BOB STITT, a man often regarded by his peers as one of the most creative offensive minds of his generation, is about as far removed from the NFL as an innovator could possibly get. He's currently the offensive coordinator at Texas State University, and prior to that, he spent most of his career working like a mad scientist to cook up new offensive formations he then used at far-flung college football outposts like the University of Montana and the Colorado School of Mines.
But this year, like something out of a fever dream, Stitt has seen little snippets of his artistry regularly unfold on the game's biggest stage.
Whenever it happens, he can't resist calling out to his wife, Joan, even if she's in another room.
Hey, honey, he says. They're running my play again.
Great, Joan Stitt typically responds in a deadpan. So when are you going to get paid like those guys?
There is almost certainly no financial windfall coming for the Stitts. There is no intellectual property in football, where theft remains the highest form of flattery. But Bob Stitt does feel some genuine satisfaction knowing, in his own small way, he has influenced the highest level of the game. One of his signature plays, the fly sweep pass, has become all the rage this season in the NFL. It's a quirky, yet undeniably effective, wrinkle with which a handful of NFL offensive coordinators have fallen in love.
And while we've seen this before (see: the short-lived Wildcat, a decade ago), the fly sweep has proved to be no gimmick. Consider a playoff field stuffed with users: The Chiefs, Rams, Patriots and Eagles all used it this season, not to mention the newly bounced Texans and Bears, along with the Dolphins, Browns, Broncos, Titans and Steelers.
Advocates such as Sean McVay, Patrick Mahomes and more of football's biggest stars and brightest minds have thrown their weight behind the play. It took just four games into the playoffs before we saw our first fly sweep pass -- a two-point conversion attempt by the Bears in their wild-card game against the Eagles. And if, as it appears, the fly sweep is the rare NFL trick play with staying power, it's also a perfect example of one of the game's truisms: Innovation in football trickles up, not down.
THE NFL HAS a storied history of ignoring (or marginalizing) eccentric football minds like Stitt's. The league, you see, has long been a place where creativity and innovation -- especially when it comes to offense -- are suffocated. Yes, the NFL has the best athletes and the sharpest football minds. But no level of football is more risk averse. There are a few outliers, sure. Three who will play this weekend -- McVay, Doug Peterson and Andy Reid -- come to mind. But it often feels like you're tuning in to enjoy a gathering of the world's greatest jazz musicians, except none of them is allowed to riff in a manner that would ever surprise you. It would be like hiring John Coltrane and Miles Davis, then forcing them to play nothing but Shawn Mendes songs.
That may be changing, though, the more the NFL begins to resemble the wide-open nature of the college game. According to ESPN TruMedia tracking, 63 percent of NFL plays this season were run with the quarterback in the shotgun. Kansas City led the league, with Patrick Mahomes in the shotgun at the start of 80 percent of its plays. There is a reason offensive wiz kids like Kliff Kingsbury, Lincoln Riley and Matt Campbell have been mentioned as serious candidates for NFL jobs, despite limited experience or mixed results in college. They're seen as the next generation of innovators.
"It's interesting how NFL coaches now are dipping into the college game," Stitt says. "I think they were a little stubborn and rigid about things for a long time. 'This is how we do it, this is how we call plays, these are our basic formations, we're going to have tight ends and two backs. But now you take some people like Andy Reid, who says, 'Let's take a guy who is highly successful in the college game and we adjust to him rather than him adjust to us.' Too many quarterbacks have been drafted after a successful college career, but then they try to put a square peg in a round hole and it doesn't work. I think those guys are more willing to adjust and they're reaping the rewards of it."
In concept, the fly sweep is simple: A receiver or running back goes in motion, a quarterback in the shotgun takes the snap and -- almost like a touch pass in basketball -- lets the ball float in the air. It rarely travels more than a few inches. If all goes well, the receiver catches it on the run, just as he's hitting top speed, and zooms around the end of the line. If it goes poorly and the receiver drops the exchange, it's an incomplete pass -- not, crucially, a fumble.
Stitt believes the Texans, with Case Keenum, were the first NFL team to run the fly sweep pass, on a 34-yard gain to Damaris Johnson in 2014. Former Bengals wide receiver Andrew Hawkins believes he ran a version of the play with Andy Dalton in 2013 under offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. Regardless of who was first, it didn't really become a regular part of offensive packages until this year, when the Rams and Chiefs made it a semi-regular feature. The Chiefs were the first team to use it in a game and the first team to score a touchdown running it, debuting it in Week 1 with a 1-yard flip from Mahomes to De'Anthony Thomas for a touchdown.
Animation courtesy of NFL Next Gen Stats
"When you have the weapons, it's hard for defenses to kind of choose which they're going to try to take away," Mahomes says. "It's really fun for me because it's a passing touchdown. It's cool just to be able to get the ball out quick.''
The Rams got in the act a few hours later that night, with Jared Goff flipping a pass to Todd Gurley in their Week 1 win over the Raiders. "I knew they wasn't going to be ready for that, so I told Coach I was going to be the first one to score on it," Gurley says.
The Rams ran 189 plays from the position over the course of the season, but McVay is quick to concede that it resides in a statistical gray area. Should it be considered a run? Or is it a forward pass? The answer is irrelevant to him.
"It's a good way to be able to get the ball in playmakers' hands, make people defend the field horizontally in the run game," he says. "Sometimes if we feel like padding our pass stats we'll just get in the gun [shotgun formation] instead of under center to do it."
"It's neat to see how people are using it at every level now," Stitt says. "Whenever I watch the Chiefs or the Rams, I'm glued to my television."
