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NFL experimenting with ‘smart footballs’ in preseason



The NFL has always sought to make nearly every play both competitive for the players and exciting for the fans. When it comes to the kicking game, extra point kicks have been moved back to reduce the accuracy percentage from the high 99s. Embracing new technology in football, NFL spokesman Michael Signora said that microchips will be placed in footballs during the preseason in order to study kicking of field goals and extra points. With the results of these experimental tests, the information will be processed through the “Next Gen Stats” player-tracking software to be used on in-game broadcasts, and to determine how field goals can be modified to make them more difficult for the kickers.

In an interview with Toronto Sun, senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino confirmed that the NFL and the Competition Committee will “continue to look at” making these special teams plays more competitive and challenging. With the microchips, new information such as how close a kicked ball comes to the uprights and how far a kicked ball travels can potentially change the format of the current scrimmage kick.

“The discussion has really revolved around narrowing the uprights,” said Blandino in the interview. “That would be one way to affect both the extra point and the field goal. [Success rates] have continued to climb over the years as our field goal kickers and that whole process has become so specialized, from long snapper to holder to kicker. We’ll do some studies this year.”

The NFL recently tried a narrower goal width in the 2015 Pro Bowl. The goalposts were narrowed from the current width of 18 feet, 6 inches to 14 feet, which resulted in two missed extra points and one missed field goal by Indianapolis Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri (video). After reviewing the data from the preseason, Blandino stated that he and the Competition Committee would “determine, if we do decide to shorten the distance between the uprights, what is the right distance, and where should it be to make it a more difficult kick.” 

These microchips will strictly be used for experimental tests in the kicking game, and not for any officiating-related aspects of the game, including line to gain or goal line ball spots. The chips will only weigh under one-half ounce.

In the 2015 regular season, NFL placekickers, on average, successfully made just under 86% of field goals, one of the highest averages in recent history. It will come down to the results of the experimentation to determine if the current goalpost width, which has remained constant since the 1920s, will need to be modified in order to make kicks more difficult and special teams plays more exciting.

Cameron Filipe has joined Football Zebras as a contributing writer. This is the first of what we hope are many posts from him. Welcome, Cameron.

Cam Filipe is a forensic scientist and has been involved in football officiating for 12 years. Cam is in his fourth season as a high school football official. This is his ninth season covering NFL officiating for Football Zebras.