Inside Slant: 'Endless' possibilities for NFL's Next Gen stats

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BOSTON -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton has an idea. And now, for the first time in NFL history, it's a realistic possibility.

Imagine a young quarterback walking into a room at the Saints' practice facility. He straps on a headset, flips a switch and plays a virtual game against the Atlanta Falcons' defense. His vision is filled with current Falcons schemes and players, who move and react based on data compiled by the NFL's "Next Gen Stats" program.

"The challenge we have all the time is that it's the one position where there's only one of them in the game the entire time," Payton said Friday during an appearance at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. "The game ends, and how do you get those guys snaps, real-time snaps? Much like we develop pilots -- they do a lot of simulator work -- I think the opportunity exists [in football]. Especially when you're able to accurately show movement with chips, exactly how it unfolds with the defense."

As we discussed in December, the NFL compiled real-time data in 18 stadiums and a total of 130 games last season using RFID (radio frequency identification) technology. Chips inserted into shoulder pads allowed the league's partner, Zebra Technologies, to map movement and create player profiles. Only a sliver of the data made it to the public, via a series of measurements fed to broadcast networks, and the truth is the NFL doesn't know yet what it will do with the rest.

"The possibilities are endless," Matt Birk, the league's director of player development said. "[But] that's a discussion that's going to be had: What happens if we do make some or all of these stats available, maybe through the sideline tablets we already have? That's not something we would just rush into. Competitively, what kind of advantage or disadvantage would that provide?"

More than half of the league's teams are already using similar GPS technology to monitor player health and exertion during practice. It has led to some relatively big changes in practice structure -- the Green Bay Packers, for example, shortened their Friday practices and elongated their Saturday workouts based on data -- but to me the bigger issue is how it could directly impact games.

For one, as Birk suggested, teams could be much quicker to make in-game adjustments if they're getting data directly, as opposed to subjective information from the press box.

"During the week," Birk said, "coaches come up with the game plan. They'll say, 'We have this wrinkle this week, and every time we line [a player] up here, here's the play we're going to run.' The saying was, 'Let [the other team] figure it out on Monday.' They're not going to realize it during the game, but they'll figure it out Monday when they watch the film.

"Now, if you talk about where a guy is lined up with real-time data during games, they're going to have that, and you have to adjust. So you have to think about, responsibly, what does that mean for the way a coach's job is going to be [complicated]?"

Quipped Payton: "I think it means there are going to be more MIT grads coaching."

Turning serious, he offered a schematic possibility. In-game data, he said, could help determine whether to play "press" or "off" coverage by comparing a player's speed against press to his burst when defenders are off the line of scrimmage. In-game validation of a scouting report and game plan, he added, could "make for a more confident playcaller."

So why is the NFL hesitant to release this data to teams? For one, it wants to understand better how it could be used. Some franchises will always be better at exploiting a competitive advantage, but unleashing the information before knowing its true effect conceivably could upset the balance of power more than a league based on parity would like to see.

Second, frankly, is the impact on finances and contracts. How would this kind of data change the value of players? If it shows that a receiver is running 20 percent slower in his fifth year than his second, would his value be diminished? On the other hand, would an agent argue for more money when his player runs faster deep routes than any other in the league?

"It'll allow you to compare players in-game to players that have come before," Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk said. "That's not only for the fans, but for coaches and GMs. It's going to cut down on a lot of the conversations of, 'Does he still have it? Can he still play?' Well, here is the data. It doesn't lie.

"I have a feeling that this is going to be used. A GM and an agent, they are going to sit down, and those numbers we used to not know, they're going to have that information ... and it's going to matter."

For now, Birk said, the NFL is focused on three potential uses in the relatively immediate future. It can only help player wellness, much as GPS tracking has impacted practice structures. It could improve officiating by evaluating their movements in real time, and it could make drills at the scouting combine more relevant. (Here's Mike Rodak's news story on that possibility from ESPN.com.)

"Once the toothpaste is out of the tube," Birk said, "you can't put it back in. So it's tough to say where this is going. Those decisions will be made far above my pay grade. But no decisions are made in haste. The competition committee will want to look at this, and that will give us the historical perspective we need, which is important."

Yes, we might be a few years away from virtual quarterback development. But the baseline information is already available. It's just a matter of how the NFL harnesses it.