Can you hear me now?
The NFL’s coach-to-quarterback radio connection has been a part of the game for three decades, the most popular sports league has not always been on the cutting edge of technology.
“There was one time when I was doing it and it happened to be on the same frequency as an airline in a certain city,” Roman said. “And it was a critical situation in the game and all you hear is Southwest pilots talking.”
Such scenarios are now a thing of the past.
The NFL switched from the old analog system coaches used to relay plays to their quarterbacks and launched a mobile network that uses digital technology. The system was tested during the preseason and Pro Bowl in 2011 before getting rolled out in every NFL stadium permanently in 2012.
The manufacturer, Nebraska-based Gubser & Schnakenberg LLC, also designed the headsets to be more user-friendly than the former Telex technology.
There is no delay preceded by a beep to wait for the frequency to clear. Instead, coaches now push a button and can talk instantly and with a consistently clear sound.
Since coaches and coordinators began talking to quarterbacks with radios in 1994, miscommunications and mishaps had been an occupational hazard.
Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave will never forget when he was the quarterbacks coach for Atlanta on a November 2008 trip to the Oakland Coliseum. It just so happened that a certain Material Girl was putting on a concert that same day at the adjacent Oracle Arena, where the NBA’s Golden State Warriors play.
“The frequency was tied in to the Madonna concert that was going to go on there in Oakland that night where the Warriors played,” he said. “We were listening to Madonna rehearse that afternoon prior to her show. That was going to be confounding to (quarterback) Matt Ryan.”
Apparently the tunes didn’t deter the Falcons. They beat the Raiders 24-0.
After decades of relying on hand signals, color-coded wristbands or sideline posters, headset technology has still proven to be the best form of in-game communication.
The NFL expanded the use of headsets when owners approved a communication device for defenses ahead of the 2008 season. Most teams opted for a linebacker to wear the helmet in a move made to level the playing field against offenses. But there are still limitations.
Each team is only allowed one live helmet, designated by a small green dot on the back, on the field at a time. Once the 40-second play clock begins, coaches have 25 seconds to make a call and pass on information. The microphones for all the radio transmitters shut off automatically at the 15-second mark. A league official also is on site to monitor.
The NFL has said there are some 268 million different military-grade encryption codes protecting the frequencies. And while security is strict, teams also do their due diligence to protect transmissions.
“Game day our guys have to work hard to find a good frequency for us,” Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. “That happens a lot at stadiums and particularly away stadiums a lot. You’re trying to find the frequency, you pick up police radio, you pick up air traffic controllers, you pick up all kinds of stuff.”
Coaches and players said they often have more problems on the road than at home. Most admit that’s probably because they’re used to the nuances at home and not because of any ill intentions by an opponent trying to gain a competitive advantage.
The league is still talking to companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere about ways to implement other new technology.
When it comes to any advances, the only certainty is that some are easier to please than others.
“I was just glad when we got rid of the cords,” Denver Broncos coach John Fox quipped. “You’d trip or get your head torn off. I almost lost a couple of ears.”