In 2011, the Chicago Bears ran a play against the Green Bay Packers that was too good to count.
"That was the most incredible play I had ever seen in seven years," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said after watching it all unfold from the sidelines. "I think everyone on the sidelines was wondering what the heck just happened as he was running down the sideline with two blockers in front of him. Honestly, that was the most incredible play that I have ever seen."
"I've been watching the NFL for a long time, (and) that was the best play I've ever seen," (Packers wide receiver) Greg Jennings said. "That was not a fluke. That was not by luck. That was by design."
The premise was simple. The Bears had Devin Hester, perhaps the best kickoff and punt returner in NFL history. Special teams coach Dave Toub, now with the Kansas City Chiefs, made a gamble. He bet that on punt returns, the opposing team would be so focused on stopping Hester that they wouldn't even pay attention to where the ball was actually headed. So while Hester pretended to catch the ball on the right side of the field, Johnny Knox, previously disguised as a blocker, caught the ball on the other side of the field.
It didn't just fool the Packers. It fooled the cameramen and commentators and everybody watching at home.
It's rather hard to actually judge where a ball will land by following its flight. This is why when you're in the stands at a baseball game, every flyout looks like a home run. Fans and cameramen have learned the best way to actually find out where that fly ball is going is to watch the outfielder trying to catch it. He's a professional, and he knows where the ball is headed better than you.
So, too, punt teams have come to trust the guy setting up to return the punt. He's the guy they need to tackle, anyway. Why waste precious instants craning their necks to follow the flight of the ball when they could just beeline to the only player they need to worry about?
Have you ever seen a returner realize letting the ball bounce will have a better effect for his team than actually catching it? He signals for a fair catch, then runs somewhere nowhere near the ball, and most of the time, the opposing team's return men will follow him while the ball bounces elsewhere.
Toub found another way to prey on that trust and it worked to perfection. Nobody touched Knox until Hester caught up with him to celebrate the touchdown in the end zone.
But the score was wiped out. There was a hold near the line of scrimmage on safety Corey Graham, a ticky-tack call that had nothing to do with the success or design of the play. It was such a surprising call on such an amazing play that truther-esque videos emerged on YouTube highlighting the moment where the hold happened.
Toub told reporters he probably wouldn't run the play again because opponents would clue onto Knox's presence on the field. After duping a Packers team that had just won a Super Bowl the play seemed set to vanish.
But in the past two years, other teams have revitalized Toub's trick. The first were the Rams in 2014 against the Seahawks. The result? A touchdown.
Utah special teams coach Morgan Scalley saw the Rams run the play and had the Utes try it in their game against Oregon. The result? A touchdown.
Again came the opposing accolades:
"I went over and shook their hands afterward," said (Oregon special teams coach Tom) Osborne, whose coaching career began in 1986 at Portland State. "There's nothing our guys did anything wrong. They ran a trick play, they rolled the dice and they hit the jackpot. Never seen it in college football."
But the biggest opposing accolade of all came from the Seahawks. They liked the play the Rams ran successfully against them so much, they added it into their playbook. The result? For once, not a touchdown. But still, a 64-yard return stopped by the last man back.
If executed properly, this play is perhaps the most devastating ever drawn up. The risks involved are relatively low and the worst result it has ever achieved is a near-touchdown. The only ways for an opponent to stop it are to completely change the way they cover punts or hope their punter makes a big play. Neither are good options.
But if it were as simple as having one guy pretend to catch a ball and another guy actually catch the ball, everybody would run it on every punt. Pulling off this beautiful trick requires a perfect storm.
You need to put in work ahead of time. You need the perfect scenario to come up in the game and you need to recognize that scenario. You need one great returner and, in addition to that returner, you need another guy who can make an incredibly difficult play in the middle of 120 yards of sprinting. And you need to execute perfectly.
Do all that, and you got yourself an easy score.
Know your opposing punter
When the Rams pulled the play off against the Seahawks, head coach Jeff Fisher said there was one specific scenario in which the team would run the play:
Their punter is money -- we knew if they were between the 45-yard lines he'd hit it end over end with great hang time, and put it on the numbers.
How did they know that? Due to advance scout work by special teams coach John Fassel.
In watching film of Seahawks punter Jon Ryan, Fassel noticed that when the Seahawks kick "sky" punts from near midfield with the intent to down the kick near the end zone, the kick usually drifts to the left. In fact, on 14 such chances, Ryan's punts had all landed in approximately the same spot, according to [Stedman] Bailey.
You can't just guess where the football will go on the fly. You have to know where to send the decoy and the actual returner beforehand, and to do that, you have to scout the opposing punters. This is a testament to how much more complex football is than you might think: Right now, somewhere in America, somebody is watching film on their upcoming opponent's punter, hoping to find something they can exploit.
