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CBS sideline reporter Evan Washburn reported that the team was having technical difficulties and the tablets had been knocked offline. “On the last defensive possession the Patriots’ coaches did not have access to those tablets to show pictures to their players,” Washburn said on the broadcast.
The malfunction left New England without high-tech play books for at least one possession, though some of the devices returned to working order shortly thereafter. Washburn reported there was “a lot of frustration that they didn’t have them on that last possession.”
Much of the Internet placed the blame on Microsoft, the makers of the tablets that have been shoved into the hands of coaches, players, and commentators alike thanks to a $400 million partnership started in 2013.
Despite the prominent placement, the devices only ever seem to generate attention when something bad happens. The Surface tablets took the spotlight earlier this year when Johnny Manziel shook one like an Etch-a-Sketch, and when a frustrated Aaron Rodgers decided to spike one like he had just scored a touchdown.
Easy as it is to blame the Patriots’ problems on Surface tablets, this one probably isn’t on Microsoft.
A spokesperson for Microsoft told the Daily Dot that the company’s team on the field “confirmed the issue was not related to the tablets themselves but rather an issue with the network.”
“We worked with our partners who manage the network to ensure the issue was resolved quickly,” the spokesperson said—and by most accounts that seems to be what happened. The issue was short-lived and the Patriots regained access to at least some of their tablets following the drive that they had to fly blind.
Vice President of Communications at National Football League Brian McCarthy confirmed this assessment. In an email to the Daily Dot, McCarthy said there was an “infrastructure issue” on the Patriots sideline near the end of the first quarter, but it was resolved shortly thereafter. “The issue was identified as a network cable malfunction and was resolved during the 2nd quarter. The issue was not caused by the tablets or the software that runs on the tablets.”
McCarthy said the league “experienced no issues with the tablets this season,” and that “any issues were network related.”
That explanation makes more sense than the possibility that New England’s tablets all stopped at the exact same time. It might seem suspicious that the issue only affected the visiting team’s sideline, but those issues have happened throughout the year.
New York Giants offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz tweeted “those tablets always malfunction” during the game on Sunday, which is evidence of the ongoing issues and likely a tweet the NFL will urge him to delete at some point.
Those tablets always malfunction.
— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) January 24, 2016
Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, said after the game that issues with the Surface tablets are “pretty common.”
“We’ve had it at home, we’ve had it on the road. Other teams have had it. It’s a fairly common problem,” Belichick said, though he did insist that the issues “didn’t affect the outcome of the game.” He said the team reverts to standard, printed photos when the tablets fail, calling the pictures, “more dependable.”
Again, most of these problems likely have nothing to do with the tablets themselves. Football players and coaches are professionals in their field, but not in tech support. Pretty much any device put in that situation—one where it’s required to connect to shaky technological infrastructure in an enclosed space with cell phone signals flying from 80,000 fans—and it’s going to fail from time to time.
The thing is, Microsoft paid $400 million to act as the scapegoat for any technological malfunction that happens during the game, making it the cheapest iPad advertisement Apple has ever made. Who are fans going to blame: The nameless figures who wired the stadium or the bright blue, holdable billboards with the words “Microsoft Surface” plastered on them that are in every shot of the sideline?
Of course there are a few who don’t believe Microsoft or the company behind the wireless network at Sports Authority Field at Mile High are at fault; they’ve already started floating the conspiracy theory that the NFL intentionally killed the Patriots’ tablets to get Peyton Manning one last Super Bowl appearance.
Odds are exceedingly low that would be the case, especially given how generally unpleasant it’s been to watch Manning’s noodle arm attempts to float ducks to his wide receivers.
Plus, the league would have to throw Microsoft under the bus along the way to make that work. There’s no way the NFL would do that to a major sponsor.
Photo via Jason Howie/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
AJ Dellinger is a seasoned technology writer whose work has appeared in Digital Trends, International Business Times, and Newsweek. In 2018, he joined Gizmodo as the nights and weekend editor.