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Policy on miked players raising voices of protest

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / October 23, 2011

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Old gully. Springer. Gravy. Gutter. Eagle. Pistol. Sword.

You might see a few of those things come to your door on Halloween night, but they also happen to be some of the calls Tom Brady made at the line of scrimmage against the Cowboys last Sunday.

The terms were clearly audible on the television broadcast, thanks to the league’s new policy of placing microphones on centers or both guards this season.

The policy is going over with players and coaches about as well as Dennis Miller’s turn in the Monday night booth did with viewers.

Both the Competition Committee and the full ownership group had questions about the policy during the recent fall meeting in Houston, because the reaction hasn’t been positive among the rank and file. At all.

“I think something needs to be done about it, I really do,’’ said Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

“I’m not a fan of it,’’ said Chiefs center Casey Wiegmann. “What we do on the football field is our own business. I know this is a business that does sell, but I don’t want to have to go out there and worry about what I’m saying, whether it gets to someone else, I don’t know.’’

Having microphones on the field is nothing new in the NFL. Aside from NFL Films miking individual players for later use, the league had a microphone on umpires for close to 17 years.

When the NFL moved the umpire behind the line of scrimmage for the 2010 season, the networks lost that audio, so they tried placing mikes on centers. That was quickly abandoned after a couple of weeks.

“A number of the players and a number of teams objected,’’ said Howard Katz, the NFL’s senior vice president for media and operations. “Some of the teams, I think, encouraged players not to wear it. We had a significant amount of opposition to it.’’

They can’t oppose it anymore. The NFL and the players union agreed in the collective bargaining agreement that either the center or both guards would be miked during games. Failure to do so would result in a $5,000 fine.

A tiny microphone is embedded in the pads, and there is a small battery pack/transmitter wrapped in foam inside the pads on the back of the linemen.

The mikes are open when the team breaks the huddle and closed a beat after the ball is snapped. If a team uses the no-huddle, the mike is supposed to be open as the quarterback is approaching the line of scrimmage. The audio is to be used strictly during the live broadcast.

“This is important for our network partners,’’ said Katz, “and we think people at home want to hear the sounds of the game. They want to hear what’s going on. So we’re just trying to strike that balance between hearing enough and not hearing too much.

“We make tweaks to this every week. We’re trying to get it right. You’re not hearing anything that everybody on the field isn’t hearing already.’’

There’s a big difference, however.

While the audio isn’t archived by the NFL, you can bet it’s being recorded and analyzed by every team in the league.

“It’s easy for a team to grab a TV copy [of a game] and get your line calls, especially in the two-minute or the hurry-up, where you’re calling the play at the line,’’ said Cardinals center Lyle Sendlein.

You wonder if this, in some ways, is worse than Spygate. In that instance, the Patriots illegally videotaped signals that were visible anywhere in the stadium and decoded them for later use. Now teams are taping and decoding audio signals that weren’t previously discernible for later use.

“I don’t know if you call it stealing signals, but I’m sure there are teams that are watching TV copies to see if they can pick up on some things,’’ said Falcons center Todd McClure. “If you can get any advantage, I don’t see why not. I’m sure everybody in the league has somebody watching a TV copy, trying to see what they can pick up and can hear.’’

This isn’t new. The Dolphins boasted about having Brady’s signals before beating the Patriots, 21-0, in 2006. Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said the same thing before the 2009 playoff game because Brady’s calls were so clear during a regular-season matchup between the teams.

“We have some audio from Tom Brady on a Sunday night,’’ said Katz. “It was a cool, crisp night in New England, and the umpire’s mike picked up everything that he said - everything.’’

The technology is much better now, and despite the NFL’s desire to do so, the use of the audio is not being uniformly applied.

“We’re trying to make this a level playing field and apply it evenly in every game,’’ Katz said.

The problem is, it can’t be.

Katz acknowledged that the acoustics are better at some stadiums, and you can bet Gillette Stadium is one of them. Teams that run the no-huddle and make a lot of calls at the line with top-notch quarterbacks - Brady, Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisbeger, Drew Brees - will call more audibles than teams that just run plays that are called in the huddle.

And how much audio is used is up to the producer at each game. We’re guessing that Rodgers’s signals might be more of interest than those of, say, Alex Smith of the 49ers.

“It’s always a concern,’’ said Falcons coach Mike Smith. “That’s one of many concerns in terms of preparation each and every week. You’re getting a lot more of the calls being made by the offensive players and the defensive players. You can actually hear defensive players calling out their signals as well.’’

Teams are going to have to change their signals every week, where they used to do it just for regular opponents - if then. That takes up more time during the week of practice, and it won’t make things easier for rookies and players in new systems (e.g. Chad Ochocinco).

Rodgers wonders why defensive players aren’t miked, too.

“When an offense had the headset and the defense had to signal in plays and you had the whole Spygate stuff, the Competition Committee met and decided it was in the best interest of the league for fair play to have a defensive player have a headset on,’’ Rodgers said. “Now you’re miking the center and able to hear cadence and potential calls at the line of scrimmage. I think something needs to be done with the Competition Committee.’’

