For years, NFL teams have gone through the process of preparing for an upcoming opponent based on gut feelings and have done things a certain way because that’s the way things have always been done.
It worked before, so why wouldn’t it work now? But as technology and data have become more available and accessible, teams are finding out that the old way of doing things is not always necessarily the best way.
In their search to find a better way of doing things, the New Orleans Saints have embraced analytics and technology, keeping an open mind on how these tools can better help them scout and prepare for opponents. But they’ve also introduced technology to the field to help them better understand what their players are doing and going through in practices.
Before last season, the Saints equipped their players with tracking devices that record how far and how fast they are moving in each practice. The data isn’t necessarily used to determine which players are working the hardest in practice. It exists to let the coaching staff know what works best in practices and assists in preventing injuries.
“I think the No. 1 interest in year one for us was keeping our players healthy,” Payton said while speaking on a panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. “Mainly soft tissue injuries when it comes to hamstrings, muscle pulls. Obviously we’re on top of proper hydration. There was a time 10 years ago when you weren’t supposed to drink water until practice was over with.
“Being able to actually see Brandin Cooks is extending himself much further or much more on Wednesdays than the rest of his position group, relative to the other seven receivers on our roster, it gave us an idea of the workload and then how we might want to practice the following day or the day after a day off.”
When the technology was first installed during training camp, some of the players were leery. Early on, Payton said he would catch the offensive linemen milling about the field, walking in circles. Finally, he asked them what was going on.
“We’re just trying to make sure our numbers aren’t low,” offensive tackle Zach Strief said, according to Payton.
Perhaps there’s an element of keeping tabs on players, but that is not Payton’s intent.
The Saints are still figuring out how to use this data. It helped him gain a better understanding of what was happening on the field. Payton was able to see that his receivers and defensive backs were traveling six or seven miles each practice, compared to an average of 1.8 by the offensive linemen.
That’s useful information, but he’s hoping it becomes even more useful once he has a database full of figures that he can draw upon in the future to compare against. Once that happens, the potential of this system will be further unlocked.
There was a learning curve when the program was first implemented. During the first few weeks, Payton said he had no idea what he was looking at.
“I would get the initial numbers and just looking at it, a long blue bar meant they ran a lot,” he joked.
The Saints have employed a few men who work with this data and are tasked with making it mean something. Mostly, they compare players against their own position group and can use the information to better determine when a player is overexerting himself or getting to a threshold where injuries might happen.
“It will shape us with how we practice in May and more important in training camp and in season,” he said. “We can point to work load and how it relates to injuries. It will shape our calendar.”
In meantime, the Saints will be able to figure out even more useful things from this data. For now, it’s better to know what’s exactly happening on the field. Otherwise, you might come to some wild conclusion about how it’s damaging to drink water during practice.