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Walkie-Talkie controversy not a first for Giants

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QB helmet communications controversy happened way back in 1956

Detroit Lions v New York Giants Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

In Week 14 again the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Football Giants were having problems with the communication device installed into quarterback Eli Manning’s helmet. Head coach Ben McAdoo resorted to using a handheld walkie-talkie in order to relay the offensive plays to Manning. The use of walkies during a game is within the rules, however, coaches are not allowed to use them.

So, the league fined coach Ben McAdoo, the Giants organization and pushed their fourth-round draft pick in the 2017 NFL Draft back a few spots. This seems like double jeopardy in sorts because the one drive the Giants used the hand-held device it ended in a drive-killing interception.

This incident with QB communication devices is not an isolated event. Something else happened way back in 1956.

The Cleveland Browns had arguably the NFL’s best coach in Paul Brown. He was an innovator and was not shy about trying new techniques and ideas. Brown was also known as a tactical mastermind.

Up until the late 1940s, radios in general were bundle some with lots of tubes and cabinet space. In 1926 a patent was granted for the transistor, a small semiconductor device that enabled the radio system to switch electronic signals and electrical power. The key emphasis in this invention is the undersized dimension of this electronic marvel as it could be placed into a device as small as the palm of one’s hand. The application for actual use of the transistor did not come about until as late as 1954.

In the preseason of the 1956 season, Brown was informed that a small transistor radio could be placed into the QB’s helmet. At the time, most NFL quarterbacks called their own plays. Brown was the play-caller for Cleveland and took that burden off his signal caller by dispatching plays in with a messenger guard; which was a slow process but effective. The idea of shortwave communication intrigued Coach Brown, who then registered his own frequency. There wasn’t a rule against the technology or any regulation that addressed a variation of electronic communication.

From 1946 to 1955 the Browns completely dominated the landscape of professional football. The club had competed in their respective league’s championship game an astounding 10 straight seasons. They won all four years of the existence of the All-America Football Conference, then once the franchise merged into the NFL captured the league crown in 1950, 1954 and 1955 while losing in the title game in 1951, 1952 and 1953. Their six straight appearances in the NFL championship game still remains the league record.

And to begin the 1956 season, the Browns were once again the consensus favorite. But things were different for that campaign. First off, Coach Brown’s All-World quarterback, Otto Graham, had retired. Wide receiver Mac Speedie had been signed away with Saskatchewan of the Canadian Football League while future Hall of Famer Marion Motley had been dealt to Pittsburgh. The key blow was the loss of Graham who was named NFL Player of the Year in 1955 for the current league champion Browns.

In Graham’s place was QB George Ratterman; a capable journeyman who had played with four different clubs. Although Ratterman had been Graham’s backup for four seasons, Brown wanted an advantage for his newly installed quarterback.

There just happened to be two local Cleveland locals (and true Browns fans) named George Sarles and John Campbell who had invented a receiver that was small enough to fit into a player’s helmet. It was capable of receiving audio only. Brown decided to give this new technology a try and outfit Ratterman’s helmet with the shortwave transistor against the Chicago Bears in the preseason. This proved to be unreliable as the wave connection kept shutting off and killing the connection. After a few series, the process was scrapped for this game.

Sarles and Campbell were given the opportunity to solve some of the issues and perform more tests. By the time the regular season had begun, they informed Brown that the four-watt receiver system was ready but had some issues. For one, shortwave transmissions were not secure. If the opposition was aware of the process and knew the correct frequency that was being used, they could in effect listen in on the transmission. For another, signals could easily be jammed if the opposing team knew what to do. Yet another obstacle was that other radio frequency devices - such as ham or police radios - might interfere with the signal.

But Brown thought the system was ready for a live game. In Week 3 against the Giants, Ratterman was once again armed with a helmet transistor. The trick would be to conceal the transmitter on the sidelines.

In a strange coincidence, the Giants had just days earlier became one of the first franchises to connect their coaches in the stadium press box with a wireless system. This allowed the assistants on the sideline to roam free.

The Giants learned of Brown’s plan to hard wire Ratterman’s helmet for audio communication. They bought their own radio and then contacted the FCC and under public record laws found out what Brown’s frequency was. The next step was a plan of action for the game itself.

Vince Lombardi, the Giants offensive coordinator, recruited a little-used wide receiver named Bob Topp to be on the radio’s receiver. Then, Giants special teams standout (and former Browns player) Gene Filipski was positioned adjacent to Topp and translated the Browns offensive plays. This information was then fed to Giants’ defensive coordinator Tom Landry who signaled in the plays to captain Andy Robustelli on the field.

In front of a hometown crowd of 60,042 fans, the Browns finished with 40 rushing yards and only 134 total yards on offense as they would go to lose 21-9. Ratterman was dropped at least a dozen times during pass attempts while the offense was basically ineffective. If sacks had been an official stat in those days Robustelli would have had six by himself. At some point in the second half Coach Brown abandoned the experiment and reverted back to messenger guards sending in plays. From that point the Browns were able to move the ball on offense, but the stolen play transmissions throughout most of the contest had sealed the Browns fate.

The Browns would finish with their first losing season ever as a franchise with a 5-7-0 record while the Giants would go on to win the Eastern Division and then defeat the Chicago Bears 47-7 in the NFL Championship Game for their fourth NFL title.

For what it’s worth, Ratterman became the first player in pro football history to wear a communication device during a live regular-season game.

Four days after the 1956 Giants-Browns game, NFL Commissioner Bert Bell considered player helmet communications utilized during league games as illegal and banned its usage. The QB helmet transmitter was re-introduced in 1994 and is a standard today. Ratterman’s helmet was later donated in 1985 to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and currently resides in the “Gridiron Glory” exhibit along with other innovations.

Along with the loss to the Giants, the experience of that first helmet with radio communication could be summed up when after one of the Browns’ failed offensive series Ratterman came over to the sideline and told Paul Brown, “Coach, some guy just got stabbed over on Fifth Avenue.”