“I don’t understand why [the NFL is] doing it,’’ Sendlein said.

What the NFL’s broadcast “partners’’ want, they get, because of their multibillion-dollar checks.

Which is strange, because the audio enhances the at-home experience at the same time the NFL wants more people to come to stadiums.

“You are right to point out that there may be some great in-stadium applications, and we’re certainly aware of that and trying to figure out how to make that in-stadium experience even better, and audio may play into that,’’ Katz said.

The reality is, it’s only a matter of time before the NFL offers fans a chance to listen to in-game communications, as NASCAR has for pit communications.

And Bill Belichick’s head just exploded.

The overriding problem is the NFL is providing information without any context. It’s neat but useless information for the people it’s aimed at - the general public - unless you’re telling them what they’re listening to.

“I think you’re correct,’’ said Katz, “but I think if you take it to that next step, you’re probably affecting the way coordinators are going to call the game. That may be more information from a competitive standpoint than you really want to have out there.’’

But NFL teams, who are capable of decoding the calls, are using it competitively.

It seems pointless.

But get used to it, because the sweet sounds of Brady’s bark are not going away soon.

“I think we’re working on a system that’s going to work for everybody,’’ Katz said. “I don’t anticipate it going away. I sure as hell hope it doesn’t go away. There’s a lot of work we’ve put in to make audio an important part of the telecast and fan experience.’’


How Davis helped Flutie

The NFL world paid tribute to late Raiders owner Al Davis at a memorial service Friday in Oakland.

There were plenty of stories about the legendary coach, executive, and owner, but there is an untold one involving one of New England’s favorite sons, Doug Flutie.

Without the involvement of Davis and the godfather of this space, Will McDonough, Flutie may have never returned to the NFL.

Jack Mula, former general counsel for the Patriots, was working as Flutie’s agent after Bob Woolf died, and Flutie wanted to return to the NFL in 1998 after eight years in the Canadian Football League.

“I didn’t see any reason why Doug couldn’t return to the NFL,’’ said Mula, a Waltham native. “But there was no interest after my first round of calls.’’

Mula got to talking with McDonough about it.

“Will said, ‘Why don’t you try to get the Raiders interested?’ ’’ Mula recalled. “Will was tied in pretty well. I told him they didn’t return a call, either. He says, ‘Well, I can get you on the phone with Mr. Davis.’

“He put Al on the phone and I spoke with Mr. Davis, and he said, ‘I’m fine with who I have, but your kid can play. Your kid can play. I’m doing this because Willie tells me you’re a good guy. And you’re from Waltham, and I was actually born in Brockton. You just tell them the Raiders are interested. You know we’re not, but tell them the Raiders are interested.’ ’’

Armed with that, Mula called back a few teams, and A.J. Smith, then the right-hand man to Bills general manager John Butler, agreed to take another look; Smith had film from scouting CFL defensive backs.

Smith ran it by Butler, and the Bills offered Flutie a minimum contract and a $25,000 signing bonus that was used as seed money for the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism.

Flutie went on to play eight more seasons, for the Bills, Chargers (for Smith), and Patriots.

“If it were not for Will and Will’s friendship with Al, Doug may have stayed in Canada and not come back to the NFL,’’ said Mula, who now advises prospective NFL players for 12 major colleges through Cornerstone Sports Consulting.


Nickel package

1. After the Jim Schwartz-Jim Harbaugh dustup, some people want to do away with the postgame coach handshake. Why not make both teams line up for a postgame handshake and show kids what sportsmanship is all about?

2. Chargers coach Norv Turner won’t have to buy any meals in Boston anytime soon after he zinged Jets coach Rex Ryan for saying he’d have a couple of rings if the Chargers had hired him instead of Turner in 2007. “I was wondering if he had those rings with the ones he’s guaranteed the last couple of years,’’ Turner said.

3. The Buccaneers did the smart thing by going to London Monday. The Bears arrived Friday. Tampa Bay arrived on Friday in ’09 and was walloped, 35-7, by the Patriots.

4. The Patriots’ defense of Chad Ochocinco was well-executed, but it bordered on laughable when offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien said, “We probably didn’t put him in the best position,’’ on his one target against the Cowboys. It was the first play after a change of possession and television timeout.

5. We must have entered an alternate universe. Jets linebacker Aaron Maybin is tied with Detroit’s Kyle Vanden Bosch for the league lead with three forced fumbles.

By the numbers

2: Three-game winning streaks for the Raiders since 2002, if they beat the Chiefs today.

8: Players who remain on Seattle’s roster from when Mike Holmgren, now president of the Browns, last coached there in 2008.

11: Consecutive games decided by 4 points or fewer involving the Cowboys.

13: Consecutive regular-season wins by the Packers if they beat the Vikings, a franchise record. The Packers also won 12 straight in 1961-62.

15: Third-down conversions for the Dolphins. Not in one game - for the season. In 62 attempts (24.2 percent). Yes, that’s last in the league.

24-1: Record for the Falcons when Michael Turner attempts at least 21 carries.

