In a recent article published in the Wall Street Journal, Reed Albergotti explored the conspicuous absence of a wider and more comprehensive viewing angle for televised NFL football. In a sport known for intricate strategies and complex play designs, the NFL has been surprisingly reluctant to make all 22 players simultaneously visible on the television screens of fans across the nation. The wide-angled "All-22" perspective, which allows a spectator to see pre-snap defensive alignments to the depth of the safeties and to the width of each sideline, is recorded and utilized by NFL coaches and front offices to accurately analyze and evaluate the game. Unfortunately, the NFL doesn’t really seem to care whether fans ever get access to the "All-22" view.
How important is the full picture when it comes to digesting NFL action? In the article, former NFL head coach and front office executive Bill Parcells went so far as to say "I don’t think you can get a full understanding without watching the entirety of the game." Of course you can’t. In a sport where quarterbacks are the most important position on the field, and perhaps the most important position in all of professional sports, it is ludicrous to think that NFL broadcasts deny fans the opportunity to understand what the quarterback is actually seeing.
Watching quarterback play from your couch is still exhilarating, but for all the wrong reasons. Routes of wide receivers and tight ends take place almost entirely off screen, and defensive configurations in the secondary are virtually invisible to even the most interested fans watching at home. Being a spectator to modern vertical passing attacks currently means you are left guessing about whether a deep pass is well-covered until the camera finally pans to the intended receiver. Essentially, passing attacks are exciting because the context of each long pass attempt remains a mystery until the last second. To think this is acceptable to NFL executives is insane.
The NFL clearly wants quarterbacks to be the most important position on the field, too. Over the past decade, the league has made countless rule changes to create new advantages for passing offenses, but standard live action television angles zoom in the ball, which is optimized viewing for running plays only. Is the NFL at all concerned that fans still can’t see the coverage or the route combinations or anything relevant to either play designs or the decision-making of quarterbacks? Not at all. Despite the tantalizing existence of a sponsored online NFL survey about the All-22 angle, league spokesman Greg Aiello assured fans that there is no such product currently in development. However, that’s not even the dumbest or most irritating thing league officials had to say on the topic.
Apparently the NFL thinks fans are stupid, too. According to Aiello, the league considers the All-22 footage "proprietary NFL coaching information." This is a total sham. So the action that takes place on the football field during a live, nationally-televised NFL game is proprietary? The NFL wants fans to believe that same view that every person in a stadium is privy to can somehow simultaneously be considered a proprietary interest worthy of strict protection? That is patently ridiculous. Fans aren’t interrogated about how much they witnessed or what "proprietary" information they have smuggled away in their memory or cell phone when they leave the stadium, are they? Former NFL GM and NFL competition committee member Charley Casserly explained his vote against releasing the footage by saying he had been worried fans would jump to the wrong conclusions and criticize coaches and players for the wrong things.
In what universe would anyone argue that more information is a bad thing? How could a more complete view of the playing field possibly lead to worse analysis? If anything, just look at what in-game video challenges have done to educate fans and protect the reputation of referees. The restricted live view currently offered by the NFL to fans certainly hasn't done anything to temper opinions about quarterbacks and coaches anyway. Failed fourth down plays are a basis for arguing a coach should be fired, and interceptions are a cause for calling a quarterback an idiot. On sports radio and across the Internet fans across the world constantly attempt to analyze these aspects of the game even with the scant visual information they can access for each game. However, modern fans have become more educated about the game in general through external sources, which may embolden their opinions.
In fact, this current generation might be the most sophisticated group of NFL fans the league has ever seen. Thanks to the ever-growing complexity and detail of videogame sports simulations like EA Sports’ Madden and NCAA football simulation series, a large percentage of the core demographic to which the NFL is marketing (men ages 18-35) is highly educated about the strategy of the game. These sports simulations not only allow average fans access to NFL-style playbooks, they also offer the opportunity for fans to put themselves in the virtual shoes of an NFL quarterback.
From the comfort of their own home, the current and future generations of NFL fans get the unprecedented opportunities to design plays, make pre-snap audibles, adjust hot routes for blitzes and make reads and throws as a quarterback against well-trained AI. If an attempt was ever made to impose the same live television viewing angles on Madden and NCAA football video game players, there would be a revolt. Why? It would be impossible to function as a virtual quarterback without seeing the full field. Indeed, for avid NFL fans an armchair quarterbacks across the country, it could easily be argued that the same measure of impossibility is forced upon viewers of the NFL product on a weekly basis.
Even assuming, arguendo, that the core target demographic hasn't been fully enlightened by videogame simulations, doesn't the NFL have a vested interest in further educating their fans on the performance of the stars they relentlessly promote? Fans are continually told that quarterback play is the key to success, but are left in the dark when it comes to seeing the essential aspects and inputs to performance. What’s the point of touting the decision-making skills of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers if none of what they make decisions on is visible to the fans until after the fact, if ever? How can anyone truly understand or appreciate the coverage skills of Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu when they are only on the screen if the ball is thrown in their direction? Nobody at home would ever know just how well Greg Jennings and Wes Welker use body leverage to run precise routes without the benefit of instant replay, because the action takes place off screen. With the proliferation of high definition televisions over the past five years, fans have never been better equipped to take in a wider viewing angle and gain access to these details of the game.
Having to rely on analysts and commentators to describe action that could easily be displayed on screen is an indefensible crime for which the NFL should have to answer in a meaningful manner. It is clear that the league should let the fans decide how much of the field they want to see, not preemptively restrict access under a bogus "proprietary NFL coaching information" defense. Deep and intermediate passing plays should not be a mysterious aspect of the game necessarily digested in fragments; they should be presented as wholly visible art forms for the viewing pleasure of NFL fans everywhere. In many ways, football fans have been seeking out this art form for years in video game simulations, but the clear demand for the All-22 has fallen on deaf ears. Although the revolution has already arrived, the NFL has unilaterally decided that the revolution will not be televised, and it’s a damn shame.