BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — The New Orleans Saints were the first team to go all-in on technology that is now sweeping across the NFL.
Zebra Technologies, the real-time player tracking system the Saints have been using for years, is now in the fourth year of a five-year contract with the NFL that uses Zebra to track every single player in the NFL on game day and produce statistics like the NFL's Next Gen Stats.
Football-wise, there are sweeping implications for teams that use the technology in practice. New Orleans was the first, and now roughly one-third of the NFL uses Zebra to collect player data during practices.
"They were, in essence, the guinea pig team that's developed our software, implemented the technology in the complex in New Orleans," John Pollard, Zebra's vice president of business development, said.
New Orleans head coach Sean Payton is now the company's spokesman, and the Saints' use of the technology has helped Zebra tailor its system to what coaches need.
"With Sean being such an innovative coach in terms of play-calling, and being extremely open to using as much information as possible to help him inform his play-calling and play-design, he was really the ideal spokesperson for us to start with," Pollard said.
Zebra's data has far-reaching implications. Not only does it track the flashy Next Gen stats, it tracks a player's movement, which can help a team identify if a player is battling fatigue because he expends too much energy during warmups, or simplify a team's pitch count on a quarterback. The system also tracks formation usage and a team's productivity against certain alignments.
And now, the NFL is testing a tracking chip in the ball to see how tracking technology can improve the game.
"Initially, when the league brought this data to us, it was more from a fan experience and a media perspective," Pollard said. "The opportunity for us, is again, to allow this information to be democratized across an NFL organization, and that means bringing in. ... the personnel evaluators and the coaches."