The NFL Used Tech to Track Every Player on Every Play This Past Season; Now They’ll Use That Data to Change the Game

SportsTechieFebruary 25, 2022

LOS ANGELES — On February 17th, four days after the Rams’ Aaron Donald put a bow on the Super Bowl by twirling Joe Burrow to the ground with his thumb and forefinger, the NFL ops department got to work on the 2022 season.

Armed with graphs, charts, video, algorithms, reading glasses and presumably Red Bull, they locked themselves in a Park Avenue office for their annual football “data dump’’—as in a 360-degree review of every tech-infused analytic from 2021.

Once they are done—and there are roughly 43,000 snaps from center to evaluate—the ops team will present their 2022 rule change recommendations to the league’s competition committee. It is a process that particularly involves Zebra Technologies, the NFL’s tracking provider who tagged every football, every player and every referee with a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip on gamedays for the purpose of greater wisdom, profound player safety and potential alterations to the sport.

“Literally, we’ll begin data-dumping,’’ Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, said during Super Bowl week. “What did we learn from this season? There’ll be certain touch points. And we’re actually now much more informed on how we come to a resolution, or rule change, because of the data.

“Data, science, engineering. We’re much, much more informed on how do we get to DPI [defensive pass interference]. How do we get to roughing the passer? Where was [the defensive player who hit the quarterback] located? Where did the hit [come from]? The data tells us everything…And we get all the raw data.’’

With player, referee and ball tracking, Vincent’s team can literally re-watch each step taken on the playing field in 2021. As a result, every ambiguous rule, every ill-positioned game official and every football nuance is under the microscope this off-season—starting primarily with the kickoff rules, the punt return rules, the injuries that surround them and the what-if’s of having that RFID chip in the actual football.

The kickoff, or just the kicking game in general, is again Vincent’s first point of emphasis. In 2018, in response to a horrific number of concussions on kickoff returns, the league prohibited a running start for players covering kicks. Data from Zebra, in concert with the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, had illustrated that the speed of the collisions during kickoffs (sometimes upwards of 20 mph) were amplifying head trauma. Sure enough, the 2018 rule changes – which also eliminated the moving two-man blocking wedge on kickoff returns – dropped concussions by 38 percent from the previous three seasons.

“The data showed if you keep [the players] in place, no running start, that you would actually reduce impact on the other side of the field,’’ Vincent said. “So this is what data’s done.’’

At the same time, with a nod to similar violence on onside kicks, another new rule prohibited no more than five kicking team players lining up on either side of the kickoff. In the past, onside kicks had featured 11 players on one side taking a running start and plowing head-first into opposing players, a somewhat barbaric, no-holds-barred existence.

On the downside, once the league eliminated the running starts and limited five to a side, onside kicks essentially ceased to exist or, at the least, were virtually unrecoverable. With a success rate of under 10 percent, the league went back to the drawing board with the rule last off-season.

The Philadelphia Eagles actually wanted to ditch the on-side kick altogether last winter, proposing instead that teams try converting a 4th and 15 play to retain possession of the football. It never got to a vote. Rather, Vincent’s group recommended a one-year trial this past season where the kicking team would still not have a running start, but the receiving team could align only nine players in the 10-to-25-yard zone from the football.

That rule change eliminated the crushing collisions, while, at the same time, giving the kicking team a two-man advantage for up to 25 yards. And that’s the rule now up for renewal heading into Vincent’s current data dump.

“We will first examine that,’’ Vincent said during Super Bowl week. “We had a one-year only rule with the onside kick. Just trying to get that recovery rate [up] for the kicking team. We had historical lows the last two seasons. We’re back up to about 14 percent recovery rate [in 2021], where we feel like it’s, I don’t want to say leveling the playing field, but [it’s better].

“When we looked at that rule change, it was a one-year only rule change [where] we looked at moving in a minimum of eight people or max of nine on the recovery team, still making sure that the kickoff team was stationary, so you didn’t have…the impact occur. We also eliminated the wedge block, what we used to call the attack block, where you could sit when ball is kicked and come forward. You can’t come forward anymore. All of those things were dangerous blows. But now we have the science and the data [from this 2021 season] and you can see with the video. That impact was something that shouldn’t be part of the game. And it’s that data that allowed us and the coaches and, frankly, the former and current players to say, ‘Okay, we need to make an adjustment because all signs are pointing to not a good play.’’’

The other kickoff rule under debate…is the whole kickoff itself. Some want to eliminate the kick altogether and just automatically plop the ball at the 25-yard line, while others want to move the kicking team back another five yards to increase the number of returns, along with the distance of the returns. Data published by Pro Football Focus shows that, in 2021, the average starting field position for NFL teams was the 24.8 yard-line, the lowest since 2015.

Vincent’s issue, heading into this year’s data dump, is that kickers have become better at booting the ball out of the end zone, making the kickoff nearly irrelevant.

“We’ll be looking at the kickoff,’’ he said. “The kickoff return dipped a little bit. We’d like it to be about 40 percent on kickoff returns, and it dropped. But we won’t do that [move the kicking team back] if we compromise player safety.’’

