As NFL issues statement on headsets, Steelers double down on controversy

Shutdown Corner

Following Thursday's 28-21 loss to the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin wasn't too happy about an early headset issue that interrupted his communication with his staff.

"That's always the case [in Gillette Stadium]," he told reporters in his postgame press conference. "We were listening to the Patriots' radio broadcast for the majority of the first half on our headsets."

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While Tomlin more than suggested this was a problem with the Patriots, specifically — a suggestion he must understand carries considerable weight in the wake of deflate-gate and a pair of recent stories from both ESPN and Sports Illustrated that insinuated New England often skirts the rules in regard to on-field communications — it seems the Pittsburgh coaching staff's ire should instead be directed at the NFL.

After the game, NFL vice president of football communications Michael Signora issued this statement:

"In the first quarter of tonight’s game, the Pittsburgh coaches experienced interference in their headsets caused by a stadium power infrastructure issue, which was exacerbated by the inclement weather. The coaches’ communications equipment, including the headsets, is provided by the NFL for both clubs use on game day. Once the power issue was addressed, the equipment functioned properly with no additional issues."

For the record, when the first quarter came to a close, the score was tied, 0-0, the Steelers had missed an early 44-yard field goal attempt that would have given them the lead and the Patriots were facing a third-and-2 from their own 28-yard line as the second quarter opened. So, there's that.

And then there's this: As detailed on the official NFL Operations website, the league assigns a "gameday frequency coordinator," whose job it is to manage thousands of frequencies running through a stadium — any stadium — during a game. This includes: players and coaches; medical and security staff; the instant replay system and sideline camera crews; TV and radio broadcasts; concession stand and cleaning crews; halftime entertainers; and outside interference, such as airplane pilots and Doppler radars.

NFL broadcast engineer and lead frequency coordinator Karl Voss explained the process in painstaking detail during a May 2014 interview with technology company RF Venue's Audio Gloss blog.

"Right now, our duty is to cram 500 MHz of users into 25 MHz of spectrum. Everybody seems to think that RF (radio frequency) is their god-given right. And essentially the job of the coordinator is to make sense of that — to try and give as many people tools that they need to do their job within reason. There’s a lot of rules we have to use. We have to follow the FCC rules. There are some guidelines that we have written within the NFL, too. Because there is just so much RF that shows up at a football game that you have to set up some sort of priority of use, beyond what the FCC has already defined."

As Voss goes on to explain, his crew is skilled at identifying problems, fixing them and ensuring those responsible for a frequency issue do not make the same mistake twice, as was the case on Thursday.

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For what it's worth, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said his staff was dealing with the same issue "all night."

"We had a lot of problems. We had to switch headphones a couple times. The communication system wasn't very good. We deal with that it seems like weekly. Yeah, they told us they were on the verge of shutting it off, but then I guess they got it working. I don't know, but it was a problem the whole game. We almost had to switch helmets with (Tom) Brady there at the end — couldn't get the plays into him. It was a problem all night."

Belichick extrapolated on the recent accusations against his organization in a conference call Friday.

NFL Operations offers a timeline of how gameday frequency coordinators (DFCs) spend their night. Prior to the game, they assign each entity a radio frequency at the gate, ensure all devices are tuned to that frequency and then label each device depending on where it can be used within the stadium. The DFCs then "scan the most critical frequencies, check in with news crews to root out unregistered devices such as wireless microphones and introduce themselves to key league, team and broadcast personnel."

During the game, DFCs use equipment to identify issues, often before they're a problem. Should communication between coaches and players become an issue, teams are given backup frequencies. And if problems arise between coaches, as was the case for Tomlin, "sideline technicians maintain coach-to-coach communications by connecting the [belt] pack to a 100-foot cable for a wired connection."

As Voss said, "We then deal with problems as they’re reported. We’ve got folks out there with spectrum analyzers and direction finding equipment. And we’re very good at finding folks operating where they shouldn't be." So, that should clear things up before another scandal gets started, right? Wrong.

In a recap of the game on the Steelers' official website, there's this nugget entitled, "No surprise at all."

"This is the kind of stuff that happens to the visiting team in Gillette Stadium all the time. From the start of the game through the opening 14 minutes of the first quarter, the Steelers’ coaches’ headsets were receiving the Patriots Radio Network broadcast of the game. 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."

Now, let's think this through for a moment. The Steelers would like us to believe somebody from the Patriots was carefully orchestrating an interruption in Pittsburgh's coach-to-coach radio frequency — during the first 14 minutes of their season opener after six months of deflate-gate talk — and timing this disruption each time an NFL representative approached the New England sideline. This was all happening despite the league's extensive resources to identify the problem and rectify it almost immediately.

If that's the case, then the same must be true of the Steelers during the 2011 AFC Championship Game, when, as Pro Football Talk points out, the New York Jets had trouble with their headsets at Heinz Field.

Now, all I can picture is a sped-up cartoon NFL rep hurrying to the New England sideline as Patriots radio color commentator Scott Zolak screams in his hear, the noise stopping just as he taps Belichick on the shoulder, the rep walking away in confusion and the whole thing playing on a loop for 14 minutes.

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Ben Rohrbach is a contributor for Ball Don't Lie and Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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