Lions iPad-ding high-tech knowledge

The joke around the B.C. Lions a few years ago was that the reason they hired staffers for the technology side of the operation was so as to help Wally Buono locate the on button on his office computer.

Look at Buono, and everyone else in the CFL for that matter, now.

During their home opener against Calgary last week, the oldest head coach in pro football was spotted taking a quick peek or two at the real-time images of recent plays being allowed on sideline iPads for the first time.

While most fans of three-down football have debated the merits of various rule changes through the first month of the new season, players and coaches are heralding the advent of a bylaw bringing the league further into the new millennium with a change potentially greater than any other. It’s also prompted other players and coaches, notably on defence, to urge the league to go even further.

“It’s awesome; absolutely huge,” said quarterback Jon Jennings, who’ll often have his hands on one of the new devices allowed this year.

The league’s competition committee had been tossing around the idea for a few years to allow the portable devices but first opted to allow teams to insert speakerphones in the helmets of quarterbacks. It was a cost issue then, according to Buono, a member of the league’s select committee, and it remains a reason why it wasn’t done before now.

But the Lions can already point to a single regular season game and identify at least three pass completions made by Jennings against Calgary they claim came as a result of the quarterback making adjustments because of what he had just seen on the sidelines, not told by his offensive assistant coaches on the sidelines or spotter’s booth.

“We’re coaching every second now with real information. We’re not guessing,” said offensive line coach Dan Dorazio. “When the (Calgary) game was over with I didn’t know we had three punts blocked. My eyes are looking at them pictures. That gives you an example of what the iPads do for us. We’ve made our CFL game better for everyone.”

On that score, it can also be said the rulers of three-down football have even made the game better than the technology currently being employed in the NFL.

CFL teams are getting streamed replays on the sidelines less than 30 seconds after the whistle. The NFL received $400 million from Microsoft over five years in 2013 to provide teams with technology using its Surface tablets, but until only recently provided still pictures and discovered it didn’t often work in bad weather. Even worse, many NFL coaches refer to their new technology as an Apple product.

“How about us, huh?” said quarterback Travis Lulay, justifiably boastful of the technological advantage. “This is a huge change that hasn’t been talked about a lot.”

The start of a new season has brought about another onslaught of gadgetry which may or may not actually result in results in the standings.



In Toronto, the Argos have bought into GPS technology enabling coaches to track the workload they put on players at practice. At Lions training camp in Kamloops this year, defensive coaches rolled out a large ring (see photo, above) which aided defensive players to improve tackling skills.

Naturally, there’s much more to be discovered in the U.S. One device being used at several NFL camps is a football that emits a whistle when not carried properly, an attempt to reduce fumbles. Another NFL team recently tested a robotic tackling dummy. 

With all this high-tech stuff available for the right price there are those in search of a level playing field. Defensive players and coaches in the CFL are thrilled to have iPad replays at their disposal. They’d also like what offensive players have on the field in the form of a speakerphone that would allow coaches to signal in defensive formations as quickly as is currently being conveyed to quarterbacks.

The Lions, for example, are convinced opponents have taken to filming their defensive signals, which is why they have switched to a combination of methods in order for defensive coordinator Mark Washington to get his play-call message understood. Included in that package is a large sign held by a practice roster player or aide carrying a single letter of the alphabet.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous that the offence doesn’t have to signal in a play where defence have to signal the call,” Lions linebacker Adam Bighill said. “We’ve added more reviewers in the (press) box. We have concussion and injury spotters; we’re adding valuable pieces. Let’s complete this thing. Let’s not be half-in.”

The Lions have been all-in on technology for a while and were given a huge boost last year when former coach Jeff Tedford made the initial outlay to buy 100 iPads for the organization, much as other CFL teams had done, for use in off-day film study. Small wonder players and coaches are constantly looking at their iPads like most commuters are buried in their smartphones.

Validation is instant, they say, and no longer leaves them envious of the biggest pro football league on the planet.

“It was frustrating,” Dorazio said. “I remember six years ago we had a young o-line; we’re playing Saskatchewan and (former defensive coordinator) Gary Etcheverry was doing a bunch of things (on the line of scrimmage). I’d ask our guys after they come off the field which (player) number they were blocking, and they’d give me numbers that didn’t even exist. We aint got to worry about that anymore.”

Indeed, Buono has found the on-switch on his laptop. The Lions and their CFL rivals are off in search of new technological frontiers.

Lowell Ullrich has covered the Lions since 1999 and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2014. He is also a contributor to TSN1040.