Tag Archives: trick plays

Return of the tackle-eligible play

There’ll probably be some discussion this Super Bowl Week — that is, when people tire of Deflategate — about the tackle-eligible play. Bill Belichick’s Patriots ran it twice for touchdowns in Super Bowls 38 and 39, and they used it again in the AFC title game, when Tom Brady flipped a 16-yard TD pass to an uncovered Nate Solder. The sequence went like this:

First, the Patriots lined up in an unbalanced line — four men to the right of center, two to the left. This made the 6-8, 320-pound Solder (77) the left end, because Brandon LaFell (bottom of the photo) positioned himself a yard behind the line as a flanker.

Solder lined up

After the snap, Solder briefly blocked and then drifted into the flat, catching Brady’s throw at the Indianapolis 13. No Colt was near him.

Solder catch at 13

A few giant steps later, he launched himself across the goal line to increase New England’s lead to 24-7.

Solder scores

One of the things that’s interesting about this play is that the NFL actually outlawed it in 1951. According to The Associated Press, it had become “a nightmare to officials because various clubs tried illegal variations which loosed tackles, centers and guards for pass receptions.”

The year before, Eagles coach Greasy Neale went nuts after the Cardinals ran one such variation against his team. The pass, in this instance, went to “an ineligible guard for about 30 yards,” AP reported. “And while the Eagles argued with the officials, Cardinal[s] coach Curly Lambeau lifted the guard from the lineup and covered him with a blanket on the bench. The officials couldn’t even find the player on the field who the Eagles contended caught the pass. The gain stood.”

The season before that, the Bears, goofing around in their season finale, ran five tackle-eligible plays against the Cardinals in a 52-21 win. Afterward, Cards coach Buddy Parker said, “The tackle eligible is a cheating play. It should be ruled out of football. I’m not saying this because we lost, but it’s my firm conviction it violates the spirit of football. I’m not blaming the Bears for using it. Other teams do. But there is no defense for it, and it is a difficult play for the officials to call.”

At the January 1951 league meetings in Chicago, the owners decided to get rid of “the old bugaboo tackle-eligible play,” as AP called it. But in recent decades it has worked its way back into the playbook — as long as the tackle reports as an eligible receiver, as Solder did. This alerts the officials, who then alert the defense. It’s still a trick play, it’s just not as tricky — or maybe shady — as it used to be.

In the old days, teams lined up in all kinds of bizarre formations to create Surprise Eligible Receivers. Check out this alignment the Giants sprang on the Bears in 1934, one that made the center, Hall of Famer Mel Hein, eligible:

Giants center eligible play

Wilfrid Smith of the Chicago Tribune described it thusly:

The Giants shifted to a spread formation. Such a formation, with three eligible pass receivers [to] the right, always causes the defense to spread to meet a pass with secondary consideration for a run or plunge. The end men on the line of scrimmage and the backs are eligible to receive passes. Seven men must be on the offensive scrimmage line when the ball is passed by the center.

The Bears immediately dropped into a six-man defensive line and shifted three men to cover the Giants’ eligible receivers on the right side of the Giant[s] formation. Naturally, most of the fans watched these men, thinking a pass would be thrown to one of them. There was a Giant[s] end to the left of center Hein. Then, without warning, this end shifted one yard back from the line of scrimmage. This change made him a “back,” and to meet the rule specifying seven men on the line of scrimmage, a back shifted up to the line [indicated by the dotted line position].

As soon as one second had elapsed after this shift, another rule requirement, Hein passed the ball back between his legs to quarterback Harry Newman, directly behind him. Newman then handed the ball back to Hein, between Hein’s legs, and Hein ran with it, making 13 yards before he was downed by the Bears’ secondary.

When Newman handed the ball back to Hein it was a forward pass. Hein, the end man, was eligible to receive this pass and after receiving it to run.

George Musso, the Bears’ right tackle, had lined up approximately even with the Giants’ end, who later shifted into the backfield. Hein ran inside of Musso. The play was so unexpected that most of the Bears did not see the pass.

Maybe we’ll see a play like that in the Super Bowl. After all, the Patriots and Seahawks have shown plenty of creativity this season. Or maybe we’ll see a “Find the Ball!” play like the one the Bears ran against the Lions later in ’34. An artist’s rendering of it:

Bears trick play in 1934 vs. Lions

Now that would be fun.

Gadget plays galore

NFL teams channeled their Inner David Copperfield in Week 3. We saw the Bengals’ Mohamed Sanu, the Dan Marino of wide receivers, complete a throwback to QB Andy Dalton for an 18-yard touchdown, and we saw the Browns dust off the illegal-since-1954 Hideout Play against the Ravens — with Johnny Manziel split way, way out, almost far enough to sell hot dogs. (We covered that bit of subterfuge in a post yesterday.)

It’s probably only a matter of time before some special teams coach sells his boss on this beauty:

I wouldn’t mind seeing somebody run this one, either:

Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?

