How Technology Has Improved NFL Analytics

Today’s article is a guest post by Jay Booth, who had some thoughts to share and figured The GridFe was as good a place as any to share them. Enjoy.

The impact of technology in sports is undeniable and it has, in many ways, given birth to a movement: that of analytics in sports. It is the heart and soul of the Moneyball theory, traditionally associated with baseball but whose precepts — rigorous gathering and analysis of data — are widely used in professional leagues across all sports, including the NFL.

Yes, analytics are part of the NFL, and are here to stay argues sportswriter Jarrett Bell. The league, in fact, will have an even greater trove of information starting next season as it starts implementing in-game tracking thanks to further advances in technology. This will be alongside existing technologies such as: radio frequency identification (RFID) sensors sewn into shoulder pads, GPS devices and accelerometers from Catapult, stress-monitoring sleeves for quarterbacks, and other innovations from league partner Zebra Technologies.

Said RFID sensors will make possible the aforementioned (league-wide) in-game tracking, which ESPN explains is akin to a computer watching every player move at every given moment. In other words, it can track pretty much anything on the football field, like how fast Jimmy Garoppolo drops back from center, how Von Miller explodes from the line of scrimmage, how Antonio Brown jukes defenders to oblivion, and so much more. This is futuristic stuff in every way, only it is happening in the present.

The data — ingeniously dubbed Next Gen Stats by the NFL — that this in-game tracking will provide will be so vast that it can impact teams from a competitive standpoint. Speaking to ESPN, an NFL executive, who requested anonymity, remarked that data gleaned from those RFIDs will help teams compete, but only if “they can embrace it and integrate it.” In other words, information is available to all teams, but the onus is on them to make full use of it to gain a competitive advantage.

Clearly, the analytics movement of the present has come a long way from its humble beginnings back in the late 1960s. In 1966, the Dallas Cowboys hired Tex Schramm to be their GM and Gil Brandt to be their head scout, and the two are widely believed to have been the first to truly use technology to analyze big data. They did so using computers from IBM and Squaw Valley. The result was a two-decade run of success for the Cowboys, who got to the playoffs 18 times in 20 years (from 1966 to 1985) and won 2 Super Bowls along the way.

Today, all 32 teams are making use of analytics, which has now become the norm rather than the exception, not only in the NFL but in other professional leagues. The MLB, for instance, has the Moneyball theory (also called sabermetrics), while most teams in the NBA are now making extensive use of wearables that track the players’ fitness metrics (albeit not in actual games yet). Elite-level soccer teams have been using analytics for a long time, with Coral reporting how clubs in England have been using tracking technologies since the early 2000s. These technologies have one thing in common: they all yield exhaustive amounts of data. If the challenge of analyzing the data and using it effectively is met, then a competitive advantage will, indeed, be gained. Just imagine what an innovative coaching mind can do with such a trove of data at their disposal.

GridFe Hall of Fame Coaches member George Halas, for instance, might have won more than the six titles he copped as the head man of the Chicago Bears. Even the New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick, currently one of the finest coaches in the league, gets help from analytics, even though he has repeatedly played down the technology’s impact on his team. But then again he does have Ernie Adams on his staff, a data-driven former Wall Street trader, and Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who owns Kraft Analytics Group.

Yes, analytics are here to stay, and they are bound to get all the better.