The Senior Bowl, for the second year in a row, is experimenting with putting RFID (radio-frequency identification) chips inside player pads during practices to track player movement and provide that information to teams.
RFID chips have been used for years by companies tracking their shipments or security systems designed to prevent theft.
Phil Savage, the executive director of the Senior Bowl, detailed the event’s use of those chips in the opening presser.
“We started a new partnership with Zebra technology this year, the GPS tracking company, so all the players will be chipped and all the footballs will be chipped,” he said. Last year, the Senior Bowl partnered with Catapult Sports, though Savage didn’t provide a reason for the switch.
Savage explained that teams should be able to use “real-time numbers” and cohere it with the evaluations of the scouts and NFL personnel.
“I think when you’re out there watching some of these players,” he explained, “you say ‘oh man, he showed a burst of speed’ or ‘he showed acceleration’ and you put it in your notepad, you’ll have some numbers that can actually support what you’re seeing.”
“It started out, if I’m not mistaken out in the Premier League with soccer teams and sort of made its way to our country and now the sport of football. I think Zebra has a relationship with 18 or 19 teams and will probably have the whole league covered within another year or so.”
The Premier League were early adopters of wearable tracking technology, though Aussie Rules Football was the first to implement that technology leaguewide, back in 2004. Premier League teams, notably the odds-breaking Leicester City, used this technology to reduce injury incidence among their players.
What exactly can RFID chips do for NFL teams?
It’s more than using technology for the sake of using technology — NFL people at all levels of the team can find use for chip technology embedded in football pads — and NFL teams already use that information in their own operations.
Though not every team has a deal with Zebra to provide chip-tracking in their practices, every team has access to insights gained from that technology in games.
Right now the data provided through Next Gen Stats is only used to track a team’s own personnel during games and doesn’t give them the ability to receive data — in the form of constantly updating x-y coordinates — on the other 11 players on the field.
This allows teams to grab player participation data in games, as well as more efficiently self-scout plays they’ve run throughout the season. Ethan Young, of NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats department, argued that this use “cuts down about 50 percent of their workload when cutting film.”
“Teams are looking at [spatial tracking] from a workload standpoint, personnel, formations, participation and all that. We can do all that with chips.”
The next step, logically, might be to open the game data up for all teams to get all plays from players on either side of the ball — but that’s a question for the competition committee. While Young is confident that every team will eventually get access to all the data, there’s been pushback recently by members of the committee.
“There’s a lot of people that want it and some that aren’t familiar with what it can do yet that are hesitant of widespread changes and the potential fallout of things changing rapidly.”
Opening up that data could do a lot for teams. Not only would it further the film-cutting process, it would give them context for a lot of data that they have.
Fans may be familiar with Next Gen Stats’ unique data set, like the max speed from a ballcarrier or the “aggressiveness index” of a quarterback, a measure that catalogs how many throws a passer slings into tight windows.
That data can be useful for analysis, but often serves as fun trivia. The “most aggressive quarterback” in a given week may not be the one who likes to challenge tight windows the most, but the one who most often had to deal with the tightest coverage.
There’s quite a bit more to be gained from chip technology during practices and in games that can help inform team decision-making, like measuring how quickly a runner bursts to the hole after grabbing a handoff or how rapidly a linebacker identifies a running play and gets to their gap.
“[Teams] can create this data themselves,” Young pointed out. “They get x-y coordinates. It just doesn’t have context, so it may not be that valuable.”
By that, he means that teams cannot measure their own data against the data of the whole league. Knowing that Jerick McKinnon, for example, can accelerate from the slot to the stem of his route in X amount of seconds doesn’t tell us much without the ability to compare it against the other running backs in the league.
Teams can also adopt the lessons learned from over a decade of data collection from other sports. When rugby players found out that heavier players were more likely to inflame an Achilles tendon if they ran more than a specific amount over the course of a week, they were able to tailor workloads to better protect players.
Tracking workload usage in practices can prevent injury in games for NFL teams, whose seasons often turn because of an injury to a critical player. In 2015, the 49ers, Lions and Saints were the first to use Zebra technologies to prevent injuries to their roster.
As for its implementation in the Senior Bowl and at the college level, an anonymous source with a relationship to chip spatial tracking technologies was unconvinced. “I’m skeptical of them to be able to [work at the college level] because you have to go through the conferences to do that. I know that there’s testing through the bowl games, but I don’t know if they can do that.”
“I know there’s implementation at the Senior Bowl,” they said, “but in a limited sample it may not have a ton of use, at least in my opinion.”
“I will say,” they went on, “that things get misconstrued with spatial tracking, saying the fastest player is the best player. It is a lot more descriptive than it’s made out to be and especially in a game standpoint. In one game with college with college all-stars, one player gets in the open field and he’s the fastest player.”
They clarified that they’re heavily in favor of in-game implementation. “Certainly, game speed has a lot of value as a metric—look at the number of instances where a player hits ten miles per hour or 15 miles per hour averaged out over a long period of time and it can be immensely useful.”
They added that there were other ways to use the technology as well. “We’re not putting these players in the combine but if you were to do that, you could get a lot of value out of it, especially in pads,”
The NFL is moving inexorably towards spatial tracking technology to improve the performance of their teams and create a more entertaining product. Seeing what innovations those developments will bring will give us a glimpse into the future of the sport.