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Modern football fans are keen to the fact that some players on the field can almost magically communicate with coaches off the field of play. Is there some special secret, maybe a part of their uniforms assisting?
Helmets in top-level professional football leagues can be equipped with microphones and speakers so a player and a coach can communicate in between plays. However, not all players are allowed to do so. In the National Football League, a single player on offense and on defense is assigned the role.
Use of speakers and microphones inside football helmets originated with troublesome crowd noise that seemed to get worse in the 1990s, when even at close range players would have a hard time hearing each other. The helmet speakers made it easier for a quarterback, for instance, to hear coaches’ orders.
In the NFL, a green dot sticker on a football helmet is there to inform referees which member of the team has contact with coaches between plays. The sticker is usually on the back of the helmet in the center, often on a center stripe.
No. By rule in the NFL, only a single player on offense, and a single player on defense, can be connected wirelessly with the sidelines. On offense this almost always is the quarterback, who relays plays to the rest of the team in huddles. On defense it’s usually a captain positioned in the center of play, like a linebacker.
Those captains hear orders from the sidelines, then inform their teammates, usually in a huddle but sometimes by simply yelling out what to do (more common on defense than offense).
Headset communication in pro football can be vital, if not imperative. It just saves valuable time relaying information during a period, between plays, when there is very little time to set up new plays.
The headset system also allows 2-way communications, for the player to ask a clarification question before relaying plays to other team members.
Think of it in terms of the old school game where everyone sits in a circle, and a single student is given a sentence to remember and then relay to the student next to him or her. The message is carefully whispered, and then the receiving student must relay that sentence to the next student, and so on all the way around the circle.
By the time the sentence reaches the last student, the message is not the same as when they started. Somewhere along the communication line, it was abbreviated or otherwise amended.
The more middle links in a communication line, the more opportunity there is for the message to be distorted.
In professional football, where a lot of money is on the line and winning is everything, clubs and coaches want as little confusion as possible during game play regarding their strategic decisions. It could mean all the difference between winning and losing.
If he yells loud enough. Just kidding, as stated above, in the NFL only a single player on offense and defense can hear from a member of the coaching staff.
Otherwise, coaches must use their voice, or incoming substitute players, to relay information to the key player on whichever side of the ball.
Not all football helmets have both a speaker and a microphone. Some coaches prefer speakers only so the player on the field only has to take messages, and not waste valuable time asking questions.
Remember, the time between plays when these communications can occur is a matter of seconds. Some coaches might prefer to set up a 1-way communication line, where they relay plays using another method, then use the helmet speaker to offer brief tips or reminders before the snap.
The speaker-microphone system has advanced considerably since the first systems tried in the 1990s. The ability for wireless communications mushroomed with the advent of mobile phones, making it easier to transmit very clear voice messages consistently.
Sometimes players on the field use tactics to assist, like a quarterback using a thin sheet inside the helmet to cover an ear hole. This blocks outside noise from bothering his ability to hear from at least one side. Look closely at quarterbacks’ ear holes and you might see this during games in noisy stadiums.
Field captains also will have hand signals worked out with the coaching staff in case they do not hear or understand messages. You often on television see a key player holding his hands over each ear hole ~ indicating to coaches that he’s having difficulty hearing the speaker, and to repeat the message.
Also, there is a hand signal where a player might hold out an index finger and kind of spin it, like a wheel, which is a sign to “say again” or “go over that one more time.” This is used in baseball by batters also as they receive signals from the 3rd base coach.
In baseball, use of technology to gain an advantage in play is very severely forbidden. Cheat all you want by stealing the other team’s signs, or use statistical data to pitch carefully to a slugger. But don’t use machines.
Case in point: 2017 Houston Astros. In this cheating scandal, the team was alleged to have used several methods to deliver information to batters at the plate ~ including use of speakers inside batters’ helmets.
It was done by a member of the coaching staff, or other team representative, who would use video monitoring from beyond the outfield, or binoculars, to see the catcher’s signs given to pitchers.
Those reps would then relay that information to the batter, usually only a matter of fastball, or off-speed (slower) pitch. This was easy because just 2 signals would be needed, like 1 beep for fastball, 2 beeps for off-speed.
While this might not seem like much, considering the pitch type is not known, knowing the speed in advance helps hitters tremendously. Pitching is not necessarily throwing the ball hard past hitters, but keeping them off balance, or keeping them guessing.
Because they get only a split second to decide whether or not to swing at a pitch, most hitters have to guess the speed of the oncoming pitch before the pitcher even begins his motion. Most often hitters anticipate a fastball so they get their hands and bodies moving fast to get the bat barrel to the plate to strike the fast-approaching ball.
If they do this and an unexpected slow pitch is thrown, they swing way earlier than the ball arrives. It’s vice-versa if they guess slow ball and fastball comes. In fact, that makes it harder to hit. Most good hitters look fastball, then adjust if they see something else.
In baseball, some forms of cheating, like stealing the other team’s signs, are not accepted but are not illegal per the rule book. Using technology to gain an advantage, however, is forbidden by rules.
As of the 2023 season, speakers and microphones are not allowed in helmets for high school and college football play.
Part of the reason is, the wireless systems are not cheap, and not all schools can afford to purchase them. This would give a significant advantage to schools with the money to spend.
At those levels, coaches either give hand signals to communicate with quarterbacks or defensive captains, or (most commonly) have substitute players run out to relay messages.
When you watch high school and college football games, watch between plays as substitute players run to the huddle to replace other players. Most often, 1 of them will run right up to another player and get really close ~ making sure verbal signals are heard.
Question: Why don’t all the players just have speakers inside their helmets?
Answer: Many reasons, including a potential overload of wireless signals inside the stadium. Also, it is very difficult to manage or understand which messages are coming from who, so in reality even without rule limits, it is doubtful if every player would have helmet speakers. Most in fact don’t need to hear coaches after every single play anyway; they just need to know which play is called.
Q.: What if the wireless system goes down?
A.: Teams must have back-up plans to implement very quickly if the wireless system fails, such as shifting right into using a set of hand signals, or relaying plays via pre-prepared poster boards. In the NFL, if the radio system of a team goes down, then the other team also cannot use the wireless system. This is to level the playing field, so to speak ~ and also to avoid shenanigans like purposely trying to knock out the other team’s radio link. If all else fails, teams can go to the old-fashioned substitute player running plays out to the quarterback, or having the quarterback simply run to the sideline to get new plays.
Q.: Will college football ever allow speakers inside the helmets?
A.: It seems very likely, as a lot of changed rules and innovations from professional football have been adopted at the school level. As the money involved with college football continues to skyrocket, big-time colleges probably will seek rules to help ensure protection of communications on the field.