Why the NFL Is Primed for a Technological Revolution

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystMay 31, 2015

DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 09:  A detailed view of the Microsoft Surface on the Cleveland Browns bench during the preseason game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on August 9, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. The Lions defeated the Browns 13-12 in a preseason game.  (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Leon Halip/Getty Images

The NFL is a slow-moving machine by today’s standards. It didn’t upgrade to high-definition “All-22” coaching film until 2013, even though most colleges and many high schools had already invested in it. The league signed an exclusive deal with Microsoft to use Surface tablets on the sidelines but limited them to still images only. It also still use chains to measure 10 yards and is so far resistant to goal-line cameras.

There is enormous unrealized potential in how the league can use technology to enhance the game, which means a revolution is just around the corner. The technology exists; it just hasn't made its way into the NFL yet.

For as slow as the league can be, teams have been quicker to adopt game-changing technology, but it’s still fragmented, used sparingly or limited. Most playbooks are now on Apple iPads and players can watch game film on them, but few teams have moved past that.

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - JANUARY 06:  A drone films aerial coverage of the ground during day four of the Second Test match between New Zealand and Sri Lanka at Basin Reserve on January 6, 2015 in Wellington, New Zealand.  (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Im
Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Recently, the Dallas Cowboys enlisted the help of Southern Methodist University’s football department to fly drones at practice to capture video from above the field, per Todd Archer of ESPN.com. Drones bring the video closer to the action, which gives the coaches a valuable coaching aid.

Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett explained the benefits to Archer: 

It’s interesting because it gives you the chance from behind to see all 11 guys on offense and all 11 guys on defense but from a closer angle. This allows you to get a little closer so you can coach better. You can see hand placement. You see where they have their feet, where they have their eyes. I think that’s important. You can look at that and coach them better being that much closer to the action.

SMU head coach Chad Morris detailed how he is using the drone video to enhance training and coaching, via the SMU Mustangs' YouTube:

We use it as a simulator. We get into the film room and it’s almost as if it’s eye-level with the quarterbacks. They’re being able to see the whole thing. For example, you’ll be in a simulator, sitting in the film room, your almost eye level (and) able to see everything. We take our drop and whatever (the quarterback’s) read is, he’ll have Tennis ball in his hand…if the read expands, he’ll throw a Tennis ball into the wall right where it’s supposed to be. It’s a lot of interaction. These kids grow up in a video game phase, they play video games all the time, so we’ve got to try to make it a video game.

Drones, helmet cameras, GPS systems, RFID tags, body-temperature probes, instant video and other technologies aren’t yet fully integrated into the NFL, but the teams that adopt them early are going to be at an advantage. Morris is using drone video as a crude simulator, but that’s just the start. Technology will eventually change the way teams practice.

Just as smartphones replaced GPS devices, the Rolodex, mobile gaming systems, pocket cameras, scanners, notebooks, voice recorders, personal radios and iPods, the more technology can be integrated, the more powerful it will become. A beta football simulator is possible just with the technology that’s currently in use, and the NFL has the resources to put it all together and make it work.

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton predicts that rookie quarterbacks might train like pilots in the future, using simulators for virtual snaps, per Tom Taylor of Sports Illustrated.

“One of the challenges in football is it’s hard to get the quarterback enough playing time,” Payton said.

It’s already possible to play golf on a virtual course mapped by drones and get detailed information about your swing and the flight of the ball—all for about $30,000. Imagine integrating technology like that with RFID and GPS data from players and the ball, a team’s playbook, drone video and video from helmet cameras and you might get a sense of where technology can take football.

The Carolina Panthers are already using GPS technology as a training aid for injury prevention, per ESPN.com's David Newton, as are many teams, but that’s just the start of how the technology can be used.

“As soon as we got on that GPS and really understood what it was telling us ... we were pretty stinking healthy at the end of the year," Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman told Newton.

With enough GPS data, teams could conceivably create an algorithm to tell them how a safety might react to a certain play when he’s in a certain position on the field or which defender to target based on fatigue. Teams could also use it to make sure play calls are unpredictable or to judge the effectiveness of receivers based on the type of route.

Drone video and helmet cameras like Schutt Vision can tell teams the “why” behind the numbers in ways that the current All-22 simply can’t. That why is important, because the data isn’t limited to just GPS.

RFID technology is already in use in the NFL; we just haven’t seen what the league plans to do with it. Last season, the NFL installed the technology in 18 stadiums and is expanding it league-wide in 2015, according to SI's Taylor. The San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints are also using the technology on the practice field, per Taylor.

Zebra Technologies, the company the NFL has commissioned to help roll out the technology, is a company that uses RFIDs for supply-chain logistics and inventory tracking. The technology is already so ubiquitous for those purposes, Zebra had no problem using it to track players, officials and the chainsand in the Pro Bowl, they even tracked the football with an accuracy of less than six inches.

“People talk about the NFL being a scale problem,” said Jill Stelfox, vice President and general manager of Location Solutions (part of Zebra), to Taylor. “For us, it’s easy.”

The RFID chips are equipped with Bluetooth, so they could eventually transmit information from biometric sensors. Players' core body temperature could be measured with a tiny thermometer they swallow before the game. Their heart rate and rate of perspiration could be measured with sensors they stick on their skin. Accelerometers in helmets could provide a closer look at concussion-related forces, and that data could be beamed to the sidelines instantly to tell doctors to check a player’s cognitive function.

GPS and RFID are just the tip of the iceberg. STATS LLC has a product called SportVU that records the movement of every player on a basketball court with video cameras that cost $100,000 per year, per Zach Lowe of Grantland.

The data not only tracks player movements, but it also calculates the ideal position for defenders. One early finding, per Lowe, was that players needed to be more aggressive on help defense. As NBA teams collect more data, insights like those are only going to improve.

Imagine how that kind of insight might revolutionize defense in the NFL. Perhaps teams might realize that they should bring the strong safety down into the box more often. Maybe there are areas of the field not fully exploited in the passing game. Every position on the field would benefit from player-tracking data, and for the first time, we might actually be able to measure a player’s instincts in a number. Statisticians, rejoice!

Technology can also evolve in unpredictable ways. Nobody could have predicted 22 years ago that text messages would become so popular, but they are now on every smartphone in the world.

Cowboys offensive line coach Frank Pollack, who spent seven years of his playing career playing for the San Francisco 49ers and was the offensive line coach for the Oakland Raiders for a year, put it best to Archer:

"Spent lots of years in Silicon Valley, so technology is nothing to me," Pollack said. "I'm all for it. It's 2015, right? It's good stuff."