Day 495: Gridiron Sneakery At Its Finest

originally published May 9, 2013

If you’re anything like me, then the NBA playoffs are not exactly sparking your motor into overdrive. I’m surrounded by people who bleed hockey, and even though our lowly Oilers are watching the NHL playoffs from their well-worn sideline seats, you can almost hear the visceral whoosh of mouth-froth around town when the puck drops on any televised playoff game. But I’m just not a big hockey fan.

My sport of choice is dormant right now. Yes, the NFL draft was just a couple short weeks ago, but that buzz has worn off, and we fans are stuck pining for a retro game on the NFL network that can keep our fever prickled until the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the pre-season in August.

So yes, I’m shrugging off any and all waves of playoff fever that might be surging through various sports bars, water coolers and barcaloungers around the country, and writing about football. Specifically, the football plays that the casual fan may have never seen. Quirky weirdness – like the Fumblerooski.

The roots of this wonky play date back to the 1933 Texas High School Football Championship. It rocketed to popularity after a desperate Nebraska team, down 17-0 after one quarter, successfully used it to boggle the brains of Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl game. It didn’t net them a win, but it turned some heads.

Here’s what happens. The ball gets snapped to the quarterback, who immediately places it on the ground. Technically, this is a fumble. As the offensive line surges to the right, making it look like a right-bound running play, the right guard slips to the left, picking up the ball and running in the opposite direction like a 300-pound shoplifter absconding with a six-pack of ginger ale. It’s a hard play to predict, and it takes a quick defense to respond to it.

The Carolina Panthers used a variant of this fakery a couple years ago. Cam Newton took the snap, then slipped the ball to Richie Brockel, his fullback, between Brockel’s legs. He then sold the handoff to DeAngelo Williams as Brockel squirmed in the opposite direction for a touchdown. You can see a gif of the play here.

I love it when teams get sneaky.

The great plays, the ones that only happen once, tend to get named as they rise to the stage of football infamy. The Immaculate Reception, The Catch, The Helmet Catch – those who eat, drink and breathe pigskin can re-air every nuance of these historical plays in their heads. Those were all unintentional moments of beautiful fate, however. The Holy Roller was an intentional act.

It was the beginning of the 1978 season, and John Madden’s mighty Oakland Raiders were in San Diego, playing their hated rivals, the Chargers. There were ten seconds left in the game, Oakland was down 20-14 with only fourteen yards between the line of scrimmage and a game-winning touchdown. Ken Stabler took the snap and realized right away he was going to be sacked by the defense. He deliberately fumbled the ball forward, where running back Pete Banaszak stumbled and flung the ball further toward the goal line. Tight end Dave Casper did the same thing, batting the ball into the end zone where he fell on it for the winning score.

Not only did the Holy Roller piss off San Diego fans, it led to a new rule that states that only the person who fumbled the ball can advance it during the last two minutes of a game. It was an ugly way to score, but it did the job.

The Statue Of Liberty Play is a ballsy way to move the ball forward using brains over brawn. The quarterback takes the snap, gripping the ball with both hands. He then fakes a throw to one of the sidelines with an empty hand, while slipping the ball behind his back with his non-throwing hand. A running back or receiver then scoops the ball from behind the quarterback and runs upfield while the defense looks around frantically to see where the hell the ball went.

If the quarterback pulls this one off smoothly, there will be a moment when his one hand will be cradling the ball while his arm is above his head, mid-fake, resembling the pose of the Statue of Liberty.

The Northwestern Wildcats used this play to win the 1949 Rose Bowl. The Baltimore Colts baffled the Raiders with it to advance to Super Bowl V. Tom Brady of the New England Patriots pulled a reversal of the play in 2007, faking the run and throwing a pass. Regular readers will know it isn’t easy for me to praise Brady and the Patriots, but this was a pretty play.

If you really want to piss off a defense, try running the Swinging Gate play. For this one, the entire offensive line lines up on one side of the field, with the quarterback, center and running back on the other. The QB will have just a split second to react once the ball is snapped before he is buried under hungry defenders. But look at that arrangement. If he can slip a bullet-pass over to that wide receiver on the left, the receiver will have a wall of defenders to lead him down the field. It’s really a work of beauty.

The Tennessee Titans tried this one in a 2008 playoff game. Unfortunately, Vince Young was their quarterback, so it resulted in an errant, incomplete throw. A variant of the play can be deployed on an extra-point attempt, with the kicker and holder filling in where the running back and quarterback would be. The ball can be snapped to either, with the other being an eligible receiver. This one is a good way to deliver a hearty headache to the other coach.

If you watch football, you have almost seen this play a hundred times. Time is running out on a team; they’re down and desperate, and forced to run a kickoff return (or some other play) filled with handoffs and laterals, hoping to confuse the other team and slip in for a touchdown. It almost never works, but it’s generally only employed when a team has nothing else to lose.

Plus, every once in a gazillion tries, it’ll work. Like the infamous Music City Miracle.

The Buffalo Bills, up 16-15 at the tail-end of a tight playoff game in January of 2000, kicked off to Tennessee. Fullback Lorenzo Neal picked up the ball, then handed it to Frank Wycheck. Wycheck took a few steps, then threw a lateral across the field to Kevin Dyson. Now, most of the time this would have been the first two of several lobs from player to player. But Dyson saw daylight and sprinted to the end zone, winning the game.

It’s a shame these plays don’t work more frequently. They’re always a blast for the viewing audience. And in this case, Tennessee rode the bliss from the Miracle all the way to the Super Bowl, where Kevin Dyson came within a long, painful yard of sending the game into overtime and possibly upsetting the St. Louis Rams.

Damn, I miss football. If only the start of the season didn’t also mean the end of summer, I’d be aching for it to hurry up and get here.

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