The Pittsburgh Steelers struggled with communication problems in the first half of their 28-21 loss at New England Thursday night, with their coach-to-coach headset system echoing the Patriots’ radio broadcast for most of the first half. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin told reporters of the headset issues after the game “that’s always the case [here].” So what exactly happened, and are the Patriots to blame?
The NFL described the headset problem as “intermittent,” and elected not to shut down the Patriots’ system in return as would normally be required under the NFL’s “Equity Rule.” The NFL’s Gameday Policy Manual describes this process as follows:
System Malfunction – If the entire coaching staff of a club cannot communicate from the bench area to the coaches’ booth or vice versa, the technician or a representative from the affected club should notify the nearest game official or League representative immediately. Upon confirmation, the game official or League representative will instruct the opposing club’s coaching staff to relinquish its use of the beltpacks and headsets on the field and in the coaches’ booth to the technicians until communication is restored to the affected club.
NBC’s Michele Tafoya, confusingly, reported from the sidelines during the second quarter that the Patriots’ headsets were, indeed, shut off—contrary to what the NFL claims. (The Steelers, reportedly, are planning to file a complaint with the NFL.) Here’s how the Pittsburgh Steelers’ official website described tonight’s headset issues (emphasis mine):
The broadcast was so loud that the Steelers coaches were unable to communicate, and the NFL rule is that if one team’s headsets are not working the other team is supposed to be forced to take their headsets off. It’s what the NFL calls the Equity Rule. Strangely enough, whenever an NFL representative proceeded to the New England sideline to shut down their headsets, the Steelers headsets cleared. Then as the representative walked away from the New England sideline, the Steelers’ headsets again started to receive the Patriots game broadcast.
NFL spokesperson Michael Signora issued the following statement, in which he claims the NFL supplies the coaches’ communications equipment—and that, contrary to Tomlin’s claims, the problems didn’t last the whole first half:
In the first quarter of tonight’s game, the Pittsburgh coaches experienced interference in their headsets caused by a stadium power infrastructure issue, which was exacerbated by the inclement weather. The coaches’ communications equipment, including the headsets, is provided by the NFL for both clubs use on game day. Once the power issue was addressed, the equipment functioned properly with no additional issues.
This 2014 NFL.com article seems to dispute that the NFL provides clubs’ headsets to them on game day:
This year, Bose shipped about 50 headsets to each stadium, for use by coaches on the sideline and in the booth, medical and officiating personnel. Teams travel with their own headsets in a special case and many coaches, creatures of habit and superstition, have taken to labeling their headset, particularly if their teams win when they wear a specific one. [...] The NFL mandates that every coach have exactly the same headset, and that any modification be made available to all teams so that no competitive advantage can be gained.
In fact, the NFL’s own Gameday Policy Manual states:
Home clubs are responsible for the installation and maintenance of the coaching staff communications infrastructure.
It further explains that the visiting coaches on the sideline may use their own headsets, but those used by visiting coaches in the coaches’ booth are supplied by the home team.
As Tomlin implied, this is far from the first time opponents facing the Patriots have raised questions about headset issues.
- 2006: Patriots security staff audio interferes with the Jaguars’ coach-to-QB communication system at “crucial moments” during a playoff game. The Lions and the Bengals also reported their coaches’ headsets stopped working during games at New England.
- 2007: The Patriots are investigated for using unapproved communication frequencies to interfere with the New York Jets’ headset system.
- 2008: Karlos Dansby accuses the Patriots of tampering with the Cardinals’ headset system.
- 2011: Jack Del Rio has his Jaguars team practice without headset communications, as “that tends to happen in New England.”
Reports emerged while the game was still ongoing that pointed to a “grounding issue.” That makes sense when considering the NFL’s “power infrastructure” statement, but it doesn’t make sense given what we know about the NFL’s wireless communication technology.
The NFL switched to using Bose noise-reducing headsets for coaches when that company paid to be an official league sponsor in August, 2014; this Patriots.com article suggests the communication system runs on Microsoft software—presumably since that company became the league’s official technology sponsor in 2013. The league had previously switched to using digital, not analog, communications tech in 2012. This NFL Ops blog post suggests that the league deals with severe bandwidth issues on game days, even employing radio-frequency traffic cops to manage and ban intruders who might interfere with crucial coach-to-coach or coach-to-player links. (The NFL has pled to the FCC on multiple occasions for protection of existing channels for wireless audio communications.) And the NFL also claims it has 268 million military-grade encryption codes to secure all these communication channels.
Which brings us back to Thursday night, and asking how a deciphered audio intrusion entered what is allegedly an encrypted, digital system. After all, the power/grounding issues the NFL blames for the problem should and could not exist in an “all-digital system.” A signal intrusion due to grounding or electrical problems could, by definition, only exist with analog audio.
But the NFL’s communication system isn’t, entirely, digital.
Assume the Gillette Stadium visitors’ coaching booth utilizes an analog headset amplifier—commonly called a Telex box, after the best known manufacturer of them—and that Telex box suffered from either faulty construction or poor electrical grounding in the booth. The Patriots’ radio booth too featured a mixer or other device with faulty construction (or the booth was improperly grounded). That would provide a path for the radio audio to get into the Telex box, and thus into the Steelers’ communication system. That’s the simplest explanation, albeit the one that implicates the Patriots (or their electricians) as possibly exposing people to millions of volts of electricity in the circumstance of a lightning strike or power surge.
Except! The NFL’s Gameday Policy Manual also mandates each coaches’ booth be powered by a separate, secured, 10 amp electrical circuit with isolated ground and a circuit breaker. (The same goes for the sideline-located wireless base stations.) We’re not sure how to reconcile the NFL’s explanation with their own requirements, unless the Patriots specifically have a noncompliant visitors’ coaching booth. And that’s before we bring up the electrical safety issues.
The wireless audio issues aside, the NFL also requires six wired intercom lines run between each coaches’ booth and the field. These lines are to be unspliced, secured, and exist specifically in the case of wireless headset failure. No reports from tonight indicate these were used, or if they too suffered from the signal intrusion.
But the improperly grounded Telex box is the only scenario I can come up with that takes the NFL at its word with regard to how their comms systems work and what went wrong Thursday night. If you’re inclined to suspect both the Patriots and/or the league are less than honest—which is entirely reasonable!—then the answers remain more mysterious, and perhaps more sinister.