For the past calendar year the Buffalo Bills researched the most effective ways in which to monitor their players in practice. The goal was to develop a baseline of exertion rates to help prevent injury, especially during the rigors of training camp. The analytics company that was chosen was Australian-based Catapult, which for years has helped Australian Rules football clubs and soccer clubs in the English Premier League to monitor players in training.
Since the spring Buffalo's strength and conditioning staff has been collecting data on their players all through the spring practices. It's provided them with a preliminary database on each player heading into training camp.
"The number one goal of this system right now is trying to help prevent injury as well as help us with the rehab process," said strength and conditioning coordinator Eric Ciano. "There are a lot of different things that goes into it, but the biggest thing is how can we monitor guys on the field to help us get the information? What do they really do at their position? How far does a receiver really run in practice? How fast does a receiver run in practice? Then create standards for each position group to be able to say, 'Well this guy has done four days in a row in this (work rate) zone, this guy is at risk for injury.' That's the main reason we did it."
Catapult's system has provided the Bills with individual GPS tracking devices that capture measurable data on each player, such as acceleration and deceleration, change of direction, top speed and total distance run. The GPS devices, which are about the size of a pager, sit inside a pocket just below the neck line on the back of the undershirt each player wears under their pads.
"They talk about the distance you covered and the explosiveness and how fast you're running," said C.J. Spiller. "It's a good device to have."
After practice is over Ciano and his staff remove the devices from the players' shirts and plug them into the docking station.
"We just catch them coming off the practice field and come back in," said Ciano. "We dock all the units, download all the information into a computer and then we can break it down any which way we want."
Ciano says there are anywhere from 50 to 100 variables that can be measured by the devices to provide information on how hard a player is working. The term used by the Catapult system is called 'player load.'
"It's a value of five different variables," said Ciano. "There's acceleration, change of direction, deceleration is different, but it basically is a measure of how hard that practice was for that individual athlete."
Player loads that exceed 300 are considered high. Over 400 is very high. If days like that are repeated consecutively for individual players Ciano and his staff are required to make the coaching staff aware of it.
"If he's had four practices in a row and his player load is through the roof and his distance is really high then we may have to say, 'Hey coach we may have to careful with this,'" said Ciano.
Those with high player loads are more closely examined by the staff to determine the main source of the figure.
"We take that information and say, 'Ok is there anything that stands out to us?'" said Ciano. "We monitor total distance, how far that guy ran that day. Then we can measure high intensity running. How much of that running was done between 12 and 16 miles per hour, 18 miles per hour and the total distance covered during that high intensity running.
"Then we have change of direction left and right. If a guy has more change of direction to the right than the left, we have to alter his training in the weight room. Also we have to find out during practice if we need to do something different where he's always lining up on the left side of the formation instead of the right side where he's creating some (muscular) asymmetry."
For Ciano and his staff they need to communicate the information to the coaching staff, so everyone understands how practices for certain players might need to be altered.
"We want to be the link between the offensive and defensive coordinator and the special teams coach, so that with guys everybody kind of knows what's going on," he said. "That way you're not wearing a player out and we're not killing him where he eventually breaks. We now have a way to monitor those guys and everybody knows where everybody stands."
C.J. Spiller is one player that covers a lot of ground during the course of practice. He wore the device in the spring and found a lot of his numbers interesting.
"I think the most I topped off at for total distance in a practice was close to 2,000 yards," he said. "That's a lot. You're never out there thinking I'm covering this much. It's a good program they've got. Top speed I think I hit around 18 or 19 (miles per hour). So it's a good thing to have."
Monitoring Spiller's speed might not seem all that important, but when his top speed begins to drop it's a tell-tale sign that his muscles are fatigued.
"We could say, 'Hey C.J. has reached the point where he has exceeded the yardage that we had set for that day. The speeds are dropping,'" said Ciano. "That could put him at greater risk for a soft tissue injury."
Typically wide receivers and defensive backs do the most running on average, but in the spring workouts rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso was right there with them in terms of player load.
"He's a perfect example because he's a guy that's probably going to play on every special teams unit," said Ciano. "He's going to play a ton on defense and he's a guy we're going to have to monitor closely because of overuse and he has so much change of direction if you look at his numbers now. So he has to be a monitored guy."
For the strength and conditioning staff their mission is two-fold. Not only are they using the data they can measure right now to adjust the workload of players in practice. They're also laying a foundation for baseline numbers on all the players on their roster to use for other beneficial purposes down the line.
"It's going to take probably a year's time just because with a new offense, a new defense, the tempo of those are so great that you can't just take somebody else's numbers from another team or from another college and try to compare the two because you can't," said Ciano. "We have to make it specific to what we do individually. So we need to take that data and be able to create our own (database)."
That baseline data will also help in rehab situations. If an athletic trainer wants a player coming off injury to work at a rate of 50 percent of their maximum exertion, the strength and conditioning staff will have an exact figure to work with for that player.
The ultimate goal is to use the data gathered over the next year to help the coaching staff adjust practices to not only get their work done, but do it in a way that doesn't overtax the players' bodies to keep everyone healthy.
"In other countries with Australian Rules football and in England with soccer they use a lot of this information to design their practices," said Ciano. "We're not there yet, but our goal right now is to analyze data for a year, get as much information as we can, create great standards for each position group and be able to monitor the guys we have now and make sure we don't have overuse injuries."
"Guys took it with open arms," said Spiller. "You don't really notice that it's back there. You're just out there trying to get better."