The NFL has expanded its data-collection program to include chips in every football used during the 2017 season, according to Zebra Technologies, the company that will provide the hardware.
The data, generated by radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips built into each ball, will be targeted for use by broadcasters as part of the league's Next-Gen statistics program. It will also be studied by the NFL competition committee, but at this point the information is not precise enough to assist officials with touchdown calls, marking the football for first downs and determining whether the ball has passed through the sideline.
Last season, the NFL experimented with chips in kicking balls used during the preseason and in Thursday night games. Among the points of study was how close the balls passed to the uprights on kick attempts, giving the competition committee information on whether it should propose narrowing the goalposts.
NFL players have been wearing shoulder pads with similar technology during games since 2014. For the ball project, the league commissioned Zebra Technologies to work with Wilson Sporting Goods to develop a chip that would not impact the movement or shape. The chip weighs 3 grams and is built in during production, according to Jill Stelfox, Zebra's vice president and general manager of location solutions.
The chip acts in part as an accelerometer, providing data such as the speed of the football, its spin and whether it is moving in a spiral or end-over-end. The Next-Gen program will experiment with using the information in tandem with player-tracking data. Teams get access to information for their own player tracking, which most coaches interviewed over the past year have largely opposed.
Eventually, however, the combination of player and ball tracking could prove useful. For example, Stelfox said special-teams coaches could document how quickly their players cover a punt relative to the ball's position in the air.
At this point, however, the football chips can't provide consistent enough information to help with officiating. According to Stelfox, the chips can provide location within 6 inches of accuracy -- a significant variance for measuring first downs. Even if it were more accurate, it couldn't document the exact location of a player's feet, knees or other body parts to determine where the ball is when the player is ruled down -- a critical part of the ball-marking process.
"In some cases," Stelfox said, "those 6 inches might be good enough [to spot the ball]. But in all cases, it's probably not good enough at this point with the technology being where it is. It also depends on where your feet are, and your knees are, and we don't have those tagged with chips. They're only in the shoulder pads. So the NFL is still going to need referees to do that."
The NFL did not immediately provide information Thursday morning on how it will use the new data.