For more than two decades, NFL coaches have been wearing headsets on the sidelines to communicate with players on the field and call plays. Headsets have become such an institution of football games that it’s easy to forget that they weren’t always used in games.
Before the headset technology was readily available, teams used a less advanced method of relaying plays to the field. Here’s a look at the history and evolution of play-calling in the NFL, as well as the big government secret that now exists inside the NFL headsets.
The pre-headset NFL and the impetus for headsets
Prior to the advent of headsets, teams used a signaling system similar to what you see in baseball teams to communicate plays to the players while they were on the field. This cut into the team’s preparation and practice time throughout the week because they had to practice the signals, which took a lot of getting used to.
In 1956, a couple of Cleveland-area inventors approached then-Browns head coach Paul Brown about a radio receiver they developed that could be placed in quarterbacks’ helmets to communicate with them from the sideline. Brown liked the idea and had the inventors secretly test it.
When the Browns tested it in a preseason game with the Lions, a Detroit coach noticed the transmitter from the sideline and complained to the league. Then-commissioner Bert Bell outlawed the devices.
The NFL allows the use of headsets
Coaches were continued to be allowed to use headsets with one another, but it wasn’t until 1994 that the league allowed them to be placed inside quarterbacks’ helmets. Some people were initially hesitant of the technology, even though it saved time by cutting down on the need for using manual signals.
Headsets allowed teams to create more detailed plays, with former head coach Brian Billick recalling that a 22 Z-In evolved into a 22 Z-In Fullback Flat H Shoot. He says “you kept adding on and on and on and the verbiage got a lot bigger.”
The evolution of the headsets
The headsets have evolved over time. The league signed a deal with Motorola in 1999 that led to the hardware manufacturer providing coaches with wireless headsets for the first time. That got rid of cords that were needed to connect up to 60 headsets used on game day.
Headset usage expanded in 2008 when the league allowed teams to place a radio inside of one defensive player’s helmet. Prior to that, defenses thought they were at a disadvantage without having a player able to speak directly to the sideline like the offense could.
In 2012, the league switched from an analog system to digital, making the sound clearer. The league also declined to renew its sponsorship deal with Motorola that year. The NFL used unbranded headsets for two seasons before striking a sponsorship deal with Bose in 2014.
The Bose headsets use noise-canceling technology, and the microphone is designed to only pick up the voice of the person speaking into it. In 2016, the league acquired an exclusive — and secret — radio frequency from the FCC to ensure a lack of interference, allowing up to 10 coaches per team to be on a unique frequency.
The big government secret inside headsets
In 2016, the league acquired an exclusive — and secret — radio frequency from the FCC that is encrypted and highly secure to make stealing signals impossible. In this way, the government and NFL worked together on this secret signal.
But the frequency has another benefit, as it is much higher than anything that would get interference from radio broadcasts or other things. Previously, coaches would get their signals crossed with unwanted sources.
Brian Billick recalled that there “were times, literally, when you’d get the pizza guy, the pizza delivery guy, on the headset.”
There are other times that the headsets go out and quarterbacks must call their own plays without being able to communicate with the sideline, which is why Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is known for saying that the technology is “great when it works.”