***Punts reimagined

Now that kickoffs are saner, Vincent and Company are re-thinking the inherent violence of the punt return—which, at times, has a kamikaze feel to it.

“The punt play is the most dangerous play,’’ Vincent said. “It’s the most penalized play in football, and it’s the most dangerous play in football. So that is the one that we’ll probably spend the most time on.’’

Every week during the 2021 season, as soon as Vincent received his RFID chip data from Zebra, he says he looked at the player tracking and video angles from that weekend’s injuries. And more often than not, he had to cover his eyes on the dreaded punt play.

“The punt is interesting because you never practice to speed at practice during the week as you do during the game,’’ he said. “So we first look at who’s actually being injured? Where is it occurring? Most of the time, it’s the center. Or it’s the wing [the player at the end of line of scrimmage], who’s actually running downfield, an individual who’s [a running back or receiver] not normally typically making a tackle. So…you see some of the ACL [injuries] when you watch the video.

“You watch and you go, ‘Wow, that injury occurred on air. Never touched anyone.’ So we want to look at that, and it’s the most penalized. They’re always holding. And we look outside, at the gunners. Should we still allow the vice, the double-teams? Should we look at some of the rules we’ve seen in Canada, the halo, where you give the punt returner a little bit of space to return the ball? We don’t want to remove the foot out of the game. We think that’s a dynamic play, that third phase of the game. But [there’s so many] injuries and penalties on the punt play, we’ll be looking internally, and then we’ll be looking out on the edge.’’

Video, married with the Zebra’s player tracking, does demonstrate a number of injuries inflicting the outside gunner on punt coverage who tries to avoid a double-team to fly downfield. Vincent did not rule out eliminating the gunner or the double-team vice altogether or enforcing a rule where no one can contact the long snapper. The punt is a play he and the group desperately want to clean up

“Because we start with the data,’’ Vincent said. “This is what the data is saying. And then we go and mirror that with, ‘What’s the injuries? Where are they occurring? Who’s it occurring with?’ ’’

On punts, the answer is pretty much: Anybody and everybody.

***Flagging the referees

The refs do not get off the hook: they’re in the data dump, too.

Every gameday official wears an RFID chip, tucked somewhere in their shirt pouch, so the NFL can monitor their movements…or lack thereof.

The concern is that the players are getting swifter, while the referees are not, and the question the league is trying to answer, quite bluntly, is whether certain refs do not or cannot get into the proper spot to make an accurate call.

“As we break down officiating calls,’’ Vincent said, “one of the things we’re able to look at—because they actually being tracked as well—is: ‘Where was he or she when they made the call? Were they in the right place?’ We’re talking, pre-snap, during snap and post-snap. Was someone properly aligned? Where were they during, say, the motion of the play, or in the middle of the play, and then where the play ended? Was he or she in the right place?’

“So this is just the evolution of technology…We’ve been [tracking referees] for a few years now. It’s important. One, to make sure we’re evaluating everything. Not just where they are, but their movement in between the play. Also, Zebra allows us to [track] distance. Distance [a ref] traveled as you look at future positions whereas you identify talent that will be coming. Man, we know that back judge or the side judge or the umpire or the ref, looking at their movement, tells us what future officiating should look like, based off where the game is.

“Now the game is played from sideline to sideline, it’s like a track meet. We need to make sure….’’

Vincent paused, then stopping short of saying he’ll start timing all the refs in the 40-yard dash. But make no mistake: a slow or less instinctual referee is being sized up and singled-out in his data dump.

***No pain, big gain

On Super Bowl Sunday, Rams receiver Odell Beckham Jr. suffered the torn ACL heard ‘round the world, or at least ‘round the NFL Players’ Association.

It occurred rather harmlessly, on a non-contact misstep while Beckham was trying to catch a short Matthew Stafford pass, and the league-wide rage was immediately evident on Twitter:

It wasn’t just Tampa Bay’s Connor Barwin; it was the Browns’ Nick Chubb and 49er teammates Nick Bosa and George Kittle – among others – calling for an all-encompassing ban of artificial turf fields.

Vincent, who does not have blinders on, certainly caught wind of all of it, and, if his regular season regimen in fact carried over to the post-season, he certainly watched the Beckham Jr. injury at least 50 times following the game.

“You’re looking at that over and over and over,’’ Vincent said about injuries before the Super Bowl. “You could look at those 50 to 60 times to try to see what happened. Did something happen mechanically? Was it caused by ground? Was it caused by another player? Body posture? So it’s a lot of touch points.’’

The touch points – not that it will calm the Bosa’s and Kittle’s of the world – include field surface. The NFL, with the help of Zebra, tracks every nuance of every player except maybe what kind of gum they chew. They know the brand of cleats every player wears, what type of shoulder pads, what kind of helmet…and record it all in a little (okay, a big) black book.

