NEW YORK (AP) — While 31 teams try to derail the Seahawks’ attempt to repeat, there are plenty of other challenges facing players, coaches and owners heading into opening week of the NFL. Many are along the sidelines and in the stands.
The NFL and its partners have been ahead of the curve in technology on television, but coaches were stuck using antiquated photo prints and cardboard play sheets. This season, coaches have the option of using NFL-approved tablets during games.
Even the curmudgeonly Bill Belichick has enthusiastically endorsed the technology.
“The sideline of the future is where we’re going,” says Troy Vincent, the league’s overseer of football operations.
At the Hall of Fame game to open the preseason, Vincent noted that Buffalo’s coaching staff was fully engaged with the tablets.
“We were not real sure if the Giants’ Tom Coughlin was buying it, but it was encouraging,” he said.
“Still photos will remain in place; you’ve got to have a backup plan. But you can see the players and the coaches quickly moving from one (image) on the tablet to the next to the next. We think with one season and an offseason, the coaches will get more familiar with it. The younger generation already is all over it, as you’d expect.”
Game officials will be wired up, too, much as soccer referees have been for years. That should improve communication on calls, perhaps leading to fewer huddles that slow the action.
NFL officiating director Dean Blandino admits the change is challenging.
“It’s an adjustment,” Blandino says. “You have people communicating with you on the wireless that you haven’t experienced before. We’ll work through the process. It’s an enhancement and we don’t want it to be a deterrent in any way to our primary objectives.”
Another of the league’s primary objectives is keeping people in the stadiums. It’s not quite so challenging early in the season, when the weather is good and everyone is in contention — well, maybe not in Buffalo and Oakland. Deeper into the season, it gets tougher.
“TV viewing experience of our games is so good with the NFL channels and the Red Zone and HD televisions and other options. We have to give people reasons to want to come to our games,” Giants owner John Mara says. “So making the in-stadium experience special and different is a priority.”
Fans in stadiums will have access to video replays that viewers at home don’t get. They will get Wi-Fi allowing them to track other games, their fantasy teams and to send selfies.
And, of course, they get to witness firsthand a long Adrian Peterson burst to the end zone, a Robert Quinn sack or a J.J. Watt swat of an attempted pass.
“I still believe nothing beats the experience of being at the stadium and seeing these great players live,” Mara says.
Some of those players won’t be seen when the season begins. A few — Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee, for example — are injured and gone for the year. Others, such as Ravens running back Ray Rice, are suspended.
Mara expresses concerns about player conduct away from the field, even as he emphasizes a vast majority of NFL players never run into trouble.
“Player conduct has been an area of concentration because some of the things we see do damage the league’s image,” Mara says. “Any time a player is in any sort of trouble, it automatically becomes front page news. These are young men and, at that age a minority of them are getting into trouble from time to time.”
Thursday, Commissioner Roger Goodell announced tougher punishment for domestic violence.
“We look at all the offenses that involve players and the scenarios and we have gotten tough with the (punishments) and we will remain tough with them,” Mara said.
Vincent stresses the need for players to behave well on the field, too. An outstanding defensive back for 15 NFL seasons, he understands as well as anyone the intensity of game action, the “heat of the moment.”
He also knows that taunting fouls increased almost 400 percent from 2012 to 2013.
“Respect at the workplace is paramount,” Vincent says. “Yes, football is a highly emotional sport. But we believe with shared training and discussions with the players, we have seen a conscious effort in the preseason to reduce it. We have not even talked about taunting in preseason games.”
As for the challenge facing every franchise not calling Seattle home, that might be the most daunting of all. The Seahawks certainly want the opposition thinking that way.
“I love this opportunity that we have,” coach Pete Carroll says. “We are so fortunate to have this chance to come back after a season like that to see if we can find that kind of discipline and find that kind of ability to focus. It’s challenging, it’s difficult, it hasn’t happened a lot and we are going to see what happens.”
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL