MANKATO – Teddy Bridgewater dropped back to pass and had his every move and all his receiving options documented by a camera strategically positioned near his face.
Almost literally in his face.
This wasn’t a photo shoot or some other staged event. It happened right in the middle of a training camp practice.
Welcome to football, circa 2015.
The Vikings are one of four NFL teams utilizing new virtual reality technology designed to make practice plays become more realistic in the film room.
The Patriots, Cowboys and 49ers also reportedly are using the technology, and other teams have expressed interest.
The system is called STRIVR and was created by former Stanford kicker Derek Belch as a research project.
The Vikings began implementing the technology the first day of training camp Sunday with the guidance of a STRIVR support team that includes former NFL quarterback Trent Edwards and former Vikings special teams star Heath Farwell, who was hired by the company last week.
Here’s how it works: A six-foot tripod is placed near the line of scrimmage. A device with six small cameras sits on top of the tripod, giving 360-degree angles of the field.
Once the video is downloaded post-practice, quarterbacks — or any other player or coach — watching video on a laptop computer can put on a headset that covers their eyes and get a virtual snapshot of each play. The clips also include sound, adding to the realness of the setting.
The quarterback can turn his head backward and see his running back or his own footwork on drop backs. If he looks left or right, he sees his wide receivers. He can stare into the eyes of the middle linebacker. Or see a safety blitz coming right at him.
“It’s been amazing so far,” Bridgewater said. “I feel like it speeds up the learning process. To be able to go back and instead of just watching the film and critiquing yourself, you get to actually practice those reps. It feels like their live.”
The technology makes traditional practice video that’s shot from the sideline, end zone or from a mechanical lift high above the field look like a ’56 Buick.
“It’s almost like a flight simulator for quarterbacks,” said Edwards, a vice president with the company.
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman declined to reveal how much the organization spent on the technology, calling it a “significant investment.”
The Vikings have embraced nontraditional methods in searching for ways to improve their team in recent years. That includes new technology and the use of advanced analytics.
“Our ownership has been very proactive,” Spielman said. “If there’s anything cutting edge out there and we feel it’s going to be beneficial, we’re going to do everything we can to give us the best chance to have success.”
The STRIVR technology also requires a willing coaching staff because the setup can be intrusive, and coaches typically detest disruptions during practice.
Farwell and Edwards stand on the field and adjust the positioning of the tripod during noncontact drills. At one point during the morning walk-through, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer approached to get a closer look.
Zimmer is a fan of the technology and even has scripted his practices to accommodate for it. The team also positioned the device on the defensive side to show linebackers and safeties certain formations.
“This is realistic,” Zimmer said.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner gave his approval, too. Turner sees virtual technology as a complementary component to instruction coaches provide. It’s just another resource to help players.
“Is it some magical deal? No,” Turner said. “But if the backup [quarterback] can go in there and go through the game plan and actually put those goggles on and see how a play unfolds, it might give you a little bit of an edge.”
Backup quarterbacks probably benefit from the technology as much as starters because they get so few reps in practice during the season. The technology enables them to experience reps the starter received during practice.
Zimmer also envisions using the technology during the season for game preparation. For instance, they might ask their scout defense to run an opponent’s particular blitz package in practice so that Bridgewater can rehearse seeing it in a virtual setting all week long.
Farwell will be there to support the process as the Vikings’ representative for STRIVR. He’s staying in Mankato throughout camp to oversee the technology and offer assistance. He’s basically learning on the job, too.
Farwell initially envisioned a post-football career in coaching. This new concept intrigued him.
“It was a unique opportunity,” he said. “It’s the next wave of technology.”