Eagles And the RFID Movement

Lurie believes new technology will "revolutionize the sport."
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports.

A conversation about Howie Roseman’s power took a left turn. Speaking to reporters at the owners meetings back in March, Jeffrey Lurie used a question about Roseman’s rank to touch on a subject that must have been top of mind — RFID and the surge of Next Gen stats that are altering the NFL landscape.

“When you’re talking about the NFL today and football operations, it’s really a very fast moving field if you understand where we’re at,” said Lurie in one of the grand hallways of the Boca Raton Resort. “We’re not where we were when I bought the team 20 years ago or where the league was 10 years ago. I would say if there’s two positions that have to process information and data quickly and completely, it’s quarterback and it’s head of football operations.

“Just as an example, in May, we’re going to be bombarded finally with the data from RFID. That’s going to revolutionize the sport in the long run.”

RFID stands for Radio-Frequency Identification. It’s a way to track player movement in real time, generating biometric measurements that provide endless amounts of next-level data in a snap of the fingers.

The company fueling this is Zebra Technologies, which has been working with the league in an official capacity since 2014. Their equipment has been used at a number of practice facilities across the league — including NovaCare — since the partnership began, and is now installed in every NFL Stadium. Here’s how it works: Two tags are placed in the shoulder pads of the players. The referees, chains and pylons are tagged as well. Those tags “blink”, sending out information that is caught by the 20-plus receivers strategically placed around each stadium. The information — speed, actual distance run, etc. — gets fed to the server and then distributed to wherever it needs to go, and this all happens in about a half-second.

Photos courtesy of

Photos courtesy of Zebra

Photos courtesy of Zebra

Up until this point, the technology has been used for player tracking during the week. (If you followed the Chip Kelly Eagles, you’re familiar with the GPS devices that the sports science team utilized to monitor player movement.) The big difference now is that an advanced analytics system was recently made available that grants participating teams access to game-day data, allowing you to study in-game behavior, compare it to the information collected during the week and modify your practices and preparation accordingly.

When news of this advancement was announced, the Eagles raced to the front of the line to have it installed at their facility first.

“We were among the first NFL teams to sign up for this technology from Zebra,” Shaun Huls told Birds 24/7 in his first public comments (as far as we know) since joining the Eagles to head the sports science department in 2013, “but we have worked with performance science data from other providers for some time. We think it is important to be able to capture data from the field that can be used not only to help players with their performance and aid in their recovery, but also provide unique content for our fans in the future.”

While most of Kelly’s fingerprints have been wiped off the NovaCare walls, the Eagles clearly found value in the “performance science data” initiatives that Kelly helped bring to the league. Not surprisingly, San Francisco is another organization that is ahead of the curve in embracing this new technology.

“You’re just trying to improve how the game is being played and you need to take advantage of it,” said Kelly at the owners meetings. “I was surprised: in college we could track our players in games and when I got into this league we weren’t allowed to. We could track them in practice but couldn’t track them in games. Now you can — how many high speed yards run, change of direction, things of that nature, those Next Gen stats that they have. We’ve used it for a while. We used it in my four years at Oregon so it’s just good that we’re going to be able to get the game information now so we can match game information up with what we’re doing in our training sessions.

“It’s exciting to see some of that stuff. I think it can be overwhelming, too. I think sometimes there’s so much information from that side coming in, you really gotta have someone in place that can kinda parse it out to you.”

To ensure their level of expertise doesn’t drop off with the departure of Kelly, the Eagles held onto Huls and bolstered their resources dedicated to next-level data application.

“We have a top-notch team with nine staff on our Performance Science group who are taking the lead on this when it comes to capturing the data and using it to help enhance performance and aid recovery,” said Huls.

The information can be applied to the scouting world as well. With access to player data from across the league, coaches can use opponent information to help build a game plan and make smart decisions when it comes to matchups.

“If you knew how fast your defender was, you would know how to train for that that week, right? Or even how to line up,” said Zebra’s vice president and general manager of location solutions, Jill Stelfox. “So if you knew, for example, Richard Sherman, he can do top speeds of 20-plus miles an hour, you’re not going to put a guy who can’t get there. You’re not going to make that the matchup because Richard Sherman is going to out-run him every time.”

Soon, it could very well help with the study of quarterbacks. The NFL experimented by placing one of the Zebra chips in the actual football during the Pro Bowl. The device can pick up not just the velocity of a throw, but the “micro-movement” off the hand that helps explain where that velocity comes from.

There are a number of applications, but as Huls spoke to, one of the main objectives is to enhance fan experience. It is the reason Zebra brought the technology to the league in the first place. The NFL is working on ways to use it to improve the in-stadium product, and it likely won’t be long before fans are armed with the same type of intel that teams across the league just got their hands on.

“If you’re a fan, I think you’ll have complete access to whatever type of digital information you want at your fingertips. So if you want it on a Google Glass kind of thing you can have it, if you want it on your mobile device you can have it,” said Stelfox on the future of Zebra, which is now working with the NCAA as well.

“The thing I think is going to be cool is that these systems are going to be tracking you certainly from college forward, so you’ll know a lot as a player and fan what the possibilities are of different players coming up through the ranks. And that’ll be really fun I think. So there will be 10 years of tracking. Some day you won’t do a resume, you’ll just hand over your data and say, ‘Here’s how I play in a game. It’s all right here on this CD…We probably won’t have CDs actually; it will probably be in the cloud.”

Not all teams have been as quick to set their sights on those skies, preferring to remain more rooted in the old school. There is a debate to be had over just how valuable all this information is and what type of role it should play when it comes to the strategy, scouting and consumption of football. Lurie, for one, has made it clear that he thinks it can be an important piece of the puzzle, and seems intent on riding the new wave — both as it applies to Zebra and otherwise.

“How you deal with all the statistics now that are available through scouting is extraordinary when you break it down,” said Lurie, continuing his thought. “How you integrate sports science with peak performance. Hit rates in the NFL as you all know are not great when it comes to the draft. That’s all evolving so quickly. So whoever — and in our case, Howie — when you’re in charge of football operations, you’re responsible for maximizing sports science, you’re responsible for maximizing the scouting process, you’re responsible for how you’re going to integrate RFID, how are you going to handle every bit of information because it’s no longer just studying film.

“Studying film is the core and always will be, but the amount of data processing now to up the hit rates is extraordinary and I think the organizations and teams that can maximize the data quickly, process it and make correct decisions have a better chance of upping their batting average.”