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Robots are invading NFL training camps

Jul 20, 2016   |   by Jeremy Fowler   |   ESPN

Robots are invading NFL training camps.

Actually, they are the love children of robots and tackling dummies, and they are not technological fads.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, Los Angeles Rams and Baltimore Ravens have placed orders for a batch of Mobile Virtual Players for their camps later this month, according to MVP president John Currier. Each robot, costing about $8,000, weighs between 160 and 180 pounds, runs a 5-second 40-yard dash and cuts in the open field.

In May, the Steelers showcased their experiment with the MVPs on their website, while the rival Ravens tested theirs in secret. The Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears also have inquired about using them in the future.

What started as an experiment at Dartmouth College football practices to promote safe tackling is now a full-fledged business that is penetrating the highest levels of football.

The NFL's flirtation with technology can be fickle. Remember the drone experiment? Exactly.

This seems different, though. At the least, teams see functionality and the chance to rest players.

"They have a future," said one NFL assistant coach whose team has tested the robots. "A few kinks to be worked out, but you can find ways to make them work for you."

To separate gimmick from game-changer, let's dive into some questions about the robots and their viability at the NFL level. For guidance, we consulted the people from the MVP company and a few NFL observers who have tested the product.

So what is it exactly?

The MVP is a tackling dummy made of foam rubber that's controlled by a remote, which teams can operate. The engine, built into the base of the dummy, is protected by a cushion. It runs on two small skateboard-like wheels. The dummies' birthplace is the Dartmouth campus in Hanover, New Hampshire. Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens and former player Elliot Kastner were the catalysts for developing the technology. Now the dummies are manufactured at Rogers Athletic in Farwell, Michigan, and transported by truck to your NFL doorstep, usually two or three at a time.

Dartmouth football mvp
The use of robotic tackling dummies started as an experiment at Dartmouth College football practices to promote safe tackling. Courtesy\Mobile Virtual Players

How did teams find out about this?

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin stumbled across a YouTube video of the dummies and inquired about them to staffer Dan Rooney, who played quarterback for the Big Green. The Ravens declined comment on the MVPs, but word of mouth was spreading. Teevens first heard from now-49ers coach Chip Kelly about potentially using the robots over a year ago.

What's the appeal?

The dummy is relatively easy to use and requires less manpower to run a practice. Most spring rosters are 90 players, and everyone can get more reps if the dummies are doing the dirty work, such as simulating scout-team formations. Picture a set screen play, with the defensive players taking their angles and the dummy streaking down the sideline. The dummy is "perfect" for such a noncontact setting, Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats said. "It has good speed on it, so you're not running your players to death," Moats said. "You're not going to want to run that fast all practice. It saves players' legs."

But isn't the point of a tackling dummy for ... tackling?

Yes. In fact, the Dartmouth staff implemented the use of the dummies mostly to eliminate helmet contact. Falcons media relations director Brian Cearns said his coach, Dan Quinn, is interested in using the robots for the same reason. The MVPs "are forgiving but take a little force" to move because of the weight, Teevens said.

Where does concussion prevention come into play?

Well, this area is harder to evaluate, because NFL teams don't hit much in practices anymore, and the dummies don't have sensors to track where on the body players routinely hit. Dartmouth is exploring the addition of "accelerometers" that would measure the magnitude of hits, Teevens said. But even with the base model, the concept of hitting a soft moving target could help mitigate potential damage. "Medical science is becoming aware that [the brain disease] CTE is related to a history of many subconcussive hits and not just the 'bell-ringers' that make the highlight reel," Currier said. "It's that reduction -- hopefully near elimination -- of the repetitive, subconcussive hits in practice that may be the greatest contribution of MVP."

What's the downside?

Once he got over the paranoia of rolling an ankle when tackling engine-powered machinery, Moats had one concern upon first glance -- the dummy can't truly simulate player movements and reactions of a shifty player. It looks different, feels different and isn't all that natural, Moats said. "You know, a dummy is standing straight up -- a running back or receiver won't be standing that way," Moats said. "So it's not really a football play. They can advance the technology to simulate the real play, perhaps. So as far as straight line, it's really good. Side to side is the issue."

But problems can be fixed, right?

Yep. The product can improve its authenticity on the field. It also has some goofy arms that can be attached to the sides with Velcro. After gathering feedback from the Steelers and Ravens, MVP transported its dummies to the Rogers lab for tweaks. MVP wants the dummies to maintain high-level speed while simulating open-field cuts. "We want it to be evasive," Currier said. "That's part of its value. We want it to shift directly sideways for elusive purposes."

What about quarterback play?

If a coach is creative and wants to buy, say, 11 robots, perhaps he can disguise blitzes at the line of scrimmage to confuse a young quarterback in offseason work. That would require deft remote work from the sidelines, but that's sort of the point -- Tomlin says the experimental options are endless. "You just really put it on the field and watch the guys and they show you the applications," he said. "They say, 'Hey, get it to do this.'"

Five years from now, will most teams be using these?

We won't know that answer until after this year's training camps, but here's what we do know: Teams are meticulous about player usage. Many teams track every step of practice. Now the dummies can do some of the running for you.

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