The Browns try to pull a fast one

Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan couldn’t possibly have known this, but he ran an illegal Hideout Play against the Ravens on practically the 60th anniversary of the last legal Hideout Play. Even better, the victim both times was a Baltimore team — the Colts in 1954 and the Ravens on Sunday.

The last legal Hideout Play (a.k.a. Sleeper Play) was run Sept. 26, 1954 — by the sneaky Los Angeles Rams on the first play of the season. The Colts defense didn’t notice wide receiver Skeet Quinlan hanging out near the sideline when the ball was snapped, and no one was near him when he caught an 80-yard touchdown pass from Norm Van Brocklin. After the Rams won 48-0, Commissioner Bert Bell said, in essence, “Enough of this crap. We’re not a Sunday morning touch-football league. Anybody who tries to run a Hideout Play again will be penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct.”

(His actual quote was: “This thing never should have happened in the first place. No matter how many good rules we have, somebody also comes up with something that we have to correct.”)

Here’s the brief game summary that appeared in newspapers across the country:

Sleeper Play game story












And here’s Bell declaring the play illegal the next day:

Bell outlawing Sleeper Play




















Sure enough, the following was added to the rulebook in 1955 (under Rule 10 — Section 2): “If an offensive player lines up less than five yards from the sideline on [the] same side as his team’s players bench, and his teammates (even though they are outside of [the] field of play) are in close proximity to where he is lined up when the ball is snapped, it is Unsportsmanlike Conduct.”

If he were “in close proximity” to his teammates, of course, his uniform would blend in with theirs and he’d be harder to notice. That’s one of the reasons the play was so effective in the early days. (That and the fact that clubs would usually save it for late in the game, when darkness was closing in. Many stadiums back then didn’t have lights — or had inadequate lighting — making the sidelines less visible in the fourth quarter.)

Actually, quarterback Johnny Manziel, the focal point of Sunday’s shenanigans, was in closer proximity to coaches than players as he stood along the sideline in the second quarter, pretending to have a conversation with his offensive coordinator. He had just come out of the game after being sent in for one play – a run by Isaiah Crowell that lost a yard.

As you can see from the clip, Manziel and Shanahan did a great selling job — had any of the Ravens bothered to notice. Johnny had his back turned to the game, waiting for Kyle to tell him to “Go!” (which he clearly did), and wide receivers coach Mike McDaniel gesticulated in the background for good measure. Then Johnny took off, free as can be, down the sideline, and Brian Hoyer hit him for a 39-yard gain to the Baltimore 23.

Alas, the play was called back — not because it was illegal (the referee didn’t mention anything about that), but because running back Terrance West wasn’t set before the snap. The Browns ended up punting and went on to lose 23-21; but think about it: How “great” would it have been, after the two weeks the NFL has had, for one of its teams to win a game by running a bogus play? After all, had West not messed up, Cleveland easily could have gotten three and possibly even seven points out of that possession.

Beyond that, though, there’s always been something a little cheesy about the play. It just doesn’t seem like something pro football players should be doing. That, certainly, was the point Bell was trying to make. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for coaches reviving long-lost offensive and defensive stratagems. But to pull a stunt like this . . . . Come on, Kyle. With all the rules favoring the offense nowadays, you’re running a Hideout Play? What’s next, having Manziel stick the ball under his jersey?

Some other things about the last Hideout/Sleeper Play that might interest you:

● Hall of Famer Weeb Ewbank made his NFL head-coaching debut with the Colts that day. The Hideout Play, in other words, was the housewarming gift he received from the Rams (the rats).

● The Baltimore cornerback who got caught sleeping was Don Shula. Years afterward, he said, “I remember thinking: Where in hell is [Van Brocklin] throwing the ball?”

● When the teams met again late in the season, the Colts gained a measure of revenge by upsetting the Rams 22-21. How sweet must that victory have been?

See if you can find the ball

There’s no better way to celebrate the start of the NFL season than with a clip — or three — of the ol’ Hidden-Ball Play. These are from Pigskin Champions, a documentary the Packers filmed in Hollywood after winning the 1936 title. As you’ll see, the play was the football equivalent of a Three-Card Monte game.

Which one is your favorite?

Hidden-Ball Play No. 1:

Hidden-Ball Play No. 2:

Hidden-Ball Play No. 3:

A word about the Statue of Liberty play

Just so we’re on the same page, there’s only one way to run a true Statue of Liberty play: the way the Redskins ran it in a 21-7 win over the Bears in 1943. Sammy Baugh took the shotgun snap, drew his passing arm back, and wingback Wilbur Moore circled behind him, grabbed the ball and ran 20 yards around left end for a touchdown.

I mention this because, over the years, the term “Statue of Liberty play” seems to have lost its meaning. The play Boise State, for example, ran to beat Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl wasn’t a classic SOLP. It was a pump fake . . . followed by a behind-the-back handoff . . . with the quarterback’s non-throwing hand. Much different choreography. More like a fancy draw, really, because the runner was already in the backfield, not flanked to the right.

Hope I’ve made my point. If not, don’t worry, I’ll make it again. And hey, if you think I’m being a hardass about this, you should see Lady Liberty. She’s even more upset about it.