Sunday night the Colts ran a trick play so baffling it made me question why the NFL didn't immediately call off the game and preemptively end their season to avoid something so stupid from happening again. I took a while attempting to analyze it.
At its core, the play's main flaw was that Griff Whalen, the WR-turned-center snapped the ball when nobody was expecting him to. But the play was also riddled with other flaws so massive that I couldn't figure out what the purpose of the play was outside of Whalen's mistake, or how the Colts' coaching staff allowed it to come into existence.
Tuesday morning, punter Pat McAfee gave the actual reasoning for the play and how it failed on an Indianapolis radio show and -- I can't believe I'm going to say this -- I think it's an even bigger coaching failure than I previously thought.
First, McAfee explained what the team was trying to do:
"The whole idea there was on fourth-and-3 or less, we shift to an alignment to where we could catch them misaligned," he said. "They tried to sub some people in. Catch them with more men on the field -- 12 men on the field. And if you get a certain look, you have three (or) two yards to make a play."
"So, you're trying to manipulate the (receiving team) into thinking they have to sub their defense back on," he said. "We are sprinting to the sideline in hopes to make the other team think we are subbing our offense back onto the field. So, when they think the offense is coming back on the field, your hope is that they think their defense has to come back on the field. As soon as their defense comes back on the field, we snap it, steal 5 yards and we get a first down."
OK, that's a thing. That's an actual football strategy. I'm on board with this. If you can convince the opponent to switch units, you'll almost definitely catch them with 12 men on the field and get a free first down.
There's actually some decent sideline acting: The Colts released a screenshot showing their offense huddled on the side of the field, as if ready to come on:
And if you look at the replay, you can see backup QB Matt Hasselbeck urging the punt team off the field -- like a backup QB might if they were actually signalling the punt team off the field:
But I think it's a bit flawed in execution. The shift looks like the disciplined hustle of a team shifting rather than the disorganized scramble of a unit trying to shift off the field. They even remain in formation. It just doesn't look enough like a punt unit leaving the field to convince a disciplined opponent. They get into their new formation well before the Patriots have ever considered swapping their team out.
And there's the three or four seconds when the new formation is in place and the safety-turned-QB Colt Anderson is still sprinting over to assume his new position. This needed to be disguised better. As the entire defense watches him get in place, the jig is up: They know this isn't a unit swapping, but rather a trick play. It's dead in the water.
I'll acknowledge that there was an actual strategy and premise here, which is better than I thought Sunday night. I'm still skeptical of whether the Colts should have bothered trying this.
The Patriots are a really well coached team, and a lot of their defensive players are already on their special teams unit. They probably know well enough not to switch from special teams to defense unless offensive players begin coming onto the field. According to NFLPenalties.com, the Pats haven't been called for a Defensive 12 men on the field penalty this year, nor were they called the entirety of last year's regular season or postseason. Designing a trick to catch them seems futile. This still seems like a kinda bad idea.
But then McAfee explained something more damning:
"The gunner who became the center all week was (safety) Clayton Geathers," McAfee said via the Colts' official website. "Clayton Geathers gets injured in the second quarter. Insert Griff Whalen who had never done it before. So, Griff Whalen is now the new center in a play he's never practiced before."
"We added something to try and draw them offsides if they don't do their substitution," he said. "Griff never got the heads up this was happening, because it's not in the playbook. Stanford guy, reads the playbook, knows everything he has to do, but if he's not there for an audible that's added, he can't know."
"Griff has no idea we're trying to draw the guy offsides," said McAfee, "because in the play it says if we get under center, snap it. So Colt Anderson (the quarterback on the play) is trying to draw a guy offsides to pick up an easy five yards. If not, we just don't snap it. We take a delay of game."
"Griff goes... ‘If I feel him right now, I'm supposed to snap it.' So this is a 100% miscommunication," said McAfee. "It's literally a miscommunication."
As noted, it was obvious from the beginning that the screw-up was that Whalen snapped the ball when he shouldn't have. There were other problems, but that was the big one that made this all look so silly. Now we know why: He was in a role he had never filled before, with the team doing something he didn't know they were trying to do.
According to McAfee, this play had two successful scenarios. Either the Colts snapped the ball with the Patriots having 12 men on the field, or the Colts snapped the ball with the Patriots offsides. The most important thing here -- perhaps the only important thing! -- is that the person snapping the ball have a damn good idea of when to snap the ball.
The only person the Colts had trained to fill this role got hurt, and the team still ran the play.
That's a massive coaching failure. When a player filling a critical role in a trick play comes out of the game, you have to just throw it away. Those types of plays require everybody to execute nearly perfectly to function. You can't just throw in another person and expect them to pick it up on the fly.
The job of a coach is to put their players in a position to succeed. Chuck Pagano and the Colts' staff put their players in a position to fail. At first this looked like an individual screw-up on a weird play that maybe could've worked. Now we know it's worse than that.
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