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Have you ever noticed that of all major team sports, only National Football League coaches wear headsets? It seems that teams in other sports could benefit somehow by wearing those wireless contraptions on their heads. But they don’t.
There are many reasons NFL coaches wear headsets, mainly the constant need to know exactly what the opposing team is doing to help the head coach make better decisions. The headsets connect assistant coaches stationed up in the stands with coaches on the sideline, enabling a flow of fresh information for in-game strategies.
Because football games are kind of like chess matches, where pieces are moved to points considered best for success, football coaches like to see the action of their opponent broadly, or as a whole. The best way to do this to date is from higher positions for “bird’s eye” views.
Often the offensive and defensive coaches, or at least representatives for them, sit up in a booth or in the stands and monitor game play with binoculars and computers at hand. Usually these assistant coaches are accompanied by assistants to the assistant coaches.
Sharing information about the other team through the headsets is so important that teams assign several coaches to the task.
8 Reasons NFL Coaches Wear Headsets in Games
There are many reasons why NFL coaches don the communications contraptions over their ears during game play:
Coaches standing on sidelines cannot visually get a complete picture of what the opposition is doing on plays. They get a 2-dimensional view from their own eyes, but that only provides height and width. Depth, the 3rd dimension, is impeded by so many players and referees blocking their view. Use of headsets lets head coaches take advantage of broad 3-dimensional views of the “battlefield” from above, to help them determine precisely what the opposition is trying to do.
Modern football is so fast and multi-faceted that it takes a proverbial army to manage the troops on the field. This requires sharing of information, and a lot of it. This is part of a continuous “chess game” between football coaches, to adjust their own style of play to either exploit something they saw from above, or react to something that seems to be problematic.
Headsets are direct lines between the head coach and a group of trusted assistants. Sometimes the head coach may ask everyone to join in for a group discussion about a game development, particularly during a time out in play. Football coaches are spread out to provide as many perspectives on play on the field as possible, and they use headsets to “shrink their world.”
The need to change actions fast is imperative for success in today’s NFL. There is a game clock that counts seconds between plays, because players get bunched up and knocked around in plays and it takes time for them to reassemble for the next one. Play does not resume until the ball is snapped to the quarterback, and during those seconds prior, a coach could see something on the field and instantly relay it to the sidelines to have players adjusted (e.g. moved on the field, or replaced with a substitute). Or, 1 coach might use the headset to simply remind other coaches of a tendency coming up from the other team, like “watch for the corner blitz.”
Imagine while doing your job that a real expert could constantly whisper tips into your ears to help with every action. It would make your job easier, right? Modern quarterbacks have small speaker-earbuds inside their helmet so coaches can talk to them. Coaches can deliver to the QB the next play, or, more often, provide a tidbit or 2 to supplement the play called. Example: “Remember to pump-fake to make the safety move”; or, “The middle linebacker is hurt.”
In stadiums known for tremendous noise by the fans, such as in Seattle or Kansas City, some coaches choose the 2-earpiece headsets to block all the sound to improve communications between coaches. Leaving a single ear open to the elements could be a problem in those environments.
Letting coaches give plays directly to a player on offense or defense saves time, instead of having substituting players run onto the field to deliver each new play to on-field teammates. In the 1990s the NFL approved and standardized the use of headsets during games for this reason: to improve play and therefore further please fans. (Major League Baseball is finally getting around to this concept, to shorten the time length of games by instituting a Pitch Clock starting with the 2023 season).
Just kidding ~ sort of. Okay, few coaches wear headsets just for fashion. However, don’t be surprised if teams stick fake headsets on people along the sideline just to throw off the other side. In the NFL, teams are always on the lookout for spying, or to otherwise get an edge. Another part of the chess game is the use of decoys to divert attention; or divert energy away from the truly important elements of a game.
At every level of football today, you’re bound to see a coach or coaches pacing the sidelines wearing 2-way communication devices over their head. Sometimes they will pull down a contraption to speak into ~ a microphone attached to a curved arm that transmits words to others with the same headset system and channel.
These contraptions have earpieces over 1 or both ears, feeding information from other coaches back to the guys on the sideline close to the players.
This is the vital exchange of current information during football game play. Perhaps the chess analogy above wasn’t quite accurate. In reality, football is a game that mimics field battles in war ~ only, unlike war, the football battle is played within a confined area (between sidelines and end zones).
As such, it is extremely important to know where the other team is moving their troops and weapons. Except that in football, instead of looking for howitzers, coaches might look for linebackers. Instead of tanks, coaches may seek out where the safeties are positioned.
