A deep dive into communication between QB and coach

By Marshall Ferguson

Imagine sitting at your desk, ready to accomplish a task. All of a sudden your boss leans over your shoulder and gives you a couple helpful tips to point you in the right direction.

Now imagine this happening 55-70 times in a three hour period. Welcome to the life of a professional football quarterback.

The game of football has developed technologically in ways that could not have been imagined 20 or 40 years ago.

We now have officials running around the field with cameras strapped to their head and a cable cam which zips around the field to cover any angle you can imagine while opening your mind to the quarterbacks perspective of the defence.

We have microphones on players at all times, a line superimposed on the field to let you know just how far a running back has to dive to get a fresh set of downs and soon we might even have a chip in the ball to give us definite measurements to aid in assessing the point of the game: did the ball gain enough ground?

The communication between coach and quarterback varies around the CFL Photo: Johany Jutras CFL.ca

All of these are incredible innovations that have altered football viewing as we knew it but no one innovation has changed the on-field product of football more than radio communication from coach headset to quarterback helmet.

The idea originated when Paul Brown was coaching his Cleveland Browns towards back-to-back NFL championships in 1954 and 1955. Brown is renowned for his willingness to try anything new to win.

With that common knowledge, two Cleveland football fans – who also happened to be inventors – named John Campbell and George Salares – approached the head ball coach with a way to talk to his quarterback on the field.

Brown told the two men to get back to him when they had something tangible so Campbell and Salares built a prototype for a coach to quarterback helmet radio receiver.

The two men set up a test in the woods behind John’s house which required John to hold the communication device and George to walk into the forest with the receiver strapped inside a helmet. A police officer heard radio interference while in his squad car and drove around the area looking for the source. He found Salares wandering through the woods with a helmet on.

The two inventors told the officer of their plan to work with the Browns. Lucky for them, the officer was a big Browns fan so he looked the other way and told them to keep up the good work.

Paul Brown approved of the device after a couple tests at practice and the device made it to Sundays. Then Browns quarterback George Ratterman was the first player to use the helmet in game but – as you can imagine – the Brown’s opponent that day – the Detroit Lions – quickly got suspicious of the suddenly seamless communication from sideline to huddle. Detroit sent someone to investigate the Cleveland sideline and found the new technology.

Three games later citing an unfair advantage, then NFL commissioner Bert Bell banned the technology.

A quick side note: In an article in The Canadian Football News on Oct. 17, 1953, entitled ‘Is convert waste of time?’, Bell is quoted as saying, “The extra point, in my opinion, is a waste of time, our kickers have become so skilled they make the play look easy. Understandably, sportswriters have labelled it the ‘automatic point.’” Bell said to a predominantly Canadian audience.”

The guy was ahead of his time when speaking to those Canadian football fans, but clearly ol’ Bert didn’t understand the exploits of giving every team the Browns new form of sideline communication.

As time passed the CFL and NFL wanted to speed up the game to keep fans interested and avoid procedural penalties associated with an ever-shortening play clock. Cleaner football brought about by streamlined communication creates a better product. Everyone who has played or watched a game of football knows that.

Creating hand signals is anything but an exact science and can lead to signal stealing while running in substitutes with a mouth full of football terms required to be regurgitated in their exact order is nothing more than a wishful game of high stakes broken telephone.

It took until 1994 for the NFL to realize this system would have a positive impact on the game and the CFL didn’t follow suit until 2010 when the board of governors approved the one-way communicator in the quarterback’s helmet which was turned on at the end of the previous play, then turned off with 10 seconds remaining in the 20-second play clock.

In 2016 the CFL expanded that communication window by dropping the cutoff deadline of each snap allowing for pre-snap and even in-play communication.

There was much discussion in the NFL last year about the Los Angeles Rams hurrying to the line of scrimmage, effectively skirting the frequency cutoff deadline – 15 seconds left in the play clock in the NFL – in order for first time Head Coach Sean McVay to tip off rookie quarterback Jared Goff of the defences plans.

How much credit did Goff deserve? How much of the Rams success was McVay being Goff’s eyes?

They’re fair questions that can be applied to the Canadian Football League since the 2016 elimination of a play clock cutoff deadline, but in reality the quarterback still has to process the defence, move around the pocket and make the throws he sees open.

Talking in the middle of a play can actually do more damage than good. As a passer stands in the huddle replicating the often long play call sent into his ear via speaker, getting interrupted can throw off the call or shorten the time left when breaking the huddle. In the same vein, interrupting the quarterback mid-cadence or during his drop back can open any can of worms imaginable.

The play that brought this all to my attention was Antonio Pipkin clearly getting direction during a live mic game last Friday from offensive coordinator Khari Jones. After simulating the snap and seeing the defence Jones checked into “black jet.”

The message was immediately replicated by Pipkin at the line of scrimmage.

Also interesting to note the NFL only allows sideline to helmet communication while the CFL allows coaches in the booth to communicate with players.

All of this is a fundamental change to the way quarterbacks operate at the line of scrimmage. There has always been a certain level of respect for the field general passer capable of observing everything around him and having the guts to take a risk by checking into the perfect play at the right time.

Brett Favre stands atop that decisive leader mountain after he checked to “Black 59 Razor” for the Green Bay Packers first touchdown pass of Super Bowl 31. An idea brought about by watching Joe Montana check to the same call in Super Bowl 24 for a touchdown to Jerry Rice while Favre channel surfed the day of his only Super Bowl victory.

Those iconic moments of on-field leadership are not gone though. Every team seems to approach the open airwaves mid-play differently.

During a CFL on TSN live mic game earlier this season Ticats Head Coach June Jones rarely if ever said anything into quarterback Jeremiah Masoli’s helmet after Masoli entered the huddle. Meanwhile Stampeders Head Coach Dave Dickenson is amongst the more talkative post huddle directors as seen and heard in both Week 6 against Montreal

And Week 11 in a west division tilt with Winnipeg.

Before the CFL decided to eliminate the play clock deadline for communication there was a league official working the switch to turn the frequency off and on at the appropriate time. When the league moved to the non-deadline format currently used, there became no need for a CFL official to flip the switch off and on as communication was always open.

This is important because in the old system if one team’s headset communication went down both teams would have to scrap use of the technology, until back on an equal technological playing field.

Now the communication is managed by the teams themselves, eliminating the human element and avoiding more issues such as a switch being on at wrong time or off at a time communication was needed.

There are two steadfast rules that exist surrounding coach to quarterback radio communication in the CFL. Communication is only allowed in the quarterbacks helmet and only one quarterback is allowed on the field at anytime.

Also there is no communication for the defensive coaching staff to a middle linebacker or free safety, giving an innate advantage to the offence, although this is sure to be re-visited at some point as it was with the NFL who gave defenders radio communication 14 years after their offensive opponents (2008).

Where technology in football will end up is anyone’s best guess, but we can forever be thankful for the on-field product we have today thanks to two passionate Cleveland Browns fans and an innovative coach in the 1950’s looking for an edge.

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