GREEN BAY – D.J. Williams loves his new iPad playbook, even if he does have one small complaint.
“Pretty cool,” the Green Bay Packers second-year tight end said before pausing. “No games on it, though.”
Yes, the NFL’s most storied franchise is among the first to dive headfirst into the brave new world of technology, issuing iPads to their players this year instead of bulky playbooks in binders, and uploading film to the Apple tablets remotely rather than having players take DVDs home with them or making them stay at Lambeau Field until the wee hours watching film in a dark meeting room.
And while they aren't playing Words With Friends or Angry Birds, the players are loving the new technology.
“I struggle with it, personally, but everyone else loves it. I still like the big book, white paper,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who carries both his iPad and his binder, as do most of his assistants. “But the players love it. Face it, part of coaching today’s athlete is being in tune with how they learn and the technology to enhance their learning. It’s a great tool.”
Even the oldest of the old-schoolers on the Packers coaching staff – 61-year-old defensive coordinator Dom Capers – is on board.
“Shoot, one thing I’ve found out – this is 27 years (in the NFL) for me – is that you’d better be flexible and adjust,” said Capers, now in his fourth year running the Packers defense. “I’ve been through 16 millimeter (film) when I first came in the league, Beta-cam, digital, now iPads for playbooks. You’d be surprised. I’m adjusting. I’m kind of proud of myself.”
The iPads, which have been distributed to the players by the club this offseason and are owned by the team, have an operating system from a Colorado-based company called PlayerLync, run by CEO Bob Paulsen, who grew up in Wisconsin, graduated from UW-Madison and is a lifelong Packers fan.
According to Paulsen, PlayerLync is the offshoot of a telecommunications firm he ran that sold its local phone company to Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Looking to invest in a new challenge where he could “have some fun,” Paulsen used a few connections with the Denver Broncos to set up their digital playbook, and the venture took off from there.
“We realized, ‘There’s a huge opportunity here,’” Paulsen said.
The Packers were the second team to get on board, and Paulsen said the company is now working with five NFL teams and is developing applications for “just about every other team sport at the professional level,” although football is the firm’s focus.
“I’m not that technically savvy – I guess in Texas we’re a little bit behind the technology curve – but I can work them. They made it pretty simple for us,” backup quarterback Graham Harrell said. “A lot of times in the past, you’d have to come in here and sit in your meeting room (to watch film). Well, it’s inconvenient to sit in your meeting room at 9 o’clock at night. Especially for guys who have families and stuff, they want to be home with them.
“Now, when the kids go to sleep, they’ve got an iPad sitting there. They can lay in bed and watch it. A lot of times right now, I’ll be lying in bed and I’ll pull my iPad out and scroll through some plays. I definitely think it makes watching film that much easier, and I think it’s going to make guys watch a lot more film and can help us out as a team.”
While players have been able to take film home on DVD and play it on their computers in the past, the DVDs only held so much video. Now, with the ability to upload and remove various clips, the possibilities are endless.
“We went so far as to put the practice video on it. We didn’t think we were going to do that at first,” McCarthy said. “They’ve never had the level of instant access that they have now. It’s all about improved learning.”
According to Paulsen, a player can open the PlayerLync app and then choose from his menu whether he wants to review a scheme from the playbook, watch videos, or go elsewhere. There’s even a portion of the app dedicated to non-football responsibilities, like ticket requests for family members that can be synced to the team’s ticket office.
Within the playbook, players can “go in and annotate exactly like they did on a paper playbook – take notes, highlighting, anything they would do on paper,” Paulsen said. Players can either type notes or can write them in by hand using the handwriting feature.
“Now, you go into meetings, and everyone’s doing this,” safeties coach Darren Perry said, pantomiming the famous iPad touch-screen swiping motion. “It’s all part of this new technology era, so we’re all adjusting – coaches included.”
Whenever a new play, film clip or message is uploaded, the player receives a push notification.
“If they want us to have a video or change the playbook or something, we can be sitting at home and they’re sitting here and all of a sudden it pops up on your iPad that you’ve got a new video or new whatever. It’s so convenient,” Harrell said. “You’re not lugging around a 25-pound, 900-page playbook.”
