Anatomy of a free kick

ST. LOUIS -- It doesn’t mean much now and it might not have done much to change the outcome of Thursday night’s 35-11 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, but the St. Louis Rams very nearly pulled off their own version of the Music City Miracle to close out the first half of that game.

For those who remember the 2000 playoff game between Tennessee and Buffalo, the Titans pulled off a miracle win when tight end Frank Wycheck handled a kickoff and threw a lateral across the field to receiver Kevin Dyson, who took it 75 yards for the game-winning score.

What nearly happened Thursday night would have been far less dramatic but it almost happened again, this time on one of the most unique plays in football.

This time, it was 49ers kicker Phil Dawson lining up a 71-yard free kick with 4 seconds remaining in the first half. My initial reaction to the play was "why not?" as in San Francisco had nothing to lose by giving it a shot. If Dawson missed, it would likely be a harmless play. And even if Rams receiver Austin Pettis caught it deep in the end zone, odds weren’t good he could return it for a touchdown.

In live action, I didn’t account for the fact that Rams coach Jeff Fisher may have an answer for it; the Music City Miracle didn’t pop into my head.

Fisher discussed the play in his Friday news conference and revealed there were more layers to the play than the naked eye could see in live action. The rules of a free kick state that the play starts when the ball is kicked, unlike a normal kickoff when it doesn’t begin until the return team touches the ball.

If the kick doesn’t go through the uprights and lands harmlessly, the ball comes back to the spot where it was kicked. In normal circumstances, if the Rams had let the ball drop with more time on the clock, they could have had a legitimate field goal opportunity for kicker Greg Zuerlein.

Since there were 4 seconds left, the Rams opted for something different.

“That’s why we sent ‘AP’ back there,” Fisher said. “We had a plan. It’s evident on tape that our plan was to buy time and then have a throw back to -- it was originally designed to go back to ‘Cort’ [Finnegan], but when ‘Cort’ went down [safety Matt Giordano] took the spot. We were about a second or a man away from a big play because ‘Gio’ was wide open on the back side and we had a wall. We had an answer to it, but it didn’t work out for us.”

Indeed, a review of the all-22 film shows that if Pettis had just another step or two of free space, he would have had a chance to throw it back to Giordano who was in the clear on the back side with the Niners converging on the sideline near Pettis.

The Niners brought Pettis down before he could get a throw off. A lot still would have had to go right for him to score but a touchdown in that situation would have sent the Rams into the locker room down four and possibly given them some much-needed momentum.

“We saw it coming,” Fisher said. “We prepared against it. We were just fortunate that he missed it.”

A big play there doesn’t help the Rams get the running game going or stop Frank Gore in the second half but if nothing else, it would have allowed some hope to linger and created a highlight on a night when those were few and far between.