GUEST POST: Using Technology To Develop QBs

[NOTE FROM ARIF: This is great stuff from reader Duane Oyen that does a fantastic job integrating what we know of civilian and military technology and applying it to increase the exposure and practice time that an NFL quarterback has. This is his first guest post, and it’s a great one. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Again, email me at arifmhasan (at) gmail DOT com if you have ideas for your own guest post. I love reading them!]

By Duane Oyen

Possibly the favorite recurring theme of everyone who loves pro football—and especially everyone who a) loves the off-season maneuvering and hot stove anticipation of building new rosters for the next season and b) is a fan of a team not led by guys with names such as Manning, Brady, Brees, Luck, Wilson, or Ryan—is how to evaluate the upgrade your favorite team’s quarterback position.  The time and attention lavished on this problem by aficionados almost rivals the scope and degree of the 40+ year old medical research war on cancer.

It should be noted that we seem to be making more progress against cancer than we are in figuring out what QB to draft in what round and how to turn him into the Next Big Passer.  The only surefire method is to go 1-15 in the year that a P. Manning or a Luck declares for the draft.  In other words, “get Luck-y”-which is also the only way to explain how the same team drafted both Peyton and Luck.

You have recognized scouts and coaches such as Brian Billick and Bill Walsh drafting Kyle Boller and Jim Druckenmiller.  Scouts, including lots of ex-QBs such as Ron Jaworski, Bill Musgrave, and, at lower competition levels, Tony Dungy and Brad Childress, render views based on extended film study.  The internet is filled with bright and utterly obsessed analysts breaking down college QB performance in every game ever played, with ranking compensating and controlling for every possible factor you can think of as they try to tease out what some refer to as “it”, whatever “it” is in the post-analysis.

At the same time as the frustration with the process is peaking, especially in a year of draftable QB uncertainty where no one is really separating himself from the pack and there are six teams desperate to find a long term effective starter, the opportunity to coach and develop young QBs is decreasing because of the limits imposed by the NFLPA collective bargaining agreement (CBA), now in its second year of applying stricter limitations on the amount of contact a prospect is allowed to have with his pro coaching staff.

One can’t help but feel that there are more QBs out there who could follow in the footsteps of Rich Gannon, Kurt Warner, Brad Johnson, and Jake Delhomme; their successes followed because they had the long term determination to succeed, combined with hope, and, perhaps most importantly, opportunities to develop.

Johnson had a third string position with no expectations, Gannon (and possibly Josh McCown) just hung in there till they hit the right situation, and Warner and Delhomme got to hone their skills in NFL Europe.  But each got extended practice and waited out situations where they perhaps lacked effective coaching, offensive systems, roster talent levels suited to their particular capabilities, and eventually hit the right circumstances.

If quarterbacking is so highly valued, why doesn’t the NFL, which spends money on everything else in the world of talent acquisition, find ways to get green QBs more training, particularly more realistic repetitions—not standing in a cornfield in shorts and a T-shirt next to legendary NFL star Chris Weinke, but wearing a helmet and pads, and throwing real time against an opposing team, with every possible play and personnel situation in the mix?  In other words, why can’t we train prospective NFL QBs the way we train fighter pilots, using simulators that realistically create battle conditions and the physical environment?

The answer that we can—but no one has done it yet.  We don’t know why.

Teddy Bridgewater wanted to practice this way—his offensive coach says that he replicated his Louisville offense on his video game console.  That is a weak imitation of the real thing, but the world of 3-D aerospace training certainly can be re-created for QB training, practice, and learning.  Some entities have played with this on the edges, but no one has done it seriously.  People such as the military trainers, Disney, and the makers of Madden Football could pretty easily make this work.  Here are the pieces of the system, which could be set up at any major football facility or even a QB’s oversized garage or small sized polebarn.  The main system components are listed below; more detail is provided for each element as needed.

1) Heads-up video display built into a football helmet—this is really self-explanatory, but the technology is now cheap and ubiquitous.  Even Google Glasses or inexpensive systems available at Amazon offer the capability, as does every military aviation system.

It is not difficult to take a video display and build that into a football helmet blocking, out the live optical scene or integrating the camera image of the football center snap with the simulation, so that what the QB sees is a 3-D image of pass rushers and receivers configured in visual depth.

2) 30’ by 30’ artificial turf working practice area—this is also self-explanatory.  The QB needs to feel the “grass” under his cleats, not a concrete floor.

3) Instrumented mesh screen—When the QB throws the ball, he has to throw it into something at the optimal distance so that it catches the ball, and feeds back the information about where it went, how far, did it get to the receiver, was it overthrown, underthrown, wide of the mark, and so on, based on projected vector compared to the place the software image told the QB his receiver was going to be.  This can be done by effectively hanging a “smart” curtain stretched taut, the proper distance in front of the QB, perhaps 3 yards in front of the “line of scrimmage”.

The curtain has a map of grid circuits that tells where the ball hits it, with strain gages (the sensors in an electronic scale) located at each grid point to tell how hard the ball hits it.  The computer then calculates, based on the ball velocity, and direction of flight as calculated from the point of impact, where it would hit the ground, or better yet, where a receiver would meet it.  This can be done with amazing accuracy—GPS systems provide that kind of information over enormous distances with just a few data points 22,000 miles up in the Van Allen satellite belt, army artillery can shoot a shell over ten miles and aim very precisely using ballistics tables for tilting the barrels and establishing the right propellant charge.

4) High fidelity sound system—of course, the QB has to hear the crowd noise in his helmet speakers, along with defensive ends and tackles grunting as their footsteps pound ever closer to the QB.

5) Graphics controller computer—the brains of the hardware system, with both a CPU to do the calculations and control all the elements, and a very high speed graphics processor to create the digital visual images.

6) 3-D video software—this is important, can be expensive, but also can start more simply with fewer plays, with iterative upgrades to expand the capability as long as the initial architecture is set with flexibility.

With this kind of system, a QB can be anywhere, and can work at any time, with or without coaches, in season or off-season.  He can have his most troublesome issues programmed into the software and multiple plays set up so that he drills his muscle memory over and over and over again until new habits are established.

The number of live reps in camp and OTAs need not limit the opportunity to improve.  There is nothing you can’t simulate in software as long as the video-audio and feedback mechanisms are properly represented; using accelerometers and strain gages, along with visual sensors (cameras mounted on the sides of the turf time-sync’d to the other sensors) provides a full record of what was doine right and what was done wrong.  And the willingness to work on shortcomings by drilling over and over again will set the keepers apart from the clipboard holders.

If we Vikings fans care about seeing the team move up in the league, we should initiate a Kickstarter project to develop the closed-loop, game-simulation, 3-D trainer.

[Final note – I have a thought to include a loud, annoying “failure” buzzer every time the quarterback gets “sacked” or “hit” in the simulation in order to simulate pressure, imitate the things that cause quarterbacks to rush their mechanics and give them an incentive to get rid of the ball early (perhaps too early, in order to test their “pocket presence”). Or, they could be wearing a suit that imitates physical force of some sort integrated into the system.

From what I know, Christian Ponder and a number of other quarterbacks have used Google Glass, but I don’t know if it was anything more than a novelty.

The system would be awesome to implement, but would do very well if tested out by a team that knows it has a good quarterback and a team that knows it has a raw quarterback to compare results, just to see if the system can be gamed in a way that won’t help on the NFL field, but helps in the simulation.

Regardless, those are small technical details to add on to an impressive piece by Oyen that should at least have some NFL teams thinking.]