SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Can you hear me now?
That’s what San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman felt like he kept asking quarterback Alex Smith on his headset last season. While 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 might soon be a thing of the past.
The NFL is switching from the old analog system coaches used to relay plays to their quarterbacks and launching a network that uses digital technology. The system was tested during the preseason and Pro Bowl last year before getting rolled out in every NFL stadium permanently this year.
The manufacturer, Nebraska-based Gubser & Schnakenberg LLC, also has designed the headsets to be more user-friendly than the former Telex technology. There’s no longer a 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 clearer sound.
Since coaches and coordinators began talking to quarterbacks with radios in 1994, miscommunications have 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 Oakland. It just so happened that a certain Material Girl was putting on a concert that same day at the adjacent Oracle Arena.
“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.
When Smith entered the NFL as the No. 1 overall pick out of Utah in 2005, he had visions of working with top-of-the-line equipment and constant technology innovations. So imagine his surprise when he looked inside his 49ers helmet to find a few AAA batteries and a patchy radio device.
“You expect more when you come in as a rookie,” Smith said. “You’re thinking this is going to be some crazy high-tech stuff and then you actually look in the helmet and it’s not.”
Giants backup quarterback David Carr – a former teammate of Smith with the 49ers – had the same reaction after Houston made the Fresno State standout the top pick in 2002.
“I’ve had conversations that weren’t even in the stadium in my headset,” Carr said.
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 opt 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.
Smith, for instance, said the connection seemed to cut out last season at odd times, forcing the 49ers to switch to hand signals or for the quarterback to improvise. He said the problem popped up first when the 49ers were on the road, and then later at Candlestick Park, which had two electrical blackouts during a Monday night game against Pittsburgh last season.
At one point, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said he asked the league for an explanation.
“We never got the answer, but we had problems in a couple particular road games where it would shut off right in the middle of a play call,” Harbaugh said. “Happened multiple times in one particular game. I couldn’t tell you what the problem was because I was never given a response to the question.”
The league also is talking to companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere about ways to implement other new technology.
One idea the league is exploring is hand-held devices for coaches on the sidelines that would replace the black-and-white photos of formations that have been used for decades. Four teams – the 49ers, Jets, Giants and Seahawks, also chosen based on geographical convenience – are testing iPads for medical staffs on the sidelines, and some teams are starting to use digital playbooks.
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.”