At one point during her 16 years as CEO of the Oakland Raiders, Amy Trask traveled to the NFL’s office in New York City for a training session on the league’s new technology to report player transactions.
Trask, who led the Raiders from 1997 until 2013, was joined on the trip by the team’s senior-most personnel executive and a member of the Raiders’ finance department.
The personnel executive had little interest in learning the new system and made his opinions clear to the room. It took Trask and her colleague in finance holding down his arms several times throughout the meeting to stop destruction being inflicted on the keyboard and computer screen in front of him.
The personnel executive refused to use the new technology upon his return to Oakland, opting instead for pen-and-paper transactions which would then have to be sent electronically by someone else in the building.
Change, for some old-school football types, is hard. But for even the NFL’s most traditional decision-makers, current events will require it.
The NFL draft — already having evolved over the years from a meeting inside a hotel ballroom to a traveling entertainment festival — will again morph this year into a socially-distanced event with picks made remotely by general managers in their homes amid the coronavirus pandemic.
It could be a showcase of both the benefits and challenges of remote connectivity that has become commonplace across the world in recent weeks.
As detailed by The Athletic this week, teams will submit their picks to the league office through the Microsoft Teams platform and can use phone calls and/or a league-wide conference call as a backup.
The draft will still follow its usual format of the first round being held Thursday night, followed by the second and third rounds Friday evening and the final four rounds Saturday afternoon. It will be televised by a special joint broadcast by ESPN and NFL Network, as well as a separate telecast by ABC.
The new format of the draft takes into account government restrictions that would have made it, in many cases, illegal for team personnel to gather in draft “war rooms” in practice facilities. Top decision makers typically would be surrounded by club owners, personnel executives and scouts who could provide insight on specific players or discuss trades with other teams. Picks normally would be phoned in to a team representative at the site of the draft who would run the card to the stage to be processed by the league and read by the commissioner.
Instead, those general managers and, in some cases, head coaches making draft decisions will instead be on an island in their homes.
Technological literacy varies across the league. The Cleveland Browns’ Andrew Berry, who in January became the youngest known general manager in NFL history at 32, has a masters degree in computer science from Harvard.
On the other end of the spectrum is New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Like Alabama coach Nick Saban, the six-time Super Bowl champion came of age in a football world that functioned without modern technology.
“[The technology] obviously has changed dramatically over the decades since I joined the league in the mid 1980’s,” Trask, now an analyst with CBS Sports, told AL.com this week. “At that time, the most time-sensitive league correspondence was sent via fax machine. Less time-sensitive correspondence was sent via overnight mail and the least time sensitive league correspondence was bundled together and sent in what the league referred to as a ‘pouch.’”
And like Saban, who has famously resisted some of the advances of the current century, Belichick has had notable run-ins with the digital age. A brief scene in a 2009 documentary showed Belichick struggling to change the clock in his SUV, while there have been several instances of him slamming a computer tablet out of frustration on the sideline. The NFL has adopted tablets in recent seasons for coaches to view snapshots of personnel alignments before plays.
Belichick earlier this month credited Patriots football information technology specialist Dan Famosi with “pull[ing] a lot of things together and remotely help[ing] out people like me that need a lot of help,” and similarly across the NFL, IT employees will be assisting those making draft picks.
The Athletic reported that most teams’ decision makers will have an IT specialist at home to assist, although health and safety is still a consideration. Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn said this week that team IT specialist Steve Lancaster will spend the draft in a Winnebago motorhome in Quinn’s driveway to stay socially-distanced but accessible.
At-home arrangements for general managers have varied from the seven-screen, three-phone setup of the San Francisco 49ers’ John Lynch to the one-laptop (plus reams of paper) approach of the New York Giants’ Dave Gettleman, a 69-year old longtime scout.
“It’s a lot smaller and scaled-down, but it’s literally what I have in the draft room,” Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff told NBC Sports during a tour of his home office.
According to The Athletic, the NFL coordinated with Verizon to stop work on nearby cell towers to its general managers and also upgraded internet connections in some homes. But even the advance planning and layers of connectivity cannot replicate what could go wrong with frantic trade talks when a team is on the clock to make a pick — 10 minutes for each first-round pick, seven for the second and five thereafter.
In the case of trade talks, general managers will not only have to communicate with the league office but also with other general managers and executives from their own team. A loss of internet connection — or interference from hackers — could slow or stop the communication in any direction.
While IT employees can effectively set up the connections and fix any problems that arise, they still must deal with the stress the situations could put on decision makers.
“The technology is not the challenge,” Trask said. “The challenge is coaching coaches, general managers and team owners in the use thereof.
“Yes, there may be technological difficulties but the well-constructed team IT departments are fully capable of navigating those difficulties. Navigating coaches, general managers and team owners through those difficulties at a time when tensions are very hard may well be difficult.”
For this year’s draft, the NFL will make an exception to its rules and “stop the clock” if teams exceed their given time to make a pick, according to former NFL GM Mike Tannenbaum.
To run through any potential issues with the process, the league held a mock draft with all of its decision makers Monday. Although there were initial problems when, according to ESPN, the Bengals ran into technical glitches making the first pick of the draft, the rest of the exercise went smoothly, a team executive told AL.com.
That hasn’t stopped sports books — starved for action on live sports because of the pandemic — to create prop bets for potential technical issues during the draft.