Mixed Signals

Expect lots of interference when NFL quarterbacks buckle up the new radio helmets
September 04, 1994

Some recent comments concerning the effectiveness of the NFL radio helmet, which enables a quarterback to receive instructions from a coach over the airwaves, have caused us to consider the wireless future of football. We're doubtful. It's nothing we're particularly knowledgeable about—our understanding of technology tops out with the printing press—but we've brushed up against just enough of this stuff (eight-track tapes, New Coke and, once, a vibrating pager) to know it's not going to work.

It all sounds very neat. The coach barks into a walkie-talkie from the sideline, and the sound is carried directly to the quarterback's gourd. The coach's wish becomes the quarterback's command without the clumsiness of hand signals or messenger players. You can see how this might work...in theory. But just as we warned you that Denver's Stapleton International Airport's automated baggage-handling system would ultimately become bogged down by design flaws (Bag This—Won't Work! SI, April 25,1994), so are we here to tell you that the NFL will not move very far into the 21st century by borrowing all the applied science of the trucking industry ("That new waitress at Millie's—static—ha-ha!").

Here's what good buddy Jeff Graham, briefly a Seattle Seahawk, remembers from his radio-controlled quarterbacking days for the New York/New Jersey Knights of the World League: "I started picking up local radio stations and landing patterns for planes going into LaGuardia. The airport stuff was confusing, and the radio station would come in and out so that you couldn't ever really get into a groove listening to the music."

Player advisories aside, the NFL insists on forging ahead in this area—it wants "to promote offensive production"—and has cleared a frequency band this season for one-way transmissions between the coach and his quarterback. The NFL techno-dweebs believe they've anticipated everything, including electronic eavesdropping. They've even developed an encryption scheme that will allow 268 million possible codes (oh, like Al Davis couldn't crack that) and an automatic cutoff device that prevents coaches from practicing air-traffic control while a play is in progress. This is pie-in-the-sky stuff. It reminds us of the arrogance that attended the launching of the Hubble telescope. And you know what we predicted there (The Hubble—Look Out! SI, Jan. 24, 1992).

Beyond the obvious problems—coaches running afoul of the FCC's decency standards and quarterbacks who are already hearing quite enough voices in their heads—we would like to point out, in specific and instructional ways, other possible pitfalls. Let's just say that...

...Dan Marino is driving the Miami Dolphins downfield when the reassuring baritone of Don Shula is suddenly replaced by Casey Kasem, who is counting down the Top 40 on some 50,000-watt station. How could this happen? (You'll find that the aurora borealis can be used to explain most frequency shifts.) Anyway, Marino, quite literally, is unable to get Funkdafied out of his poor noggin. Some of his linemen, whose exotic dental work has long allowed them to pick up the big stations and who are thus addled beyond any possible rehabilitation, smile and welcome a new brother to their all-hit-radio-all-the-time fold. Marino seems physically helpless at the controls; drive stalls.

...In the Los Angeles Coliseum, hard by the freeway, L.A. Raider technicians can't keep cellular-phone transmissions from breaking into coach Art Shell's sideline patter. Quarterback Jeff Hostetler, ever a pro, plays through the interference. But the accumulated despair brought on by the drive-by conversations he overhears—"He's holding a gun to his head"—finally sends him to the bench.

On the other hand, let's say Arizona Cardinal coach Buddy Ryan picks up a 911 call from Scottsdale while directing his team in OT. Miraculously, using quarterback Jim McMahon as a translator, Ryan talks a Spanish-speaking gardener through the delivery of his wife's first child. It's a boy; Cards beat Cowboys. Ryan is played by Jimmy Johnson in the Fox TV movie four weeks later (Gridiron Gyno).

Except for that one possibility—that Ryan might help deliver a baby—we don't see anything good coming out of this radio-helmet enterprise. Coaches will be paralyzed on the sideline as their headphones fill up with the Home Shopping Network. They'll order cubic-zirconium gewgaws for their wives while their teams incur delay-of-game penalties. Quarterbacks will become transfixed at the line of scrimmage as their helmets scan the police bands ("Time out! Officer down!"). At the Super Bowl, kids from Cal Tech will set up pirate stations in the cheap seats and send in bogus plays ("Trust me, take a knee").

Yes, the radio helmet will work sometimes. But, really, is that good enough? After all, Denver's baggage-handling system works sometimes, and you know what we said about that (Flying to Denver?—Carry On! SI, June 25, 1994).


Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)