Bruce Arians’ approach to answering reporters’ questions since he became head coach of the Arizona Cardinals is to be blunt, often humorous and, most importantly, fresh in a world of bland coach speak. That fresh attitude, coupled with a 34-14 record and a pair of playoff berths — as well as his unique hat choices — has made him widely popular among the media and fans.
But due to something he recently told the Arizona Republic, Arians might not be so popular among his coaching brethren.
This preseason, the NFL conducted an experiment, letting teams watch replay video on sidelines of a single preseason game. After the Cardinals used this tool during their Week 3 preseason matchup with Oakland, Arians said that he is not in favor of regularly making in-game replays available to coaching staffs.
“It helps bad coaches,” he said. “Defensively, you spend a lot of hours and time on a blitz and a guy can sit there, watch it on tape, show it to his guys and fix it in the first quarter. That’s not what it’s all about.”
On the surface, Arians’ issue with in-game replay is logical: Why should coaches and players get a special preview that enables them an artificial, after-the-fact look at an opponent’s strategy? Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots received arguably the harshest penalty in NFL history for trying to get a visual “sneak peak” of an opponent. That’s not to say Spygate and the NFL’s preseason experiment are the same, but clearly videotaping an opponent in order to break down their scheme is a hot button, complex issue.
Consider, however, the manner in which the NFL has already pushed this issue.
Game film has already been around for decades. Even when Bruce Arians was a 22-year-old graduate assistant at Virginia Tech he watched video tape, probably on an 8 mm reel-to-reel projector, for a preview of how Florida State or Kentucky would react and respond to the Hokies running game or defensive front.
Twenty years ago the league sanctioned in-game communication between coaches and one player on the field, via the helmet radio. Quarterbacks on offense and (usually) a linebacker on defense are given the play call and some minimal level of advice or a “heads up” while on the field, for about 25 seconds between plays.
And today, photography, which is just a step shy of video, is already allowed. Quarterbacks and coaches standing together on the sidelines, carefully examining snapshots of a front seven’s alignment or the type of coverage the secondary drops into is now commonplace.
Even the use of instant replay challenges roams into this gray area of video benefiting teams, to the detriment of its opponent. When the outcome of a play is in question — whether a catch was really a catch, or if a running back’s knee hit the ground before he fumbled, or if the quarterback’s lunge actually broke the plane of the end zone — coaches routinely look up at the Jumbotron in order to decide if they should throw the challenge flag. That’s arguably much more of a “cheat” for coaches than in-game replays: there’s no sanctioning or oversight to which of those videos are allowed to run.
No one questions whether or not these advances are benefiting “bad” coaches because they don’t benefit one subset of coaching, good, bad or otherwise. They benefit all coaches. Seeing a pre-snap read before a blitz on an iPad (or probably a Surface, given the league’s less-than-subtle marketing partnership with Microsoft) only offers coaching staffs information, not answers. The so-called “bad” coaches will not be able to interpret and translate that information into success; the “good” ones will. The same was true 30 years ago. “Bad” coaches didn’t turn film study into useful information that improved their team’s performance.
There really isn’t much mystery to NFL strategy anymore. And that is one of the reasons the league is so competitive and exciting. For the most part, games are won by the team with the better players, or at least the better players in the right moments.
All of the measures that the NFL has granted — or will in the future — aren’t to aid “bad” coaches. They are meant to improve the quality of play for every team. And ultimately, that’s what every player, coach and fan should want.