Last season, lost amid the off-field news about domestic violence and scandalously deflated balls, the NFL quietly embarked on the biggest data-mining experiment in sports history. If you saw a stat floating across your TV screen, clocking Houston's J.J. Watt at 19 miles per hour on a fumble recovery for a score, or a graphic showing that Denver's Emmanuel Sanders ran a ridiculous 968 total yards (while gaining 126) during a single game, then you witnessed the debut of what the NFL calls its Next Gen Stats, calculated via two electronic chips embedded in each player's shoulder pads.
Here's how it works: The RFID (radio frequency identification) chips transmit 25 unique signals per second, beaming location, motion, and acceleration info to 20 receivers around the stadium. The system is accurate to within six inches, even in a massive postfumble pileup. Last year, 18 stadiums were outfitted with the technology; by fall, all 32 will be using it.
"We'll be live and collecting data from every single player, from every single play, from every single game," says Vishal Shah, the NFL's vice president of digital media and business development.
Last season, some 68 billion bytes of data were collected — more than in the previous two decades combined — and this year that number will double. Such a dramatic increase in data could usher in a revolution for the sport. Coaches will be able to use the technology to track players' effectiveness, monitor workloads, and refine a team's in-game strategies. Broadcasters will use it to unveil fancy new graphics and ever more arcane stats to better explain the game. And fantasy owners will no doubt obsessively dissect the data, looking to glean information on player tendencies before their head coaches can.
Shah even predicts that these numbers could be used by research institutions to study safety measures, by agents to craft performance bonuses, and by clubs to institute player evaluations — or root out slackers.
"Ultimately, it's that adage 'You can't manage what you can't measure,'" says Shah. "The next step will be deciphering the signals from the noise. What's the most germane, and what can give insights to our game?"
To be clear, the revolution hasn't arrived, at least not yet. Because the system, MotionWorks, wasn't operational leaguewide last year, teams have not been able to explore its full potential. (In fact, the NFL still hasn't decided how and when to turn over the raw data to teams, whether after each game or at the end of the year.) But the ramifications are intriguing enough that the Lions, 49ers, and Saints made an effort to form an early relationship with the firm behind the system, Zebra Technologies, which works with Fortune 500 companies to help improve productivity by tracking goods and materials.
"The initial appeal to me," says Saints head coach Sean Payton, "and it's worth it even if it's just for this — is tracking workload in practice," Monitoring exact exertion for a player can help reduce the number of soft-tissue injuries, like a pulled hamstring. "Knowing how much energy was expended by a player in practice will help me know when to back off," says Payton, "or maybe even do a little more."
That's the fear of some players. After Payton explained to his team that coaches would now be able to assess their individual workloads — and that, on average, offensive linemen ran four miles less than wide receivers in practice — he caught his linemen walking around in circles after drills. "I had to say, 'Enough of this; stop padding your distance,' " says Payton.
During a game, the system will be able to reveal the exact movements of an offense or a defense, which has been especially hard to do even with assistant coaches charting hundreds of hours of film; all 22 players are in motion on every play, most of them without the ball and many in collision with one another. With the MotionWorks system, coaches can see the exact way a player ran a route or how an opposing team's blitz schemes unfolded in the trenches.
"Without having to watch and chart film, we're essentially going to know how many snaps an opponent's nickel receiver is playing," says Payton. "We're going to see formations in a quicker manner." As an example, Payton points to Detroit Lions wide receiver Golden Tate, who's often lined up in the slot position. "I very quickly see that when he's in the slot, he's a primary target," says Payton. "I can see that in my normal studies, but it's valuable to me to be presented with that information at the beginning of the week rather than arrive at it at the end of the week."
The NFL even experimented with putting chips in game balls at the Pro Bowl, and in the future it could offer the potential to reveal exactly how hard a quarterback throws. As Eric Petrosinelli, the general manager of Zebra Technologies points out, the quarterback is the most integral position on any team, yet "we've been sitting here without information about the most important part of their bodies, their arm, and how it's being taxed."
For the coming season, fans will primarily experience the arrival of big data through Next Gen Stats. This season's broadcasts will feature more enhanced graphics and information as new statistics continue to emerge. For instance, the separation between a wide receiver and a defensive back as a play unfolds is one possibility. Another may gauge how much force a runner exerts in the open field versus bowling over a defender on the goal line.
"Past statistics that aired during broadcasts were based on macro events in the game, like a catch or a tackle," says Jill Stelfox, Zebra's vice president. "But this is part of a micromovement, like what offensive line pushes the hardest or accelerates the quickest off the line."
The explosion of raw data will also allow bloggers and freelance statisticians to parse the data and come up with their own numerical assessments (like the Football Outsiders website does with its proprietary stats and fantasy projections). The Next Gen Stats will even be available this season via the NFL's Xbox One app: A few minutes after a play, animated X's and O's depiction of the replay will be shared, along with info like player's average velocity and top speed. The real-time player tracking also offers potential implications for fantasy football players. "Imagine having some kind of application on your phone," says Stelfox, "where you literally get to track your player live on the field."
All of these innovations are in the service of the NFL's primary goal: keeping fans addicted to the game by offering them even more layers of info to obsess over. But in the end, as always, the most important numbers for true diehards will be the scoreboard.
"I have no interest in how many miles per hour the opponent's running back goes — or mine," says Payton. "I just know it was fast enough to score."