Once again, the NFL has evoked Mad Magazine’s goofy Cold War-inspired cartoon “Spy vs. Spy.” How else to consider the recent heavy-handed punishment of New York Giants head coach Ben McAdoo? When his league-approved encrypted communication device, which pipes his voice covertly into his quarterback’s helmet, malfunctioned, the dastardly McAdoo resorted to the use of a walkie-talkie.
McAdoo was hit with a $50,000 fine and the Giants assessed an additional $150,000 penalty, as well as a degradation in their 2017 draft order. All because the walkie-talkie, unlike the NFL’s authorized CoachComm system, did not have a cut-off switch to discontinue the coach’s play-calling instructions with 15 seconds remaining on the play clock.
That theoretically unfair advantage over the Dallas Cowboys, who still were operating with the cut-off switch, nevertheless led to a drive-ending interception against the Giants. Still, the league must be forever vigilant in assuring a level playing field! Paranoia reigns among coaches, whose inherent tendency toward micromanagement—as a function of self-preservation—pairs with advancing technology to emphasize stealth and surveillance.
For a sport that sees itself as a simulation of war, with its blitzes and bombs and field generals, clandestine strategizing is of great consequence. Thus the strict rules against the use of, say, Navajo code talkers or Enigma machines.
It’s all secrecy vs. chicanery—with teams, for decades, bivouacking in huddles to guard again pilfered campaign intelligence, and more recently deploying sideline pantomimes and the helmet implant.
Football wasn’t far beyond its rugby roots when Washington D.C.’s Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, devised the first huddle in 1892 to shield Gallaudet’s hand signals from opponents, themselves often hearing impaired and therefore conversant in signing.
For a century afterwards, huddles worked wonderfully for all players because quarterbacks—without the coaches’ direct involvement—called plays out of earshot of the opposition. Then, in the 1950s, Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown, not satisfied to leave strategy to his soldiers on the field, began using “messenger guards” to shuttle play calls into his quarterback.
There were tales that wise-guy Browns quarterback George Ratterman once told rookie guard Joe Skibinski to “go back and get another play” when he didn’t like the one delivered from the sideline. So Brown took the next step, recruiting two Ohio inventors to build the first radio receiver into Ratterman’s helmet. That was in 1956.
“My helmet acted as an antenna,” Ratterman told me in a telephone conversation a few years before his death in 2007. “And I had to turn a certain way to hear, so I’d be standing outside the huddle, revolving around, trying to tune in the signal.”
Worse, Ratterman said, in a game against Detroit, the Lions got wind of the experiment, “so the Lions kept saying to each other, ‘Kick the helmet. Kick the helmet.’ And I kept trying to explain to them that my head was inside the helmet,” Ratterman said.
“Then, in Chicago,” he recalled, “we played a benefit game at Soldier Field against the Bears and they were planning all kinds of sets and displays for a halftime show. All during the first half, I was picking up walkie-talkies of these workers, setting up the displays. I couldn’t hear Brown at all, but I kept hearing stuff like, ‘Hey, Joe, set that up over there.’”
Brown’s messengers soon were employed by other coaches and, in the 1970s, Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry began shuffling quarterbacks after every play, something neither Roger Staubach nor Craig Morton much appreciated. As play-calling came to be wrested almost completely away from players by coaches, the NFL moved to provide direct communication that could cut through stadium noise via CoachComm, which became standard equipment in 1994. (Quarterbacks wired to receive transmissions from the coach’s headset wear small green dots on their helmets, and a fan of secret agents might make an immediate connection to the CIA. In a 1998 novel, veteran journalist Jim Lehrer wrote that CIA snoops had purple dots affixed to their license plates as a special privilege to warn off police and tow trucks.)
There are, meanwhile, many instances of coaches relaying signals by using coded placards, and coaches’ crafty hand-over-the-mouth delivery of commands. Because spies are everywhere.
In his 2007 book, “The GM,” celebrated sportswriter Tom Callahan recounted a classic undercover scheme in a 1977 game between the Colts (then in Baltimore) and New England Patriots. With Baltimore trailing late in the game and stuck with a third-and-18 on its own 12-yard line, the Colts had Bobby Colbert—then head coach at hearing-impaired Gallaudet—read the lips of New England’s defensive coordinator as he called for “Double safety delayed blitz.”
Colbert relayed the message to the Baltimore bench, which passed it on to Colts quarterback Bert Jones, who changed the play and threw an 88-yard touchdown pass for the winning score.
And that is why the always wary NFL, with Ben McAdoo’s walkie-talkie misbehavior, ruled that up with this it would not put.