The first thing they usually look at before plays is the line of scrimmage. How many opposing players are right up on the line, and how many a yard or more off it. Finally, where are the best and most dangerous players lined up?
What they see are real-life X’s and O’s that are associated with game planning in football. The offense comes to games with a list of plays the team has perfected the prior week specifically to execute against the opponent that week.
The adversarial defense spent a week honing pre-snap alignments of players, and devising a plan of which players to put on the field depending on the situation and personnel of the offense. NFL defenses do not use the same players for every offensive snap. They adjust people and strategies.
Chess, war battle, cat-and-mouse, call it what you may, but in football a whole heck of a lot is going on in between plays.
Teams in the NFL have multiple coaches, who serve a head coach, and not all of them wear headsets. For some coaches it is a personal decision; they may feel distracted by too much chatter in their ears.
For the most part, there are way more coaches than there are headsets. Each headset system typically has 2 channels, 1 each for offense and defense. The leading coach for a side of the ball might link up with an assistant or 2, but rarely more.
The reason? Think about a group phone call when everyone talks at the same time. Ever have difficulty figuring out who precisely is speaking? Or, so many people talk at the same time that little actually gets communicated?
These headset systems are carefully designed by NFL teams to be as efficient as possible. Remember, there’s only a few seconds before every play to reassemble the players where you want them. Head coaches do not want to lose seconds to channel noise.
Some coaches have jobs that involve direct motivation for players, like a special teams coach during a game. Special teams practice kickoffs, field goals, and punts all week, then during the game there is little more for that coach to do except cheer them on, or maybe make some adjustments mid-game depending on performance or injury.
Other coaches might have specific jobs that just do not require communicating directly with other coaches, such as those assigned to management of time and the game clock.
How many coaches can be connected at the same time depends on the communications network used. Modern systems are quite advanced, and more than 20 coaches can be connected at once. The exact number is up to each team.
Remember, usually there are a couple of channels for offensive and defensive game management, and that time is limited and too many voices can be detrimental for communicating.
As with many other facets of professional football play, with new developments in the game came teams who tried to gain advantages through it. This happened with headsets, too.
By NFL rule, if the headsets for 1 team do not work, then the opposing team must shut theirs off.
During games, headset links can be disrupted by all the wireless connections floating around today, such as mobile phones in the stands.
Coaches are allowed to communicate with the quarterback in between plays, and up to 15 seconds before the game clock runs down. (In the NFL, teams have 25 to 40 seconds in which to snap the ball and begin play, depending on situations).
The radio signal ends when there are 15 seconds or less on the play clock. At that point the quarterback must decide:
- Whether or not to call a time out if they are not confident in the play called or have questions for the coach.
- Call an “audible,” or a verbal signal to his other players to call a different play.
- Let the clock run down and take a 5-yard penalty for delay of game. (This happens when a team already has used all of its allotted time outs, or if a quarterback purposely trades the 5 yards for another chance to clarify matters with his coach).
Professional football has always been a fast game, and modern technology has made it even faster. Coaches in the National Football League take advantage of electronic communications devices on their heads to communicate with one another and with players in an effort to speed up and improve play on the field.
Today, NFL coaches can use headsets to send plays to players, offer strategic tidbits, send a quick reminder, tell players which opponents might be injured or not playing well, and more.
Fans often see quarterbacks walk right up to the center in preparation to receive the football and begin play, only to then bark out words at the line of scrimmage to tell his teammates to change the play that was called. You’ll notice other players move around after this barking, called an audible.
Sometimes it’s because of something he saw in the defensive alignment before him ~ but more likely, it was from what coaches saw from above and relayed to him via invisible channels.
Question: Why do NFL coaches sometimes cover their mouths on the sideline while talking into the headsets?
Answer: Fear of lip-reading by the opposition. Funny as it sounds, because teams in the past employed people who could read lips to try to learn what the other team would do, NFL coaches to this day sometimes cover their mouths with a play chart or clipboard while talking. (Pitchers and sometimes catchers do it also in baseball during visits to the mound for strategic discussion). Sometimes players who sit the bench a lot try to hone their lip-reading skills to make them more valuable to the team.
Q.: Can NFL players talk back to coaches?
A.: No, there is no 2-way communication from players back to the coaches.
Q.: Where do coaches find elevated spots at high school games with smaller stadiums?
A.: Usually in the press box atop the stands, or maybe on the very highest row of seats.