The highly-anticipated match-up between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots — a game that was better than many anticipated — will instead be remembered for a botched fake punt that is being called the worst play in NFL history.
The play came in the third quarter with the Colts trailing by six points. Nine of the Colts players ran towards their sideline and lined up in a “swinging gate” formation, leaving a safety and a wide receiver to act as snapper and quarterback.
Then, despite needing three yards for a first down and the Patriots having five defenders in proximity of the ball, the Colts ran the play anyway and were stopped for a loss.
That’s bad football.
The Patriots scored a touchdown six plays later and went on to win by seven points, 34-27.
On Tuesday, Colts punter Pat McAfee, who was on the field at the time, was a guest on “The Bob & Tom Show,” and explained that the play was essentially a perfect storm of bad ideas, bad timing, and bad communication.
First, McAfee explained what the play was supposed to do. In short, there were two “tricks” built into the play.
- The punt team would sprint to the sideline to make it look like they are coming off the field and the offence was coming back on (you can see the offence huddled near the sideline waving for the punt team to come off). “The point of the play is to be a deception play,” said McAfee. “You’re trying to manipulate the defence into thinking they have to sub their defence back on … as soon as their defence comes back on, we snap it [with more than 11 defensive players on the field because of the switch], we steal five yards, get a first down.”
- If the ruse doesn’t work and the defence doesn’t come back onto the field (they didn’t), the next step is to have the new “quarterback” try a hard count, where he barks a hike signal loudly in an effort to get the defence to jump offside. “If not, we just don’t snap it, take the delay of game [penalty],” McAfee said.
Once we get past the idea of trying to trick an entire defensive unit on arguably the best-coached team in the NFL, the chances of messing up the play were even higher due to an injury. The center on the fake had never practiced the play before.
“The [player] who then became the center all week [in practice] was Clayton Geathers,” McAfee explained. “Geathers gets injured in the second quarter. Insert Griff Whalen, who had never done it before. So Griff Whalen is now the center on a play he had never practiced before.”
At this point, most coaches would probably scratch the play and save it for another game. But the Colts decided to run the play anyway.
On top of inserting a new player into a key spot without practice, the attempt to draw the defence offside was not in the playbook. Instead, it was something they had added to the play in practice, something nobody ever explained to Whalen. According to the playbook, the “quarterback” would only go under center if they actually planned to run the play.
“Griff has no idea we are going to try to draw the guy offsides,” McAfee said. “In the play it says ‘if we get under center, snap it.’ So, Colt Anderson is trying to draw a guy offsides … Griff goes, ‘his hands are not supposed to be on my a**. If I’m feeling them right now, I am supposed to snap it.'”
On top of all that, the play was actually doomed from the beginning because one player stood in the wrong spot.
The play wouldn’t have counted even if the Colts had picked up the first down or had been successful in tricking the Patriots into a penalty. The Colts were lined up in an illegal formation because the entire offensive line was two yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Well, according to McAfee this was simply because one lineman stood in the wrong spot and the rest of the line are supposed to use him as the guide and stand next to him. This akin to falling in line, with McAfee noting that “if one guy lines up in the wrong spot, everybody lines up in the wrong spot.”
McAfee summed up the play this way:
“It was a play that was literally supposed to be a deceptive play, kind of a trick ’em play, get them to sub, we get an easy first down, which was then going to turn into a hope they jump offside, which turned into a complete cluster, all because of a miscommunication and one poor lineman.”
The play was indeed a perfect storm of things that could go wrong, going wrong. It cost the Colts dearly. But for the rest of us, we now have another classic NFL blooper we’ll never forget.
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