BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Late in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship game, with the Eagles moments away from clinching their spot in the Super Bowl, safety Malcolm Jenkins picked up a bucket of Gatorade and upended it over Doug Pederson.
The yellow drink soaked through the coach’s sweat shirt and streamed like a waterfall off the lid of his visor. The headset into which Pederson had told quarterback Nick Foles to air it out in one of the best-called games of his career got caught in the victory bath, too, but it was just fine. If Pederson wants to use the same one Sunday in the Super Bowl, all he’ll have to do is get rid of any residual stickiness.
“They stand up to the NFL,” said Sean Garrett, vice president of product engineering at Bose, the Framingham, Mass., company that has supplied the league with headsets since 2014.
If Pederson or Bill Belichick should desire, either coach can take out any frustration during the Super Bowl on the headsets. They can stand up to that, too.
Today’s lightweight, wireless system that allows coaches to communicate with each other on the sidelines and to radio play calls to the quarterback and a defensive player has come a long way, even if some coaches are still wary of the technology at times.
“It’s great when it works,” Belichick said.
The need for headsets in order to call plays stems from a Belichick hero, Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown.
Brown was the coach of the Browns in 1956 when Cleveland-area inventors John Campbell and George Sarles approached him with an idea: they had developed a radio receiver they figured could be planted inside a quarterback’s helmet, allowing for communication from the sideline.
Brown loved the idea and told Campbell and Sarles to test it in secret, which they did, working in the woods behind Campbell’s home until a police officer intercepted their radio signal and came to ask what they were doing.
Luckily for them, the officer was a Browns fan and agreed to keep the project a secret. It stayed that way until the team tested it in a preseason game against Detroit, placing the radio inside George Ratterman’s helmet. A Lions coach noticed the transmitter from the opposite sideline and complained to the league.
Commissioner Bert Bell outlawed the devices, and though coaches still used headsets to communicate with each other in noisy stadiums, it wasn’t until 1994 that the league approved a radio communication system to the quarterback’s helmet, giving headsets their most important purpose on game days.
“Some people were still wary of technology,” said Brian Billick, an NFL Network analyst and former Ravens coach who was the offensive coordinator for the Vikings in 1994. “They’d use rotary phones if you could find them, still to this day. Some people were just naturally, ‘Nah, nah, nah, that’s too much, that’s not football, we don’t want that,’ but there’s no question that it made things more efficient, that it saved time.”
Being able to communicate saved preparation time, since offenses no longer needed to practice signaling. But the system took a lot of getting used to, especially for quarterbacks, who felt coaches were trying to reinstall entire plays in 40 seconds.
Billick remembers Warren Moon, his quarterback at the time in Minnesota, swatting at his helmet like he was being swarmed by bees when Billick was talking too much.
“We all sounded like Jon Gruden in terms of the length of the calls,” Billick said. “Where before you were relying on the players to understand what they were supposed to do on 22 Z-In. Well, now it’s 22 Z-In Fullback Flat H Shoot. I mean, you kept adding on and on and on and the verbage got a lot bigger.”
Play callers had to adapt to what their quarterback wanted. Some, mostly younger players, preferred every detail, some didn’t.
“Your job as a coach is to learn how they learn best,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said.
That means going over the game plan and learning what the quarterback wants to be reminded of on a specific play. Who’s the hot read? What’s the checkdown against a specific defense?
For the most part, quarterbacks just want the play fast.
“Imagine being a baseball hitter and the coach tells you, ‘OK, here comes the curveball,’ and then it’s the fastball,” said Patriots backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. “I’d rather just know the play and then let’s go because I think if you get overloaded with too much information you can be looking at the wrong things.
“I’ve played for a lot of different guys. A lot of different people calling, some guys, they don’t even get half the way through, it cuts off at 15 seconds, and you’re looking at them and you better remember the play on your own.”
The play clock is set for 40 seconds, but the line to the quarterback shuts off at 15. At least, it’s supposed to. Billick said that, at first, the NFL’s radio operators would often forget to sever the communication, meaning the coach wouldn’t know it, but the quarterback could hear him during and after the play.
“You never want to let your quarterback hear you dog cussing when the line’s still on,” Billick said. “He’d hear me [cussing] him after the play, and then when I think [the line is] on I’m going ‘Well gee, I don’t think that was the right thing to do.’ You become very calm and very considerate.”
Cutting the cord
The technology has gotten much better, and the hardware has changed, too. In 1999, the NFL signed a sponsorship deal with Motorola to provide the headsets coaches would wear on the sideline.
Motorola’s technology enabled the headsets to go wireless, getting rid of bundles of cords connecting up to 60 headsets used on game days.