“Then, when it comes to an injury, we tie all that data to what surface,’’ said Zebra’s Chief Product and Solutions Officer Bill Burns prior to the Super Bowl. “Were they in contact with another player [when they got hurt]? Were they by themselves? What were they doing? We know…how fast they were running, what speed, what was their acceleration…And what surface they were on, ultimately. So that’s all being looked at.’’

A torn ACL, though, is still perhaps the most hideous injury in the sport, outside of a concussion, and will be a focal point of the data dump. Vincent’s group will examine each 2021 ACL injury, the biomechanics of the player leading up to the trauma, the contact involved and the kinetic science behind it all.

The mystery of the ACL injury is how it looks to the naked eye. Beckham Jr. was not touched on his tear, and, although artificial turf got all the blame, Washington’s Chase Young also tore his ACL this season with zero contact to his leg…on grass.

“Most of our injuries, I think almost 60 percent, are lower extremity injuries,’’ Vincent said. “But we do believe they are preventable. Especially when you look at not just the ACL, but the hamstrings, groin pulls. A lot of that is load. Once you get that hamstring injury, it’s hard to recover from that. So this is what the science and the data will allow us to examine: how do we do things better, smarter, more efficiently with the modern athlete.

“And, again, every play, we always say, has its own personality. Example with the Chase injury: very, very little contact involved. He actually went down before the tackle actually made contact with him, he was grabbing his knee. So every play has its own personality, and then you just dive into it and just try to see, ‘Was it preventable?’ ’’

If the ops team ends up hypothesizing that artificial turf is indeed the devil—and Vincent is a former NFL player, so you never know—he doesn’t have the power to ban it.

Just in case Barwin, Chubb, Bosa and Kittle were planning to hunt him down…

***Bag of Chips

Little did anyone know, there’s a subcommittee inside Vincent’s subcommittee called: the future football committee.

Assuming they brainstorm about the year 2025 as opposed to the year 2055, there may be some ingenuity on the horizon…perhaps as soon as a couple of years from now.

At this year’s data dump, Vincent’s team will particularly debate the usages of having a Zebra RFID chip inside the football. It’s one thing to have the chip calculate the speed and/or spin rate of a Stafford pass, but Vincent is imagining a football world where the chip may help with spotting the ball on a short yardage play or whether a ball crossed the goal line or where a punt sailed out of bounds.

It is more 2025 than you think.

“We have one other thing we’re looking at,’’ Vincent said of the off-season. “One thing we’ve been trying to track the last two preseasons, when the ball is punted, where the ball goes out of bounds. That is something where we believe with the chip will allow us to be more accurate. Sometimes the ball goes, and you’re ‘Wait a minute, he’s spotting the ball there? She’s spotting the ball here.’ That may be the difference of two or three yards; that’s a big deal. So that’s one of the things we’re looking at: Is there a better way for the data or tracking to allow us to be more accurate on where the ball placement is.’’

It is certainly feasible. If the league office wants to implement it, Vincent said they can synchronize Hawk-Eye Innovations’ technology—which instantly rounds up every replay angle possible for the league—with the RFID chips in the football and better calculate where a punt flies out of bounds. As it is now, referees estimate the old-fashioned way: by guessing.

“The data allows us to be more accurate,’’ Vincent said. “Obviously, the referee makes all of those decisions. But with Hawkeye, with the data, we can just be a little bit [better]. Because sometimes that might be a 5-yard [difference] where the ball goes out of bounds and where the ball’s placed.

“How will we do it? We haven’t figured that out yet. This is the proof of concept we’re trying to work through now. We’ve been bouncing it around, our future football committee, that’s one of the things that they’ve been focused on to see if we can make some progression in that area.’’

Otherwise, perhaps closer to 2030, the chips in the football could even eliminate the need for sideline chain gangs, as in no manual measurements ever again.

“We get that all the time, and that question will be discussed every year,’’ Vincent said. “Keep in mind with officiating, the ball may be one place, but the runner is being tagged where that body part went down. So his knee may be in one location, but the ball may be at another. So we, too, would like to get away from the chains. Really, like, we would like to get away. But there are some other aspects that we’ve just got to keep in mind as we work through officiating. So [we’ll be] working with our officials on what’s the best way to evolve to being, let’s say, chainless.’’

The larger issue, according to Zebra’s business development and sales lead for sports and entertainment Adam Petrus, is where the chip is placed in the football. That’s why it is a future football committee problem. The chip, for instance, may not be in the part of the football that crosses a first down line or a goal line.

“So there are some scientific and technology challenges to overcome,’’ Petrus said. “That football, it’s a sphere, right? And so even though we have a tag inside the football, it’s in one location. And to be able [to identify] the orientation of the football from a ballcarrier holding it this way or the nose of the ball is this way, we say football is a game of inches. No, it’s really millimeters at that point.

“So I’m certainly hopeful, like Troy, that we can get closer to the point where we’re as accurate as possible… The R and D is out there, and we’d certainly love to be a part of it.’’

Either way, it’s all open for discussion during this month’s marathon of a data dump.

All the chips are on the table.

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