Malfunctioning headsets are common, but timing couldn't be worse

Mike Tomlin was less than pleased with a communications malfunction on Thursday at Gillette Stadium. Jim Rogash/Getty Images

We're exactly one game into the 2015 NFL season -- one game! -- and already we're scrambling to understand a little-known set of NFL policies and rules as it pertains to competitive balance.

The controversy du jour: Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was steamed Thursday night by a bizarre malfunction of the NFL's coach-to-coach headset communication system. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick also acknowledged the issue after his team's 28-21 victory, and the NFL issued a statement that distanced itself from the apparent cause.

Here's what you need to know about the sudden relevance of the NFL's in-game communications policy:

• It covers two separate systems. One is the coach-to-coach communications; the other is coach-to-player. One coach can speak to one offensive and one defensive player -- usually the quarterback and middle linebacker -- up until the 15-second mark on the play clock.

• Tomlin limited his complaint to the coach-to-coach headsets, on which he said he could hear the Patriots' radio broadcast for much of the first half. Belichick indicated the Patriots' issues extended to coach-to-player communication. He said the team considered switching out quarterback Tom Brady's helmet, presumably to use a different speaker, because the team "couldn't get the plays into him."

• The NFL and its corporate sponsors, primarily Bose and Microsoft, provide the hardware and other equipment necessary to maintain communications for both systems. But as with any system, power and infrastructure are part of the stadiums, which are run by teams and/or government landlords. Gillette Stadium is owned and operated by the Kraft Group.

• Many teams have engineers and/or other experts on the sideline to help troubleshoot technology problems during a game.

• The league has an "equity rule" in the event of a total failure of the coach-to-coach system. (It doesn't apply to coach-to-player.) If one team has no use at all of its coach-to-coach system, the other team must discontinue its use, as well, until the problem is resolved.

• Based on my reporting Friday morning, the NFL was in the process of enforcing the equity rule Thursday night but never did. A story on the Steelers' website claims that "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."

A source with knowledge of the NFL's response confirmed a version of that claim. According to the source, 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.

After an offseason that demonstrated a clear divide between the NFL and the Patriots, one described in detail by an Outside the Lines exposé earlier this week, it's worth noting the careful wording of the NFL's explanation for Thursday night's problems.

According to the statement, the interference Tomlin referred to was "caused by a stadium power-infrastructure issue, which was exacerbated by the inclement weather." The statement noted that the "coaches' communications equipment, including the headsets, is provided by the NFL for both clubs' use on game day" but made clear that "the equipment functioned properly with no additional issues" once the power failure was resolved -- presumably by stadium officials.

The NFL added Friday: "Technological and stadium infrastructure issues of this type happen at many stadiums around the league and whenever there are issues of this nature, we do a thorough review."

That's true -- headset communication failures are not uncommon in NFL games. But an obviously agitated Tomlin said, "That's always the case" in New England. Tomlin's sentiment jibes with the OTL report, which noted it has happened so often at Gillette Stadium over the years 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."

In 2006, then-Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said that his team's headsets "mysteriously malfunctioned" for the entire first half of a Jaguars-Patriots game at Gillette Stadium. In 2007, the NFL found that the Patriots could not provide a satisfactory answer to explain possible irregularities in their communications setup during a game, according to an ESPN report at the time.

As surprising as it might be in an era of minute-by-minute technological advancement, malfunctioning headsets remain relatively common around the NFL. But Tomlin's public comments make this situation unique. Less than a week after a federal judge vacated the most significant NFL penalty related to Deflategate, the league is facing yet another round of questions about its competitive-balance policies in a game involving the Patriots.

And we're off ...