Football coaches figured out long ago that while the sideline might provide an ideal place to lead, it doesn't necessarily offer the best place to watch.
They needed another set of eyes, located high above the field, to see how opponents aligned and adjusted on both sides of the ball. And they needed a way to receive that information instantly.
Enter the headset.
In its earliest forms, it was as basic as what telephone operators once used to connect calls. Through the years, it evolved into larger, more sophisticated equipment that allowed multiple coaches to communicate between the coaches' booth and sideline, and for a coach to dispense plays and other information to the quarterback, with the security of military-grade encryption.
At the start of the 2007 preseason, the NFL and Motorola unveiled new headsets that are lighter, thinner and more ergonomically advanced than their predecessors. They range from the traditional over-the-head style -- featuring improvements in ear comfort, acoustic sealing and microphone performance -- to the new behind-the-head style, designed for coaches to comfortably wear a variety of hats and visors with their headsets.
Before wireless technology, coaches on the sideline needed someone -- usually a young functionary or intern -- to hold the slack of the headset wire to help prevent them from tripping as they walked or ran. Of course, some accidents are unavoidable. There is a story about how one former NFL offensive lineman, still agitated in the aftermath of an on-field brawl, inadvertently got his arm caught around a headset wire and nearly yanked off a coach's toupee.
Conversations between coaches can be equally intense. For instance, Jon Gruden, the ultra-fiery coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, freely admits that he is no fun for an assistant coach to engage in a headset conversation during a game.
|Marc Serota / Getty Images|
|Jon Gruden admits to letting his fiery temper flow through his headset, giving his assitants an earful.|
"I'll call you every name in the book if I'm not getting the right answers to the questions I'm asking, or if the answers aren't coming fast enough," Gruden says. "I can't see from down there, so when we hand the ball off I'm yelling, 'What's the front? What happened, man? Did we run it at the Three Technique? Did we run it to the bubble [the uncovered area between the center and the tackle]? Who missed the block? Was it the right tackle? What do you mean you don't know? Do you guys know what the hell you're doing?'
"I'm brutal. I'm horrible. I've been wired [by NFL Films] and I've listened to myself talking to people, and I'm surprised somebody hasn't taken me out by now."
Typically, upwards of a dozen or so members of an NFL coaching staff will wear headsets during a game, communicating over four lines -- two lines for the offensive assistants, two for the defensive assistants. One offensive line is for calling plays, which are relayed through a transmitter in the quarterback's helmet, and one defensive line is for calling coverages, which are relayed through hand signals. The other two lines are for "private" conversations, during which offensive and defensive coaches can address each other about matchup issues or injuries that might impact their strategy.
Some teams have a line for their special teams coach, some don't. The head coach has a switch allowing him to join any of the discussions with his assistants.
For the most part, coaches in the booth are responsible for tracking and relaying the opponent's personnel groupings, formations, fronts and tendencies based on down and distance. With an overhead view of a typical kickoff formation that covers the width of the field, special teams assistants in the booth inform the special teams coach on the sideline which member of the coverage unit is being double-teamed blocked.
In the coach-to-quarterback communication system, timing is everything. The coach calling plays must stay one play ahead, already knowing his next call depending on the previous play's outcome, in order to avoid a delay-of-game penalty from not delivering calls fast enough. And the faster a coach can relay a play to the quarterback, the more time he has to include some coaching points before the system automatically turns off at the 15-second mark of the 40-second play clock.
"Maybe a little reminder such as, 'We're in the red zone, don't take a sack; Take a peek at the X receiver before you go to the strong side,' " former New England Patriots offensive coordinator and current Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis says.
As long as everyone is focused on his role and speaks only when it's his turn to be heard, headset communication during a game is fairly smooth. However, given the combustible nature of football and many of the men who coach it, headset conversations can quickly deteriorate into screaming matches.
That's when the head coach will step in to restore order.