Carolina Panthers

Virtually a Panther: Technology gives reporter a taste of ‘playing’ in NFL

Carolina Panthers are using virtual reality technology

Jonathan Jones tries out the Panthers virtual reality equipment .... The team has joined a handful of other NFL franchises in introducing virtual reality technology to its players as a different way to educate and train.
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Jonathan Jones tries out the Panthers virtual reality equipment .... The team has joined a handful of other NFL franchises in introducing virtual reality technology to its players as a different way to educate and train.

Last week from a field away, I watched Carolina Panthers second-string quarterback Derek Anderson try to escape pressure inside the 15-yard line and run up the middle for what appeared to be a touchdown during Carolina’s minicamp.

A day later I put on virtual reality goggles and saw – and almost felt – what Anderson was dealing with.

At the snap he takes a few steps and the pocket begins to collapse. Pressure comes from both defensive ends and they nearly collide in the backfield. Anderson probably would have been sacked if he weren’t in a red jersey.

“Whoa,” I say.

“Feel it?” asks Panthers coach Ron Rivera.

“Yeah, I did.”

“It gets everybody,” Rivera chuckled.

I was standing in the special teams meeting room at Bank of America Stadium, which could barely fit two tables and the six people in it. But I felt like I was on the field about to lose my knees because the two ends met just in front of the camera rig that STRIVR was using to produce the video.

STRIVR is one of the leaders in sports virtual reality. They have 12 college teams and six NFL teams signed on, and they’re hoping to add the Panthers for the 2016 season if this trial period works out.

Rivera, along with STRIVR’s Hunter Hillenmeyer and Nate Costa, let me put on the goggles and try out the technology. What I saw is what I believe will be the future of football education.

STRVIR Labs was created at Stanford by former Cardinal players in January 2015. They have three camera rigs with six to eight GoPros attached at the top of the tripod.

They set these rigs around practice – behind the quarterback in team drills, beside the kicker on field goals, in place of an imaginary defensive back as receivers work against press-man coverage. Then the video is uploaded into a computer that pieces it all together and places the footage in Oculus virtual reality goggles.

The result is a 360-degree view of practice. And, no, it didn’t make me sick.

“It’s stationary film,” Hillenmeyer, a former Chicago Bears linebacker under Rivera, said. “A lot of people have tried to move it around and put it on hats. I can get sick in a bathtub – I’m ultra sensitive – and I’ve never gotten sick watching this.”

‘Practicing’ with Panthers

A year ago I asked Rivera if the Panthers would try virtual reality as it started creeping into the NFL. He said no, but after getting the pitch from Hillenmeyer a few months ago he asked STRIVR to come out to the three-day minicamp and put some video together.

When I got into the room, I asked Costa and Hillenmeyer some basic questions about the technology. And then Costa gave me the Shark Tank-like pitch from behind the computer.

“It’s good to talk about it,” he said, “but it’s great to try it on.”

First I watched some tape from a Stanford field-goal practice. The rig was set up to the left of the right-footed kicker, and the point of this was to show the kicker where the placeholder had the ball and what his motion is like.

I’ve never been a kicker and I know kickers can sometimes be weird about things, so this exercise didn’t mean much to me.

They asked Rivera if they could show me some Panthers tape, and he agreed.

Playing defense

With my eyes I found the boxes that would open the video. Look up to the left for MC1, then to the right for defense, then find the box that says “LB run fit.” And now I’m playing middle linebacker.

The rig is behind Luke Kuechly, and I can hear the communication and calls being made by defensive players. This exercise lets me know how to fit the run.

Wide receiver releases were up next. I had about a dozen Panthers receivers lined up in front of me and here’s where I needed to be interactive.

As a defensive back you have to have a good stance and figure out which arm you’re going to use to punch at a receiver’s shoulder as he tries to get around you. It felt like they were about to step on my toes.

“Now it’s about footwork and hand placement,” Rivera coaches me. “You’re trying to get a sense of moving your feet and which hand to use.”

I’d like to say I knew which way these guys were going, but it was like a goalie guessing on a penalty kick. I picked correctly on Philly Brown, but Damiere Byrd would have destroyed me on the next one.

Being Cam Newton

We finally get to the good stuff. I’m watching NFL MVP Cam Newton survey the defense, make checks at the line and find the correct receiver.

“The thing you should be looking at as the quarterback is the safety in the post,” Rivera instructs. “Looking at Tre (Boston). You always look to see if there’s a safety deep in the post, now you go through your progressions. Now there’s the value. He knows he has the post safety and going to run the skinny bang.”

On the next play Newton finds a receiver in the seam to the left. Newton saw the safety backing up before the snap, letting him know the middle of the field was closed, but that the seam would be open.

“When you watch it from the quarterback’s perspective, you wonder how he ever gets it in there,” Hillenmeyer said.

If the Panthers end up using the virtual reality system, they’d have anywhere from two to six sets of goggles. If, for example, Newton loves the device, he could even take it home with him.

In dead periods where the coaching staff can’t talk with players, they could leave the goggles at the facilities for them to watch film. You could take them on the plane, or to the hotel for a road game.

More to do

It’s clear Rivera is becoming convinced of the technology but there’s still some work to do. Rivera wants to see his team’s blitz period and nine-on-seven drills. It’s possible the Panthers will bring back STRIVR for training camp next month.

“You probably felt like you were in there for a little bit,” Hillenmeyer told me. “You were in there for just about five minutes. You can get a lot done in a short period of time.

“It won’t replace film. It’s something that a player does that you can get a whole lot of teaching.”

I was in there for seven minutes and it felt like 20. And having Rivera coach me along the way was a huge help.

Now imagine if I were any good at actually playing football.

Jonathan Jones: 704-358-5323, @jjones9