Several NFL teams have switched to using iPads to hold their playbooks in recent years (Tampa Bay, for example, did it before the 2011 season). However, teams were prohibited from actually using iPads or other electronic devices on game days at the stadium. You had to know, though, that part of that ban by the NFL was unrelated to actual concerns over the devices, and involved leveraging it to maximize their money.
A couple of days ago, a new deal between Microsoft and the NFL was reported. Among the details, Microsoft Surface tablets will be allowed on the sidelines, perhaps as early as the 2014 season. You can bet you will start seeing Microsoft branding on the sidelines as soon as possible.
The competition committee will still have to sort out the details of what will be permitted, but you can probably guess that this will lead to some changes. The NFL isn’t going to allow tablets and then merely have them as vestigial objects. I could see restrictions on things like watching live television feeds (for challenge purposes) but policing everything would be difficult and counterproductive. While it is funny to imagine some of the more traditional coaches looking down at a tablet, it is more likely that the extended coaching staffs around them will be using them. (As an aside, good to see that the NFL is finally catching up to flag football, where we used devices during games last year. Of course, the NFL teams don’t have to keep track of equal player rotations for all kids or require color coding of plays and snack schedules).
The question is how? In addition to the playbooks now being on a tablet, the possibilities are endless. Of course, they could view images instead of looking at photographs. It is a potential source of explosing of analytics on the sideline as well. Consider that you can now use a win probability calculator in real time, and an assistant could be going through scenarios to provide input, perhaps based on pre-rehearsed scenarios with team-specific input added (when should we go for it if we face a fourth down in this part of the field in the next minute?).
Another area that a smart team could use devices is in better managing clock situations, inputting scenarios that can be quickly consulted, similar to a two point conversion chart, where a decision tree can quickly provide an answer on when to use timeouts, how many possessions are likely remaining, or whether relinquishing possession is appropriate or not. I think teams should employ a clock management specialist anyway (which would probably cost a fraction of what is spent on coaching and personnel), but the ability to use a device on the sideline should open up the possibility for teams to embrace analytical input and implement it in real time.