Tech support staffers star in NFL's offseason

Detroit Lions executive vice president and general manager Bob Quinn speaks during a Feb. 25 press conference at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. General managers around the league ran their drafts virtually without a hitch last month, thanks largely to the work and ingenuity of their information technology staffs. (AP file photo)


AP Pro Football Writer

MINNEAPOLIS — Like a principal walking through a hushed hallway on the first day of school, Cheryl Nygaard felt the emotional surge of relief and pride last week as the Minnesota Vikings director of information technology peeked in on the video conference sessions set up for this most unusual NFL offseason.

“We had all of the players and coaches set up in their virtual classrooms, and that whole process just went off without a hitch. That’s when it kind of just hit me,” Nygaard said, adding: “They were able to continue working as if we were in the office.”

Thanks in no small part to the effort and ingenuity of these often overlooked technical support staffs, the process of player acquisition and development around this schedule-driven, structure-oriented league has pressed on this spring despite the closure of team facilities due to the virus spread.

Quarterbacks normally have the market cornered on Most Valuable Player awards, but let’s face it: The front-runners for 2020 work in IT.

“The unsung heroes in all of this,” Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said.

Just like in so many other workplaces during these stay-at-home days, maintaining smooth connections for disconnected employees is a vital job. The difference in the NFL? Some of them were on national television.

Detroit Lions director of information technology Steve Lancaster spent the three-day draft in a rented recreational vehicle parked in general manager Bob Quinn’s driveway, on call for socially distanced technical support.

“Bob said, ‘Hey, in five minutes, you’re going to be famous,'” Lancaster said, recalling the first-round TV coverage of the RV. “From the rest of the day and then into the second day, the phone was buzzing constantly from text messages and calls. I had fun with it, though.”

Jacksonville Jaguars vice president of technology Mike Webb was stationed during the draft at general manager Dave Caldwell’s house, six feet apart in the same room. Webb wore a mask, had his own bathroom and sanitized every surface he touched.

“I thought it was him being a little cautious, and then I talked to some other people and they said, ‘Oh, yeah, Dave has some germophobic tendencies,'” Webb said.

The GM and his wife and son had been strictly abiding by public health guidelines for avoiding the virus, he told Webb, making clear the Caldwell family was not contributing to any spread.

“No pressure there,” Webb said.

At one point, with about 90 seconds left on the clock for the Jaguars to turn in a pick, Caldwell inadvertently knocked one of his computer connections off line with a paper notebook on his desk. Order was quickly restored.

“It’s the most critical time-sensitive thing I’ve been involved in,” Webb said. “Multiple times, it was touch and go.”