sport news How smart player-tracking technology is revolutionising the NFL

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American football has long been known as 'a game of inches,' and with the introduction of RFID tracking technology in recent years, that has never been more true. 

Zebra Technologies recently announced the renewal of its partnership with the NFL as the league's official on-field player-tracking provider through the 2021 season, so Sportsmail went down to Wembley to see the tech in action. 

With the match between the Cincinnati Bengals and the in full swing, 22 sensors situated around the stadium were tracking every single player, referee, and even the pylons on the field in real-time.  

RFID tracking chips are placed in the pads of every NFL player for every game each weekend

RFID tracking chips are placed in the pads of every NFL player for every game each weekend

Sensors track the players and the ball, providing extremely accurate stats on their play

Sensors track the players and the ball, providing extremely accurate stats on their play

At Wembley, 22 sensors are placed around the stadium to track all the information on field

At Wembley, 22 sensors are placed around the stadium to track all the information on field

Each of the NFL's 31 stadiums, as well as in Mexico City's Estadio Azteca and London's Wembley and Tottenham Stadiums where teams play their International Series games, is fitted with this state-of-the-art technology. 

TV broadcasters use the data to include accurate information in their replays to add an extra dimension to their game coverage, but it's the teams themselves that are getting the most out of it.

Not only will they receive the data from other games that they can use throughout the week in preparations for their next match, but they're also employing the technology in their own practice sessions to help improve their game.

'It makes teams more efficient when scouting a team, or scouting themselves,' says John Pollard, head of sport at Zebra. 'They're studying tendencies and correlations. 10 years ago, when this information wasn't automated, it was only collected through watching film, and you'd only have so much time during the week. They might study three or four teams. Now you can look at an entire season, or couple of seasons.

'They use it for tactics research, and even finding their own tendencies. No coach wants to be predictable, so they use our information to convince them to do something else.'

John Pollard is head of sport at Zebra Technologies, and described how teams use the data

John Pollard is head of sport at Zebra Technologies, and described how teams use the data

Of course, the coaches can see who's playing the best, or training the hardest, but it's not all about sheer numbers, it's about the right numbers in the right places, or at the right time. They even use it for players coming back from injury, or to make sure players aren't doing more than they should.

'They want to make sure that player doesn't overdo it in practice,' says Pollard. 'They want to ensure an athlete gets a maximum number of sprints so they don't hurt themselves during game day.'

Pollard mentioned an anecdote where a player seemed to tire towards the end of games, even though he was training well during the week. With the tracking tech, they were able to see that he was expending far too much energy in the pre-match warm-ups, just minutes before kick-off. 

It's even indirectly freeing up members of coaching staffs to do other things during training sessions. In the past, someone with a clicker would be counting the throws made by a quarterback. You want to make sure they're doing enough, but equally, you don't want them to make too many. 

Now, the technology will automatically track how many throws your quarterback has made automatically, and it's even smarter than it sounds. 

A tiny tracker is also in the ball, and the system intelligently adds context to each play

A tiny tracker is also in the ball, and the system intelligently adds context to each play

Players messing around throwing a ball back and forth won't register as passes thrown because the ball needs to be in proximity to the specific sensors tied to the quarterback's number.  

It frees up that bored coach with the clicker to do something more productive with their time.  

Pollard says not all the NFL coaches have been quick to jump on the technology, preferring to make decisions based on their own judgement, but there's no doubting the positives of what it can do. 

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