWS_AND_DESTROYS_a_tablet_on_the_sidelines (1).gif

Shoulder Pad RFID Chips 

This year the NFL has worked with Zebra Technologies to place two RFID chips in the shoulder pads of each player. These chips communicate location data to the 20 electronic receivers that are placed throughout the stadium. The chips also contain an accelerometer to track the speed of the players. For now the chips are just collecting data and providing entertaining player statistics like the top speed a player reaches on a kick return, but in the future this technology could transform the way a coach plans for a game and scouts potential talent.

Zebra Shoulder Pad RFID Chip:


What is Next?

Zebra chips also have the capability to monitor biometric data such as dehydration and elevated heart rate, however this technology has not been approved by the NFL for game use and it is only beginning to be used during practices. In the future it is likely that the NFL will look for ways implement this and concussion monitoring devices in games to improve player safety. The NFL also looks to insert a chip into the game ball in the future. This would provide the NFL with more data, and it would allow for the development of an electronic down marker system that uses the chip and lasers instead of the traditional 10 yard chain. The NFL has stated that the technology for this has not arrived yet because the chips that would be put in the game balls are not small enough. Currently, quarterbacks are able to tell a slight weight difference between a ball with the chip and a ball without the chip, and that is enough for the NFL to delay the change until the technology improves.





  1. rohansuwarna · ·

    This was a great post! I love all the various aspects of technology you brought up which exists in the NFL. I think the most important improvement has been the use of the Surface Tablets. I remember quarterbacks and coaches would sit on the sideline with binders and would be flipping through pages to find the correct play-call to go over. However, now the tablet makes it so simple and easy for players and coach to go over strategy. Do you think we can correlate this to the completely offensively driven league now? I think the fact that we have better technology available directly on the sidelines has helped players and also made them much better. So yes, the technology is definitely proving to be a factor in 500 yard passing games and 300 yard receiving games.

  2. Really nice post. I wasn’t aware of the RFID chips in shoulder pads, but I’m surprised they’re not further along on using similar chips for concussion monitoring. That seems like a high priority (or it should be). I think you missed one of the most important TV innovations, though, which is the big yelllow line for the first down. that actually improves my viewing enjoyment.

  3. polmankevin · ·

    Interesting post. I think you did a good job of highlighting how technology is being used to enhance the quality of the league. Something that the NFL does a great job of is focusing on technology improvements that are fair and generate value for the league. A good example is the fact that the NFL is waiting to implement a chip in game balls until it is less noticeable for quarterbacks. Another good point that you brought up is the introduction of tablets on the sidelines. The tablets are definitely helping players and coaches adapt more quickly to in-game changes. I would have liked to hear something a little more tailored to Social Media, though. The NFL has a pretty substantial presence on Twitter, and this is definitely affecting fans exposure to the league and its culture.

  4. Austin Ellis · ·

    Good post! Way to go through the NFL’s technology history, it was very interesting. I agree with Professor Kane; along with instant replay, the on screen graphics like the yellow first down line has been a key innovation for the viewing experience. I think along these lines is how the NFL should move forward. Using the Zebra RFID technology, or similar RFID or GPS components, track players to better spot the ball on a down, or to call a touchdown. With digital tech officials could know exactly where a player or the ball was at a given time. This type of technology has already proven useful for tennis events.

  5. I found this post so interesting! The parts that i found the most interesting were the insights about how these various technologies can be used to enhance player safety. The Surfaces is an awesome tool that is being used in sideline and I can see how the RFID tech can be used to help with other medical uses along with tracking player stats like speed. It will be interesting to see how more tech will be integrated in the NFL with more emphasis on player safety (i.e. concussions).

  6. cmackeenbc · ·

    I cannot believe it took the NFL 40 years to implement electronic communication between coaches and players–that’s wild! Growing up with the technology already used, it’s hard to imagine the speed of the game without it. I think one challenge the NFL will face is improving the experience of game attendees (which @magicjohnshin1just wrote about this week!) when the viewer experience at home has gotten so much more enjoyable. I do think, however, the NFL and other sports leagues have an advantage as more people move from TV to laptop streaming to view tv shows, games and movies. Most people want to watch the game in real time, as opposed to some shows where many would prefer to watch at their convenience. It will be interesting to watch the growth of the Red Zone app, as well as the survival of the Twitter NFL live stream, as consumers continue to move away from traditional broadcasting. I think the close linkage of the Red Zone app to Fantasy Football is an additional advantage to the CBS broadcast, and is somewhat reminiscent of the live Twitter updates that are viewable during Twitter’s new Thursday night streams. I am curious to see how the two platforms grow and adapt over the coming season. Great post!

  7. Aditya Murali · ·

    Awesome post!! It didn’t occur to me how recently everyone was approved to wear headsets for in-game wireless communication. This piece of technology has definitely made the game more interesting and spontaneous. I also think there is so much potential with the chips in the shoulder pads, and it would result in better, more personalized, info for coaches when they’re drawing plays and making critical decisions. I found Prof Kane’s comment about monitoring concussions to be extremely interesting. I am sure the technology is out there…but I think the NFL knows it’s completely screwed if they start collecting realtime data about head trauma and concussions. Because of this, they’re certainly going to avoid innovation in that direction at all costs, because the findings would probably disrupt the entire game of football, not just in the NFL, but at every single level.

  8. Player safety is a large focus in the NFL, I definitely see them increasing their usage of the zebra data chips and other technology to track player health. Will be interesting to keep up with all of the technological innovations.

  9. jagpalsingh03 · ·

    This was a great post! While I knew about the league’s recent switch to Surface tablets, I hadn’t realized just how much technology there is every Sunday. At the same time, it’s crazy how late some of the technology additions are. Nevertheless, it is great to see the league think about technology. I know the NFL combine has seen a major overhaul as well, with prospective draftees using wearable tech so that team doctors can collect vitals and health information. They also used a virtual reality program to understand how college quarterbacks read defenses and whether they could mentally succeed in the NFL. All this makes it seem like the technology is there for the league to better monitor head safety, concussions, etc but the release of such information would probably be incredibly damaging for the league’s future as a profitable business.

  10. Great post. NFL redzone has been a game changer for me personally. It allows me to watch every game, every week. The NFL owns my Sundays from now til the Super Bowl and I don’t hate it one bit. It also make keeping up with fantasy a breeze, which is also a huge part of my sunday as well.

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