Harrell isn’t joking about the 900-page playbook, although McCarthy did give new quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo a hard time at the start of quarterback school with Harrell and NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers.
“There’s a lot of trees going, “Whew,” McCarthy said with a laugh. “I told Ben, ‘Thank god we went to those iPads this year with you coaching those quarterbacks.’ The quarterback school (binder) that he put together was about (18 inches) thick. I said, ‘You have shattered the record for a quarterback school playbook.’”
“We’ve always given them everything. Unfortunately, a lot of times you’d look in the car and it’d look like some of those books never left the car,” McCarthy said. “The iPad, it fits what they do.”
That said, security was McCarthy’s greatest concern. If a player lost his iPad, he didn’t want his playbook winding up in an NFC North division rival’s hands or being disseminated across the Internet.
“If I was involved in 10 conversations about going to these iPads, nine of them were strictly about the security of the information,” McCarthy said. “That was my No. 1 concern. So that’s intact. There’s a system.”
That system, Paulsen said, allows the Packers’ IT department to remotely remove all the content on the iPad. Players must also enter their unique access code to even connect with the content, so a lost iPad would likely be inaccessible to a layman anyway. That’s much better than the paper version, which could not be retrieved or protected if lost.
“There’s about 10 levels of security that keep these things as secure as possible,” Paulsen said. “If a player loses their iPad, the second that they know it’s lost, they can tell the team, which can then remotely wipe the content. Or, we have little time bombs built in, so the content will just disappear. You can also see if somehow somebody had looked at any content. But there’s no way to get the content off that device. It’s all very private.”
When Capers draws up a new blitz, he literally draws it up, on paper, whereas most of today’s coaches put their diagrams together on computers. Defensive quality control coach Scott McCurley then takes Capers’ drawing and puts it into computerized form. So the iPads are a bit of a culture shock for him.
“All these guys are techies anyway, because they’ve been doing this stuff growing up,” Capers said of his players. “A guy like me, I laugh, because when I moved here, I brought like 11 boxes of notebooks in here. A guy like Scott, when he leaves, he’s going to have a computer chip, where he’s got everything in there.”
But while Capers has tinkered with the iPads, he hasn’t changed his creative process.
“He’s an all-paper guy,” McCurley explained. “So it’s really an original copy from him, pretty much old-school written out Xs and Os on the drawings, diagrams. Anything he writes, it’s all done by hand, and then it goes to me and I take it from there so we can get it into the digital version. Then, whenever I get my stuff done for him, it’s going back the other way, so he has copies of it in a digital version.
“When it comes to video, I’ll go in there and make sure he’s all set with his cutups and stuff like that. It works for him. That’s what he’s been doing the whole way through, and he’s very detailed and organized and efficient with what he does. He’s never really stepped into the computers – he’s always had somebody like me, a younger guy that understands the technology.
“He’s a very detailed guy and he likes his routine, he likes how it goes for him. But he is organized. Anything that comes to me, I really appreciate. He’s so detailed in the way he does stuff, it’s not like I have to figure anything out. Even his handwriting, it’s very clean. I don’t need to try to figure anything out. I’ve worked for some guys where you’re wondering, ‘What’s he trying to get at here?’ He lays it out for you. ‘This is the way I want it.’”
Not only will teams save money on the reams of paper used on traditional playbooks each week – playbooks that would then be shredded and replaced by the next week’s game plan – but information will be kept on servers and reused. For instance, the Packers play the Minnesota Vikings twice in December – on Dec. 2 at Lambeau Field and Dec. 30 in Minneapolis – and any notes players took before the first meeting can be re-loaded onto the iPad and compared with experiences drawn from playing in that game.
There’s also the immediacy of the system. Harrell, standing at his locker for the media availability session 30 minutes after the organized team activity practice had ended that day, said the practice video was likely already uploaded to his iPad. After games this season, players should be able to look at film roughly an hour after the final gun if they want.
But in the end, all the technological advantages won’t mean a thing if the players and coaches don’t put them to good use on the field.
“It really takes their knowledge and ability to learn to a different level,” Paulsen said. “You still need Aaron Rodgers, but it sure can’t hurt to load him up with the right tools that help.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.