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Football equipment just got smarter

Devices that measure helmet impacts, play-calling software, even swallowable temperature sensors are becoming realities.

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Today the Vikings, as well as college teams such as the University of Nebraska and the University of South Florida, are experimenting with small body-heat sensors that players swallow like pills. Powered by a hearing-aid-sized battery, the sensors measure body temperature extremely accurately, within a fraction of a degree F. They emit a radio signal that a nearby coach or trainer, using a hand-held receiver, can detect to read the data. The $30 to $40 sensors pass harmlessly through the athlete's digestive system within 24 to 36 hours.

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Made by HQ Inc., a Palmetto, Fla., company, the CorTemp monitoring system "gives you an idea of how the core temperature in somebody is rising or if it's pretty steady," says Frederick Mueller, a professor of exercise and sport science at the University of North Carolina and director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injuries. "If it's pretty high, you can take that kid out of practice and cool him down."

And what about high-tech help for coaches? Charles Bower, an astrophysics professor at Indiana University in Bloomington and two partners are trying to interest the National Football League (NFL) in ZEUS, a computer model that advises coaches on what plays to call.

Using data from thousands of real NFL games, ZEUS tells a coach the likelihood of winning the game based on each play he calls. For example, a coach facing a fourth down can see if he is more likely to win the game if he tries for a first down or attempts a field goal or punt at that point. Or, after a touchdown, ZEUS helps him decide between an easy one-point kick or a more difficult two-point conversion. In seconds, ZEUS plays out 100,000 or more simulations of the rest of the game for each choice and tells the coach which decision is statistically more likely to lead to victory.

Mr. Bower and his partners have pitched ZEUS to nearly a dozen NFL teams, but so far none have bitten. That may be because the NFL currently prohibits coaches from using computers on the sidelines.

"They argue they don't want too much technology," Bower says, which seems a bit silly to him since teams already employ a lot of other technology, including radio contact between the coach and quarterback and expensive and elaborate video replay devices.

Bower surmises that coaches may feel reluctant to turn play calling over to a computer. But coaches can always disregard ZEUS's advice, he says. "We said that, basically, this is a tool. It doesn't tell you what you have to do. It doesn't replace the coach. What it does is give you more valuable information."

Bower and his partners are promoting their software program as a tool to prepare for coming games. Employing ZEUS in another way can also help coaches determine the value of each player toward winning games.

Over a 16-game season, Bowers's data shows, following ZEUS would result in adding between 0.7 and 1.25 wins.

"So we tell NFL teams, you're going to be about, on average, one game per season better" with ZEUS, he says. "That's a lot in football: It can mean making the playoffs or missing them, or gaining home-field advantage in the playoffs. That's just a huge value."