Technology in American football — the state of play

Though it seems like a new-fangled part of what makes the NFL stand out as a modern, globalized sport, the methods of data collection go back longer than most believe.  The question for the long term seems to be the discerning power of technology versus the guys in the striped shirts.

Prior to the introduction of computer chips, it was down to the home team’s statistician to pay close attention to the action. There would, of course, then be the painstaking process of video replays. In any case, there was always a risk of stats being skewed. However, the advent of computer chips and wireless technology enables accuracy like never before.

Last year, the latest major step forward was made, when Zebra Technologies collaborated with the NFL to provide RFID chips that could be placed inside balls. Data is now collected by radio frequency signals, with the chip primarily designed to measure how fast the football moves for kicking scenarios. So too does it track the rotation of the ball in mid-air, as in how much and how quickly it spins, and what impact this has on pass accuracy.

A world of possibilities

The use of a similar technology has been active in NFL since 2014, with chips also found in the shoulder pads of players to measure acceleration, speed, distance and tackling as the primary focal areas. Fulfilling the primary aim of measuring impact is vital towards developing the plans of coaches and the training regimes of players.

With this set to work in tandem alongside the newer ball chips, there is optimism that the overall quality of NFL games can improve, thereby increasing the marketability of the franchises within.

Greater marketability will also precipitate other events, which ensure that the NFL’s popularity does not wane. Such eventualities may include the potential for more investment into youth and college football, an expansion of markets in sports wagering and – of course – even more investment into data retrieval technology.

The second of those potential areas for growth is, naturally, not without its opponents. Yet, with data now more accurate than ever before, it is expected by the American Football Alliancethat live telemetry will also be used sooner than many believe, to facilitate a wider range of im-play betting markets.

The trends within the potential new markets – assuming that they become reality in the short term – will also give a more accurate portrayal of what is expected from certain players. Thus, in a circular way, this could potentially influence coaching, playbook considerations and gameplay decisions for the better, from grassroots level all the way up to the Super Bowl.

Human judgement still with role to play

Other stats like forced fumbles, passing frequency, passing speed vs distance vs accuracy, and – of course – the number of yards gained by players on the offensive also make up a major part of the telemetry. This will also help teams at grassroots level, such as the Louisville Cardinals, who went an indifferent 2-2 in the first four matches of September 2018, leaving the coaching staff with many a key decision to make.

Though there is clear confidence in the chips now used, they are still in a state of evolution at present and will be largely restricted to player metricsfor the time being. While they may play a role in regulation changes over a longer period of time, their role in making crucial decisions in the immediacy is still nonexistent. Touchdown calls, for instance, still rely largely on human judgement but there is every indication that this could change in the future as video technology evolves concurrently.

Though most believe that technological developments are moving in the right direction, the chip’s primary weakness is measuring first downs, given that there is a six-inch margin of error in all directions that is currently in the process of being worked on by those involved in developing the chip. Chips cannot yet account for whether or not limbs are on the ground, thus keeping this type of potentially game-changing call subject to human judgement for the time being.