They make football at the Wilson factory in Ada, Ohio. And since 2017, they’ve made them a little different for the NFL.
A football with regulation size weighs 400 grams (please save us your Deflategate jokes). Melted into the football bladder is a piece of nickel-sized technology that weighs as much as 4 grams. The Radio Frequency Identification Tag (RFID) sends signals to receiver boxes set up in each NFL Stadium and measurements such as altitude and speed and even revolutions per second. Minutes are measured for each roll in each game.
Zebra Technologies is entering its eighth season in partnership with the NFL, and the data that ultimately makes the league the next gene statistic comes from tags in football, individual player shoulder pads, first-down markers and pylons.
And in reporting this story, what I found is that the future of NFL data collection and analysis is hard to predict.
“Where things can go with the data,” says Matt Swennson, the NFL’s VP of new products and technology, “you can get pretty broad pretty fast.”
Computer-controlled player tracking in the NFL, as we know it today, is entering its teens. The league experimented with optical tracking as early as 2009, but it proved ineffective for wide-scale collection. After the conclusion of the CBA 2011, both the Players’ Association and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell showed great interest in diving into player tracking in earnest. In the 2014 season, the league had partnered with Zebra thanks to its extensive background in RFID technology in retail, manufacturing and warehousing environments.
The development and improvement of this data has been removed. In 2015, all venues hosting NFL games were equipped with RFID receivers. Balls started being tagged in 2016, but just for preseason games and Thursday Night Football. Each club then started getting their own game data, and the league started putting more on its front-facing Next Gen Stats website. More advanced statistics came in 2017 using Amazon’s cloud computing services, and in 2018 the league provided all game data to all clubs each week, while implementing the new kickoff rules that banned kickers from getting a running start after, in part, seeing player speeds from tags and match it with concussion data.
It was around this point that John Pollard, Zebra’s VP of Business Development, saw a turning point among fans and the media in their collective acceptance of miles per hour as a football state. We became more comfortable with the idea of how fast 19 MPH actually was and that a quarterback who reached a top speed of 21.23 MPH is really fast.
“Eight to ten years ago, none of us would have thought that miles per hour would be a measure of any consideration in American football,” Pollard says. “Over the last two to three years, all the TV partners have become much more comfortable and fluid in the tracking data, utilizing it in the process of adding new dimensions to storytelling in a game.
“I would especially like to say that in the last two seasons we have worked very closely to try to find new project opportunities – things that I can not talk about specifically today – that we are working on to help support game plan evaluation, games operational processes and team processes as well. “
In order not to keep you in suspense through this piece, let’s go ahead and get this out of the way. If there are markers in football and pylons and first-down sticks, are we heading for an electronic first down or touchdown?
The answer: potentially, yes. But no time soon.
“Inevitably, people consistently ask about ball placement,” Pollard says. “Is it possible that RFID technologies, other technologies, can help support game management processes? Yes, it is technically possible. Technology can provide additional benefits, and there are opportunities for that. What it is, we are still in a period with discovery and consideration. But in terms of accuracy and location, we’re pretty close. “
RFID can be accurate within approx. 3 inches, which is much more accurate than GPS tracking. But it still needs to be more precise to dictate what is or is not a first down in a game like the 2017 Cowboys-Raiders competition, where our very own Gene Steratore took the unusual step of placing a folded index card at the end of football for to confirm his call.
Plus, the mark in the ball does not indicate when a knee or elbow is down. And of course, you can not feel body parts on every player. Some kind of optical tracking – like Hawk-Eye in tennis – would be needed for RFID tags in balls and markers.
“I think it’s possible. It’s not possible today,” Swennson said. “I think it comes through a combination of optical and camera-based feeds with tracking data. And then we come to a level of precision that we are comfortable with. We just are not there yet.”
OK, so what is being done? And what can be done? Especially when the league shows 200 different measurements per game?
We can all see the forward-looking measurements they release on the Next Gen Stats website, and so many of these statistics have been integrated into broadcasts and video tables at the stadium. Rush efficiency measures the total distance traveled by a ball carrier toward rushing yards (a list a north-south runner that Gus Edwards tops almost annually.) Air Yards to Sticks uses RFID tags in the first markers to see where far the ball traveled in relation to the sticks. The passing aggression measurement utilizes tags in the ball, receiver, and defender to see how closely the intended target was covered at the time it was deemed to be catchable.
But there is a wealth of information that the media and the public do not see. The day after any game, all 32 clubs receive a data dump from the previous day’s game. And they can use the useful tools from the league and / or take the entire fixed sum of data and have their employees run their own analysis on it. (The Titans have been the only team in the league without an employee with “analytics” in their title, although that seems to change shortly after posting and data analysis position in June.)
“There are two kinds of mechanisms by which clubs interact with the data,” Swennson says. “There’s the raw side where they can take all the information, where they have some special tools they’ve built internally. But then we as a league give them a tool to go through and see each game. They can scrub through the tracking data. “is synchronized. up with video and can see all the different statistics generated for that game. And then we have aggregate information, whether it’s at team or player level, that they can also watch.”
NFL clubs are wildly protective of their analytical departments, but here are some examples of the possibilities:
- Do you want to help your pro human resources department? Do your special team shooters not get to the returnee as fast as you want? Clear the data for some of the league’s fastest shooters that could be cut for some reason, then select the player from the exceptions.
- Need to reinforce what your quarterback or offensive coordinator is watching on film, all while making the quality control coach’s life a little easier? Develop warm-ms of schematic tendencies for defensive players to show what security does in a particular situation that is down and away.
Even officials are tagged in games to help the league assess their game performance for classification and training assistance.
Deciding what to publish in relation to keeping private is a delicate balance that the NFL must maintain in terms of both competition edges and the unknown sports bets.
“Our goal is to maintain a fair and balanced game, so that’s a top priority for us. And that’s true since day one of this initiative,” said Swennson. “And I mentioned how we slowly rolled data not only to our team but also the fans. For my team, the bar is high when we make sure that when we do statistics, the connections are there. It’s statistical and mathematical to see, “This is a real trend and not an anomaly. Because it’s the players’ careers. A fair game is important to us.”
Boldmetrics is what has fascinated me the most. The league and its clubs now have four seasons of ball tracking data that include altitude, speed and speed. If you were a team with an aging quarterback who was expected to be located in New Orleans, for example, you would have been able to track the force with which he threw football throughout the season and over a number of years.
Similarly, if you were a team in Tampa Bay interested in acquiring a free agent quarterback who had spent his entire career in New England and wondered if he still had the juice, you had access to three years of data. (I made a request with the Buccaneers to see if they did this with Tom Brady, and surprisingly, I did not hear back in one way or another.)
Pollard calls it a “more guarded proach with this capacity.” Swennson notes that it is important to understand which narratives can be offset in a data set that may be incomplete. In a sample that is not large enough, the spin speed may give you the style of a game, but not necessarily for a player. Could a lower spin speed mean a dead arm or just a more finesse?
All that being said, official statistics ball statistics are underway in the near future. And the league still has some time to make sure something similar is ready for the season.
“We have a couple of stats that I don’t want to reveal them yet, and they’re still on the way,” Swennson says. “There were statistics that we seemed to launch in a year, and we did not. And it goes back to your point, how careful we are. We do not do it to do that. At this point, we have plenty. of statistics and content that I think is good for fans to dive into.
“When we create a state, if we do not feel it is ready or has the context that we want it to have, we will not put it out there. While we work on things around the ball, the speed of the ball, and how it can get back to a certain style of play or certain results, we just have to cross Ts and prick the Ice. “