G Frank Middleton was on the field for almost every offensive snap in 1999
You've heard of the basketball stat called 'minutes'. Baseball has innings pitched and even hockey has a 'plus-minus' rating that keeps track of every minute a player is on the ice.
Did you know that the National Football League has a similar statistic?
That's right. The NFL keeps track of every single play for every player on the field. At the end of each game, each of the league's 31 teams submits a report detailing exactly how many snaps each player played. While you're poring over Mike Alstott's stats for rushes, rushing yards, receptions, et cetera, the league is looking at how many plays he was on the field.
Why bother? Well, the answer, as you might expect, is mostly tied to contract status. Some players' contracts include incentives based on playing time. To throw out a completely hypothetical situation, Player A might have in his contract that he receives a bonus if he participates in 75% of the team's offensive snaps. Since the salary cap is so strictly governed, it is important to know if a player is going to reach such an incentive.
For that reason, all of the teams submit their playtime totals for every player. But the league doesn't tell, say, the Seahawks, how many snaps each player on, say, the Chiefs' roster is playing.
"The league as a whole, at the end of the year, publishes the play-time statistics to the each team," explained John Idzik, Tampa Bay's Director of Football Administration. "No one will get a cumulative total until the end of the year for all the times. They're interested in that for contract purposes, if there are 'likely-to-earn' incentives, or 'unlikely-to-earn', based on playtime. They can value those and keep track of those."
There is more to it than just making sure the salary cap is in place. The league can also use those raw numbers to get an idea of how free agency is affecting the game.
"They also do a lot of evaluation of player movement and positions, how much playing time did draftees get, how much playtime did the incumbents get, how many free agents actually started and played a significant amount," said Idzik. "They do a lot of number-crunching that way."
That the league is interested in using these numbers to evaluate its game is an indication of how fully it has embraced technology. As the average height, weight and speed of the league grows, so does it's knowledge
"It's grown," says Idzik of the NFL's technological prowess. "Just from a personnel standpoint, information technology has grown tremendously at the league. They have the manpower to do it, where before they didn't. They were dependent on the clubs. Now they can be a little more proactive and create their own databases for all this stuff. And then they distribute it out to the clubs."