LOS ANGELES — Training athletes used to be pretty simple. All you really needed was a stopwatch, a whistle and a clipboard. Nowadays, the NFL is blurring the lines between men and machine.
Ted Rath is the conditioning coach for the L.A. Rams.
“We look at how much mileage you’ve put in the car,” he said. “We all know that after certain mileage, we’ve got to make an oil change.”
Because of that, the Rams rely on the same technology that tracks shipments and targets shoplifters. A microchip the size of a nickel is now embedded in every game ball, as well as in the shoulder pads of 300-pound linemen.
John Pollard, the vice president of Zebra Technologies, which is the company that produces the tracking chips, showed us how the technology works. Every movement is tracked, and plotted, as is each player’s precise position. When the pros suit up and the virtual becomes real, more than a third of the league’s teams are using the technology.
Rath told us the chips show how high quarterbacks throw and how fast players are running.
“We can say he’s fatigued,” he said. “Alright, why is he fatigued? Within this data, this can tell me when he hits that fatigued state, when he recovers from it and how hard he’s able to work so we can push him right to that level so we can actually make him a better-conditioned athlete.”
Rath says a good example this season is Todd Gurley. While most players tire as the season wears on, the data showed the running back got faster.
Rath showed us footage of Gurley on a touchdown run.
“This was actually the very play where he hit 21.1 miles an hour on that specific play,” he explains.
“It seems like you could really geek out on all these numbers,” we told Rath.
“No question,” he responded. “Prove us right, prove us wrong, shock us. Sometimes the data shocks you.”
One thing the chips do not yet measure is the impact of a collision between players. That technology exists, and it can be put in a helmet. But the NFL has not requested that data. The league has already faced a major class action lawsuit over concussions.