This episode was written and produced by Mike Baireuther.
For decades, NFL strategy slowly evolved from each team running a dozen different plays, to rigid schemes with coaches sending in orders through codewords and secret signals. Then, one piece of audio technology revolutionized the game. Beginning in the early 1990's, the NFL allowed coaches to speak directly to their quarterbacks through radios in their helmets. What followed was an instant increase in excitement for the nation's most popular sport, spawning a high-scoring era of fast paced offenses. Featuring former Super Bowl winning coach, Dick Vermeil, current LA Rams Head Coach Sean McVay, Bose Senior Project Manager Matt Ruwe, and Bose Distinguished Engineer Dan Gauger.
MUSIC FEATURED IN THIS EPISODE
Incredible (Instrumental) by Oh The Larceny
Nomad by Cathedral
Together (Instrumental) by Norman
High Wire (Instrumental) by Kaleigh Baker
From Scratch by Chad Lawson
Just a Touch by Chad Lawson
My Way featuring Yacht Money (Instrumental) by Mike Mains and the Branches
Come and Get It by Celldweller
Tangle by Nick Box
Heaven Sent by Soldier Story
Gunslinger by Bytheway-may
Focus by Cultus
Move with it (Instrumental) by Oh the Larceny
Allow Me (Instrumental) by Kilgore
Roller Skates by Virgil Arles
Twenty Thousand Hertz is hosted by Dallas Taylor and produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound.
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Robert Baker voiced "The Coach" during the play calls.
View Transcript ▶︎
[SFX: Football play calls - Bunch right 95 keeper, right Y sly, sprout left exit, Richard Nixon.]
You’re listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz. I’m Dallas Taylor.
[SFX: Football plays continued]
Football has been america’s most popular sport for decades, but the game has changed dramatically in recent years. Modern NFL play calls are a complex language of code words that, to most us, just sound like complete nonsense.
[SFX: Football play calls]
Play call: Alright, lets go west slot right, 72 Z bingo, U-split, can it, 58 lexus apple, 314 hammer.
Just like you don’t have to be an audiophile to listen to Twenty Thousand Hertz, you don’t have to be a sports fan to appreciate this episode. So, stick with me here. By the end of this episode, you’re going to know some things about football that even normal fans don’t understand. ...anyway, to the uninitiated, football can look pretty haphazard, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Strategy and play calling is a huge part of the appeal of football. ...and that’s what originally drew Dick Vermeil to the game.
Dick: I got involved in football as a high school student, my sophomore year, in about 1951. So, it's been a long time. And, then I went on and played in high school and junior college, then, college, then became a high school football coach.
Dick: I really loved it. I loved the Xs and Os part of it. It just fascinated me. It's like a chess game, how you move 'em around and all that.
Play calls today might be beyond the comprehension of even the most diehard football fan, but when Coach Vermeil was starting out, the game was far simpler.
Dick: I called my own plays in the huddle, as a player in high school and junior college and in college. Course, that's the archaic way to do it. When I became a coach, at first my quarterback called his own plays from a game plan, but we only had five or six runs and four or five passes in those days.
[SFX: High School Practice Game, QB play calling]
Dick: Whenever I hear from one of my old high school players, I always finish it 'Coach Vermeil', and I put the play 'blast right'. That was the play. We only had one or two formations.
But while Coach Vermeil was calling “Blast right,” a legend of the sidelines was experimenting with a technology decades ahead of his time. Paul Brown was the co-founder and coach of the Cleveland Browns, and the team still bears his name today. He won seven league championships over 25 seasons, and invented everything from the facemask to some of the plays still in use today.
During his time two Cleveland fans, John Campbell and George Sarles, came to Brown with an idea. By modifying military radio technology, they could put a radio receiver in a quarterback’s helmet, which would allow for coaches to speak directly to their players from the sideline. This was completely unheard of at the time.
The technology was so new that a suspicious police officer almost arrested Campbell and Sarles when they were out testing the helmet one night. Luckily for them, the cop was a fellow Cleveland Browns fan, and let them go.
Later, during a preseason game against the Detroit Lions, Coach Brown tested the radio in his quarterbacks helmet. Opposing coaches noticed the transmitter on the Browns’ sideline, and the NFL banned the technology shortly after. That ban would stay in place for decades.
Meanwhile, Dick Vermeil rose through the coaching ranks. In the seventies, he became the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, and brought with him the latest in play calling techniques.
Dick: As a head coach in the NFL, we called the plays from the sideline.
Dick: I would call the play. There would be a coach on each side of me that would signal it in. Now, their bodies were numbered, positions on their bodies were numbered, and they would take a left hand touch the knee, right hand touch his shoulder, that might mean 23.
