The Colts' now-infamous fake-punt call on Sunday night against the Patriots wasn't necessarily a bad play. It was a total lack of execution and simple decision-making by the special-teams unit that turned this situation into an all-time disaster on a national stage.
Let the clock run down and take a penalty. Heck, take a timeout. Do something -- anything -- but don't even think about snapping the ball if you don't get the look you want. But they did.
The Colts' bumbled fake got me thinking: What were some of the better trick plays, and why did they actually work? I poked around and found five plays on which it paid to be bold.
Pete Carroll's fake field goal
With the clock starting to wind down in the 2014 NFC Championship Game and the Seahawks' offense struggling to put points on the board, Pete Carroll rolled the dice against the Packers. He put the field goal unit on the field and threw a pass to an offensive tackle.
The Packers were up 16-0 with just under five minutes to go in the third quarter and the ball resting on the 19-yard line. From the jump, it looked like normal field goal execution. Make the kick and get something out of the drive, right? Nope. Holder Jon Ryan pulled the ball up at the last second, sprinted to his left and rookie tackle Garry Gilliam, an undrafted free agent playing the wing, took off on a corner route.
With the Packers rushing hard off the edge, Ryan has a basic run-pass option here. He can use his legs and try to outrun linebacker Clay Matthews who was closing on the ball (bad idea) or toss it up to an offensive tackle. That's right, throw the ball, in the NFC championship, to a 6-foot-6, 303-pounder in maybe the Seahawks' most crucial moment of the season.
Ryan tossed it up -- off-balance across his body -- and the result was a big-man touchdown on one of the NFL's biggest stages. And the Seahawks were suddenly back in the game before they closed it out in overtime on Russell Wilson's TD pass.
Super Bowl ticket punched.
New England's double-pass
We've seen reverse passes, flea-flickers and halfback tosses. They work because defensive backs are suddenly put in tough spots: play the run or stay back for the pass?
Well, the Patriots used this same theory, to an extent, when Josh McDaniels called for the double-pass in a critical spot during the AFC divisional playoff matchup with the Baltimore Ravens. The idea was the same, but it came from one of New England's favorite concepts: the wide receiver screen.
With the Patriots trailing 28-21 in the third quarter, Julian Edelman motioned across the formation and ran a bubble screen. Nothing new for this offense, and a major tendency on tape. However, Edelman, who played quarterback at Kent State, caught the quick pass from Brady and then squared his shoulders to the line of scrimmage to throw the ball. It was called at the perfect moment as Danny Amendola released down the field on the fade route.
What do the Ravens see? They are playing for the screen with the strong safety attacking downhill -- immediately -- and the cornerback squatting in the flat. And why not? The cornerback is the primary contain player vs. the screen. But no one checks the release of Amendola as he streaks down the field on the fade route. That allows Edelman the time to set his feet and deliver an absolute dime.
And this was in the playoffs. How's that for gutsy?
St. Louis' fake punt
When it comes to special teams, field position and game situation can lend to a perfect fake. Why would any team, at the pro level, let their punter throw the ball when they are backed up and protecting a lead late in the fourth quarter? No one is expecting it, right? Well, that's one of the main reasons the Rams pulled it off last season vs. the Seahawks.
Facing fourth-and-3 with less than three minutes left in the game, the Rams sent their punt team out on their own 18-yard-line. The scoreboard? Rams 28, Seahawks 26. Punt it. Play defense. Close out the game. Not today for Jeff Fisher's squad.
Right before the snap, the Rams shifted the wing onto the line of scrimmage and the gunner stepped off. That gives the Rams a legal formation and allows the gunner to motion into the core of the formation. Immediately, the Seahawks defenders start yelling "Watch the fake!"
Why does it work? For starters, this isn't true gadget stuff. Instead, the Rams are running an actual route combination, a three-level concept (called a "spot" route) with the receiver inside on the curl, the wing on the corner route and Benny Cunningham (the personal protector) in the flat. Cause confusion, send the gunner inside to "pick" the defender assigned to Cunningham and complete the pass. Well, complete it with the punter tossing it.
