In search for more data, the NFL is keeping an eye on the ball — and a chip inside
The NFL is trying gizmos this season that are truly revolutionary — footballs fitted with chips that count rotations — but their usefulness is up for debate.
At issue, how much information is too much?
The technology is impressive, with each football containing a four-gram, dime-sized chip in its bladder, carefully placed as not to affect the spin of the ball in flight. Those radio frequency identification devices (RFID) emit pulse-like signals that can be picked up by the multiple receiver boxes that are strategically placed throughout NFL stadiums.
With that information, the NFL will be able to know for the first time the velocity, location and rotation of every football in every game, including how far and high a pass, punt or kick sailed.
“What we’re seeing with the ball data, that’s completely new and unique,” said John Pollard, leader of business development for Zebra Sports, the company that produces the tracking devices and radio equipment that captures the data for the NFL. “I think that’s grabbed the attention of most every organization that we’ve talked to. This is an entirely new metric.”
The chips are similar to those implanted in the shoulder pads of every NFL player, allowing Zebra to track their precise location on the field, their proximity to one another and their speed, as well as a wide array of other statistics.
Exactly how valuable that is remains to be seen. There are opposing schools of thought on this. Some coaches and players want every last shred of information available in order to prepare for an opponent, train a team, or evaluate a player. Others simply trust their eyes, and the video they study and dissect for hours on end.
Several NFL coaches say that even though they are provided these statistics, they don’t use them.
There’s an argument on the other side that coaches can monitor exertion in practices — how far a player has run, for instance — in an effort to cut down on injuries, and will be able to get more information from the chip-in-ball technology.
“Now,” Pollard said, “I can automate the pitch count for my quarterbacks during preseason camp, and during practice, which may be important for a quarterback coming off an elbow injury and rehabilitating.”
There was a time in baseball when critics scoffed at Sabermetrics, often obscure statistics measuring in-game activity. But data such as exit velocity (how fast the ball comes off the bat), launch angle (the flight angle off the bat) and the spin rate of a pitched ball are now accepted parts of the game. Then again, baseball is a more stats-happy sport than football.
Beyond the occasional curiosity, TV hasn’t found a way to turn the newly gathered statistics into must-know information for viewers.
“We’ve been experimenting with this for probably four years,” said Fred Gaudelli, executive producer of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” “There may be some really great applications where you have minutes for elaboration, but in the game of football where you basically have 20 seconds between plays, I have not been able to find compelling content.”
NBC is flirting with the idea of using the tracking technology from chips in players’ shoulder pads to isolate on specific players and trace their path on the first replay. So, for instance, instead of Cris Collinsworth using his finger on the Telestrator to show the pattern run by Odell Beckham Jr., the precise route run by the star receiver for the New York Giants would show up automatically.
That’s cool. But it’s just not crucial yet.
The most and least
Speaking of statistics, the NFL compiled the data from opening-day rosters, and we now know that:
- Alabama and LSU are tied for the most players on active rosters with 39 each. The previous three years, LSU has ranked first, with 42 players in 2016, 40 in 2015 and 38 in 2014.
- With DeShone Kizer getting the nod for the Cleveland Browns, the NFL has now had at least one rookie quarterback start in Week 1 for 10 consecutive seasons, the longest streak since at least 1950.
- The Pittsburgh Steelers are the tallest team, with players averaging 6 feet 2.2 inches. The shortest — if you could call it that — is on the other side of Pennsylvania, with the Philadelphia Eagles averaging 6-1.3.
- Cleveland players are the heaviest at an average of 248.72 pounds, and the Atlanta Falcons the lightest at 239.32.
- Most experienced? Arizona, with players averaging 5.43 seasons. And least? Cleveland at 2.55. (The Rams are the least-experienced in the NFC at 3.42.)
- Finally, the New England Patriots have the fewest rookies on the active roster (five), and the Browns have the most (16). Figures.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer
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