View from the outside

From Aaron Schatz of Boston-bred “We have a stat called ‘Adjusted Line Yards’ that measures run blocking by looking at runs of different lengths. The Patriots have the best run-blocking in the league this year, followed by Arizona, New Orleans, St. Louis, and San Diego. Tennessee is last.’’

New England update

The Titans (3-2), after a bye week, have a chance to give themselves a little breathing room in the AFC South when they host the Texans (3-3) today. The seamless transition of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (Norfolk/Boston College) into a new offense has been a surprise, and it helped while the Titans’ vaunted running game got off to a slow start. Hasselbeck is the AFC’s third-rated quarterback at 95.9. “He brings instant credibility, and when he came in here, he took over from day one with the way he set the tempo and the things he did,’’ said coach Mike Munchak. “When you have success right away like he did, that helps. That makes it a lot easier for him to kind of spread his message. I think it has caught on well, and the guys have really responded well to him.’’

Short yardage

The Colts will be seeing ghosts today when they take on the Saints and running back Darren Sproles. In the 2007 playoffs, Sproles had a 56-yard touchdown on a screen pass and 99 yards on four kickoff returns in San Diego’s 28-24 win. The next year, Sproles had 22 carries for 105 yards and two touchdowns, caught five passes for 45 yards, and had 178 yards in returns in San Diego’s 23-17 win in the playoffs. Sproles scored the winning touchdown on a 22-yard run in overtime . . . Don’t sleep on Matt Schaub today against the Titans. In his past five games against Tennessee, he has thrown for 1,449 yards with 11 TDs, 1 interception, and a 101 passer rating . . . New Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer and Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel were roommates at Southern Cal when Cassel was an understudy to the Heisman Trophy winner. “He’ll get an opportunity,’’ Cassel said. “I’ll be a fan of his every day but two of them - when we play them. It’ll be fun to compete against him.’’ . . . The Falcons are blocking better for Matt Ryan. He was sacked 13 times and hit another 23 in the first three games. Ryan has been sacked twice in the past three games . . . The Packers figure to roll over the Vikings today, but don’t be surprised if this a good fight. The Vikings have upset the Packers four of the last seven times they were underdogs at the Metrodome. Those victories occurred in 1995, ’96, ’01, and ’02, seasons in which the Packers went a combined 48-16 and made the playoffs each time . . . The Broncos couldn’t have picked a better week to name Tim Tebow the starting quarterback. The Dolphins already had planned to honor the 2008 University of Florida national championship team that Tebow starred on. There are probably more Gators alumni in the three-county South Florida area than Seminoles and Hurricanes combined. Tebow helped make the game a sellout . . . The Bills could be in trouble if the foot injury to defensive tackle Kyle Williams continues to bother him. He already has been ruled out of the next game after today’s bye. The injury is so severe that trainers cut out holes in the back of Williams’s cleats to alleviate the pressure.

Moving days

The NFL trading deadline sparked a lot more activity than usual, including three Pro Bowl players (Carson Palmer, Brandon Lloyd, Derrick Mason) being shipped off. Traditionally, deadline moves don’t have a big impact — some did, but most are just a way to gain draft picks. A few recent examples:

2010: Bills trade RB Marshawn Lynch to the Seahawks for 2011 fourth-round pick and 2012 conditional pick

Lynch landed in a better situation for him and Buffalo freed up more carries for Fred Jackson. In Seattle, Lynch showed he still has a nose for the end zone and had a huge game in the Seahawks’ wild-card upset of New Orleans.

2009: Browns trade WR Braylon Edwards to the Jets for WR Chansi Stuckey, LB Jason Trusnik, and third- and fifth-round picks in 2010 draft Edwards, nowa 49er, had his moments in New York and helped the Jets get to two AFC title games, but still fell short of his immense potential. Only one of the four players the Browns got remains.

2008: Lions trade WR Roy Williams and seventh-round pick in 2010 to Cowboys for first-, third-, and sixth-round picks in 2009 draft

A Texas native, Williams was supposed to be energized by the move. He had 19 catches in his first 10 games, and was marginal for two more seasons. Detroit used the picks (including Brandon Pettigrew) to help build.

2006: Buccaneers trade DT Anthony McFarland to Colts for 2007 second-round pick

Indianapolis paid a high price to shore up a defense that finished 31st in the league against the pass. McFarland slid into the starting lineup and had a big impact in the Colts’ championship run. The Bucs used the pick to draft former starting safety Sabby Piscitelli.

2005: 49ers trade QB Tim Rattay to Buccaneers for 2006 sixth-round pick

With No. 1 pick Alex Smith in the wings, the 49ers dealt their starting QB for a paltry sum. In 2006, the Bucs made rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski the primary starter over Rattay; Gradkowski was drafted two picks after the selection Tampa Bay gave up for Rattay.

2004: Raiders trade WR Jerry Rice to Seahawks for 2005 seventh-round pick

Though 42, Rice gave Seattle a solid 11-game run with 25 receptions, 3 touchdowns, and 14.5 yards per catch, his highest average in 10 years. The Seahawks won the NFC West, and Rice retired after the season with his reputation as the NFL’s greatest receiver still intact. - SEAN SMITH

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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