Even with the pre-snap shift, the motion and the perfect route called in this situation, the Rams are collectively hoping that punter Johnny Hekker can make this throw. Sure, it looks great on Friday practice in shorts when the scout team lies down on the field. That's pretty standard in the NFL when teams run their fakes during the week. It always works! But the coach still has to show the guts to call it during a pivotal game situation.
That's what happened here as Hekker calmly secures the snap, opens his shoulders and delivers a catchable ball to Cunningham. Time to move the sticks.
New England's tackle-eligible pass
When the offense brings a guard (or a tackle) over to the other side of the line to create an unbalanced look, it's done for a simple reason: add more size at the point of attack on power run plays. They are essentially overloading one side of the line with big men to beat you up while generating running lanes to push the ball down your throat. That's old-school stuff and everyone in the league does it at some point.
It's now on the defense, however, especially the back seven, to identify who is suddenly eligible. Can that big man on the backside of the line go out for a pass? Is the wide receiver off the ball? What's going on? Should we check to another coverage? Dang, you're too late. The ball is snapped and a 300-pound dude is running post routes up the field -- with no one covering him. And oh, by the way, Tom Brady is throwing the ball. Yikes.
That's exactly what happened, kind of, when the Patriots ran the tackle-eligible pass vs. the Colts in the AFC Championship Game.
As you can see, the Patriots have an unbalanced formation to the offense's right. Three offensive linemen and a tight end with tackle Nate Solder on the backside. Again, nothing new here from the Patriots, except that Solder is uncovered. That means he can run a slant, corner, double-move, out route, post or just turn around and catch the ball when Brady shows play-action to the Colts defense. And that's exactly what Solder does after engaging the edge defender here. It's almost like a tight end delay that we'd see on the goal line.
What's the first thing you notice here? For one, Solder is wide open. But more importantly, there's no one even looking at the tackle when he releases up the field. This is a total bust from the Colts as they failed to identify Solder as an eligible receiver.
I know, the Patriots and Bill Belichick use all the tricks, right? Come on. That's on the defense. Look outside, check the alignment of the wide receiver (who is off the ball) and show some awareness is actually trying to cover Solder. He's really just a tight end here. And he reported to the officials before the snap. Is this a gadget? Maybe. But it doesn't really matter after Solder rumbles down the field, trucks the free safety and goes into the end zone for six.
Boise State's Statue of Liberty
We can't talk about trick plays without showing the "Statue of Liberty." It's a classic fake, the kind of thing that is usually reserved for intramural fraternity leagues on campus or Turkey Bowl games with your out-of-shape uncle playing quarterback. This kind of thing doesn't really work -- it's a true gadget and it would never, ever show up in a BCS bowl game against Adrian Peterson's Oklahoma Sooners.
I assume we all remember this one. Boise State, massive underdogs, had a chance to win the game in the second overtime after scoring a touchdown. Down 42-41, Boise State coach Chris Petersen called for a two-point play to win it.
Trips formation. Running back Ian Johnson in the backfield with quarterback Jared Zabransky in the gun. And then, it actually happened. The Statue of Liberty appeared as Zabransky faked the pass and put the ball behind his back for Johnson. Grab the rock and run -- untouched -- into the end zone to win the game.
Are you kidding me? That playground scheme worked?
After the game, Johnson raced to the sideline, dropped down to one knee and proposed to his girlfriend, a Boise State cheerleader, on national TV. Huh? Yeah, that really happened too. This thing, this game, that play suddenly flipped the script on reality, as if we were stuck watching a "Saved by the Bell" episode with gadget calls, surprise engagements and now wedding plans?
Yes, the Colts blew it on Sunday night. They showed coaches of every league, from the NFL to Pop Warner, that a good gadget call can take a wrong turn, a hideous path and explode for everyone to see. That can be embarrassing. But when these trick plays are run correctly, at the right moment, they can still be a beautiful thing.