The Patriots were up 14-0 on the Eagles. Then they ran a trick play based on a weird loophole in the NFL's rulebook. Then they allowed 35 unanswered points and lost. Those last two facts aren't exactly related, but New England's botched trick play when they had all the momentum certainly serves as a convenient turning point in their second consecutive loss.
After Tom Brady's second passing touchdown of the day, the Patriots did this on the ensuing kickoff:
Stephen Gostkowski, the kicker, walked up to the ball and flipped it to safety Nate Ebner, who played rugby for Ohio State and theUnited States national team, who drop kicked the ball. It fluttered down into the space between the Eagles' first set of blockers and their second set, and the Eagles promptly recovered it.
We've actually recently written about this exact play being used in college when Baylor and Minnesota did something similar on kickoffs earlier this year.
According to the rulebook, are three types of ways to kick the ball in football. You can placekick it, you can punt it, or you can drop kick it. But we virtually never see drop kicks. Patriots fans will remember the drop kick fondly from that time Doug Flutie drop kicked an extra point, but other than that play and this one, I can't recall another example of a drop kick in an NFL game.
Drop kicks are an important element of all codes of rugby, which is why Ebner knows how to do it. And football developed from rugby. So in the early days of football, drop kicks were used frequently. But when the shape of the football was made pointier in 1934 to make passing easier, the ball became more difficult to bounce off its ends, and the drop kick virtually disappeared. Other methods of kicking the football are significantly more powerful and accurate. And so with the exception of Flutie's ceremonial boot in the end of the meaningless final regular season game of his career, nobody has really used it.
But the drop kick remains in the rulebooks as an 80-year-old vestigial reminder of what football used to look like. NFL and college rulebooks specify that on kickoffs, placekicks and drop kicks are allowed. Punts are forbidden, because on a punt you can pop the ball up super high and that would make onside kicks really easy. You're allowed to use placekicks and drop kicks, since drop kicks are extremely difficult, almost every kickoff you've ever seen has been a placekick.
However, Baylor and Minnesota found one potential use for the drop kick: The element of surprise. If a kicker walks up to the the line of scrimmage and acts like they're about to do something besides kicking the ball, the other team might stop paying attention for a second. And in those situations, you can't punt the ball, but you can drop kick it and hope to recover the ball while the other team's eyes are wandering.
So New England was hoping to catch the Eagles off guard. Did it work?
No. Not even close. Philadelphia suspected something was up as soon as the ball was flipped from Gostkowski to Ebner. The flip was supposed to make the Eagles stop paying attention, but it seems like the suspicious activity actually made them play closer attention. Semi Ajirotutu hopped on the ball while the Patriots were still about 10 yards away from reaching it. With a relatively short field, the Eagles scored their first touchdown of the game.
I salute football innovation, looking into rulebook minutiae, and allowing players to use little-known, unusual skills they may have. The Patriots managed to do all three on one play! But this trick still didn't really have much of a chance of success. They might have been better off kicking it deep.
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