In a 38-31 win over the Bears in Week 7, the Patriots got into the action, running a fly sweep in the fourth quarter that resulted in a 2-yard touchdown "pass" from Tom Brady to James White. It likely traveled the shortest distance in the air of any of Brady's 520 touchdown passes. But in the history books, it counts just the same -- and Stitt can honestly tell his grandkids that maybe the game's all-time greatest quarterback ran a play he dreamed up.
THE ORIGINS OF the fly sweep pass aren't hard to pinpoint. Stitt -- who grew up in the tiny town of Tecumseh, Nebraska (population: 1,600), and was a jack-of-all-trades running back at nearby Doane College -- learned quickly that one of the joys of coaching at the lowest levels of college football is that it offered a creative freedom you don't have when there are major recruiting battles to win or powerful boosters constantly breathing down your neck. You could try crazy stuff, and fans, longing to be entertained, would embrace it. He set offensive records during stints as an offensive coordinator at Doane, Harvard and Austin College, but truly found a canvas for his creativity when he became the head coach at the Colorado School of Mines in 2000.
Stitt always loved experimenting with motion in creative ways, and he admired the way some coaches would draw up plays where they handed off to a wide receiver or running back who started in motion before the play began. One problem: He liked lining up with his quarterback in shotgun on almost every play, and without the quarterback under center, the timing was usually off.
"The snap had to be perfect or the play was a mess," Stitt says. "One day, we were practicing it, and we just couldn't get it. I was about to throw it out. Then I thought: Why can't we just put it in the air?"
The difference might seem subtle, but it was significant. The playmaker could run faster down the line of scrimmage, and if he did drop the exchange, it was an incomplete pass, not a fumble. If there is such a thing as a football life hack, Stitt had found it. All he had to do from there was convince the refs that what looked like a handoff was actually a two-handed throw.
"Every game, you had to go up and explain it to them before the game: Look, if my guy drops this, the ball is going forward, it's a pass," Stitt says. "Even when I'd explain it to them, they'd get it wrong. With instant replay, they don't screw it up anymore, but it was crazy when it first started because the refs had never seen anything like it."
When Stitt went undefeated in 2004, Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, another offensive innovator with a small-college background, called him out of the blue and asked if he'd like to trade tape. Leach didn't see the play as a good fit for his own offense, but he invited Stitt to talk at an offseason football clinic at UNLV. That's where Stitt met Dana Holgorsen, a Texas Tech assistant. A friendship began to bloom, and when Holgorsen became the offensive coordinator at Houston, he started to integrate some of Stitt's tricks into his repertoire. Initially he forgot the toss element, and he was still trying to hand it off when Stitt showed up to practice one day.
"I was catching it and handing it [like a sweep], and he was like, 'You're doing it wrong. You've got to toss it.'" Holgorsen says.
Stitt jumped into practice -- still wearing golf cleats from a fundraiser he'd just attended -- and started working with then-Houston quarterback Case Keenum on the play. He told Keenum to grab the fastest guy on the team, and after five minutes they had it down. Head coach Kevin Sumlin and Kingsbury, another future offensive guru, were paying close attention. The idea was taking root in a new generation of offensive minds.
"It's a copycat sport, as we all know," Holgorsen says. "I do it all the time, take ideas from people and see what fits."
As simple as it seemed as a concept, there is an art to doing it well. When executed properly, a good quarterback looks almost like a setter in volleyball, deftly directing the ball to a playmaker in the perfect spot, where he doesn't have to reach for it or slow down on his way by.
Holgorsen used the play liberally once he became the head coach at West Virginia University. When the Mountaineers, led by Geno Smith and Tavon Austin, hung 70 points on Clemson in the 2012 Orange Bowl, it essentially injected the fly sweep into big-time football's bloodstream. Austin, who caught four touchdown "passes" from Smith that day, was simply too fast for Clemson to handle. It was like watching someone try to catch a drop of water flung from a slingshot.
"It's a great play because you can block it a bunch of different ways," says Chris Brown, author of the book "The Essential Smart Football." "The Patriots, for example, literally don't block anyone. The line just blocks the other way. Other teams have linemen get out in front and do a bunch of different things. Like all this stuff, it takes about 10 years for the NFL to be like, 'Yeah, we should really do this a bunch.'"
IN A TWIST that is somewhat fitting considering Stitt's philosophies, the play has continued to evolve in unexpected ways. As teams have grown more aware of it, and adept at defending it, offenses have started to add subtle wrinkles. The Rams, throughout the year, learned they could confuse a defense if they didn't toss the ball to Gurley. Just the threat that they might flip it to him whenever he went in motion was a headache.
"It's a good way to keep the defense off balance and do some different things with that fly motion," Goff says. "Sometimes we flip it to them, sometimes we don't, and it's good just as a play-action would be."
In the regular-season finale against the Ravens, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield added a wrinkle that had never been seen before, even by Stitt. He faked the toss, letting the ball float in the air for a half second, then caught it himself and fired a dart to Jarvis Landry for a 48-yard touchdown. If Mayfield had let the ball drift forward and then caught it himself, the throw to Landry would have been illegal, because technically it would have been a second forward pass. But the ball appeared to go backward, just a hair, making the play a nightmare to defend.
Now imagine the Super Bowl hanging in the balance as referees huddle together and labor over instant replay footage, trying to determine whether a ball went forward, backward or straight up and down.
If nothing else, it could make for great theater. Stitt, for one, would be loving it.
"It's evolved into something way, way bigger than just that touch pass," Stitt says. "Absolutely, you feel proud of something that everybody thinks is worthy to run and that you've come up with something that helped the game evolve."