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The Importance of Film Study

What we see on television doesn't begin to tell the real story of the game and what players, coaches and scouts can find out about an offense, defense or an individual player, says Dave Wyman. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

By the time my nine-year NFL career was over, I had watched enough film to make me never want to see another football game as long as I lived. Now, I’d give anything to watch some real game film.

What we see on television doesn’t begin to tell the real story of the game and what players, coaches and scouts can find out about an offense, defense or an individual player.

Game film is shot from two different angles – the sideline view and the end zone view. Every play is displayed first from the sideline and then from the end zone. The two are spliced consecutively so that you see the entire game in that order. The sideline shot is fairly similar to what we all see on television except every player is kept in the frame no matter how far the play stretches down-field. That’s important because coaches scour through an entire film watching each player throughout every play, grading them for the steps they took, the assignment they did or did not fulfill, and the decisions they made. For a linebacker coach like Ken Norton Jr., who is in charge of three players every down, he’ll either watch the entire film three times, or run it back several times per position, per play.

The end zone shot tells a whole different story, especially for the offensive line and the front seven of the defense. It is filmed close up so that you can only see “the box” or the middle part of the field. For a middle linebacker like myself, I would fast forward past the sideline angle and get right to the end zone view. It’s incredibly revealing and that’s where the saying “the big eye in the sky don’t lie” came from. You can see every movement, every step and every running lane close up.

For an interior lineman like DT Alan Branch, it’s everything. “I usually don’t watch the game itself or where the ball goes,” said Branch when asked about his weekly study of opponents. “Sometimes I’ll watch just the first second of a play for five minutes, just so I can see the steps a lineman takes and try to get some kind of an edge or an advantage.” This may sound boring but it can be exciting if you find a “tell” or a consistent indicator that helps you predict what your opponent might do.

As an analyst, I keep all of this in mind and I’m reticent to lay blame when plays break down and things go wrong. What looks like one player’s responsibility, isn’t necessarily so once you see game film. It tells a different story and I try to keep that in mind. As a player, I was very mindful of how everything that I did would look on film. Not only are your teammates and coaches going to see the film, many of your peers around the NFL will see it too. Typically, teams look at the last three games of each opponent they’re about to face. So the Seahawks can count on Green Bay, Carolina and Detroit (Atlanta’s next three opponents) all seeing Sunday’s film.

Thom Fermstead, the Seahawks video director, has shot every game and nearly every single practice since the inception of the team in 1976. I interviewed him back in 2004 and we figured that at that time, he had shot close to 3,500 practices and over 600 games including pre-season, regular season and playoff games. Headed into the Seahawks 36th year, that pushes those numbers up to approximately 4,200 and 725 respectively. Talk about being sick of film!

Technology has taken quantum leaps in those 36 years. “Fermie” used to have to travel into Spokane (when they had practices in Cheney) or Seattle to get film developed. Today, it can be downloaded onto all sorts of portable devices and sent home with the players immediately. During the pre-season this year, I saw players looking at game film on laptops during the plane ride home from Denver.

The computer age allows coaches to access much more information in far less time. I remember watching short highlight reels of film that were specific offensive formations or down and distance situations called “cut-ups.” So called because in the 1980’s, they literally were clips of 16mm film that were cut and then spliced together in order to make a highlight reel. Today, there is software that recalls every 1st-and-10 play or every red zone (inside the 20-yard line) play from a period of time that is specified and then recalled immediately.

Add “paralysis by analysis” to today’s list of jargon. With all of this information so readily available, there is a point of diminishing returns. Coaches have to determine how much is too much information.

As for Fermstead, don’t think that he is just filming practice – he’s also watching and paying close attention. “All of this technology has made the game way too complicated,” said Fermstead. “You still have to just go out and execute and make plays.”

Profound words of wisdom from someone who has, as far as the Seahawks are concerned, seen it all!