Scouting Binoculars

On Fandom: Are NFL Fans Finally Seeing the Full Field? Part II

In part one, I made a breezy review of the NFL’s framing patterns, from broadcast in the analog system, where screens had an aspect ratio (width to height) of 4:3.  I showed that centered the ball and the line of scrimmage were the primary patterns.

The NFL has had the opportunity to present off-set framings since American broadcasters went exclusively to HDTV and its wider 16:9 aspect ratio in 2009.

What we see for the most part have been broadcasts that retain the pattern of centering the ball pre-snap.  What’s more, many camera operators begin zooming into the line once the ball is snapped.  This is a useful practice if the offense calls a running play, as unnecessary “dead space” is quickly squeezed from the frame.  On passing plays, however, rapid zooms squeeze out downfield space, depriving views of the chance to see receiving targets run pattern more than five yards downfield.

Here is a quick canvass of framings from the various networks.

NBC Sunday Night Football

Here are some framings from the opening series of the Ravens-Steelers match-up September 30th.  Here is the opening play from scrimmage.  Note how the ball is slightly off-center, allowing all 22 players to be viewed prior to the snap.  The cameraman appears to be taking the same approach we saw in the NFL coaches film from the Vikings-Rams game.  All players are kept in the frame and the camera operator puts about two yards of border between the deepest safety on the left edge of the screen and the running back on the right:

That’s a promising approach if NBC maintains it, but note the framing just 30 seconds later after Baltimore has gained a quick first down.  Here the shooter has skewed the framing towards the defense.  The down is 1st-and-10, meaning the Ravens could run or pass, but in this frame, both Steelers safeties are cut out.  We don’t know what coverage they are showing Joe Flacco.

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One play later, the centered framing is back.  The ball is played in the middle of the screen.  The situation, 2nd-and-7, likely calls for a pass but the centered framing again denies us a look at the Steelers secondary.  Note the five yards of dead space behind the Ravens runner.  Were the framing to slide to the left, that empty space would be eliminated and an all-22 look emerge. 


That network’s top early afternoon match-up pitted the Falcons against the Bengals.  The opening play from scrimmage shows the same centered framing NBC featured.  Ten of the eleven Bengals defenders are visible, but all could be if the framing would work to keep all 22 in the frame.  Here again, centering cuts out the free safety while giving us five empty yards behind the Falcons halfback.

A couple of plays later CBS gives us a true all 22.  That’s more a product of the Bengals coverage, a cover-2 look that put both safeties within 12 yards of the line of scrimmage.  Note that there’s still five yards of empty space behind the Falcons running back.  The framing is again centered.  Cincinnati walked into the frame.  CBS didn’t slide to reveal all of the Bengals’ defenders.


The Outlier – ESPN’s Monday Night Football

That weekend’s Monday night contest featured the Chiefs’ high-test offense against a Broncos squad that has always been potent at home.  At first glance, ESPN seemed to be using the centered approach that CBS, the NFL Network and NBC featured.  Here’s a still from Denver’s opening drive.  The ball is again roughly mid-frame and the Chiefs’ centerfield safety is cut out of the frame.

Note how ESPN changed its framings, staring just two plays later.  Here is a true all-22 look. The ball and line of scrimmage are not centered but are on a third.  There are nine yards of space behind the football and 18 yards of space on the Chiefs side of the line:

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This wasn’t a fluke.  ESPN’s crew repeatedly offered off-set framings, with true all-22 looks.  Check this still from the Chief’s first offensive possession of the night:

Network broadcasts mimic the coaches tape look pre-snap, but they nonetheless shoot plays differently.  None of the broadcasts that I tracked ever zoomed out to maintain an all-22 look, as coaches film does.  That said, ESPN did something its peers did not.  In addition to regularly off-setting the line of scrimmage to include all players, the Monday Night Football crew resisted the tendency to zoom in rapidly after the snap of the football.

Here are two stills from a Chiefs play from that same series that shows how a more static framing on passing plays gives a more comprehensive look at the action.  On this play, the Chiefs put speedy flanker Tyreek Hill (10) in the backfield with QB Patrick Mahomes and RB Kareem Hunt.  The Chiefs want to lure the Denver defense to their left, towards the two wide receivers with a fake screen to Hill.

On the right side of the play, tight end Travis Kelce is going to run a deep seam route, to pull a Broncos linebacker with him.

Kansas City will run a bootleg option to their right after Mahomes fakes the screen to Hill.  They are going to present Denver left end Shane Ray (56) with a dilemma.  If he runs with Hunt (27) who runs into the right flat, he’s leaving the right side of the field for a Mahomes scramble.  If Ray rushed Mahomes, he’s left Hunt uncovered in the flat.

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That’s exactly what happens, as you can see in this final still.  Note that by resisting the tendency to zoom in, we’re allowed to see that Denver is playing man-to-man coverage underneath and that this choice has left them vulnerable to a big play.  You can see Kelce dragging his man far up-field.  Kelce’s defender still has his back to the line while Mahomes is lobbing a short throw to Hunt.

Hunt has a wide open sideline and will run until Kelce’s man breaks off the tight end’s pattern and turns to pursue the back.

It’s not a coaches tape all-22 look, but it’s a pretty good broadcast equivalent.  By showing fans a true all-22 look pre-snap and by resisting a quick zoom in-play, Monday Night Football serves the same function coaches tape does.  It gives fans a much better understanding of why a play succeeded, where old-school framings often only show us what happened on that play.

More of this please – from all the networks.

Rafael Vela

Rafael Vela

Senior Analyst SportsTalkLine at Sports Talk Line
Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for
Rafael Vela