After an offseason of complaints about the Patriots' alleged cheating, football finally started Thursday night... and within one quarter, we already got more allegations about the Patriots allegedly cheating.
The Steelers' coaching headsets malfunctioned in their 28-21 loss to the Pats, and while it probably isn't the reason no Pittsburgh defenders were able to cover Rob Gronkowski, the Pats' alleged penchant for cutting corners once again dominated postgame discussion.
Coaching headset malfunctions are apparently rather common in the NFL, but the NFL cognoscenti seem to feel it happens significantly more commonly around the Patriots.
Nobody can confirm the Patriots did anything Thursday night to cause the Steelers' headsets to malfunction. In fact, it seems probable they did nothing wrong.
But throw in some shoddy application of the NFL rule book by league officials, inconsistent answers by Bill Belichick, and an official explanation that left more questions than answers, we've got another Patriots thing people have added "-gate" to the end of.
What exactly happened?
During the first half of the game, NBC's Michele Tafoya reported that the Steelers' coaching headsets were malfunctioning -- specifically, they were picking up a Patriots radio broadcast instead of each other. After the game, Tomlin confirmed this report, saying that the coaching communication devices were more or less unusable for large swaths of the first half, and heavily suggested this frequently happens to his staff at Gillette Stadium.
Tomlin, asked about the headsets going out: "That’s always the case." "Here?" "Yes. I said what I said."— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) September 11, 2015
After the game, the NFL explained that a stadium power issue exacerbated by nearby rainstorms caused the communication issue, which was solved by the end of the first quarter.
Were the Patriots affected?
After the game, Bill Belichick said that his coaches' headsets were also failing. He said his staff had to switch out their headsets at multiple points throughout the game, and that this is frequently an issue for his staff at their home field.
Belichick on headsets: It was a problem. Had to switch headsets often. Communication wasn’t very good.— Around The NFL (@AroundTheNFL) September 11, 2015
However, what Belichick said doesn't quite match up with the reports that came out during the game -- none of which indicated any problem with the Pats' headsets -- or the NFL's statement, which exclusively mentions the Steelers' headsets.
What's supposed to happen if a team's headsets go down?
If one team loses the ability to communicate via their coaching headsets, the NFL's "rule of equity" mandates that the other team has to take off their headsets to prevent one team from gaining an unfair advantage. This rule doesn't apply to the player-coach headsets quarterbacks and defensive players use. It also doesn't come into play unless *all* of a team's headsets are down: if only one is working, the other team doesn't have to take off its headsets.
Did this happen?
Apparently not, and the Steelers are upset about it.
During the game, Tafoya reported the Patriots were, in fact, forced to stop using their headsets while the Steelers' units were down. However, the Steelers' website says every time the Pats never got their gear taken away, because the Steelers' stuff always suspiciously kicked back into action right before the Pats would've been punished:
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.
The league sent an official to shut down the Patriots' headsets once it determined Pittsburgh's communications were down. While en route, the malfunction ceased. The problem resurfaced briefly but was resolved and did not recur, so the league never had reason to apply the equity rule
Charles Robinson of Yahoo! Sports had more, and reported the team is filing a claim with the league:
Instead, New England apparently maintained all communications while Pittsburgh's issues were being investigated. The source added that as late as the team leaving the stadium, the Steelers still hadn't been provided an answer for why the Patriots were allowed to continue their communications, rather than both simply being shut down to fix the issue. Pittsburgh will file a complaint with the league office on both fronts - the equipment failure and officials not turning off headsets on both sidelines, the source said.
Were the Patriots in charge of the Steelers' communication system?
No. The NFL's game day operations department is in charge of both teams' communication systems for all games. Here is what the NFL has to say about their "game day frequency coordinators."
Bose sends 50 headsets to every stadium and home teams are supposed to provide equipment for visiting teams, as the league's gameday manual states that home teams are aware for installing and maintaining these systems. Many NFL teams choose to bring their own headsets to avoid fishiness, but they'd still have to use that headset on the communication system set up by the home team.
To interfere with the Steelers' headsets, the Patriots would've needed to find their opponent's frequency either by leak or by guesswork. The second is more or less impossible if we believe the NFL's claim that it has 268 million "military-grade" codes protecting the frequencies for the player-coach headsets teams use. However, it isn't clear if the coaching headsets that were shut down Thursday night have as much protection.
Why do people suspect foul play?
Although headset malfunctions are rather common around the NFL, teams and players seem to feel there is a higher likelihood for them to occur when the Patriots are involved. They also feel the Pats are somewhat negligent in fulfilling their duties to properly set up communication systems for road teams.
Representatives from several teams told SI they have experienced problems with the coaches' equipment at Gillette—echoing a complaint from the Jaguars after their 2006 playoff loss there, when coach Jack Del Rio said his team's headsets "mysteriously malfunctioned" for most of the first half...
