It's the fourth quarter . . . less than four minutes to play. The score is Atlanta 23, Tampa Bay 17. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers need a touchdown to win, but with the ball sitting on their own 29 yard line, the end zone looks a yawning 71 yards away. It's second down and 14 yards to go. What will Tampa Bay quarterback Doug -Williams do?
In this real-life scenario, quarterback Williams called a play that won the game for Tampa Bay - a play based on a pregame consultation with the team's computer.
Computers are becoming standard equipment in the National Football League (NFL), with 11 of 28 teams owning systems. In Tampa Bay's case, a computer had analyzed the last three games of the Atlanta defense, and Williams had studied the results. He knew that in a situation like the one described above, Atlanta's free safety usually rushed in to cover the offensive team's tight end. And sure enough, the safety moved in, leaving Bucs wide receiver Kevin House open to catch Williams's pass and run 79 yards untouched into the end zone. The point after touchdown sailed through the goal posts and Tampa won the game, 24-23.
The Oakland (now Los Angeles) Raiders and San Francisco 49ers used computers tohelp them win the 1980 and '81 championships. When the Cincinnati Bengals installed a system, they went from a below-average team to a berth in last year's Super Bowl. This year, five other teams with newly installed computer systems made the playoffs.
While most credit for the improved records goes to players, coaches, and managers, experts say some credit should go to a team's unheralded 12th player - the electronic wizard on the sidelines.
Hank Stram, former head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs and a pioneer in the use of computers in football, says they will be employed increasingly in the future. ''Within the next 10 years you may see each team with a computer terminal on the sidelines during a game, operated by an assistant coach whose job it will be to provide constant data for coaches on the field,'' he says.
Those who worry about computers replacing coaches shouldn't. ''Computers won't ever replace coaches,'' Mr. Stram says, ''but they are making the game more sophisticated and exciting.''
Stram explains the strategic function: ''The computer is fed all the offensive and defensive plays of an opponent's last three or four games. The computer then consolidates this information and comes up with the opponent's tendencies in specific situations. If you're the offensive coach, you'll know how your opponent sets up the defensive line and under what circumstances, whereas on defense, the computer may tell you that your opponent passes 80 percent of the time on first down beyond his 30 yard line. Knowing this gives your defense an edge.''
Bill Arnsparger, defensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins, agrees with Stram on the usefulness of computers. ''The computer gives us any information that we want. . . . It tells us . . . which receivers are catching the ball, and the patterns they run.''
Before computers arrived on the sidelines, game analysis was done by hand. This meant long hours for the coaches, who worked until midweek compiling information on the next opponent. Now coaches can receive a report on Monday, giving them more time to work with players and develop a game plan.
The Dolphins, the second team after the Dallas Cowboys to suit up a computer, are in their third season with it. Purchasing the software and installing the system cost about $150,000. The computers do everything from analyzing game action for the coaches to ticketing the patrons.
In addition, a Player Personnel computer program lists detailed information on more than 1,000 NFL players, plus many more free agents (players whose contracts have expired, leaving them free to sign on with another team). This program allows coaches to update data on each player, including recent injuries, trades, and performance ratings. ''NFL football is big business today,'' says Dallas Talley, president of MDS Qantel Inc., which handles the NFL's computers and software. ''The computer gives each team control over its business and game operations in a single, in-house system that quickly pays for itself in the time and money that it saves.''
In professional soccer, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers have also introduced computer systems, and other software packages are being designed for college football, major league baseball, and pro basketball.