Quarterback Nick Foles shakes his head at his NovaCare Complex locker, counting the hours silently in his brain. He’s been asked to guess how many hours each week he spends watching film, and it’s very difficult to come up with anything close to an exact answer.
“There’s a lot of it, of course,” he said. “Every morning, we meet early and go to our quarterbacks room and that’s what we do. We watch film. We look for things. And then we have meetings when we aren’t practicing and we watch more.
“It’s a lot, I know that. It takes up so much of the day. At night, I can’t do it. My brain just doesn’t work that way at night.”
As blessed as these elite athletes are with their physical gifts, the mental side of the game is often what separates those who make it from those who don’t. Film study is a must. Being good at it and knowing what you’re looking at it is essential.
It’s not a lot of fun, but it’s part of the everyday routine.
“I probably watch two hours a day on my own in addition to the meetings. We probably have three hours of meetings every day,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "It’s a fun way for me to unwind. There’s a picture in my head that I develop over the course of the week where I’m not really sure of the game plan early in the week, I’m not really sure what positions I’ll be in, so I want to become familiar with the opponent.
"Then we’ll break things down and I’ll continue to watch the games over and over and play it in my head, so by the time we get to Saturday, the day before the game, I have a super-clear picture of what situation we’ll be in, what coverage, where I’ll be at on each and every snap. I’ll watch film over and over until that picture becomes clear.”
There are exceptions, of course. Punter Donnie Jones jokes that he hasn’t even unlocked his tablet in his career. Film study? That’s not his game.
“It’s a feel thing for me,” he says, laughing.
But for most players, it’s required viewing. Defensive players off the line of scrimmage have the responsibility of watching everything an opposing offense has employed during the course of a season or, in some cases, throughout a career. They look at personnel groupings, formations, routes, and tendencies. They try to pick up cadences from the quarterback. Any subtle move is noted.
“You’re learning something new all the time. Guys who have been in this league as long as I have been, I’m 27 years old now, and guys who are older than me still tell me they learn something new every day,” linebacker Mychal Kendricks said. “I think I became good at it, honestly, I would say my third year. I got to the point where I could actually start keying in and learning things on my own, little nuances that I see. It’s really just philosophy. I used to think that things were only a certain way, but as you get older and you learn this game a little bit more you understand that it’s just preference and philosophy.”
Each player has his own password-protected tablet loaded with specific video that pertains to the picture that he will see in the game ahead. And while the days in the NovaCare Complex are structured to include meetings during which film is watched, players take their work home as well.
A favorite sitcom? Doesn’t happen much during the season. Players are into their own kind of video.
“I could be doing anything while I’m watching film,” wide receiver Alshon Jeffery said. “I could be soaking in the tub with my tablet watching film. I don’t know how many hours, but I feel like once I’ve got an opponent down pat, I’m working on me. I visualize and think about the plays we’re going to run. I watch everything. It’s an important part of making it at this level.
"I’ve learned over time to be good at it from teammates and coaches. What are they looking at? What are they seeing?”
Offensive tackle Lane Johnson and his linemates watch film with coach Jeff Stoutland for three hours a day, five days a week before games. That’s a lot of film. That’s a ton to digest. Johnson will then watch another 45 minutes or so each night on his own, studying the men he expects to see across the line of scrimmage from him on gamedays.
Johnson, by the time the ball is kicked off, has a tremendously clear vision of what to expect.
“I watch a lot of pass-rushing moves and technique on my own,” Johnson said. “I don’t concern myself with the running game too much because we work off of what (center Jason) Kelce’s call is on that particular play.”
Tight end Trey Burton acknowledges that defensive players watch more than most offensive players, simply because they have to see everything. Burton isn’t watching every part of a defense. He knows his assignments and he knows the positional players who are going to line up against him.
Plus, for Burton, there is a sense of “reaction” that he prefers in a game.
“That is big for me, so I don’t want to overflood myself with tendencies and things like that,” he said. “I like to go out and play football.”
Safety Rodney McLeod, like Jenkins, must have a clear vision of the opponent’s offense, so he’s got a very specific routine that includes notes that must match up with the video he’s watching. Technology enables the players to watch all they want as creatively as they want to be.
“I’ll watch the last three games of a team on Monday and Tuesday and then once we get to gameplan Tuesday, I’ll prepare a day ahead,” McLeod said. “So I’ll watch first and second down Tuesday nights, because we practice that on Wednesday, then I’ll watch third downs on Wednesday, and red zone on Thursday night. Then I’ll pick out some games and watch the first half of those games and then more red zone.
“I’m surprised sometimes, but most of the time I’m completely prepared and I see on the field what I’ve seen studying film. That’s when you play your best football. I never go into a game thinking I haven’t prepared enough. That’s my responsibility.”
How important is watching film? It’s vital. Every player is talented in the NFL, as we know. The mind game can provide the edge.
Jenkins credits watching video – it was tape in the old, old days and then film in the old days and now it’s video – for making him a Pro Bowl player.
“I watched film a lot as a young player but I didn’t necessarily know how to watch it and some former teammates in New Orleans taught me the way to do it, the process it requires, to really learn from it,” Jenkins said, crediting former Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive back Roman Harper for their guidance. “I am rarely surprised on the field. I wouldn’t be close to the player I am without watching it. I always say that film study is 80 percent of my game.”