Imagine a room where a quarterback could slip on a headset and immediately be immersed within a play. He could go through all his reads, fire off a pass, and avoid pass rushers, all without getting out of his chair.
He could stand firm under a J.J. Watt pass rush without ever absorbing a hit, or connect with Brandin Cooks over the middle even though Cooks is actually miles away.
“What? No,” Saints rookie quarterback Garrett Grayson said between laughs. “I’ve never heard of that or done that.”
The concept sounds like something dreamed up by a Hollywood screenwriter with an overactive imagination. But virtual reality is real, and it’s something teams across the country are starting to employ.
The technology, developed by StriVR Labs, is currently being used by the Dallas Cowboys, and college programs such as Stanford, Auburn, Arkansas, Clemson, Vanderbilt and Dartmouth are now using it.
“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,” Cowboys quarterback Brandon Weeden recently told ESPN. “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.”
The Saints have not yet joined the fray, but the team is interested in the technology. New Orleans wide receivers coach John Morton recently went to Stanford to check it out and met StriIVR founder, Derek Belch, a former kicker for the Cardinal who dreamed up the technology while completing his master’s degree.
New Orleans has not been in contact with StriVR since the initial demonstration, but coach Sean Payton said he remains intrigued.
“Yes, I do. It was something we met on,” Payton said. “That is something that is another area that I am sure will get progressively better, and I do see that down the road a way to train, not just the quarterback position but other players as well.”
Payton previously spoke about the technology in February during an appearance at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Even though he thinks it could extend beyond one position, the Saints coach specifically thinks the technology could be useful in developing quarterbacks.
Unlike cornerbacks or wide receivers, only one quarterback typically gets on the field for a team, which means the backups have to make up for lost reps in extra sessions on the practice field or in the classroom. While growth can be made in both of these settings, it’s impossible to simulate the speed of the game.
And even the opportunities in practice are limited. Since teams are chiefly concerned with winning during the upcoming season instead of developing a quarterback who might or might not play years down the road, it can be difficult for everyone to get repetitions during practice.
During Wednesday’s organized team activity, Drew Brees threw 16 passes during 11-on-11 drills, and Grayson attempted only two. The issue could be solved with virtual reality by simply plugging Grayson into a machine and putting him through mental reps.
And at any position, when a new player comes to town, this could be a way for them to become immersed in the system and get up to speed outside of the confines of the practice field.
Even if its implementation in New Orleans is down the road — if ever — the technology has caught Payton’s eye.
“I think, as teachers, we are no different than the teachers in the classroom,” Payton said. “You are constantly looking to improve your ability to teach a subject, and the minute you stop looking, then you become stale.”
Right now, the technology is limited to quarterbacks in Dallas. When the player puts on a headset, it allows him to look around the field to see what the defense is doing or isn’t doing.
It’s easy to see how it would work for this position. How it will be used for other positions remains to be seen. In New Orleans, players on the defensive side of the ball are intrigued by what the Cowboys are doing, but remain skeptical of the technology.
“Maybe watching tape and seeing guys do certain drops and you could visually see what they need instead of just having it on paper,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “You could see the actual bodies moving, I guess.”
Like any other new technology, it comes down to showing and proving. That’s what StriVR is trying to do right now by putting everyone they can in a headset to see their vision.
If they’re successful, this could be the next trend to sweep across the NFL.