As a 17-season NFL veteran and 11-time Pro Bowler, Larry Fitzgerald always leaned on data to perfect his game. Whether he was prepping on the field or treating an injury, “stats were always really useful in terms of making a smart decision,” Fitzgerald recalled.
Now, as a football commentator, Fitzgerald relies on Next Gen Stats to learn more than ever before about each play—and to share that knowledge with fans at home.
“Next Gen Stats are very important for me because I have to paint a picture for the audience,” Fitzgerald said. “If you really want to deep dive into the stats and understand the analytics of the game, you have the ability to do that.”
The NFL works with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to power Next Gen Stats, using a cloud-based data strategy that relies on analytics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI). The stats are created using real-time location data, speed, and acceleration for every player and play. The result is data that can both improve player health and safety, and create a better experience for fans, players, and teams alike.
This year, Next Gen Stats released new analysis for expected return yards on the field and for a first-of-its kind AI system that can identify eight types of man and zone defensive coverages, just seconds after a play ends.
And this Thursday, at the 12th Annual NFL Honors in advance of the Super Bowl, Next Gen Stats will have one more function—they will help determine the winner for the NFL award for the best play of the year: Next Gen Stats Moment of the Year Powered by AWS.
A recipient of the 2016 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award and the 2015 Art Rooney Award for Sportsmanship, Fitzgerald is no stranger to NFL Honors. And while he won’t get to officially vote on the winner, he has a few picks of his own for the best NFL moments of the year.
Here are the plays on Fitzgerald’s short list:
Buffalo Bills vs. New England Patriots: Nyheim Hines’ 96-yard, kickoff-return touchdown
As Fitzgerald puts it, this play “blew the top off of a building that has no top.” Hines’ return touchdown for the Bills tapped into one of NFL’s newest Next Gen Stats. The expected kickoff return yards model predicts the yards a kick returner is expected to gain once they field the kickoff. For this play, the expected return was 21 yards—which Hines exceeded by 75 yards. This was the first play for the Bills after their teammate Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest on the field a week prior. And whether a Bills fan or not, “There was not a dry eye in Buffalo,” said Fitzgerald.
Las Vegas Raiders vs. New England Patriots: Chandler Jones’ 48-yard, game-winning touchdown
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a play quite like this,” Fitzgerald said about this end-of-game scramble by the Patriots. On the last play of the game, in a bizarre move, Patriots’ Jakobi Meyers tossed the ball back toward midfield in an attempt to keep the play alive. Raiders’ Jones recovered the ball and ran it right into the end zone for the win. Especially impressive was Jones’ top speed of 16.69 miles per hour. “I didn’t know he could move like that,” Fitzgerald said. “My man was out there cookin’ on this play!”
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Baltimore Ravens: Sam Hubbard’s 98-yard, fumble-return touchdown
"This play completely changed the dynamic of that game," Fitzgerald said. "Nobody would have ever expected something like that to happen." It’s not every Sunday you see a defensive end span the entire field with the ball. With a tied game and 11 minutes left on the clock, the Ravens had the ball on the 1-yard line, looking to score. Ravens’ quarterback Tyler Huntley lost the ball, allowing Hubbard to tip the score in the Bengals’ favor. Next Gen Stats charted that the win probability for the game increased by 41.8 percentage points as a result of Hubbard’s fumble return.
Buffalo Bills vs. Minnesota Vikings: Justin Jefferson’s 32-yard, one-handed catch
Widely considered to be the catch of the year, Vikings’ wide receiver Jefferson’s one-handed grab under pressure is also Fitzgerald’s top pick for the moment of the year. The stellar snag had just a 28.8% completion probability according to Next Gen Stats. This wasn’t Jefferson’s only big play of the game—he ended the game with nine receptions under 50% completion probability, the most in a game in the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016). No other receiver has had more than six in a game. “Out of this world” is what Fitzgerald called Jefferson’s 32-yard, one-handed catch. "There’s no way that guy is human."