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From 8 mm film to tablets, Cardinals assistant has witnessed NFL evolution

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Tom Pratt came one game from coaching in Super Bowl I and 50 (0:57)

Arizona Cardinals assistant Tom Pratt coached in Super Bowl I but was lured out of a life of traveling to come within one game of coaching in Super Bowl 50. (0:57)

TEMPE, Ariz. -- When Tom Pratt sat to watch a rare replay of Super Bowl I a few weeks ago, he noticed how the game has changed in the past 50 years.

It didn't come as a surprise to him. Now an assistant for the Arizona Cardinals, Pratt, 80, coached in Super Bowl I, directing the defensive line for the Kansas City Chiefs, who lost to the Green Bay Packers on Jan. 15, 1967.

But watching it helped Pratt appreciate how the game has evolved. Rules have changed to favor the offense. And in addition to players becoming bigger, stronger and faster, they don't need to get an offseason job to make ends meet.

"But when you get down to it, the players still prevail," Pratt said. "It's still a players' game. They still adjust to the rules."

If the football gods liked a good story, the Cardinals would have beaten the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship Game. It would have set up Pratt, the octogenarian whom Cardinals coach Bruce Arians lured out of a semi-retirement, to coach in Super Bowl 50.

Pratt coached under the legendary Hank Stram with the Chiefs in Super Bowl I. While the Chiefs lost that game, they won Super Bowl IV to give Pratt a Super Bowl ring.

"The most important thing about both those games that I've been involved with, or close to involved with now, has been the team itself," Pratt said. "In Kansas City, it was the Chiefs and our goal to win the American Football League championship.

"And then the Super Bowl was something that was being hyped. At that point, nobody really knew. We wanted to line up against the NFL and find out if we're the same people playing against each other. Of course, the National Football League has been around for so many years."

And it's still going, just like Pratt. And as the game has evolved, so has Pratt.

He has learned how to embrace technology as it has changed and subsequently shaped the game.

The Chiefs began using computers in the late 1960s, Pratt said. Every week they would have their breakdowns -- offensive, defensive and special teams -- shipped to a person in Los Angeles. He would input them to his computer and return the information by Tuesday, printed on the old-school computer paper with perforated edges.

"This was going to change our lives as coaches," Pratt said. "It was going to give us more free time, and we would be able to accomplish so much more with the computers.

"Well, come to find out, the computers probably made more work because we were able to [look at it and say], 'Whoa, look at this. Let's follow that up.' So instead of cutting work down, it really probably gave us more opportunities to dig deeper into the game preparation."

Digesting and dissecting all the information he could get his hands on was easy compared with the process of breaking down film around the time of Super Bowl I.

Pratt used to cut and splice 8mm film with glue to form the cut-ups coaches needed to study. When it was time to ship the tape to the next team, the coaches would have to splice the game film together in its original order.

Today, Pratt gets his film sent to him on his tablet. He wears an Apple Watch and has an iPhone. He uses a dictation headset to transcribe his notes. He is constantly watching film on his computer.

But there are times when the 80-year-old in Pratt shows.

Every Monday morning during the season, Pratt sits with defensive coordinator James Bettcher and goes over handwritten notes in which he breaks down the upcoming offense and quarterback.

"I tell him, 'Coach, you know you can print this,'" Bettcher said. "He said, 'Oh, this is what I do.'"

Bettcher said Pratt has the energy of coaches half his age. He's at work by 6 a.m. and walks up to four times a week, traveling anywhere from 1½ to 3 miles.

Cardinals Pro Bowl defensive tackle Calais Campbell said when he met Pratt in 2013, one of the first things he noticed was Pratt's age. But Campbell also knew that with age comes experience. And with that experience comes credibility, Bettcher said.

"All guys care about: Can you help me get better? Can you help me be a better player?" Bettcher said. "He's still a student of the game because obviously the game has evolved since Super Bowl I, from a fundamental technique, things that helped guys become great defensive linemen.

"He still helps guys get better. To me, to be able to do that for a half of a century is unbelievable."

There isn't much Pratt hasn't seen in 59 years of coaching.

When he relays his findings from breaking down tape, he doesn't do it in a quantitative way, Bettcher said. He gives his linemen practical, tangible advice, such as which offensive linemen are soft against power-rushes or which offensive linemen will give a soft shoulder. When Pratt watches film on offenses, he finds areas that his players' specific skills can exploit, Campbell said.

Every Thursday for 15 minutes, he shares his findings with outside linebackers and the defensive line in a pass-rush meeting. Usually, Pratt hands out a sheet of paper with stats and the game plan.

"He'll tell me, 'Hey, try to do this because it might work against this guy,'" Campbell said. "He studies my game. He knows what I do well a lot, and he'll tell me to do certain moves I do well in situations. He always has a game plan's weakness, something I should try to do.

"He doesn't force things on you, but he gives you insight. You have to respect his knowledge. He's been around for a long time."

Said Arians: "He can look at a guy's body type and give him some stuff that fits for them because he's coached so many guys."

One reason Pratt has been able to stay relevant is because, despite football's evolution, it really hasn't changed much. When the Chiefs and Packers squared off in the Los Angeles Coliseum on Jan. 15, 1967, it was a matchup of two drastically different styles. NFL teams ran the ball, AFL teams passed. Pratt has a theory as to why: Teams in the NFL had a tendency to recycle coaches, so new concepts were rarely, if ever, introduced. The AFL had more college coaches entering the professional ranks. They brought their innovative styles with them, including more intricate passing schemes.

The zone-read and spread-option offenses that teams are running today are derivatives of the midline and triple-option schemes that Pratt faced early in his career, Bettcher said.

"He's just comparing it to what he saw in 1960," he said.

When the time's right, Bettcher said, Pratt can weave a good story.

In 1967, he worked for a league that hosted its first championship in a stadium in Los Angeles that was two-thirds full. It was a league that didn't allow offensive and defensive linemen to extend their arms when blocking, didn't pay its players well enough to keep them from having offseason jobs and didn't want their players lifting weights in the offseason. Now he works in the multibillion dollar, year-round national phenomenon the NFL has become, peaking with a title game that's more Hollywood than football.

And Pratt's been there for it all.

He was one game from being one of the Super Bowl's best storylines, but it wouldn't have happened had Arians not lured Pratt out of retirement.

"I knew he had so much to give," Arians said. "It's just a natural."

It's a dichotomy: An 80-year-old teaching new things about a child's game to 20- and 30-year olds. But Pratt has proved that age is just a number. It's his experience that counts.

"It's just crazy how it's evolved, and to be able to keep pace with it, and not just keep pace but be ahead of the pace and do it at the level he's been doing it," Bettcher said. "I don't know [how he does it], but I want some of that."