Breaking down the NFL’s All-22 footage

Football nerds, rejoice!

For weeks, writers have used some variation of that lede when discussing the NFL’s decision to finally release their legendary All-22 footage to the public, a decision that comes with a slew of pros and cons.

The All-22 footage, also referred to as Coaches’ Film, is a unique camera angle that allows the viewer to see all 22 players on the field during a play. For years, the NFL has denied the average fan access to it, despite a strong desire from the public and pressure from numerous outlets.

The NFL has teased those wishing to have access to the film over the past few seasons, offering select plays from the angle as a part of the Game Rewind service offered by the league. Still, a few plays here and there weren’t enough for those clamoring for the tape. Writers and fans wishing to analyze the game deeper wanted access to every play from the coveted angle, and they wanted it at their own convenience.

Finally the NFL relented, announcing on June 15 that the All-22 footage would be included as part of a $70 Game Rewind package for the upcoming season. The package would allow access to subscribers to view any play, from any game all season, using the All-22 angle on television, on their tablet or their computer, with access lasting until the end of July of 2013.

Understandably, there has been rejoicing among the blogosphere, where it is seen as just another inevitable step in the fight for increased access for non-traditional media. Already fans and writers are salivating over the chance to better understand what happens on the field.

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So, just how useful is this new footage going to be?

Those that fought for its release have often regarded it as a “Holy Grail” of sorts, a key to finally and fully understanding the NFL game without the prerequisite of working for and NFL team.

One of the biggest criticisms of modern football is how passing plays are televised. The camera angle that best conveys the overall flow of the play is the one that follows the ball, from snap to quarterback to downfield. The problem with that angle is that from the snap to release of the pass the defensive secondary is almost completely removed from the screen, only coming back into view once the ball is zipped downfield.

In the time between the QB making his read and throwing the pass a million little things happen off screen that lead to the success or failure of a play, yet fans only get to see the culmination of those million little things. With the release of the All-22 footage, those that want to can finally see everything leading up to the finish of the play.

Similarly, the All-22 will make it easier to evaluate blocking schemes on pass and run plays, as part of the line is often cut off from view as traditional camera angles follow the primary flow of action. Perhaps most intriguing is the impact the footage may have on special team analysis.

Special teams in football are a mass of flesh colliding at high speed, and it often appears to have little rhyme or reason other than vague notions regarding running lanes. With the ability to watch the entire field from start to finish the nuances of special teams play should become more apparent to those watching, which may lead to an increased appreciation of quality special teamers.

So why haven’t networks been using this footage for years already?

One of the main drawbacks from a presentation standpoint is that the nature of fitting 22 players on screen makes them appear almost like stick figures and casual viewers are not prone to watching things where they have to squint to follow the action, even on big screen televisions. Beyond that, there are those who are concerned about the public release of the footage and have been for years, stressing the potential for undue criticism in a media landscape already littered with round-the-clock talking heads dissecting every play.

One of the most quoted men throughout the saga has been former Redskins and Texans general manager Charley Casserly. In a story for The Wall Street Journal from November 2011, Casserly said he voted against the release of the footage while he was a member of the NFL’s competition committee because he didn’t want to open coaches and players to a new level of critique.

“I was concerned about misinformation being spread about players and coaches and their ability to do their job,” Casserly said. “It becomes a distraction that you have to deal with.”

Michael Lombardi, a former executive for five NFL teams who currently works as a writer and broadcaster for the NFL Network and NFL.com weighed in last week in a column on NFL.com.

Lombardi discusses in the piece how even as a member of the San Francisco 49ers organization, he had access to the film when he started his career. Still, he was simply watching the film, not truly understanding it. He goes on to expand on what may be the biggest danger associated with the All-22 footage: fan ignorance. Without proper knowledge of playbooks and schemes for both the offense and defense, it is impossible for fans to accurately assess the performance of players, even when granted access to footage that shows all players at all times.

NFL schemes and plays are incredibly complex and intentionally deceptive. While it may appear that a defensive back got beat or that a quarterback didn’t see an open receiver, without full knowledge of the play calling on both sides of the ball, proper analysis will remain a crapshoot. This ties in with Casserly’s concern that improperly diagnosed plays can lead to undue wailing and gnashing of teeth in the media.

Lombardi sums up his case thusly.

“By allowing everyone to see the All-22 film, the NFL has opened up Pandora’s Box – which is fine, as long as everyone understands that many observations are going to be wrong.”

Still, there is plenty of good to go with the bad, and with time there is a hope that this footage will legitimately lead to a greater understanding and love of the NFL game.

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