Sometimes, you don’t understand your own strength. Other times, you don’t know what you’ve got until you lose it. In the case of NFL broadcasts, most fans don’t understand what action they’re missing, because they don’t get to see it.
I’m going to take a deep dive into the framing of football, the way that the major networks (CBS, Fox, NBC, and the cable giant ESPN) present the game, and how they’ve neglected the power of the HDTV widescreen, more than a decade after it became the national standard. They’re relying, with one key exception, on shooting methods that were established decades ago, under the old TV standard, and they’re still keeping much of the passing game, hidden from our view.
You’re So Square
Let’s begin near the beginning, with a brief look at the frames American TV has used to present the game. From the 1940s until the early 2000s, broadcast television in the US transmitted an analog signal (525 lines of resolution) and was shown on televisions that featured an aspect ratio (the ratio of screen width to screen height) of 4 to 3. Think back to the TV shows you watched in your youth. The image looked like this:
Here’s a still from the CBS network broadcast of Super Bowl VIII, between the Dolphins and the Vikings.
Note how the narrowness of the 4:3 frame dictated how CBS’s camera crew captured the action. Nearly all the principals in the passing game are missing from this still, which was captured just before the snap. Dolphins’ WR Paul Warfield is visible at the top of the frame, but his receiver partner Marlin Briscoe is cut out of the shot. So too are all four members of the Vikings secondary.
The networks made a decision to prioritize action near the line of scrimmage for a variety of reasons. First, it makes for a tighter, cleaner shot with less dead space. The choice also played to the tendencies of the NFL in the early ’70s. The game was a running contest then. Bob Griese, the winning QB this day, attempted only seven passes in the Dolphins 24-7 win. Fran Tarkenton, his Vikings counterpart threw 28 in a vain attempt to throw his way out of an early deficit. Check the stat lines for any given NFL weekend these days and you’ll find nearly all QBs match or exceed Tarkenton’s attempt line. Many QBs approach that number in a half.
This line of scrimmage-priority framing remained through all of the analog era. Let’s go forward 20 years and see how NBC framed Super Bowl XXVIII. The network is still prioritizing the line of scrimmage. The framing is tight to the line and while both Cowboys receivers and both Bills corners are now visible, that’s a function of the press coverage Bills’ DC Walt Corey has called on this play. What are the Bills’ safeties going behind their front seven? We can’t tell, because they’ve been squeezed out of the shot.
HDTV: Wider, but Still Tight
Seven years after this contest, the NFL showed its first Super Bowl in the new HDTV format. The coming standard (it was adopted by all American broadcast stations in 2006) promised two major upgrades over the analog system. First, it would have more than twice the lines of resolution that make up a shot (1080 instead of the old 525) which would give viewers a much sharper image with truer colors. The standard also had a wider aspect ratio – the now common 16:9 frame.
This second feature was tailor-made for football. A wider screen promised the chance to see all 22 players on every play. Just slide the frame towards the secondary and voila! You’re watching the game just like the coaches up in the press box. Simple, right?
Let’s move a decade forward from the last still, to Super Bowl 38’s Patriots vs. Panthers match-up. The game was played in the then new Reliant Stadium in Houston, which had very high vantage points for TV cameras. Here was a chance for the game to show off the next TV technology.
It didn’t quite turn out that way. Here are three stills from the broadcast, which show off a new shooting standard, which is very much like the old one:
The broadcast uses what I’ll call the centered approach. Note the location of the football at the snap. It’s dead center in the frame. The camera crew has pulled out enough to show nearly all of the action, but the Patriots free safety has backed out of the frame. You can see his hand and the tip of his helmet on the left edge of the frame.
It seems that sliding the framing slightly off-center, towards the Patriots secondary, would solve the problem. There is five yards of dead space behind the Panthers’ running back, and sliding the frame left would also eliminate this unnecessary space.
