- Katie Linendoll, Technology
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Now that the replacement refs have been replaced and yellow flag-throwing order has been restored, football fans may have a new issue to worry about: helmet hacking.
Robert Griffin III claimed to have a helmet malfunction late in Sunday’s Redskins-Buccaneers game, causing his headset to go out. Even without the proper communication, the rookie quarterback led his team 56 yards in less than 2 minutes to set up Billy Cundiff’s game-winning field goal.
“The whole drive was a little complicated,” Griffin said afterward. “In practice, every week we always practice me calling the plays in two-minute acting as if the headset goes out. The funny thing was the headset did go out on that drive.”
Wide receiver Santana Moss refused to blame the lack of communication on technology, insinuating foul play by pretending to pull an imaginary plug out of the wall.
Moss also suggested it wasn’t a one-time occurrence.
Many current and former NFL coaches have reported helmet communications failure, and it’s almost always in reference to quarterbacks on the road late in close games. Just last week in Dallas, an odd third-down run call on Tampa Bay’s final series with 2:32 remaining was the result of quarterback Josh Freeman’s helmet malfunctioning. On the road (check). Close game (check). Fourth quarter (check).
Helmet radio technology was introduced in 1994, allowing wireless communication on the field between coaches and players. One offensive and one defensive player have access to the communication, and it is signified by a green dot on the back of their helmets. However, communication problems have arisen over the years -- like the time a Madonna rehearsal blasted over the Vikings' wires during a game at the Oakland Coliseum, or the time the 49ers claimed to intercept a Southwest Airlines feed.
Last season, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett suffered two delay-of-game penalties due to headsets malfunctioning during a Sunday night road game loss to the New York Jets. The Jets themselves suffered a loss to the Steelers that they blamed in part on Mark Sanchez’s multiple helmet malfunctions. The shady practice even dates back to Spygate in 2007, with many fingers pointing to Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots as the biggest culprit.
Still, in the past year, the technology has become more consistent. Nebraska-based Gubser & Schnakenberg LLC has created a digital communication system to replace the antiquated analog one. The current system, which is supposed to be less prone to interference, was used by the referees in the 2011 season and NFL players in the preseason. Initially, there were no reported communication malfunctions -- until now.
Gubser & Schnakenberg declined to comment for this story.
With better cellular and Wi-Fi technology, if we can talk on cell phones underground and at high elevations, why not in NFL stadiums? Could these helmet malfunctions be the result of something more malicious than a simple dropped signal? Could something, or someone, be deliberately jamming the signal?
Jammers are illegal in the US but can be purchased online from overseas, making them pretty accessible for a rival fan, opposing coach or anyone else. The jammers cover a wide range of frequencies and are able to take out cell signals, Wi-Fi and EMS radios, and can knock out just about any wireless communication by overloading that frequency with noise so nothing can get through. However, it would be pretty apparent if someone was using one, because it would knock out everything with a signal within a certain geographic region, including the defensive player’s helmet.
Low-level cell jammers, like the ones used to quiet someone talking loudly on a cellphone, can be covert and even look like a cellphone.
David Viglione, an expert on communication frequency and a former resident agent of the Buffalo office of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), says helmet hacking is more complicated than it might appear.
“The radio spectrum at NFL games is usually monitored pretty close by the league's frequency coordinator,” he said. “They have special equipment set up to locate almost any interference problem. If there was an overriding signal, they may be able to see it and record it.”
Fortunately for NFL coaches, Viglione adds that actually intercepting communication would be very difficult, and hackers would need to record it and then use special software to decode the signal.
Still, conspiracy theorists might want to know why only the offensive helmets are reportedly malfunctioning and not the helmets of defensive players.
Viglione offers some possible insight: “The radio signal from the coach does not go directly to the helmet. The radio signal goes to another transmitter higher up in the stadium, and then that radio signal is sent to the helmet on the field. If there are two repeaters, one for the home team and one for the visiting team, and if they are located in different locations in the stadium, then I can see where only one would be affected. The jammer could position himself close to one of the repeaters and cause a problem to only the home team or the away team.”
So have we heard the last complaints on those malfunctioning helmets? Thad Ide, senior vice president of research and product development at Riddell, would not comment on that specifically.
“We don’t make the communication system -- only the helmets,” he said. “And they are very reliable. Each system is heavily and uniquely encrypted.”
It’s impossible to know exactly if these helmet malfunctions are unfortunate coincidences due to faulty equipment or if someone is purposely jamming the signal between quarterback and coach. However, one thing is for sure: If quarterbacks continue to have helmet communications drop out late in the game, the league may want to take a closer look.
And to think that San Diego Chargers cornerback Quentin Jammer used to be the only jammer NFL offensive coordinators had to worry about.