Will Virtual Reality Pick Next-Gen NFL Quarterbacks?
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Coaches might soon depend on what VR headsets tell them about QB prospects.
Ted Sundquist, Denver Broncos director of scouting from 1995-2001, couldn’t understand why new quarterbacks were set up to fail. His staff invested time in getting QBs into the franchise, and worked on training programs to groom them into future starters. But when the regular season started, veterans usurped the practice reps, and the new guy became an afterthought. Backups who did enter the game sank or swam (usually sank), deprived of development, and coaches asked the personnel department to find a new new guy.
Sundquist saw the process — not the quarterback — as flawed. So, the former Air Force intelligence officer turned to a strategy the military uses with soldiers before combat: realistic simulators as supplemental training. If that worked on the battlefield, why not the football field? “I think the military has long understood the importance of repetition and putting people in dangerous situations without the chance of getting them hurt and letting them be able to make mistakes,” he says.
Now, Sundquist is among a handful of sports innovators promising to fundamentally change the way prospective quarterbacks are evaluated, through cutting-edge virtual reality tools. The coronavirus has prevented teams from using them ahead of this year’s NFL draft, which kicks off on Thursday. But amid questions over how the pandemic has changed the sporting world, these technologies are offering a parallel revolution in football recruiting.
Who are the guys who are really willing to learn, how quickly will they learn? … Those are things we can uniquely measure in VR.
Michael Casale, Strivr
Sundquist’s Sports VTS QBSIM is a VR football training prototype that prioritizes quarterback instruction. It builds animated visuals like those used in flight simulators. Strivr, another VR device founded by former Stanford kicker Derek Belch, already counts eight NFL teams — including the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers — among its clients. Then there’s Catapult Sports, whose technology is used by 30 NFL teams and a few hundred collegiate programs. Strivr and Catapult Sports record practice footage, primarily from the quarterback pocket, that later transports players onto the field in VR. Carson Palmer, Drew Brees, Case Keenum and others have praised VR training.
“The guys who really excel are the guys who develop all facets of the game, including their cognitive abilities and decision-making,” says Michael Casale, Strivr’s chief science officer. “Most guys just don’t show up to the NFL with that … So who are the guys who are really willing to learn, how quickly will they learn, etc.? … Those are things we can uniquely measure in VR.”
At the NFL scouting combine, teams test quarterbacks’ throwing accuracy and power on an empty field, foot speed and intelligence with a paper test — all artificial constructs not replicated during games. It’s been that way for more than 25 years, says Sundquist, who sat on the combine committee for 14 years.
But that’s slowly changing, says Omar Ahmad, director of sports partnerships at Strivr. In meetings with draft prospects, some Strivr clients have placed VR headsets on quarterbacks. The tape rolled and coaches spouted questions at players, including, Ahmad says, “What are you thinking on this play or this protection?”
The pandemic means these interactions won’t be part of the upcoming draft, but Strivr’s software includes features that coaches haven’t tapped into yet. You can pause footage at key junctures, and multiple-choice prompts will appear in virtual reality — where is the middle linebacker, what coverage is the defense running, which wide receiver is open and why?
The technology could help teams gain insights they don’t currently have about quarterbacks. “This is a way to get all that information,” says CBS college football analyst and former UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel. “You’d be astounded at how many coaches and players are out there that are still fooling people as to what they really know.”
Coaches who taste success usually become fearful of disrupting a winning formula, says Sundquist. Then there’s paranoia. Pac-12 and Power 5 college programs didn’t embrace Strivr initially, worried the company might leak their playbooks to Stanford, where Strivr started. That changed once quarterbacks spoke out about the benefits of VR. “I am all in on this,” Arizona Cardinals QB Carson Palmer has said about Strivr.
These VR tools don’t tell teams exactly how quarterbacks will react on the field. Catapult Sports realized QBs were reading defenses and moving through progressions more quickly in VR than on the practice field. Eye-tracking software told them why. “In real life, after I look at the linebacker and I look at the safety, I have to look down at the center,” says Ted Ellikson, product owner at Catapult. “We realized in VR, nobody had to look down and catch the ball.”
Here lies Sports VTS’s innovation: It puts the ball in the quarterback’s hands and demands they throw it and move their feet. OptiTrack cameras, used recently in Disney’s The Lion King, surround the player, following his movements and the flight of the ball in real life.
You can measure against any defense imaginable, to understand a quarterback’s true operating system. Can your QB find weaknesses in quarters coverage? What about Cover-2? A partnership with Pro Football Focus allows Sports VTS software to use PFF data from past NFL games. Test your quarterback against the New England Patriots defense in a two-minute drill or face the Seattle Seahawks Legion of Boom. Or insert a player into a scenario designed to confuse him.
“All that’s not subjective, it’s just data,” says Mike Wagle, CEO of Sports VTS.
Sports VTS plans to deploy its platform from the professional level all the way down to eighth grade football. Strivr and Catapult have similar designs, so that VR can provide intel about a quarterback’s trajectory. Did he always have that hitch in his arm and does it matter? Is he improving year over year or did his skills plateau in high school? Is there an undervalued measurement about playing quarterbacks that traditional statistics miss?
Here’s one statistic that doesn’t need VR: Since 2000, the first QB drafted overall has won the Super Bowl just four times. Their names? Eli and Peyton Manning, each with two titles. Meanwhile, quarterbacks drafted outside the first round have claimed 11 of the past 21 Super Bowls. We don’t fully comprehend how to locate championship-caliber NFL quarterbacks, but VR could provide a way forward.
“Evaluating quarterbacks is barely a science,” Wagle says. “But using this real data to do it … we can guess a whole lot better than we are [doing] right now.”