If the opposing punter is consistent enough, you can use that trait against them. His teammates will still follow the returner rather than assuming the other team is using the punter's consistency against him.
You need to do that advanced scouting to make the play work because there is some risk here.
Toub says he's attempted to run this play in the past, only to have the punt fly down the middle of the field. If that happens, there's nothing you can do. There's nobody there to return the ball and you just have to let it roll. And if you guess wrong and the ball is hit to the fake returner's side to the field, they aren't set up that well for a return and probably have to take a fair catch.
Just running this play randomly would lead to those less-than-ideal scenarios happening quite a lot. But if scouted well, teams can ensure they'll have a pretty good chance of getting the punt they want and turning their opponent's tendencies against them.
Have a great regular return man...
To really get the opposition to sell out, you want a punt returner who can score touchdowns by himself anyway.
Hester's deadly skill returning punts is what made this play work. After Knox's nullified return, the Chicago Tribune interviewed Packers gunner Jarrett Bush.
"Everybody went with Hester," Bush said. "You have to kind of respect it because Hester is the dynamic returner he is. Everybody went that way."
The other teams to make this play work have also had dynamic returners. St. Louis had Tavon Austin, who has returned a punt for a TD in all three of his NFL seasons. The Seahawks have Tyler Lockett, who took his first-ever NFL punt return for a TD. Utah has Britain Covey, who leads Pac-12 in yards per return and has a TD on the year.
If you have a danger man on the return team, the opponent needs to sprint after him. Every moment they waste not hurtling headlong towards the returner is a chance he gets a little more room to operate and bust out a touchdown. That increases the opportunity they'll buy in and allow you to make your own mayhem.
... who's willing to work on his acting chops
But being a great returner alone won't drag the defense over. The great returner has to act like he's about to make a great return.
My Acting for Non Majors class is paying off!! https://t.co/nPmtTkKFMa— Britain Covey (@brit_covey2) September 27, 2015
Covey watched film of himself returning punts to see how he looked while doing it. How did he run to the spot where he expected the ball to his land? Where did his head look as he tracked the ball? What did he do with his arms while preparing to make the catch? He learned how to simulate all those things. His acting job convinced Oregon to stay on him and not on Hobbs.
"They all followed me, and I just looked at the guy and said, ‘Gotcha.' It kind of made [Oregon's Devon Allen] mad, and he gave me a little shove after that."
He wasn't joking about the shove:
As with all great acting performances, the actor can make the role his own. Tavon Austin chose to fall down at the end of his return:
Austin's tumble probably convinced at least one Seahawks player the ball was actually with Austin. It was an easy-to-notice, distracting move that would generally signal to a coverage unit that the play was over and they could stop running so dang hard when they actually needed to run harder than ever.
Lockett liked that acting choice so much, he stole it:
Tyler Lockett said he learned from Rams' Austin last yr vs #Seahawks to fall down faking Sherman's punt rtn "Always wanted to be an actor"— Gregg Bell (@gbellseattle) September 28, 2015
The more you deceive, the more they'll believe.
Make a SUPER DIFFICULT catch
Punts are hard enough to catch for returners standing completely still. They're really high, they come down really fast and they're wobbly. The degree of difficulty here is even higher.
To make it look like nothing is amiss, the actual return man on this play comes from the line of scrimmage. He's one of the players whose job is to block the punt team's gunners. He's set up like he's double teaming one gunner, which is a pretty common tactic.
For the Seahawks, it's Richard Sherman, the player all the way at the bottom of the screen.
For the Rams, it's Stedman Bailey, all the way at the top of the screen.
But then, they veer off from their hypothetical man and go catch the ball. When the gunner battles past one jammer with relative ease and the other is nowhere to be found, he'll probably be so happy he just torched a double team that he won't think twice about where exactly that second jammer went.
The problem is, this sets up an extremely difficult play. Sherman had to run about 40 yards in a dead sprint before making an over-the-shoulder catch:
Sherman also admitted he had trouble finding the ball over his shoulder due to the sun.
It's about 39 yards for Bailey before his over-the-shoulder catch:
The average hang-time for an NFL punter's punt is in the four-second range. The average NFL cornerback's 40-yard dash time is also in the four-second range. The returner here has a head start because he starts running when the ball is snapped, not when it's kicked, but this play still asks a player to sprint while tracking and catching a high-arcing ball that will get there about as fast as he can sprint there.
These players aren't making over-the-shoulder catches for style points. They're doing it because their margin of error is a few tenths of a second.
This is the biggest risk on this play. If the punt is farther than expected, it'll be tough for the sprinting return man to make a play on it. And if he muffs the extremely difficult catch, the ball is going to skitter free, available for both teams to pick up. The flip side is that if you get the team to buy the fake, they probably won't notice the ball right away.
