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Zebra helps the NFL get into data overdrive

Tucked into shoulder pads, the company's nickel-size sensors track the movements of every player on the turf.

A nondescript building hidden away in Silicon Valley might hold the key to an NFL team's Super Bowl chances.

Inside, dozens of colorful computers and widescreens at Zebra Technologies' command center intricately track the on-field movements of all the nearly 1,700 players active across each week's National Football League games. The San Jose, California-based company gets the data through nickel-size radio-frequency identification, or RFID, tags in the players' shoulder pads. The tags beam information to receptors in the stadium and it's collected by Zebra.

The data includes team lineups and formations, as well as real-time info on individual player performance. That could include how many yards Carolina Panthers All-Pro quarterback Cam Newton burns his opponents for, either with his arm or his legs, or how many yards elusive Pittsburgh Steelers star wide receiver Antonio Brown chalks up on catches or punt and kickoff returns.

Zebra Technologies' button-size tags, placed in shoulder pads, help track player movement during games.

Terry Collins/CNET

The tags, which resemble small dress shirt buttons, are also placed under the collars of referees' shirts and on yardage chains on the sidelines.

Zebra's pitch to the league: The data can be used for teams to come up with strategies to defeat opponents and ways to assess their own players, helping them improve and recover faster.

Data married with artificial intelligence, Zebra says, will soon make the difference for some teams, potentially turning an average season into a playoff appearance and possibly a spot in the Big Game.

"Data like this can be used in many different ways in terms of schematics," Jill Stelfox, who oversees Zebra's partnership with the NFL, said at a recent tour of the company's command center. "How do [players] line up? Who do you put in, in the first quarter or in the fourth quarter, when the game is all on the line?"

Zebra has a lot riding on this season. For the last two years, it has given data to the NFL's 32 teams months after the 17-week regular season ends.

However, this year, teams will get their data the day after a game. This means they can use the information to help plan for their next matchup.

As part of the NFL's player-tracking program, called Next Gen Stats, Zebra will also have chips just under the laces inside footballs for use during Thursday Night Football games this season. The NFL's Competition Committee approved the chips in game balls after a successful test run during the preseason, according to league spokesman Brian McCarthy.

"Among the data that will be collected is how far the ball travels on a particular play and the ball's proximity to the goal posts on a field goal" or an extra point, said McCarthy in an email.

Week one of the NFL season concludes Monday night with games between the Steelers and the Washington Redskins and between the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers. That follows a full slate of Sunday games.

The season kicked off Thursday with a Super Bowl rematch between the Panthers and defending NFL champion Denver Broncos. The Broncos won a nail-biter, 21-20. Zebra didn't make stats for the season opener immediately available.

Inside Zebra Technologies' Silicon Valley command center, Zebra vice president Jill Stelfox explains how the company monitors its NFL player-tracking sensors.

Terry Collins/CNET

Whether leaning on technologies like Zebra's or like Hudl, an app that's used by more than 100,000 professional and amateur sports teams to analyze game footage, demand is huge to consume sports in unconventional ways, said Michael Goldman, a sports management professor at the University of San Francisco.

"These companies are providing immediate access to digitize plays, so teams are able to analyze it very quickly," he said. "For some fans, they are attracted to not only what is happening on the field, but also with 'the game within the game,' as the more information and data they have, the more they love."

Zebra started working with the NFL in 2014 as part of a five-year deal. It kicked off with a pilot program, placing its RFID system in 18 NFL stadiums. The league was pleased with Zebra's tracking accuracy, said McCarthy, the league spokesman.

The tags track movement to within six inches, said Eric Petrosinelli, Zebra Sports general manager.

Zebra's system expanded in the second year to all 32 NFL stadiums, where each game generated more than 180 gigabytes of player data. That's enough to fill a top-end iPhone. The data is detailed enough for Zebra to calculate each player's speed, acceleration and position instantly. Zebra will also monitor players at the NFL's overseas games, including three scheduled in London and one in Mexico.

"Teams are just starting to see what they want from the data," Petrosinelli said. "They're analyzing it and soon they will start to get into specifics."

Zebra has between 20 and 25 devices, usually located in middle decks of each stadium, to track player movements. The data is transmitted to Zebra's command center in San Jose and the NFL in less than two seconds. Then it's sent to networks so that announcers can use it while describing instant replays during broadcasts.

Zebra's data is also given to fans as part of the NFL's Next Gen stats feature, which appears on Microsoft's Xbox One video game consoles.

In addition to data tracking how far and fast a player ran, Zebra's system measures more obscure metrics, such as whether a running back is using his blocking to gain valuable yardage, how precisely a wide receiver ran his route or if a tight end made an adjustment to catch the ball.

"We can show how a running back may have actually run 10 or 15 yards, but officially gained only 3," Stelfox said. "If a trainer knows that information, they can properly train players for it."

Currently, three NFL teams -- the San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints -- use Zebra during their practices. Zebra hopes eventually the teams will use the real-time data during actual games.

"Teams will be hiring data analytics coaches soon," Stelfox said. "Maybe they will be sitting up in the coaches' box someday."

First published September 10 at 5:00 a.m. PT.
Update September 12 at 9:00 a.m. PT: Added information about week one games.