This was not a viable solution in 2004, however, The game was played at a time when HDTV was available but not a requirement for U.S. consumers. Many early adopters had purchased HD sets, but most of America had not yet made the investment. (The tipping point, when 50% of American households switched to HD, would not come until 2006, and U.S. broadcasters did not abandon analog broadcasts and go exclusively to HD broadcasts until 2009.)
The frame you see here is a shared shot. The ball is centered because this feed is being given to HD viewers and analog viewers at the same time. Those watching on the old 4:3 aspect ratio sets saw a narrower shot with a left edge just to the left of the umpire, who is standing between the hash marks on the 32-yard line, and with a right edge just to the right of the Panthers’ running back. To those analog viewers, the framing would look nearly identical to the framings from Super Bowls 8 and 28 shown above.
This centered approach nonetheless offered HD viewers a full all-22 when the coverage packages deployed closer to the line of scrimmage. Here’s a still from the same Panthers series where the Patriots showed a cover-2 look.
Had the camera operator on this shot let the action unfold, HD viewers could have seen the Panthers receivers run their route combos downfield, while QB Jake Delhomme dropped to pass. But a still from this same play shows a second key tendency that undoes the advantage of the wider HD screen. Broadcasts, on all networks, regularly zoom in and pan with the quarterback once the football is snapped. This shrinks the field of view and takes it away from the play’s pass patterns:
Note now both yard markers, are visible in stills one and two from this contest, but the 10 – 20 and 30 yard marks closer to the camera are cut out of this shot once the shot zooms into Delhomme’s drop. The camera’s pan to the right, to keep Delhomme’s drop within the frames of the analog and HD screens, also cuts out the downfield action that was visible in still two. Only one Panthers’ target, the tight end, is visible in the shot.
The Persistence of Centered Framings
The move to exclusive HDTV broadcasts in 2009 promised that the networks might finally adopt an off-centered framing and allow fans to see the game fans at the stadium can view. That practice has been very slow in coming. Most networks still work off centered framings. Let’s examine two views of the same play from last week’s Rams vs. Vikings game, one from the NFL Network’s national broadcast and the view offered by the league’s Game Pass, an on-demand package that replays the on-air broadcasts and coaches tape, the high angle, all-22 recordings that coaching staffs use to analyze future opponents.
Play One – Broadcast
Here is a pre-snap still from the fourth play from scrimmage from the feed shared by the NFL Network and the Fox broadcast network. The Vikings are in a 2nd-and-4 situation on their own 42, having achieved a first down in two plays. They’re in a 12 set, with two tight ends and two receivers, and they’ve overloaded their right side, putting both tight ends and receiver Adam Thielen flanked tight on the right. The Vikings deep threat Stefon Diggs is alone on the left side.
Ten Rams defenders are visible in the frame, but the alignment and depth of Los Angeles’ free safety is not detectable from this shot. The Rams corner covering Diggs on the far side of the field is dropping off the line of scrimmage, after starting in a press look.
The call is a pass, and the broadcast follows the standard practice of tracking the quarterback’s drop. Fox is not zooming in here, but the slight pan left has re-set the right edge of the frame from the Rams’ 49, where it was in the first shot, to the Vikings’ 46.
We can see the Vikings’ running back has released from the backfield and is a back-side, dump-off option. The Vikings have kept both tight ends in to block, giving Cousins a seven-man protection. He’s setting to throw in Thielen’s direction in this still. But where is his target? What pattern has he run? Is he open? We don’t know because he’s not in the shot.
Once Cousins releases his pass the camera performs a quick-twitch dual action. The cameraman pans right, tracking the flight of Cousin’s path. He also zooms in while moving the lens. When Thielen catches the pass we get a much tighter view of the action.
The tight view shows the effectiveness of Cousins’ throw. Rams safety John Johnson (43) is playing underneath coverage so the quarterback must loop his pass over the defender to ensure an effective pass. He does, and Thielen snags a second Vikings first down.