Home teams are supposed to provide certain communications equipment, but opponents often don't trust the Patriots to do it. One team griped to SI that New England supplied a corroded battery pack. Another current head coach brings his own equipment because he doesn't trust the Patriots to supply anything of quality. A representative of a third team says the Pats provided headset gear that looked "like it had been run over by a lawn mower. Frayed wires, the speaker is all chopped up. . . ."
At Gillette Stadium, the scrambling and jamming of the opponents' coach-to-quarterback radio line -- "small s---" that many teams do, according to a former Pats assistant coach -- occurred so often that one team asked a league official to sit in the coaches' box during the game and wait for it to happen. Sure enough, on a key third down, the headset went out.
From a Pro Football Talk report:
"My headset was working fine, every game," (former Arizona Cardinal Karlos) Dansby said. "Until the very last game of the year. We get in Foxboro, they couldn't get my headset fixed, for nothing in the world."
In that same game, Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart also had trouble with his own headset...
"I didn't have not one problem until I went into Foxboro," Dansby said. "You can ask anybody on that team that year. We didn't have no problems with my headset until I got to Foxboro. And, man, I tell you every time I came to the sidelines, taking my helmet off trying to fix it. They was trying to fix it, they couldn't get it fixed. So we had to give hand signals, and we were dead in the water."
From a Network World report about the "game day frequency coordinators" the NFL employs to avoid communication mix ups:
The potential problems were vividly illustrated on Jan. 7, 2006, during the AFC wild-card playoff between the New England Patriots and the Jacksonville Jaguars in Foxboro, Mass. During the first half, radio chatter from Patriots security staff was interfering with the Jaguars' primary coach-to-quarterback wireless system (a brief reference is found in a later USA Today column). The Jaguars switched to their backup system, and the GDC investigated during half-time.
The investigation found that the Patriots security department had installed a new frequency on their two-way radios but forgot to tell the NFL frequency coordinators. The new frequency was the same one used by the Jaguars for their primary coach-quarterback system, which was disrupted when Patriots security switched to the new frequency.
(The NFL found the Patriots' communication error was accidental rather than deliberate.)
On CBS' The NFL Today, ex-general manager Charley Casserly reported the NFL may look into whether the Patriots also interfered with the Jets' coach-to-quarterback communications by using wireless frequencies close to those of their opponent.
While the league has no proof, "they reserve the right to make another case against the Patriots if other facts come forward," Casserly said. The NFL will issue a memo this week warning teams of penalties if they stray from official wireless frequencies.
And last but not least, from last night:
One coach texted me last nite, said his team's headsets were "staticky and went out for a couple plays last year" at Gillette. "Only there."— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) September 11, 2015
Is it possible this was an accident?
Yes, very, very, very possible. Coaching headsets malfunction all the time. They depend on radio technology, which, if you've ever driven from one place to another place, you are aware isn't perfect. Specifically, they bank on clear frequencies at an NFL stadium on game day, where everybody from stadium food staff to commercial broadcasters are trying to transmit signals on radio frequencies.
An article about the NFL's old analog communication system featured claims from NFL coaches and players saying their radios picked up frequencies intended for Southwest pilots, for a Madonna concert at a nearby stadium, and for nearby police radio.
From that Network World article, which talked to NFL Frequency Organization Group head Jay Gerber:
"People don't understand RF," says Gerber. "If their gear stops working, they assume they're being interfered with. But usually, it's just the batteries are run down, or an antenna has been disconnected."
And the SI report notes that the Patriots aren't the only stadium where people have frequency issues, citing teams struggling with communication at Miami's Sun Life Stadium.
How could one figure out if somebody was futzing with a radio frequency on purpose?
Short of somebody admitting it, this would be close to impossible.
It's possible to track down a radio signal -- in fact, "transmitter hunting," where someone hides a radio transmitter and others use directional antennas to find it, is something radio enthusiasts do. But doing this to find an intentionally interfering signal would be tough, since there's already preexisting, important noise on the channel. And all the offending party would have to do to avoid detection would be turning their signal off.
So to find out if somebody was deliberately messing with a radio frequency, you'd have to spend time during an NFL game running around a stadium with a directional antenna, trying to locate a transmitter on a channel that's already in use, hoping the hypothetical cheater didn't stop broadcasting their signal or move. Go ahead, try it!
So if the Patriots were cheating, there'd be no way to confirm or deny that.
Does the NFL's power malfunction explanation stand up?
To me, an idiot, it did on first glance. However, Tim Burke at Deadspin explains that if the Patriots were properly following the league's precise specifications for its communications systems, the system should have been able to continue functioning. He hypothesizes that either the Patriots outfitted the opposing coaching box with equipment that wasn't up to league standards, or somebody is lying.
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SB Nation presents: Don't trust anything you learn from Week 1 in the NFL