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Rams to Implement Tracking Devices for Advanced Metrics This Season

The NFL is installing a "real-time location system" for players and officials in 17 stadiums this season, including the Edward Jones Dome. So what does that really mean?

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Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

First, let it be known that the original Transformers: The Movie takes place in 2005. It is 2014. Thus, ipso facto, we live in "the future."

I am often reminded of this by certain artifacts of reality around me. Today is one of those days.

The NFL will install a "real-time location system" in 17 stadiums for this season, including the Edward Jones Dome. Per the official press release:

This innovative technology will track players and officials, providing location based data known as "Next Gen Stats" to fans.

Zebra receivers installed throughout the stadium will communicate with radio-frequency identification (RFID) transmitters placed inside the shoulder pads of each player to capture precise location measurements, in real-time, during the game. Zebra’s technology will collect data such as position, speed, and distance that will be registered and compiled into a database. This data can then be outputted to generate new experiences built around this additional data.

For the first time, this technology enables the NFL to accurately capture real-time player tracking statistics, such as acceleration and total distance run. The real-time nature of these statistics enables end-users to gain immediate insight into the action on the field.

So yes, if you were assuming as much beforehand, this is pretty badass. There is a question of implementation and utility as it is used by three different groups: broadcasters, coaches and fans.

How this could change the NFL on TV

This piece from USA Today provides some cool photos that pretty easily exhibit how this could be used during a game broadcast. As the release notes, the sensors will be installed for every Thursday night game host stadium as well as for Detroit and New Orleans, so this isn't limited to a small number of games in which we could see the technology being used. And much like the computer-generated yellow line for first downs and SkyCam, it will probably take a couple of years to get it right.

Still, the opportunity to mine a huge set of data in real-time is both inviting...and really perilous. Many broadcasters struggle to explain the action to an audience that's made up of both passionate, somewhat-educated football fans and those who know little about the intricacies of the sport. The risk in trying to make any kind of analytical statement relying on this data is one that I'm sure we can all identify. Football is a complicated mess of data points. Adding more doesn't simplify the broadcasters' job, but it does give them another tool in the box. Using it will require skill that only the best have.

How this could change the way franchises are built and run

Last year, I read this piece over at Grantland that broke down how a similar technology is changing the way the NBA understands its sport. Similar to the impact this could have on the tv side, front offices and coaches will have a new capability that could change how they do business.

Think how important it will be to be able to definitively quantify the distance a player has racked up in-game over the course of a season. Or how the exact distance a RB has run throughout his career. Or finding a correlation between both of those and some injury threshold. That's just considering the distance metric, one single data point.

The capability for team staffs to dig into data that has been unavailable to them since, well, always is not insignificant. It could allow coaches to be aware of a factor they were unable to previously identify and make a crucial decision in-game. It could allow a GM to, like this piece from the LA Times on the impact advanced systems are having on the NBA alludes to, acquire a player who provides 90% of a desired skill set for a third of the cost.

How this could change the way we enjoy the sport

It's not much different than the All-22 video or from instant replay...or from every technological advancement in sports.

The aforementioned Grantland piece on the NBA's tracking system included this video that demonstrates the value of the technology:

NBA fans and media are already clamoring for access to the data to, well, talk about it. Any modern baseball fan worth his or her salt knows about Pitch F/x. You're at an SB Nation NFL community. You don't think we'd love to have something like this for the Rams to comb through? You don't think I'd love to reference this stuff in relation to college players throughout the winter and spring leading up to the draft? YOU DON'T WANT A PAGE LIKE THIS FOR THE NFL?!?!

We're fans. We should always want more. More football. More data. More analysis.

We'll now we're getting it, albeit at limited sites and for limited purpose with (assumedly less than) limited access. Eventually, like the All-22, we'll have full access to errthang. Until then, baby steps.

Good, exciting baby steps.