Utah ran the play slightly differently to ensure an easier catch for their returner, Boobie Hobbs. Their return man never acts as if he'll be double-teaming the gunner. He's at the top of the screen, already setting to jet out before the ball is snapped.
He's seven yards downfield at the moment the gunner crosses the line of scrimmage.
It works. Thanks to the head start and an unusually short punt, Hobbs settles under the ball for over a second before making an easy catch.
The problem is that this was really easy to notice. Oregon's special teams coach caught it live:
"I could see (Hobbs) bail before the snap of the ball but what was he bailing for?" Osborne said. "I thought he was bailing for a throwback to him but how are those guys on the field supposed to know that? They can't hear anything if you're yelling out there, it's too loud."
Luckily for Utah, he wasn't actually on the team.
If everything else has gone to plan, things should be pretty easy for the return man. If the other team was fooled and the blocks are good, there should be an uncontested 80-yard run in the other direction. It's such an easy gig, Utah's punter wouldn't even give his teammate credit.
Hackett said P12 POTW just means no returner did something special. On Hobbs: "Boobie was all by him-bloody-self. I could have done that."— Matthew Piper (@matthew_piper) September 28, 2015
When I started writing this piece, I was curious how teams set up blocks for the returner. Look at how every Seahawk is to the left of a Bear. How did they build that wall for Sherman?
Turns out they don't really need to do anything special. The other team gets themselves out of position for you. The Seahawks' blockers just started jogging instead of running and the Bears kept running. Their insistence that Lockett was going to catch the ball instead of Sherman put them in a position to get easily blocked.
The return man's biggest enemy might be fatigue. Football players are used to sprinting 40 yards or so at a time. This job calls for 40 yards of sprinting, then a brief pause, then 80 yards of sprinting in another direction. On Seattle's play, the only one that didn't work, you can see that 100-plus yards of running begin to wear on Sherman. The cornerback said he was already "gassed" by the time he caught the ball and that he "ran out of gas" on the runback. The fatigue probably cost him as much as the opposing coverage.
The one player you can't fool
The bad news is that even if executed perfectly, there is always one player on the punting team who will never be deceived. No matter what you do, he will know exactly where the ball went. The good news is that player is the punter.
The punter is the funniest player to watch on the coaches' film of these plays. While 10 of his teammates buy the fake, he's 30 yards behind the play hooting and hollering at them, trying as hard as he can to alert someone, ANYONE that they're barking up the wrong tree. Here's Seahawks punter Jon Ryan:
And here's Chicago's Pat O'Donnell doing the same thing:
I like to stand up for punters. They have a tough job, they do it well and although we make fun of them, they're far more athletic than the average NFL fan gives them credit for. But they're still almost always going to be the players on the field least equipped to make a tackle. If he's the only player who knows what's up, that is a good sign for the return team.
Scalley says he doesn't do anything special to ensure the punter gets blocked. If the play gets to the point where that's an issue, the Utes coach says he's just happy the team executed the rest of the play right.
His team didn't block Oregon punter Ian Wheeler. Wheeler outran the linemen forming a wall along the sideline and was the only Duck who got himself in position to make a play on Hobbs:
But alas: punter.
The only time anybody has ever run this play but didn't score a touchdown, the punter played a big role. The Seahawks didn't quite get a body on O'Donnell:
Sherman probably still scores if he sticks to the sideline. Instead, he chooses to cut upfield and is slowed down enough by O'Donnell's presence that previously fooled players catch up and bring him down.
Perhaps the most telling testament to how devastating this play is when executed correctly is this: The greatest threat facing this play is that the opposing team's punter might break through a block to tackle a sprinting return man. You'll take that as your "greatest threat" a million times out of a million.
Last, and most importantly: We need a name.
As of right now, there's no good way to describe this play besides "that thing where one guy acts like he's going to catch it and then the guy on the other side of the field does." I've been calling it "the play" throughout this post. It doesn't even technically fall under the category of "fake punt." It's a real punt, but a fake return.
Toub refers to his play in public as "The Johnny Knox play." The Rams called the play "Mountaineer," because both Austin and Bailey played at West Virginia. NFL.com asked fans to name the play as part of their weekly #NameThatPlay hashtag and the best people could come up with was "The Old Trickeroo," which is the worst freakin' name for a trick play I have heard in my entire life. (It's not even old! This play is only three years old!)
Please help us come up with a proper name for this deadly trick play in the comments. This play has been used multiple times to score touchdowns and teams will continue to use it to score touchdowns. And every time it happens, our minds will be blown.
A play this devastating deserves a better name than "The Old Trickeroo," right? Right?