Blitzes, byte by byte

Sports: From the pros to prep schools, technology is changing the way athletes and their coaches prepare.

January 26, 2001|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

When Trent Dilfer wanted to prepare for his Super Bowl clash with the New York Giants, the Ravens quarterback did what any smart athlete would do these days.

Hit the practice turf?

Try the computer terminal.

Huddled over one of the team's Macintoshes last Friday, Dilfer asked the computer to show him every time the Giants blitzed the opposing quarterback during the playoffs. Instantly, the clips were dredged from the Ravens' vast digital archive and projected onto the wall.

"You can do anything on this thing," Dilfer marveled, punching up Giants man-to-man plays when the blitzes ended.

From the pros to prep schools, technology is changing the way athletes and their coaches prepare for battle.

Once, teams spent days sorting spaghetti-like ribbons of 16mm game film. Or scratching out plays in a cloud of chalk dust.

But today's cutting-edge coaches are just as likely to tote laptop computers to the locker room, pass out playbooks on CD-ROM and analyze their opponents on digital video systems straight out of Hollywood.

On the horizon is even wilder stuff: Microchip-studded helmets that beam a player's every movement back to coaches on the sidelines. It's just one of the innovations to be shown at the first major convention geared to sports and technology in New York this July.

"Most fans just aren't aware of how big a role technology plays behind the scenes," says Sam Covault, a former coach at Ohio State who helps football teams integrate technology in their training.

Ravens head coach Brian Billick is widely considered one of the league's modern pioneers in marrying coaching and computing.

While an assistant with the Minnesota Vikings, he was the first coach to put a computer on his desk, recalls Mike Eayrs, the Vikings' director of research and development. Today, Billick routinely weaves PowerPoint presentations and Excel spreadsheets into his chalk talks - a practice that's earned him the nickname "compucoach."

Like many NFL coaches, Billick and his staff also lean heavily on digital video editors, a technology that many teams consider the biggest advance in football since Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns carted a film projector into his locker room in the 1940s.

The Ravens' Owings Mills headquarters houses a computer server the size of Tony Siragusa that can store more than 90 hours of digital video, says John Dube, the team's video director.

Each week Dube and his staff use a computer to chop up digitized game tape - their own and their opponents' - into individual plays. Then they annotate each play with basic stats such as the down, who touched the ball and what happened on the play.

When Dube is done, the Ravens coaches add even more data - until each clip carries more than 30 different pieces of information about the play.

On Macintosh computers spread throughout the Owings Mills training complex, coaches and players can quickly pull together custom video clips to study - say, every time an opponent was third and short, or kicked a field goal, or fumbled.

These statistical and video databases have become the bread and butter of many teams' coaching strategies, helping them spot trends and poke holes in the opponent's game - known as "scouting" - that would have gone unnoticed in the old days of pen and paper.

Before the Vikings played the Giants in the playoffs, for example, Vikings staffers crunched their database and discovered that when a certain Giants receiver lined up in a certain spot, the Giants more often than not ran a particular play, said Eayrs.

It's not just football teams that are turning to high-tech tools. NBA teams such as the Orlando Magic use sophisticated scouting software developed by IBM. The Washington Capitals hockey team, meanwhile, recently installed a sophisticated $50,000 rink-side video system to help coaches tweak their game plans on the fly.

And at the NHL All-Star game next month, some players will wear helmets with microchips implanted inside. The 2-ounce transmitters, designed by Massachusetts start-up Trakus Inc., can track where a player is, how fast he's moving, and even how hard he rams an opponent. The transmitters beam this data 30 times a second to antennas posted around the perimeter of the rink.

It's not just the pros who are eyeing sophisticated technology. As the cost of computer and digital video technology has fallen, it found its way into high schools.

Mark Gowin, football coach at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., no longer passes out the team playbook. Instead, he uses a software program called Chalk Talk to archive the plays on the school's computer network.

The squad's 44 players can log on from any computer to bone up on their playbook. No longer just static X's and O's, the plays are animated like a video game.

"They're the Nintendo generation. The kids were glued to it," says Gowin. "As a coach you're always looking for an edge. The blackboard can be kind of boring."

Next fall Gowin plans to pass out Palm Pilots to his staff. Using software called Digital Scout, he and his staff can compile elaborate scouting databases on opponents.

"There's just as much pressure on us on game days as on Brian Billick in the Super Bowl," says Gowin. "No one around here likes to lose.

Of course, cutting-edge technology is still no substitute for skill and luck-a lesson the Minnesota Vikings learned when they were shut out by the Giants during the playoffs, 41-0.

"None of the computer analysis predicted that," says the Vikings' Mike Eayrs.

"In all the history of the NFL," he says, "the computer has never gained one-quarter of inch for any team."

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