“There’s two jobs in the NFL you didn’t want. You didn’t want to be the get-back coach and you didn’t want to be the cord-holder for the head coach,” Billick said.
In 1996, Billick recalled, Packers receivers coach Gil Haskell was seriously injured in a game against the Cowboys when he’d gotten tripped up in all the wires and couldn’t move out of the way to avoid a collision between receiver Robert Brooks and Cowboys safety Darren Woodson.
While offensive coaches loved being able to talk to the quarterback, defenses wondered why they weren’t given the same privilege until 2008, when the league approved the placement of a radio inside the helmet of one defensive player.
“It was frustrating to the defense, because they felt like they were at a disadvantage,” said former Buccaneers and Colts coach Tony Dungy. “So for years we asked, ‘Why doesn’t the defense get the headset? They’re able to call their plays, we have to signal, and it takes time. We’re at a disadvantage.’ Finally the rules committee saw it that way.”
Two more changes came in 2012. The NFL switched from an analog system to a digital one for the radios, making the sound clearer. And the sponsorship deal with Motorola wasn’t renewed. The NFL approached Bose about providing new headsets, particularly interested in the company’s noise-canceling technology.
At first, Bose said no. The company wasn’t sure if headsets for coaches of 32 teams was a project with wide enough implications to devote their engineers to designing. The league ended up using unbranded headsets until 2014.
Even though Bose had initially declined, a few engineers had considered the headsets an interesting project and started tinkering. Eventually, they decided they could do it.
What they came up with was similar to some of Bose’s aviation headsets, with some key differences.
“Some coaches only want the ear cup on one year,” Garrett said. “Pilots want them on both ears when you’re flying a very loud plane. So it took some extra work to make sure that our noise-canceling technology would still provide benefit even if it’s only to one ear. And that took some engineering work.”
The microphone that goes in front of a coach’s mouth is similar to some that members of the military use when driving tanks. It’s designed to pick up only the voice of the person speaking into it, even in a very loud environment.
Perhaps most importantly, the headsets are light, comfortable, and durable. Bose takes every one of them back once the season is over to evaluate their performance, but aside from replacing some sweat-soaked ear cups, they haven’t had to do a lot of repairing or make changes to the technology.
Bose’s responsibilities as far as coach-to-player communication end when the coach speaks into the microphone. The intercom device that transmits that message to the quarterback or defensive player is provided by Green-GO, a European company that specializes in wireless intercom systems.
“It’s a very niche market,” said John Cave, the NFL’s vice president of football technology solutions.
The sound comes out of two round, orange speakers in the helmet, behind the quarterback’s ears. Even though the noise can be drowned out in the league’s loudest stadiums, it’s still ear-ringing loud.
“After a full game it’s like being at a concert,” Hoyer said.
The biggest challenge with the radio system has been coordinating all the frequencies, Cave said. It was only in 2016 that the NFL acquired an exclusive (and secret) frequency from the FCC. Before then, the league’s frequency coordinators needed to make sure that up to 10 coaches per team, with a different frequency to talk and to listen, plus every wireless microphone needed for a sideline reporter or halftime performer was registered and not using the same frequency at the same time.
There is only so much bandwidth, however, which meant some frequencies had to be shared. Cave said he remembers holding his breath at the Super Bowl XLVII halftime show because Bruno Mars, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Beyonce were using microphones on the same channels as some of the coaches. The coaches had been told to make sure all their headsets were turned off at halftime, and the performers were given the same message for once they were done, but there was always the chance someone would forget.
There was an issue with the frequencies in 2015 when the Steelers’ coaching staff said they’d been hearing the Patriots radio broadcast during the first half of their season opener. The league has an equity rule, so when the Steelers’ systems weren’t working, the Patriots had to turn theirs off, as well.
The exclusive frequency is encrypted and highly secure, so stealing signals is now impossible. The frequency is much higher than anything that would get interference from a radio broadcast or a delivery boy, once a common occurrence.
“There were times, literally, when you’d get the pizza guy, the pizza delivery guy, on the headset,” Billick said. “And it’s like, ‘What the heck? You mean there’s a cart, or a broken jar on aisle 9?’ But they obviously moved all that out, got rid of the bugs so to speak, and when everything became wireless, and we got rid of the cords themselves, then it really got good.”
There are still occasional problems. Earlier this season, when he was in San Francisco, Hoyer said he called his own play when his helmet communication went out during a game.
Overall, though, the headsets and radios have come a long way, even if the progress hasn’t impressed Belichick much.
“It’s great when it works,” he repeated.
The headset timeline