With virtual reality help, Cowboys hope players improve

IRVING, Texas -- After a normal practice, Brandon Weeden can sit in front of a television screen and watch every snap of every play, fast-forwarding and re-winding as much as he wants as he looks for a tiny piece of information that could make a big difference.

Now, after a normal practice, Weeden can virtually experience it again.

In their attempt to maximize their players' abilities, the Dallas Cowboys recently added STRIVR Labs' virtual reality system that can take the player back on the field without having to actually get back on the field.

The immersive virtual reality technology allows Weeden and the Cowboys' quarterbacks to make the pre-snap calls, make the in-play reads and learn by actually going through the play instead of just watching it on an iPad or screen.

Think of a flight simulator, only it's a football practice.

"It blows normal film out of the water," Weeden said. "It's like you're taking a live rep without throwing."

Former Stanford kicker Derek Belch came up with the idea for his master's thesis. He perfected the idea with Stanford associate professor Jeremy Bailenson, a virtual-reality expert, as a graduate assistant on the football staff last season.

"We tested it out in the fall just to see if I had something for me to get an A, and in the back of my mind I knew if we could develop something cool, maybe it could be commercialized," Belch said.

The Cowboys are the first NFL team to purchase the system, but other teams have discussed adding it as well. In addition to Stanford, major college programs Arkansas, Auburn, Clemson and Vanderbilt are among those using the software with others looking to add it soon as well.

With actual practice film as the back drop, a player dons a VR headset and can feel like he is on the practice field in the middle of the huddle with a 360-degree view. As the quarterback's eyes move to the left or right, the angles give him a live look at what the defense is doing -- or not doing.

"Jason [Garrett] told me as a career backup he'd been dreaming of something like this 20 years ago," Belch said. "He couldn't wait to see it and then when we showed it to him a couple weeks later he said it far exceeded his expectations."

The Cowboys have built a special room for the set up at their Valley Ranch facility, complete with a turf field and sound-proof walls. When they move to their new facility in Frisco, Texas, next year, they will have a dedicated room as well.

Weeden said the best part is being able to hear what went on during practice. He does not always hear the checks Tony Romo will make in practice as he watches. Now he can hear the check and understand why Romo made the change he made.

Even if the pass went to the right, the quarterback can keep his eyes to the left during the play to see how a receiver ran a route or what kind of technique a cornerback used in a specific coverage.

Weeden went so far as to look down so he could check his footwork on certain throws to make sure he wasn't going across his body.

"It's like you're live in there," Weeden said.

And Weeden said Garrett wants the quarterbacks to be "theatrical" as they use the system, yelling at the middle linebacker and making the normal adjustments they would make if they were on the grass fields out back and not just the turf field in the 12-by-12 room.

"The nice thing is I can go in there and watch 12 plays of seven-on-seven and do it in 15 minutes and it's like I got 12 reps," Weeden said. "And I can rewind them as much as I want. I can look out there and watch the other quarterbacks, the receivers, the cornerbacks. It's like you're watching tape but you can learn from it."

Right now, the Cowboys only tape the seven-on-seven portion of practice using the system. The hope is to use the tool during walkthroughs as the summer goes along. And they hope they can put defensive players in the headset to help them from their point of view as well.

"That one of the best franchises and biggest brand names in all the world is our first customer is pretty neat," Belch said. "From Jason's end, it shows he cares about the players and he's willing to think outside the box."

Perhaps Garrett saw the improvement Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan showed in the final three games of the season after starting to use the virtual reality trainer. Hogan completed 76.3 percent of his passes, a 10 percent increase. He had four touchdown passes and just one interception. The Cardinal won all three games.

"I'm not going to take credit for that, for Kevin's performance, but the reality is when I asked Kevin what he saw he said everything he saw from what we practiced in VR is what he saw on the field against UCLA, Cal and Maryland," Belch said. "He was telling me, ‘Yeah, this showed up, so we did this a little differently.' Right then and there I knew this was something. The fact that he could recall really specific instances where the exact look he saw in VR showed up in games meant it was working.

"It's not a magic bullet. I'm not going to say it's the reason Kevin played better, but the science says that it works outside of athletics and now we're looking for a way for it to work inside athletics."