The shot is good at showing us the what – Cousins completed a long pass to Thielen, but it is poor on showing us the how or the why the play succeeded. We don’t know what’s going on downfield until the whip pan on Cousins’ pass brings Thielen into collective view.
Play Four – Coaches Tape
Here is the same play shot on coaches tape. The pre-snap look shows a looser, wider framing. In the network broadcast, the yard markers (the 40 and 50-yard numbers) are visible on the far side of the field. In the coaches tape, both sets of numbers can be seen.
That’s because the priority in coaches tape is not to center the action, but to show all defenders on the field. Here the cameraman sets the left edge of the frame two yards behind the Vikings running back and the right edge of the frame two yards beyond the Rams free safety.
Still, two of the coaches tape shows the primary philosophical difference in how the networks and the league frame their action. The priority for coaches tape is to maintain all 22 competitors in the frame at all times. This requires this cameraman to behave differently.
The action on a pass play is pulling the edges of the frame outward, to the left and to the right. Pre-snap, the Vikings RB was standing on his own 34-yard line. In this still, you can see that Cousins has dropped to his down 33. On the opposite side of the frame, the Rams FS has dropped six yards. He started the play on his own 42. At this moment he is on his own 36 and is dropping.
Consequently, the coaches tape shooter zooms out, to keep the actors within his frame.
This action allows us to see the simplicity and the effectiveness of the route combos the Vikings are running. In the broadcast still, we inferred that the Vikings were in max protection because we could see both tight ends assisting their O-line in pass blocking. Here, we can see that the call is really a two-man route. The RB is a late, safety valve release but Minnesota is running two vertical routes. Diggs is running a dig route, a deep-in at a depth of 18 yards, and Thielen is running a combination route on his side.
Cousins can throw to either target, and both are open on this play, but the primary is Thielen, who is running an out-up-and stop route, also at a depth of 18 yards. In still two, you can see Thielen’s original outbreak, at a depth of 12 yards. His second up-field drive convinces his cornerback that he’s running an out-and-up. Knowing he has no safety help, the cornerback commits to keeping Thielen below him. When the receiver stops his up route at 18 yards, he has a four-yard cushion.
We can also see on the coaches tape how the two-man WR combo aids Thielen. Diggs is a feared deep threat, so his deep in-breaking route keeps the Rams safety planted in the middle of the field. He cannot give his left cornerback assistance until the pass is in the air when it is too late.
Finally, the coaches tape also lets the observer see the coordination required between Cousins and Thielen to make the pattern work. Thielen’s tight route running produced a cushion, but NFL cornerbacks can close and break up passes if they’re late in arriving. We can see in still three that Cousins has released the pass before Thielen makes his final break. Note that as Thielen is planting his right foot and pivoting back towards his quarterback, Cousins is finishing his follow through. The ball is already on its way.
This play works because all of the required elements – the protection, the route running and the timing of the throw, were in sync. All three of these aspects of the play are visible on the coaches tape. Only the protection is visible on the network broadcast’s framing.
An all 22 view gives us a much richer view of the play. Where the network’s tight view delivers the what of each play, an all 22 also adds the how and the why a play succeeded or failed.
That experience can be delivered by two changes in framing and in-play shooting. An off-centered framing, that prioritizes putting all the defenders into the pre-snap frame would let fans see the pre-snap games NFL defenses give to quarterbacks, with the late shifting of linemen and secondary defenders.
Second, resisting a quick zoom in every time the ball is snapped would allow fans to see plays develop, building anticipation of big plays, by either the offense or the defense.
This capability has existed for the last decade. Will the NFL finally give fans at home the experience their exclusive Game Pass subscribers enjoy?
There’s evidence that one of the majors, and some big college broadcasts, are seeing the benefits fans can enjoy with a wider view of the game. In part two, we’ll compare the broadcasts and offer some praise to the trailblazers.