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Major improvements coming for NFL sideline communication

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- You're never going to believe this. In its 96th year of existence, the NFL will implement a reliable platform for coaches and players to communicate during games.

That's right. If the new system works as designed -- and it has been in testing for more than a year -- we've been told our last story about malfunctioning headsets. No coach will hear, oh, the opposing team's radio broadcast when he's trying to talk to an assistant. You won't see equipment managers frantically plugging in backup wires, either to address a malfunction or because the 10-user limit had been reached. Coaches will be able to speak to players from the press box, and they won't lose contact if they step beyond either 35-yard line.

Incredibly, at a time when mankind is sending satellites to Pluto and building a plane that folds into a car, all of those problems and much more occurred in the NFL last season. But as part of its "Sideline of the Future" project, the NFL is ready to move forward with a VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) system it developed with help from two vendors over a four-year period. In simpler terms, the league will own a private encrypted mobile communication system and operate on an exclusive frequency it acquired from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). It will face no interference because no other product can share its frequency.

"We've known we needed to solve this with something that would work for everyone all the time," said NFL senior vice president/chief information officer Michelle McKenna-Doyle during an interview here at the site of the annual owners meetings. "And we think we have that."

Hired in 2012, McKenna-Doyle has spent much of her time dragging the NFL from a technological stone age. Her office coordinated the shift to Microsoft Surface sideline tablets, ending the days of sliding Polaroid photographs down a clothesline, and spearheaded the implementation of sideline video replays for concussion review. She will also manage the upcoming dispersal of RFID game-day data to each team as well as the expansion of tablet use into game-day video.

All along, however, the NFL knew its decades-old system of using common radio frequencies would have to end soon. Even occasional football fans have seen games stopped for the "equity rule," which requires one team to shut down its headsets if the other's stops working. In the most famous recent incident, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin angrily lashed out when he spent part of a 2015 game listening to the New England Patriots’ play-by-play man in his headset.

Most of the problems, McKenna-Doyle said, could be traced to coordinated frequencies changing during games. The new, dedicated frequency should allow for uninterrupted transmissions. Any power problems, meanwhile, should be minimized by a league-wide optimization project that will configure all technology to best suit each stadium rather than the preferences of individual teams.

Some of the hardware will be different, too. Coaches will still use wireless Bose headsets, but they will wear two devices on their belts -- one an intercom and the other a receiver.

The system should clean up some of the pet peeves coaches expressed during product development. Prior to this year, a signal delay required coaches in the press box to relay messages to the field through a coach on the sideline. Now they'll speak with a high-speed Internet connection, allowing coordinators who call plays to communicate in real time with the quarterback. The same goes for defensive coordinators and their designated signal-caller on the field.

In addition, coaches will now get a more equitable adjudication of the NFL rule that requires all coach-player communication to stop when the play clock reaches 15 seconds. They will now hear two warnings, one as the 15-second mark nears and the other when the connection has been severed. Up until last season, many coaches unknowingly talked through the cutoff and grew frustrated when players didn't follow their full (unheard) instructions.

Finally, the Internet-based structure will allow for future additions to complement sideline technology. Imagine, for example, a digital play sheet on a quarterback's wrist that changes based on signals sent in by a coach.

"I wanted to build a solution that would grow with us and not be tossed out in three years when something else came along," McKenna-Doyle said.

We've all had our fun teasing the big and mighty NFL for its inability to facilitate the most basic communication imaginable. The new system was tested by league officials in all 31 stadiums last season, and with coaches in the Pro Bowl this past January. It should get final approval at this week's meetings. Welcome to the 21st century. It's a wonderful time.