The NFL's 40-second play clock is ticking. The quarterback crouches under center and surveys the defense. Offensive coaches study the defensive signals sent in from the opposing team's sideline, sensing a blitz is coming. With only 15 seconds remaining, a problem arises.
The coach-to-quarterback radio shuts off. There's not enough time to give the quarterback a full accounting of the opponent's plans. The quarterback flies solo during those critical final seconds before the snap.
The league wants it this way, enlisting an employee whose sole job is to shut off the headsets at the 15-second mark. But it's possible to get around the coach-to-QB cutoff if a team is willing to break the rules to gain a competitive advantage, as the New England Patriots did when they used a video camera to record defensive signals.
"If you've got a sharp guy, then you can beat it," a longtime offensive assistant coach said.
The NFL declined to comment on the possibility, other than to provide general information about its technology and measures designed to discourage cheating. A crew led by Harvey Shuhart, president of the company that provides the headset technology, visits NFL stadiums without warning to ensure the integrity of the equipment. They do not check every stadium every week.
A team's ability to decode defensive signals would mean more if it could relay updates to the quarterback before the snap. An extra 15 seconds of coach-to-quarterback communication would help.
Several coaches and players contacted for this story said they have never witnessed attempts to work around the 15-second cutoff. A few others, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they found out about such shenanigans from assistant coaches who had left offending teams.
None of these coaches implicated the Patriots.
There are at least four ways to bypass the cutoff system, sources said.
A team could reprogram its radio system to remove the cutoff official from the equation, sending signals directly from the coach's headset to the quarterback's helmet. It could modify the equipment in the booth to achieve the same end. It could install a separate communications system, allowing another coach or quarterback to provide last-second updates. Or, a team could interfere with wires between the sideline and the press box.
The cutoff official, seated near the game-clock and play-clock operators, would not know the difference. But if a random check revealed cheating, commissioner Roger Goodell would presumably come down hard, particularly in the current climate.
The Patriots will likely lose a 2008 first-round pick as punishment for their illegal surveillance. What might a less successful organization attempt?
"If you are a head coach and your job is in jeopardy, screw it," the offensive assistant said. "If you get two more wins, you save your job."
The coach said he knew of one team that equipped its backup quarterback with a device that allowed the backup to feed information to the starter after the 15-second cutoff.
The backup quarterback he cited is no longer in the league, and the head coach is working as an assistant.
Rules allow each team to equip one of its sideline coaches with a coach-to-quarterback headset, provided by Motorola through Control Dynamics Corporation. Up to three
quarterbacks can wear helmets with active receivers. Teams also maintain backup systems in case of malfunction.
The quarterback's helmet features a receiver and speaker, but no microphone. Coaches seated in press-level booths cannot reach the quarterback through his helmet.
For years, coaches have complained, usually in private, about their headsets mysteriously going silent during critical moments of road games. They couldn't prove anything improper, but suspicions lingered when they encountered similar problems in the same venues.
After the Patriots scandal broke, Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio said the Jaguars experienced headset issues during a playoff game in New England.
The Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks have complained publicly about communication problems at Washington's FedEx Field, where faulty antennas have been suspected. Tampa Bay has had headset issues in Philadelphia, according to a former Bucs official.
If one team loses all headset communication during a game, the other team must abandon its system under the so-called "equity rule." The rule, however, does not apply when only coach-to-quarterback communication is lost.
Frequency issues can arise anywhere, but veteran quarterbacks said the technology has become more reliable in recent seasons.
"I remember one time I was playing, I forget where it was, but I could hear the concession communication," said Tennessee's Kerry Collins, a veteran of 148 regular-season starts. "They were asking for popcorn on the second level or something like that.
"There are glitches from time to time, but all in all it's been a pretty sound system."
Defenses could seemingly realize an advantage by intercepting coach-to-quarterback communications, but advances in technology have made that less realistic. Teams can choose from more than 268 million encryption codes each week, according to the league.
"It would be next to impossible for anybody to listen to what is being said," said Bill Lipscomb, longtime headset guru for the Seahawks.
Breaking a team's encryption might not go unnoticed, anyway.
"I think you would be able to tell really quickly from the way a defense is playing you," Collins said.
Lipscomb and Shuhart referred further questions to the league.
Jon Kitna, a starter with Seattle, Cincinnati and now Detroit, said opponents wouldn't gain much from monitoring coach-to-quarterback communications because they would have a hard time relaying the information to defensive players in real time.
Three weeks into the season, 15 quarterbacks have passer ratings higher than 90, up from eight at this point last season. Whatever they're doing during those final 15 seconds seems to be working.
Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.