Touch screens help Eagles get mental edge

Eagles cornerback Cary Williams.
Eagles cornerback Cary Williams. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: December 23, 2013

Cary Williams was making weird sounds.

The cornerback was trying to voice the noises the Axon Sports touch screens make when a player gets a visual play right or wrong.

Get it right and the screen goes doop. Get it wrong and it goes blerp.

Or something like that.

The touch screens are just one facet of the sports science program that coach Chip Kelly brought with him from Oregon, and the Eagles are believed to be the only NFL team using them.

Bits and pieces about the program have leaked out, but mostly the team has done a fine job of shielding its nontraditional methods from outsiders.

In today's competitive sports world, teams are looking for any edge, and if they believe they've found an innovation, they don't want their competitors catching up.

So the Eagles didn't accept an invitation to talk about the touch screens. Some players declined to talk about them under the advisement of the coaching staff. And Axon Sports didn't return calls asking to talk about its product.

But some players were willing to talk. And Axon Sports has a website - tag line: "Train Above the Neck" - with videos explaining in salesmanspeak some of its elite training methods.

"We really look at the athletic brain as a vehicle for athletes that is trained differently than non-athletes," Axon president Jason Sada said during one video presentation. "[It] can certainly be optimized for the decisions, the reactions, the patterns even that athletes have to identify and recognize in game-time situations."

The touch screens, for instance, use video to place athletes in sport- and position-specific scenarios to test their cognitive skills. Think of the Wii, except the players aren't required to simulate action. Rather they're tested to read a defense or position themselves in a certain zone.

"It's not necessarily like a video game, I guess," Williams said. "It's just understanding where you belong, understanding what calls need to be made, what position you need to be in. It's more mental than it is physical."

Each position group has a screen in its meeting room at the NovaCare Complex. Players aren't required to use it or take a certain amount of repetitions, but they are certainly encouraged.

"I don't do as many reps as everyone else does. I focus on other things," linebacker Mychal Kendrick said. "But they want us to use it. I definitely should."

The team tracks the number of repetitions taken by each player and displays a leader board on video screens throughout the building. The flat screens in the locker room initially had the leader boards when reporters were permitted entry in August. Former Eagles guard Danny Watkins, for instance, led in repetitions one week.

But the screens went blank a few days later.

"I don't know, to be honest, how much we're supposed to talk about it," center Jason Kelce said. "I think it's supposed to be something that's under wraps because it's still in the developmental stages."

Kelly started using the screens last year at Oregon, former Ducks wide receiver Will Murphy said. Murphy, currently on the Eagles practice squad, said that only a select number of Oregon players used the first screens.

"Just because it was brand new and they were kind of using us to experiment with it and to get feedback. It's changed a lot since Oregon," Murphy said. "They've made a lot of improvements to it. It just basically helps your reaction speed to recognize stuff."

Messages were left with Sada earlier this week. When another attempt was made to contact Axon Sports, an employee who asked not to be identified said that the Eagles had asked the company not to talk about the team's affiliation with its product.

"They're not ready to make our association with them and everything we're doing public," the employee said.

Axon Sports was founded in 2010. It has a five-man science board consisting of neuroscientists that specialize in psychology and cognitive studies, according to the company website. There are eight elite training labs in California; Florida; Texas; Arizona; Utah; London; and, yes, Eugene, Ore.

Kelly has been mostly mum when it comes to his sports science program. He has sports science coordinator Shaun Huls on staff, but he has yet to make him available to reporters.

Kelly has been a little more open to talking about the nutrition and sleep part of the program. That premise is simple: the more nutritious foods you eat and the more you sleep, the better you will perform.

But the Eagles' sports science teaching methods have been mostly clouded in mystery. Some of the assistant coaches have talked about the effectiveness of using visuals as teaching tools. The Eagles send in plays and personnel groupings from the sideline sometimes using popular images.

The touch screens would seem to be just another tool to assist the players in understanding schemes. Sada, in the video presentation, said that Axon identified the "athletic brain" using high-speed decision-making, visualization, emotional regulation, focus, reaction, and whatever "spatial reasoning" is.

Michael Vick said the touch screen visuals were "almost like Madden, but it simulates our plays" as the quarterbacks are tested to read various defenses.

"I still get them wrong to this day," Vick said. "Every defense is different, every disguise and every coverage is different. It's all to just help you recognize what is going on on the field."

The screen has a little time meter, and when the player correctly identifies what he's being asked with a touch, the screen starts to flash and then goes black, according to receiver Jeff Maehl.

"You don't win it, you just got to get as many reps as you can," Vick said. "So that's the competition - getting reps over and over again."

Because teams can spend only so many hours a week on the practice field, per the collective bargaining agreement, the touch screens are another way to get mental reps.

"It's just ways for us to be off our feet and be able to see coverages and react quicker," Maehl said. "Mental reps. Being able to do it there so when we get on the field, all you have to do is take a peek at the safeties or whatever, and the coverage comes to you like that." Maehl snapped his fingers.

One Eagles player who asked to remain anonymous said that the touch screens were more valuable for quarterbacks and a few other positions than for linemen. Rookie safety Earl Wolff said that the screens helped him when he was learning the defensive scheme, but that the lack of receiver motions and other movements limited its effectiveness.

Williams, who said he liked the screens, was asked if he thought other teams would eventually follow the Eagles' lead.

"Maybe. Maybe," he said. "It just depends on what the coach's philosophies are. Our coach is more about science and having a different approach to football, where some guys may be more traditional and rather go about things like business as usual.

"I don't know."


jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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