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Zebras, Technology, and Next Gen Stats in the NFL-Part 1

On a day that a Bears quarterback broke historical records, I had a chance to talk with some of the people shaping the future of football.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Chicago Bears Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Zebra Technology, Part 1

On Sunday, I had a chance to meet with the people behind the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Zebra Technologies. I learned a number of things, not the least of which is that I am ready for this technology to be put into even wider use throughout the league.

At its simplest level, Zebra uses small RFID devices to track things. They track a lot of things. The company has a presence in shipping and logistics, in medicine, and now in sports. They keep track of players on the field and the ball in the air. They actually keep track of the referees, too. They obviously produce a wealth of data from all of their tracking, and that data has the potential to change the game even more than it already has.

Obviously, there are diehards who like to talk about the human element of the game. There are fans who feel that using RFID chips instead of human judgment somehow takes the passion out of football. I have a couple of responses to this, but the first one is one that the casual fan is simply going to have to take my word on--John Pollard, the VP of Business Development for Zebra, is not going to take the passion out of anything. This is a man who loves his football.

What they do

Before explaining Zebra’s contributions to football in any greater detail, I have to admit to a certain sense of amusement over the name. I associate “zebras” with the refs in football, and this last week of football demonstrated--once again--that the refs are not exactly perfect when it comes to making accurate and precise calls. There is a big difference between Gene Steratore’s use of an index card to determine a first down in a Cowboy-Raiders game and what I saw in action on Sunday.

The company has twenty-two sensors in place around the stadium, and they have chips inside shoulder pads for every player (with a third chip to track linemen who might drop their shoulders down when lining up) and in the balls. They track the refs, too, which means that Zebra tracks the zebras (sorry, I couldn’t help it). As a result, they can tell how fast Jordan Howard runs when he hits a hole and they can determine the closing speed of a linebacker trying to cut him off.

The operation includes three people in a booth--or a catwalk, or wherever the stadium finds to host them--checking each other’s work and tracking not just what happens on the field but also checking in with the NFL head office regarding how plays are classified. At any given time, they know who is on the field and they also know the players’ directions and speeds.

It’s important to note that their RFID technology is not the only option available to the game of football. Some systems use optics, like the way tennis determines if a ball hits a line or not, and others use GPS. Pollard explained to me, however, that optics are hard to use in football because of the number of bodies piling up next to each other and that GPS has a lag built in that isn’t suffered by the RFID system that relies on the receivers in the same stadium, instead of relying on satellites that are a bit farther away, to say the least.

What they do for teams

Pollard demonstrated the difference between his data and what most fans used to have access to using a reference Bears fan should appreciate. He pointed out that it didn’t matter what 40-yard-dash time Dick Butkus might have had, his sideline-to-sideline speed when closing on another player was terrifying in his era. What Zebra’s technology does is quantify that closing speed and then put it into context with the rest of the league.

One thing that might surprise the casual fan is how much information they have that is not used. With transmitters sending a signal more than ten times a second, they told me that they can tell me the speed of a pass and even the rotations on the ball in the air--basically, they literally know how well a quarterback is ‘spinning’ it. The rifling of a pass by Mahomes, Trubisky, or Watson could—in theory-be compared. However, not all of this information gets released.

For the entire league, there are agreements in place on who gets what information, and some information is collected as a byproduct of the system without anyone ever seeing it. Obviously, some in the game are worried about distributing information on throwing speed or even player speed, afraid it’s going to have negative impacts on the players. At one point, teams only received their own information, so they would get tracking data from half of the game but not from the players lined up on the other side. Now, teams are seeing more information, and they are being more cautious about sharing what they are learning from that information.

However, individual teams also have deals with Zebra, and those teams are getting a lot more information. Derek Kenar (their senior operations manager) pointed out that they can track a player coming back from injury and determine if he’s getting back up to speed or not. There are interesting implications, too, for teams that track practices and for pregame warm-ups.

For example, if a player likes to warm up by throwing a few balls and running around the field, most people probably don’t think anything of it. However, if a receiver likes to take laps before the first whistle blows, and if he runs as much before the game as he does during the first quarter of football, should coaches be concerned when his speed slows after the half? How much tread is he wearing off his tires, so to speak? When practice gets involved, if one player throws the ball fifty or sixty times before practice even begins, then there’s a chance that player is wearing himself out ahead of schedule. If a player is getting older, how much of a dip in acceleration is concerning? For that matter, if there is no dip in acceleration, and it can be shown numerically, does that prolong a player’s career?

Another example of one of the implications deals with what staff does for a team. We’ve heard all season long about how open the Chiefs’ wide receivers are getting. Determining how many defenders are within a yard or two of each open receiver used to be a subject for intense film review, hand-counting, and trial-and-error. Now, it can be found with a few clicks on a computer screen. This doesn’t mean that there is less work for the staffers, but it does mean that instead of gathering that data the work can now be doing something with it.

Teams that embrace the analytical approach are obviously out in the forefront of working with Zebra. The Lions, the Rams, the Cowboys, and the Eagles are all clients of their practice system. Zebra does not have a deal in place with the Bears, even though they are headquartered in Lincolnshire, and the Beloved have another contract through the end of the year. Still, it’s probably only a matter of time before more teams partner up with this company.

Zebra vs Zebra?

Go back to Gene Steratore and his Index Card of Destiny. When the technology exists to figure out exactly how far ball advanced down to the tenth of a second, or when a program can tell officials exactly how many players really were on the field at the time of a snap without relying on human judgment, then the game changes. There are hundreds of things that currently rely on human discretion, and while Pollard and Kenar didn’t bring it up, I found myself thinking about what happens when the genie gets just a little bit more out of the bottle and that number can be cut in half.

Speaking only for myself, I’d rather have a millimeter-precise program tell me where the ball was if my choice is either the program or the same people who called the Browns-Raiders game. The NFL is, probably wisely, keeping this technology carefully regulated. Fans of almost any sport have their stories of times that visual replay clearly indicated the call on the field (or on the court, or whatever) was wrong, and over time that forced the professional leagues to adapt and to incorporate the new technology.

I am sure that there is recorded data somewhere that would validate a number of controversial referee decisions, and I am equally sure that there is data that would be embarrassing to the officials at a game. For me, I just want the game to be called as fairly and as consistently as possible. That sounds like something that can be made better with this technology, but I know some will disagree.

Like I said at the opening, I am ready for us to have a richer picture of the game, and more accurate information about what really happens on the field. Next up, I want to share some of what Next Gen Stats is already telling us about the NFC North-leading Chicago Bears.