Fay: GPS technology is keeping the Bengals healthy

Tracking devices helped clear Eifert for return

CINCINNATI -- When the Bengals held Tyler Eifert out longer than expected and longer than Eifert wanted, they weren't relying on coaches' intuition or even a trainer's examination.

They were relying on cold, hard scientific data.

The Bengals are using athletic tracking devices, which employ GPS technology, this year to manage practice volume and intensity on an individual basis. The devices, placed in the player's shoulder pads, measure the quality of a rep, based on the speed and total number of reps in a practice or workout.

So in the case of a player coming off injury, like Eifert, it can compare the acceleration rate during rehab to what he did when healthy. Eifert wasn't cleared for football activities until the numbers matched.

CINCINNATI, OH - JANUARY 09: Head coach Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals looks on in the first half against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the AFC Wild Card Playoff game at Paul Brown Stadium on January 9, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Coach Marvin Lewis said the device was helpful in Eifert's case. 

"We can say, 'Look, Tyler, here's your numbers,'" Lewis said. "'You're there. Now, you've got to play football. The only thing left is to play football. Your output, your bursts, your accelerations, your de-accelerations are all in line with the rest of the position group.

"'These are the numbers you had a year ago in your practices and games. Now, we've got to get you to there.'"

Speed is so important in football that a player who is a fraction slower is in danger of re-injury or a new injury if he is turned loose too soon.

Sports science has become a common term in sports, especially the NFL.

Clif Marshall, performance director at Ignition Athletics Performance Group and a consultant to the Bengals, said every NFL team uses this technology at some level. 

"The success of athlete tracking depends on how much the head coach cares to look at the readings," Marshall said. "That's why this system has worked so well for the Bengals, because Marvin Lewis has bought into the science.

"Some NFL teams may be tracking the players, but the coaches don't fully understand it. Some coaches have never used the technology in the past, so they don't care to use it now. It's a new technology, so it can be overwhelming at first for football coaches."

Lewis said GPS technology is one of the best things the team has ever done. He's involved in the program to the point that he meets with the team sports scientist Shea Thompson, who monitors the program, on a daily basis.

Lewis was sold on the program from the start.

"I don't know if I was ever skeptical about it," Lewis said. "But there's a lot to it. The ability to use it and the buy-in from the players has been great. At first, it's like everything else. It's 20 percent who aren't skeptical, then 30, then 40. It's about 90 percent right now."

Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is among those who bought in.

"It gives you great numbers on your workload during the week," Kirkpatrick said. "You don't pay attention to it every day. It just depends on how your body's feeling.

"When you are feeling down and your body's not responding, you want to check your numbers. And you say, 'Oh, this is why. I did this, this and this.' It's a great tool for us to have."

The Bengals have been a very healthy team by NFL standards this year. Eifert, who was injured in the Pro Bowl, is the only starter to miss significant time.

Lewis gives the GPS system a lot of credit for that.

"I think it has a lot to do with it," Lewis said. "That we're able to monitor guys and have daily feedback. Not only for them, but for their position coach and for the coordinator to help educate where each guy is physically."

Lewis has been careful with the workload for veteran players for years. Andrew Whitworth and Domata Peko get regular veteran days off. The GPS technology provides data to extend rest to others -- or increase the workout/effort of others.

"It's been more than I expected," Lewis said. "It's confirmed some things that you see with your eyes as a coach. I think that was a good confirmation, which is cool. The fact that we've gone above and beyond with nutrition, sleep and heart monitoring… it's part of just everything we've done through the offseason program and building OTAs, building training camp, building practice.

"Then to be able to get game data and then put it all together, it's been to me a real benefit for our players."

Lewis is new to this, but there hasn't been much of a learning curve because of the people implementing the program.

"We've been very fortunate that our people have been great at it," Lewis said. "Our guy right now is one of the leaders in the field. I'm appreciative of that."

Their guy right now is Thompson, whose title is Sports Scientist. He previously served in that role for the University of Minnesota. He's also worked at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Marshall agrees with Lewis on Thompson's credentials.

"Shea is certainly a leader in the field when it comes to sports science," Marshall said. "The Bengals' head strength coach Chip Morton identified Shea as someone who was on the cutting edge of athlete tracking.

"What makes Shea so special is the way he communicates and explains the information to coaches and players alike. His reports are simple, effective and efficient, so the data make sense. Shea is a humble guy that has earned his respect in the Bengals locker room."

The Bengals would not make Shea available for an interview. Some of that is typical of the team. Lewis is the only voice on injuries and the like.

But another part may be that this is so new the Bengals have developed proprietary information they don't want to share. The Reds have hired sports scientists, too, and they are also careful in all that they reveal.

The system is quite an investment. Each unit costs $1,000, and you have to have staff to monitor it. Team President Mike Brown, a noted old-school guy, signed off on the investment in the new-tech system.   

"We first heard about it three, four years ago," Lewis said. "Then we did the research with the strength staff and so forth, talking to others, just talking to the leaders in the field about it. We got Mike's blessing for it. We've continued to grow with it."

The program is part of a franchise effort to gain an edge.

"We've changed the facility, dining area, the training area," Lewis said. "The way we do things in practice. It's all part of that. It was a big part of the trip to London. We sent everything over so we could do what we normally do on Friday and Saturday there." 

Another footnote on London: The GPS numbers said it was time for Eifert's first extended play. He went from 15 snaps against Cleveland to 74 against Washington. And, according to Pro Football Focus, he graded out almost exactly at the same level as he did last season.

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