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NFL Next Gen Stats Sensor Technology Shows Some Terrific Promise

Ian Logue
Ian Logue on Twitter
July 27, 2021 at 1:56 pm ET

NFL Next Gen Stats Sensor Technology Shows Some Terrific Promise(PHOTO: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

🕑 Read Time: 3 minutes

A pretty good article came out last week by Jonathan Jones on CBSSports.com, which highlighted the NFL’s increase in data collection on the football field, pointing out how much that segment has grown and the possibilities that are still untapped from that technology.

Things have gotten to the point now where there’s a sensor the size of a nickel weighing 4 grams that’s placed into the bladder of a football, which measures height and velocity, as well as RPMs. This information is tracked on every single throw and every single game and the extent of where things have already gone in the eight years the league has been doing it has really shown how much progress they’ve made.

The company, Zebra Technologies, seems to have a pretty good bead on things and they’re the ones behind the NFL’s “Next Gen Stats”. The sensors now extend from not just the footballs, but to players’ shoulder pads, first-down markers, as well as the pylons.

Apparently, the NFL had attempted other methods prior to sticking with this one, with the league experimenting with optical tracking going back to 2009. However, they found the optical tracking “too ineffective for wide-scale collection” and kept exploring options prior to settling on the RFID technology with Zebra Technologies back in 2014.

They wasted little time implementing it. By 2015, every venue where an NFL game was hosted was equipped with the necessary sensors which, at the time, just tracked players. The footballs started getting tagged in 2016 (the timing of that certainly seems like a strange coincidence), although initially, it was just for preseason games and Thursday night football.

While it’s great for storytelling and pointing out pretty incredible athletic feats, including the miles-per-hour of a player during a play, one of the big questions is obviously how it affects the accuracy of the game. If there are sensors on the player, the football, the first-down marker and the pylon, shouldn’t that be able to assist in figuring out what is/isn’t a first-down or a touchdown?

The answer appears to be yes, but the caveat seems to be that the information can’t track an elbow or a knee being down, which complicates that situation.

“I do think it’s possible. It’s not possible today,” Matt Swensson, the NFL’s VP of emerging products and technology, told Jones. “I think it comes through a combination of optical and camera-based feeds with tracking data. And then us getting to a precision level that we’re comfortable with. We’re just not there yet.”

The accuracy of the technology is said to be “within 3 or so inches”, which is better than GPS tracking. That means that they’re getting closer to figuring things out.

Meanwhile, what’s interesting is that the league is providing every team with this data after each game, although it’s not known if it’s shared outside of each organization. With so much time already passed, there’s enough data for clubs to be able to tell how much a player has slowed down, how much less the football might be coming off the hand of a quarterback on a throw, etc. However, that metric would seemingly be helpful for teams looking at free agents, but not if the data isn’t released by the respective club they played for previously.

Either way, it’s interesting to see where the technology has gone and where it might go into the future. While I’m one who prefers it enhancing the experience of watching a game and not getting in the way of it, it’s obviously cool to see what they’ve already been able to do and it should be fun to see where it goes.

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About Ian Logue

Ian Logue is a Seacoast native and owner and senior writer for PatsFans.com, an independent media site covering the New England Patriots and has been running this site in one form or another since 1997.


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