Dick: I had two signal callers, because we didn't want people to know which guy was calling the play. One was hot one quarter, one was hot the other quarter, and we rotated.
This technique is still common in college football, which doesn’t allow direct radio communications between coach and quarterback. Before each play, you can see assistant coaches that look like they’re waving off a swarm of angry bees [SFX: Bees swarming] as they signal to players. Once the call goes in, quarterbacks translate the information to a specific play by looking at a wristband with all the plays listed on it by number.
Dick: A quarterback would wear an armband and a coach would signal number two and he'd look and 'ooh, number two is this play', and he would call it. And, the formation packages would change with a substitute going in and out. One, two, sometimes three players going out in different packages.
Although widespread, this system is far from perfect.
Dick: I can specifically remember being 3rd down goal-to-goal on the 2 yard line against the Dallas Cowboys and send in a play and it got all screwed up, so the quarterback called the play, the play call was all screwed up, we scored anyway.
After six years coaching the Eagles, including a trip to the Super Bowl in 1980, Coach Vermeil retired from coaching. He became a football broadcaster, watching the game he loved from the press box.
Dick: Through the years, I was in broadcasting, and I watched it change. I wasn't involved in it. It changed and became more scientific. Pretty quick the electronics came into it.
Dick: As we all know, we're in the entertainment business, so we wanna keep the game smoother.
Eventually, the NFL loosened restrictions on the use of radio headsets. Mainly because they wanted to speed up the game. And after nearly 15 years away. Coach Vermeil came out of retirement to head coach the Saint Louis Rams. Once he got there, he found that the league called plays in an entirely new way.
Dick: As I came back into the League it was now becoming electronic. At that time you could call the play electronic from the press box to the head coach or assistant coach that was assigned that responsibility and then he would signal it or send it in to the quarterback. In a few years that kept getting more sophisticated. And, pretty quick, you could send it direct to the quarterback. And, it was about time. It took 'em too long to make that decision, really.
The impact of direct coach to quarterback communication was immediate, and dramatic. It made play calling way easier and sped up the overall speed of the game. It allowed for an entirely new level of complexity and strategy.
Dick: I would say most NFL fans don't realize how complicated the schemes have become. It's amazing. And the different terminology used within a huddle call. They would be shocked.
Dick: I could show you a game plan. There might be 150 passes in a game plan and 60 runs in a game plan, one game.
When Coach Vermeil started coaching, he had six runs and five passes in his playbook. Now, he could call over two hundred different plays, each with specific directions for every single player.
Dick: You call a protection 'scat right' was a pass protection, 682, and then 'backs flare'. And, you'll talk to a lot of quarterbacks, they'll tell you it is complicated.
During the 1999 season, Vermeil coached one of the greatest offenses in NFL history. They were even nicknamed “The Greatest Show on Turf,” and won the Super Bowl.
After the victory, Vermeil retired… well, for the second time... But, of course, that didn’t last long. Only after two years later, the call of football pulled him back in. This time, he came out of retirement to head coach the Kansas City Chiefs.
Despite the advancements in communications, Vermeil and coaches around the league still struggled with the limitations of their headsets.
Dick: I can remember, some friends of mine flew in to see us play in St. Louis. He flew home after the game. At 30,000 feet he called me up on his phone and talked to me at home, but, at that same game, we had about five technical breakdowns in the signal being called from the coach on the sideline to the quarterback [SFX: Distorted talking]. The electronic system didn't consistently work. I remember being upset and I'm saying, "I can't believe that I can talk to somebody 30,000 feet in the air and not to a guy 30 yards away on the field.
Loud crowds exacerbated problems with the headsets. When a quarterback couldn’t hear a play call over their helmet radio, their team had to take a time out to get it right, or risk a delay of game penalty. When Vermeil coached for the Kansas City Chiefs, he used that to his advantage. They play at Arrowhead Stadium, one of the loudest stadiums in all of sports.
[SFX: Loud crowd cheering]
Dick: Well, there's no question crowd noise can impact the game.
Dick: You can feel the electricity of a stadium. When it's on your side, you can feel the negative electricity when it's against you. Arrowhead, my Gosh, when that crowd is into the game and it's going well, you've got a real edge.
Dick: I always felt that they're gonna have to use their time outs, when you wanna save 'em for a two minute drill or something like that, it's critical.
Coach Vermeil retired for the last time in 2005. His offensive strategies changed the game forever. But, football’s next revolution wouldn’t come from the sidelines, but from engineers working in labs. The NFL needed technology that could keep up with a new generation of innovative coaches. So, once again, battlefield technology would find its way onto the gridiron, giving football’s field generals more power than ever before. We’ll find out how, after the break.
