Football is getting smarter. As scientific advances and inventions push humankind towards an increasingly digital future, the pace at which the NFL, its teams, and its players are embracing technology is quickening. “Right now we’re witnessing this explosion of digital health applications,” says Chargers offensive tackle Russell Okung, “and it has real significant value, especially for professional athletes.” When he’s not standing on the O-line, Okung sits on the Athlete Advisory Board of the OneTeam Collective, the NFLPA’s technology accelerator. (The NFL also established its own venture capital fund, 32 Equity, in 2013, and teams like the 49ers are investing in technology firms.)
Some football tech developments have been public, but many have taken place behind the scenes, with teams and players wary about surrendering newfound edges. “If you go public,” says Luke Bornn, a statistics professor who has worked with many professional teams and is currently VP of strategy and analytics for the Sacramento Kings, “then everyone will follow suit, and the advantage disappears.”
This season The MMQB will be delving into this brave new world of football. To start, we bring you a primer on some of the technologies that are being, or may soon be, implemented into football:
Zebra Technologies has been tracking the movements of NFL players during games since 2014. Zebra inserts two small radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in the shoulder pads of each player, one on either side, and receivers located around a stadium then triangulate the position of the tags. These are where the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, based on the location, speed, and acceleration of every player, come from. But the usefulness of Zebra data has been hindered by NFL restrictions on its use—though teams can access their own data, they can’t access other teams’ data. Many NFL teams don’t use Zebra’s system in truing, turning to other devices instead. Catapult, which uses GPS and accelerometers to determine location and movement, works with more than a dozen teams. STATSports, which also uses GPS and accelerometers, works with five.
Determining the overall movement of a player’s center of mass can give an estimate of the workload on his body, but to better understand the stresses on limbs and joints—stresses and imbalances that could lead to injury—requires measuring the movement of those individually. There are several companies that use accelerometers placed at different locations on an athlete’s body aiming to measure biomechanics, though most are not working explicitly in football. Motus Global has an arm sleeve device called MotusQB designed to calculate the workload in a quarterback’s throwing arm. Torqlabs uses four devices located on a runner’s upper and lower legs to measure gait, and Lumo Run uses a single device placed at the bottom of the spine to do the same by analyzing hip movement.
The actual force a player can exert—perhaps an offensive lineman pushing back against a defender on the line of scrimmage, or a receiver pushing off from the turf to leap into the air—depends on both biomechanics and raw strength. Increasing that strength is why players spend hours in the weight room, but technology is offering advancements there, too. A system made by Sparta Science can measure the force a player applies to a measuring plate in the ground as he jumps and is used by several NFL teams. A wearable band by PUSH uses accelerometers to track the speed of reps, and has been used to evaluate NFL players’ ability to push a sled in training. Clothing by Athos can measure the activity of individual muscles by recording electrical activity on the skin, and has helped prospects train for the combine.
One of the biggest injury risk factors in sports is fatigue. Instead of seeking performance gains during the season, teams generally focus on maximizing players’ recovery. In April, the NFLPA signed a deal with WHOOP, a wearable technology company whose wristband is designed to monitor both the strain of workouts and how recovered each player is after resting or sleeping. Because this agreement is with the NFLPA and not the NFL, though, teams may not have easy access to the data. However, there are other systems to evaluate recovery. PUSH makes a platform used in the NFL that combines physiological tests with questions about how an athlete is feeling to determine readiness to train or play. Under Armour’s Record Equipped running shoes have inbuilt sensors that can evaluate fatigue level based on performance in a jump test.
The simplest devices and methods generally track external metrics (such as movement, force, and skin temperature and electrical conductivity) or the simplest internal biometrics (such as heart rate and heart rate variability), but the most useful numbers can require more invasive testing. Several NFL teams work with Quest Diagnostics, whose Blueprint for Wellness program includes lab work to measure the levels of dozens of chemicals and proteins in players’ blood. InsideTracker offers personalized nutrition and lifestyle recommendations to athletes and consumers based on similar blood tests. Endurance athletes have even experimented with using continuous glucose monitoring devices, such as those made by Dexcom, which were developed for diabetes management and use a needle inserted under the skin, to see how their bodies respond to different nutrition strategies.
The most personal of any player’s data, far more so than activity tracking or even the results of blood tests, might be his DNA. In theory, this provides the unique instructions for how to build each athlete, and therefore the information on exactly how each player differs, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. A decade and a half on from the Human Genome Project, we are finally entering an era in which DNA screening and sequencing is becoming routine. There are many companies that are attempting to convert knowledge of each person’s DNA into useful medical insights—23andMe is probably the best known. A few are also doing the same for sports, predicting injury risks and personalizing training, including Athletigen, DNAFit, and ORIG3N.
Or perhaps the most personal information is about what goes on inside a player’s head. With the concussion and chronic traumatic encephalopathy crisis seeming to threaten the very existence of football, this is at least the most controversial data. Several teams already use STRIVR’s virtual reality system to run players through extra reps off the field, and others use Senaptec Strobe glasses to train hand-eye coordination. Brainwave measuring headsets, including Smith’s Lowdown Focus sunglasses, aim to help teach concentration and relaxation techniques. But while improved focus, reactions and decision-making could help players win games, tracking those quantities over time might also reveal changes to football players’ brains linked to the accumulation of hits.
All of the above devices and technologies can generate a huge amount of data. Converting all of that information into relatable quantities, and combining different data sources together to create actionable insights is perhaps the biggest obstacle holding back a greater adoption of technology by the NFL. Few coaches and athletes have analytics and science expertise, or the time or space to pick that up. A range of companies is vying to fill this gap, including industry leader Kinduct. In May, Zebra partnered with the company to help manage data for its NFL and college football clients. Other companies building athlete management systems include both Sparta and PUSH.
The above list isn’t an exhaustive review of the technology in football, but a starting point for what The MMQB will be investigating this season. “Every single team does something really well, even the bad ones,” explains Steve Gera, a former analyst with the Chargers and head of innovation with the Browns, and now the creative officer at Gains Group, an agency that connects athletes and coaches with technology companies. This year we will look at what tech both the winners and the losers are using. How playoff contenders are using science to strengthen their advantages, and how the underdogs are using it to find a way back to the top.