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When technology fails: How NFL teams handle helmet speaker outages

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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Get to the stadium early enough, and you'll see two people walking the playing surface -- back and forth, side to side -- with helmets raised in the air.

No, they haven't swiped Aaron Rodgers' helmet to show off to their friends.

They're members of the Green Bay Packers' equipment staff, and it's their job to make sure the helmet speaker -- the one that allows the QB to hear playcalls from his head coach -- works no matter where Rodgers is on the field. That's why they hold the helmets to their ears as they traverse the stadium.

After that, they're at the mercy of technology, the airwaves and -- in some cases -- the potential for sabotage.

Packers coach Matt LaFleur has lost contact with Rodgers during a game at least three times this season.

"The first time it happened, I thought he was messing with me because sometimes he'll do that," LaFleur said in a recent interview.

It was no joke -- not the first time and not when it happened most recently during a critical drive in a Week 8 win at Kansas City.

"It's strange for it to happen once in a year, but three times now in a year is definitely something we've got to figure out," Rodgers said.

Before you charge someone from an opposing team with messing with the Packers -- remember, it was the Patriots who were accused (but later cleared) of tampering with visiting teams' technology -- two of the three blackouts came at Lambeau Field.

"There's [stadiums] where you expect it," said Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who lost radio contact with quarterback Russell Wilson during a Week 6 game at Cleveland. "I will not say what those ones are, but yes, there are certainly ones you're like, ‘Hey, have a couple plays ready in case our headsets don't work.'"

Said LaFleur with a smile: "I was like, ‘I've heard about this happening on the road.' But it's happened to us more times at home than away."

Radio nowhere

The most recent outage for the Packers came on third-and-10 from the Chiefs' 38-yard line with the Packers trailing 17-14 in the third quarter.

"I was calling a play, and it takes a while before Aaron realizes it, and he looks at me, and he's like …," LaFleur said while shrugging his shoulders and holding his hands out. "And I keep pushing the button and keep calling it."

Rodgers heard nothing but radio silence.

"Then it's on him just to call a play," LaFleur said.

Rodgers managed a swing pass to the left flat, where Jimmy Graham, who had no idea Rodgers' helmet speaker was out, caught the ball and ran 11 yards.

The next two plays were runs: Jamaal Williams for 14 yards and Aaron Jones for 5.

"I know he called at least one of those plays," LaFleur said. "That's the benefit of having a guy like him is you trust he's going to get you into a good play."

Later on the drive, backup quarterback Tim Boyle began hand-signaling plays to Rodgers. The TV broadcast showed LaFleur talking to Boyle and then Boyle making a series of gestures just before an 8-yard swing pass to Allen Lazard got the Packers to the Chiefs' 17-yard line.

"I stayed by Coach and tried to translate what he wants and give it to Aaron without having all the gymnastics of everyone freaking out," Boyle said. "I just subtly let Aaron know what we were trying to get to, and he just filled in the blanks."

At other points during the drive, LaFleur went to plays that Rodgers had on his wristband, which required only that someone give Rodgers a number, or he sent plays in when he changed personnel.

"Usually [running backs] coach [Ben] Sirmans sends me in, but this time, he called me over and told me the play and said, ‘All right, go tell A-Rod,'" Jones said. "I'm like, ‘Coach, can you say that one more time, the play?'

"I run in there and tell A-Rod, ‘Coach said …' and it took me a second, I started piecing it together, and I got it. With A-Rod all you have to do is tell him part of it, and he's so sharp he knows the rest."

The drive was slowed by a delay of game and ended with a game-tying field goal after Rodgers was sacked on third-and-goal.

"I just know that it was frustrating, especially when you get down to the red area, where you have such game-specific plays," LaFleur said. "In hindsight, if it would've been the first half, I would've called timeout."

‘Two Jet Arrow Cross'

Losing radio contact was a first for LaFleur. He called plays last season as the Titans' offensive coordinator and never had an issue.

For Rodgers, however, his introduction to the NFL was a helmet malfunction. In his first NFL game, a preseason contest at San Diego in the summer of 2005, Rodgers lost communication with the sideline. At that point, he admitted recently, he knew only a handful of plays in then-coach Mike Sherman's offense.

"I called ‘Arrow Cross' -- that was kind of a go-to," Rodgers said. "I called ‘Two Jet Arrow Cross' and threw it to the zebra [receiver]. I think it was Andrae Thurman. I missed him. That was pretty inopportune for my first game to play in and for it to go out."

But at least it was preseason. The same thing happened to Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett this summer as he was preparing to take over for Andrew Luck.

"We have a good backup system if the helmet communication goes out, a good signaling system," Colts coach Frank Reich said. "We always tell Jacoby, he's always ready, especially on the road. At home, we can kind of yell it out there and get it done, but on the road, you definitely want to be ready. He's got to be ready to call his own plays when he needs, to and he is ready to do that."

Rodgers didn't resort to running over to the sideline to get the play call, but it's an option for some teams.

"The way we used to always do it, you would literally run to the numbers [and say], 'Tell me the play,'" Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "Some people get panicked about that, but you just got to get it communicated. So the play's over, you get over here, give me the play. OK, here we go. Just keep playing."

No speaker problems in L.A.

Helmet speaker technology has been an issue since 1994, when coaches could first talk to quarterbacks through a one-way communication device (which automatically shuts off with 15 seconds left on the play clock). In 2008, the NFL added the ability for a defensive coach to talk to one player. In the Packers' case, that's typically linebacker Blake Martinez.

The NFL claims it has worked exhaustively to make the technology more reliable, but LaFleur met with the Packers' equipment and IT staffs last week after the problems in Kansas City.

"Something is happening, and I'd be lying to you if I told you I knew what was going on with that," LaFleur told reporters last week. "I don't. I just know that I am giving a lot of people earfuls about getting it fixed."

Whatever had been going wrong, it was fixed -- at least for now. LaFleur said there were no problems with the helmet speaker in Sunday's loss to the Chargers.

"I'm thankful I'm not a quarterback after going through that," Jones, the Packers' running back, said. "They have so much to remember. Aaron was messing with me the other day [in practice]. We called a play, and he said, ‘OK, you call the play.' I started to call it, and I messed it up."

ESPN reporters Todd Archer, Brady Henderson and Mike Wells contributed.