When you watch an NFL game on television, you’ll see coaches wearing large headsets with giant Bose logos on them. ...and before I go any further, a little disclaimer... none of this was written or influenced by Bose. Outside of fact checking, they had no editorial control over this content. They just caught wind of the episode and loved the idea so much that they decided to sponsor it. So, with that out of the way. The NFL legalized quarterback to coach radios in the 90s. That ushered in an era of high speed, complex offenses that took the league by storm. But by the mid 2000’s, the old headsets just couldn’t keep up. That’s when Bose got involved.
Matt: My name is Matt Ruwe. I'm the Senior Product Manager for our aviation, military, and broadcast markets.
Matt: Bose makes headsets literally for M1 Abrams tanks. I mean, that couldn't be any more extreme in terms of noise.
Bose was a company known more for home speaker systems and later for military and aviation headsets.
Matt: Some of our aviation headsets started to get used in D1 football, college D1 football, and we started noticing this and we thought "Wow. People really think that this headset must be really good because they're using it on the the sidelines."
To take on a challenge as unique as the NFL, Matt needed the help of Dan Gauger. Dan is one of the founders of the Bose noise cancelling division. He’s now a distinguished engineer at the company.
Dan: I said, "Well, let's go learn about the noise." Matt, and I, and some others went to the most convenient stadium, Gillette Stadium, and measured the noise, recorded it.
Matt and Dan discovered that noise at an NFL stadium is totally different than all of the noise they’ve studied before.
Matt: The dynamic range in football in general is incredible. Football goes from incredibly quiet in an early play in the first quarter. You can go from that to being in Seattle where the 12th man is incredibly loud. supposedly the crowd is the 12th person who actually impacts the game, and it is so loud there that if you're attending the game you probably want to wear earplugs, it gets that loud.
Dan: It's fascinating. I can look at the data from some measurements I took at a Seahawks, 49ers game. You can see in the data the excitement of the crowd, because the human voice changes its mix of ... its tamber, it's a mix of spectral balance. As people start shouting, things shift higher in frequency. You can see that when it happens. It's figuring out who optimize our headphones to work well in that sort of noise, dominated at those frequencies.
Sean McVay: Communication is everything.
That’s Sean McVay, the current LA Rams head coach.
Sean McVay: It can be extremely difficult, especially in some of these road atmospheres from an offensive standpoint, fans going crazy, a lot of different things going on throughout the course of the game.
Sean McVay: One of the most important things that we can provide is clarity to our players. When there is clear communication, there is no gray, and guys can operate with confidence, they can play without any uncertainty, and that’s a big thing in this league.
[SFX: Crowd cheering]
Matt and Dan had to create a headset that could handle not only the unique sound of the stadium, but also the demands of coaching in the NFL.
Matt: Typically on a consumer side we want to cancel as much noise as possible, matter of fact if it was completely silent that would be sometimes perfect for consumers, but in this environment, they really wanted to hear some of the things that were going on around them. And so, you'll see this even in the NFL where a lot of coaches wear a single ear headset, and that's there to allow them to hear some of the sounds around them. At the same time they really still need to hear what's going on on the intercom from the box that's high up in the stadium, or even from some of the other coaches that are right there on the field.
While the NFL wanted to help coaches and players communicate better, they didn’t want to turn the league into a video game. Assistant coaches and owners with a sky high view up in the press box can’t radio players on the field. They have to talk to the head coach on the sideline. And while quarterback helmets have speakers that allow them to hear their coaches, they don’t have a microphone, so they can’t respond with questions. All of that means that Coach McVay has to constantly manage chaos on the sideline, while staying on the same page with his players.
Sean McVay: When you’re talking through the headset the unique thing about it is you’ve got the ability to communicate with all the coaches on the offensive staff or if you want to flip over to the defensive staff and then ultimately whoever that play caller is you have the ability to press a button just a one way communication system to the quarterback.
Before every snap, NFL coaches have to process a ton of information. They’re taking input from their coaching staff, referencing a large sheet of notes they carry, and trying to match wits with their opponents.
Sean McVay: You’re battling against a lot of different things. Playing the different situations, making sure that you’ve got contingency plans in place. Does this play have answers? We talk about it all the time. The players need to understand the intent, the mechanics, but then what are the potential problems that can arise within the framework of the play that they might need to solve?
That tangled web of voices left Matt and Dan a task that was beyond anything they had experienced working with the military.
Dan: I was blown away with the complexity of communication systems that these teams run. I've crawled around in airplanes, I've crawled around in armored vehicles. I was blown away with their system. The real challenge was figuring out how to take what we started with, adapt it to as an input/output device to this very complex communication system, without having to redesign that whole communication system. So that it worked well under normal conditions, and it worked well when some coach was screaming at the top of his lungs.
