In a sport that’s decided by the razor’s edge, having an extra 1% advantage can mean everything in the NFL.
The sport already enjoys its fair share of stats and data analysis, but compared to programs like MLB and the NBA, American football is arguably not nearly as data-friendly.
Now, though, a growing partnership between the league and Amazon Web Services (AWS) could change the game — not just for fans and broadcasters, who benefit from richer statistical analysis, but for the players themselves, with AWS technology Maybe it does keep them in the game longer.
First launched in January 2022 and expanded at the recent AWS re:Invent 2022 event Technology Radar Prothe motivation behind the NFL and AWS’ “Digital Athlete” concept is to save the careers, and possibly lives, of its players.
“It really gives us the opportunity to predict injuries,” said Jennifer Langton, senior vice president of health and safety innovation at the NFL. “We asked, what if we could predict injuries, what if we could save the ACL or the hamstring? Predict what will happen to them before the injury occurs?”
Langton explained that the program generates a “huge amount” of data about each player in the league before using the data to build and run models of a range of factors designed to predict and prevent injuries.
“At the end of the day, we’re taking a virtual representation of each player and doing a simulation model on them,” Langton noted. Those factors in our game and de-risking so players can optimize their performance. “
A previous NFL program aimed at reducing concussions in the sport was a huge success. However, Langton points out, the relevant game data has to be collected manually, which means insights can quickly become difficult to gain.
The league is now working with AWS to build the infrastructure to process the vast amounts of data generated by the digital athlete program to create a virtual 360-degree representation of the NFL player experience, which can then be used in injury prevention models.
“Not only do we want to have a cloud and cloud computing environment to do analytics, but we want to create a digital athlete,” Langton noted.
But how does the system stack up when it comes to the actual players themselves? Larry Fitzgerald had a 17-year career with the Arizona Cardinals, 11 Pro Bowl selections, and is now a broadcaster for ESPN and SiriusXM.
Rather than using AWS technology to reduce NFL players to numbers on a spreadsheet, he sees the game’s increasing use of data and “digital athlete” models as critical to giving those willing to embrace it an edge over their opponents.
“I see it as a competitive advantage that some people won’t take advantage of — but I will,” he noted. “I’m a smarter athlete. You might be in better shape if you had a better athlete race against me, but I’m smarter than him, I have more information, I’m more knowledgeable…it’s possible It would negate his natural ability.”
Fitzgerald, who works closely with AWS and the NFL, noted that the Digital Athlete Program is designed to “help the mind, body and soul help [players] Elevate the gifts they were given to play the sport they play…to the best of their ability. “
“From exercise regimen to input- [providing] any data [players] can be exploited to the optimum level. “
Fitzgerald’s role as wide receiver means he’s often in the type of contact the NFL and AWS are looking for at safety. The league’s original statistical experiments began around the 2012/2013 season, when Fitzgerald had been playing for a decade, and he no doubt raved about the effect it had on prolonging his career.
“It’s helped me play for a long time, without a doubt,” he said. “I try to do my best to maximize my career, so if using analytics and understanding the messages I’m receiving from my employees is going to help extend my career, then I jump right into it.”
“What’s unique about NFL players is that 90 percent of what we do is practice…you have the opportunity to try it hundreds of times before you try it in a game,” he noted.
“I always want this type of information to know exactly where I am, year after year [knowing] What do I need to do to keep doing what I’ve been doing for the past few years…and how I can continue to be effective, especially as my skills start to decline with age. “
Langton noted, however, that not everyone is open to the league’s new ideas.
“One of the hardest things we do is change behavior…we’re talking about the best athletes in the world,” she noted, emphasizing how some athletes are wary of using drugs that could expose athletes to brain damage. The concussion-risk light helmet transition to a heavier helmet feels like a less aerodynamic unit.
“It’s hard to change behavior,” she noted, “[but] We have a lot of different stakeholders on our team, whether it’s team positions, athletic coaches, physical exercise science equipment and managers…these are the pipelines for the players. It’s always a challenge, but we also have a very scientific and engineering rigor to it. Education is the answer and the key. “
Fitzgerald agrees, but points out that the outlook is changing as younger, more tech-savvy players enter the game — especially those who may attend more prestigious universities or better-resourced colleges .
Langton noted that new players “are more nimble and information savvy…it’s a natural appetite, but it has to be deeply rooted in the team’s culture.” She added that a bigger Team effort in all coaches and analysts. “You have to have a culture to embrace it, but when teams are successful and winning, they start adopting it.”
“The healthier your players are, the healthier your team will be.”
Looking ahead, it’s clear the NFL has bold goals for its data-driven digital athlete program and the technology’s use elsewhere.
Langton noted that all 32 NFL teams will get the digital athlete platform next year after an initial pilot with four early adopters, and claimed the system has already sparked interest in other sports, namely the English Premier League, but could also. Potential use cases are in the broader healthcare arena.
Some of the examples she gave revolved around examining injury mechanisms and the human body, as well as reducing risk and optimizing performance.
“Really, the power of the work, and the impact of what we’re doing, I think we’ll go beyond football,” she noted. “It’s very unique, which is why our work with AWS is very unique.”
For Fitzgerald, who also admits to benefiting greatly from AWS’ statistical output in his broadcast role (and his kids’ fantasy football league), the possibilities for the NFL’s future are endless.
He ponders the impact better analytics has had on prolonging the careers of sports legends like Roger Federer, Phil Mickelson, Serena Williams, Tom Brady and LeBron James — They have been performing at the highest level for much longer than expected in the past.
“Father’s time is undefeated,” he said with a laugh, “but you can’t tell me a lot of the things we’re talking about today aren’t helping players last longer and still be at an elite level.”