Redskins linebacker Rob Jackson deliver a jarring hit to Cowboys quarterback… (Tom Pennington / Getty Images )
If pro football broadcasts sound a little different this season, that's no accident.
The NFL issued a memo to teams this week that, beginning Sunday, field-audio microphones will be used for all regular-season and playoff games.
In order to capture the crunching sound of players smashing into each other in the trenches, teams will have the option of having a microphone placed in the pads of the starting and backup centers, or in those of both starting guards (with only one of those microphones being open at any given time).
The goal is to further enhance broadcasts, while not compromising line-of-scrimmage information that teams want to keep confidential such as a quarterback's audibles or cadence.
"There are issues with coaches and teams who from a competitive standpoint don't want their cadence and that type of thing put out there to be studied by opponents," said ESPN's Jay Rothman, who produces "Monday Night Football."
"So it's really just an audio source for us meant to enhance the sound from the trenches but not be the predominant sound."
In the memo, the league outlined strict rules for the process:
--The microphones will not be embedded by the networks but by NFL Films technicians.
--All audio captured will be encrypted by a system similar to the one used for coach-to-quarterback communication.
--Transmitters will be activated only when players come onto the field before the game and halftime, meaning there will be no audio from locker rooms at any time.
--Microphones will open after the offense breaks the huddle (or, in the case of the no-huddle, when the offense approaches the line of scrimmage.) The microphones will close a few seconds after the impact of the lines, and they will never be used to pick up sound from the huddle or bench areas. A league official in the press box — and not the networks — will control the opening and closing of the microphones.
Ambient sound from the field was lost when, for safety reasons, the league moved the umpires from the middle of the defense to behind the quarterbacks. Those officials wore microphones, so when they were removed from that mosh pit they took most of the sound with them.
"Sound complements picture like picture complements sound," said NBC's Fred Gaudelli, "Football Night in America" producer. "One without the other is incomplete."
That meant it was up to the camera suspended over the field, and the two people on each sideline holding those dish-shaped parabolic microphones to gather whatever sound they could. That was an imperfect solution, because the camera on cables is typically behind the quarterback, and people holding microphones pick up mostly crowd noise and are not allowed to walk through each team's area on the sidelines (between the 35-yard lines).
"When you're talking about the visiting offense on the field, the parabolic mikes mics are really overwhelmed by the crowd, because all these crowds now are very educated to make as much noise as possible," Gaudelli said.
Centers were wired for sound at the start of last season, but that soon went away as tensions grew between owners and players. The NFL Players Assn. wasn't going to allow those players to be fitted with microphones in order to enhance broadcasts, thereby further enriching owners. With the new collective bargaining agreement, however, came permission to wire selected offensive linemen.
"One of the things that makes NFL Films unique and has for so long is they can take you inside the huddle," NBC's Cris Collinsworth said. "They can take you to the line of scrimmage. Now, with the microphones on the centers, you're going to feel like you're in surround sound on the field."
There's always room for improvement, of course. Asked how many microphones he'd like to have on the field, Rothman didn't hesitate.
"Twenty-two of them," he said. "And ones for the coaches too."
Connecting the dots
Before Matthew Stafford led the Lions to a 3-0 start, the last Detroit quarterback to do so was Gary Danielson in 1980.
Danielson, now a CBS analyst, thinks the big man in the middle, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, could do for the Lions what a certain Hall of Famer did for the Steel Curtain defense in Pittsburgh.
"I think [ESPN's] Chris Berman hit it right on the head: Ndamukong Suh could be the Mean Joe Green of the Detroit franchise," Danielson said. "If he stays healthy, and the Lions continue to build this thing. It took somebody like Joe Green to change the image of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and I think Ndamukong could do the same thing. Because he's so darn likable off the field, and he's a terror on the field."
Running a reverse
Green Bay, Buffalo and Detroit are the NFL's remaining undefeated teams at 3-0. For the Bills and Lions that's a 180-degree turnaround, seeing as both were 0-3 at this point last season.
If the Bills and/or Lions win Sunday, they will match the feat of four other teams since the 12-team playoff format was adopted in 1990 to open the season 4-0 a year after an 0-4 start.
Teams to start a season 4-0 following an 0-4 start the previous year and to what round of the playoffs they advanced:
Team / Year / Previous / Start / Playoffs
Tampa Bay / 1997 / 0-5 / 5-0 / Divisional playoffs
Minnesota / 2003 / 0-4 / 6-0 / Did not qualify
NY Jets / 2004 / 0-4 / 5-0 / Divisional playoffs
Tampa Bay / 2005 / 0-4 / 4-0 / Wild card
Buffalo / 2011 / 0-8 / 3-0
Detroit / 2011 / 0-4 / 3-0