The NFL’s Newest Statistic

RFID sensors will track players movement this season. Time to find out who knows how to run a route.

Jets receiver Stephen Hill has spent the last two years disappointing Rex Ryan. The Georgia Tech second rounder has 4.3-forty speed, a muscular 6’5’’ frame, and a ridiculous vertical. In 2013, he used those gifts to catch 24 passes for 342 yards, one more receiving yard than Atlanta’s Jacquizz Rodgers, who was a running back in a 2-RB system. The reason that Hill’s natural talent hasn’t translated into yards probably has everything to do with the Buzz’s triple-option offense, which prioritizes blocking over running a route. In the NFL, routes are everything.

Stephen Hill’s lackluster career is what makes the NFL’s announcement that players will be outfitted with radio-frequency identification sensors during games so exciting. The technology, which uses quarter-sized chips embedded in shoulder pads to track the movement of players in real time, will effectively allow coaches to see how proficient their players are at being Xs and Os. For player’s like Stephen Hill, the program is bad news because it will help the nerds in the back office calculate how close their path on each play mapped with the play called. Great athletes who can’t manage the zigs and zags will be cleaning out their lockers.

But the tech isn’t just interesting because Hill is bad. The tech is interesting because Mike Wallace is good.

Mike Wallace isn’t good because he runs plays perfectly. The Miami receiver can definitely run a route, but what’s impressive about the former Steeler is what happens next. He’s essentially a broken play specialist. When the plan goes to shit, he becomes more effective, using his speed to create big separation while his quarterback scrambles. The result? Yards, lots of them. With the RFID sensors, it will become clear when plays break down and what happens next. That information will be siloed and analysts (the smart ones anyway) will learn which players are good at taking initiative and which ones aren’t. Mike Wallace becomes a hero and a brilliant athlete who tends to quit on the play (coughDeSean Jackson cough) are outed as liabilities against a certain type of defense. 

And here’s where it gets fun: Chris Berman and the scouts aren’t going to be the only ones looking at the RFID maps. There’s this guy named Richard Sherman who plays for the Seahawks and does his homework. You can bet that he’s going to know how his opponents tend to run their routes, which makes it even more like that if he picks up on a play he’ll also pick off the ball. RFID tech makes subterfuge that much more important because it maps the quirks of every player. Football will remain an unpredictable game, but anticipating the behavior of individual players will get easier.

As the arms race continues and plays are automatically recorded, the onus will be on coaches to mix it up strategically. There are more and more reasons to run unusual plays and there are more and more reasons to never run those plays again. If the defense can study both how a play is supposed to work and how it actually works during a game, the offense had better make sure that its plays keep iterating. Run the same play twice and you can expect to be throwing the ball away.

The only time that rule doesn’t apply is when you’re the New York Jets and Stephen Hill is the intended receiver. Stephen Hill never runs a route the same way twice. He doesn’t know how to, which makes him both disappointing and Sherman-proof.

Photos by Brett Deering / Getty Images