Not to mention, NFL teams work under a play clock, which means they only have 40 seconds to run their next play. ...and to make it even more complicated, the coach to quarterback communication is automatically cut off by the NFL at 15 seconds. This means that the entire coaching staff has only 25 seconds to strategize, make suggestions, give tips or reminders, pick a play, and get that information to the quarterback. Even then, the defense might line up in a way that would counter the play the coaches called, forcing the quarterback to call an audible, or in other words, pick a new play on the fly by shouting code words to his teammates.
Sean McVay: A standard play call from us usually starts out where we’ll call the personnel grouping where if you say 12 personnel that means that you’ve really got one half back in the game, two tight ends and then two receivers.
Ok. A two digit number, that’s simple enough.
Sean McVay: And then you start out by the formation, any sort of motion shift and then whatever that specific concept is.
So far we’ve covered who’s on the field, and where they’re standing. I think I’m keeping up.
Sean McVay: So if we said let’s go west right ace, 18 F sift, we’re going to can it with pass 18 F sift, X strike Z bench.
Sean McVay: Let’s go west right ace, 18 F sift, we’re going to can it with pass 18 F sift, X strike Z bench.
Ok, that’s who’s on the field, where they’re standing, and somehow, instruction for what every player is doing. Just to recap, we’ve gone from Coach Vermeil calling plays like this...
Dick: I put the play 'blast right'. That was the play. We only had one or two formations.
To Coach McVay calling plays now:
Sean McVay: Let’s go west right ace, 18 F sift, we’re going to can it with pass 18 F sift, X strike Z bench.
Sean McVay: Basically what we’re looking for there is a run versus a certain premier look with whatever the defense presents if they give us something else then we can run the pass versus a better look and that’s how something like that would operate coming in and out of the huddle.
So now, coaches aren’t only calling one play, they’re calling two simultaneously and letting the quarterback choose the best option when they see the defense. With all this new information coming from the sideline, you can understand why Matt was nervous about how their new headsets would perform under the immense pressure.
Matt: The first time the headsets made it into the NFL I was glued to the TV and my phone just checking to make sure that everything was working well. We had done a lot of tests beforehand, but it's nerve racking to know that not only are these coaches depending on it, but the fans who are watching the game and really, really are looking for every angle they can for their team to win, you don't want that headset to fail. You want them to make sure that everything is working perfectly and that communication isn't part of a problem for them.
Bose and the NFL have continued to modify the headsets, making communication better than ever. And by working with players and coaches they’ve created a system that changed football forever.
Matt: I've been on the sidelines of the Super Bowl, and initially I thought that was just going to be amazing and how would I even be able to interact with these people? In the end they're people, which is cool. They're people, and they're really nice and really cool people, coaches in general are just very genuine and they're very businesslike.
Matt: We have a lot of coaches who have said, "Wow. This is a really big difference."
Dan: We're entering a day where the ability to wear something at your ear, to take information from electronic sources, to manage distractions, and the noise of the world around you, and put these together, to make you most effective, is becoming increasingly important. It exposes people to new possibilities. It opens the world's mind to the range of things that we can do with sound.
Due in part to the headsets, scoring in the NFL has increased by 30% since the league allowed direct coach to QB communication. That means more excitement for fans everywhere, and even more wonderfully ridiculous play calls.
[SFX: Play call - Trips right, Y motion blade Y out. Green, off nasty hound, two Y flutey X basic backs right. Alright, here we go, here we go, here we go, sprout left exit, Richard Nixon, Richard Nixon, Ok?]
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound. A sound design team that makes commercials, documentaries, and trailers sound incredible. To hear some of this sonic goodness, visit defacto sound dot com.
This episode was written and produced by Mike Baireuther. And me, Dallas Taylor.With help from Sam Schneble. It was edited, sound designed, and mixed by Jai Berger.
Thanks to our guest, Coach Dick Vermeil.
Mike: Coach Vermiel, what is your favorite sound?
Dick: I know, it used to excite me when you’d hear a great hit [SFX: body hit]. But now its a 15 yard personal foul [SFX: whistle].
Thanks also to LA Rams head coach Sean McVay as well as Matt Ruwe, Dan Gauger, and Alexandra Smith from Bose. Robert Baker played the part of our coach throughout the episode. He’s an incredible actor who’s been in tons of movies and television shows that you’ve probably seen. He also, just so happens to be one of my oldest friends. If you’d like to send him a nice note, you can find him on twitter as slyhuckleberry.
The music from this episode is from our friends at Music Bed. Go listen at musicbed dot com.
Finally, are there any other cool sports-focused sound stories that you know of? Well, I’d like to hear all about it. You can chat with me, and the rest of the 20k team through our website, facebook, twitter, or by writing hi at 20k dot org.
Thanks for listening.