If A Fake Punt Return Is So Good That No Reliable Video Exists, Did It Really Happen?
I encountered a major problem when trying to write this piece. It wasn’t that I was feeling uncreative. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what to write about. It wasn’t even relentless pressure from my editorial staff to go above and beyond the call of duty and write something that was truly dazzling. All of those things happen from time to time, and there are ways to deal with each of those issues, some more easily than others.
No, the issue I had to deal with was far more difficult to resolve: the St. Louis Rams executed such a clever fake punt return that every single camera was fooled in the process, and access to quality video of the entire return was limited. But it’s not really the cameraman’s fault.
The Rams led the Seattle Seahawks 14-3 in the middle of the second quarter. Seattle had moved the ball into St. Louis territory, getting as far as the 38-yard line. However, after Russell Wilson was sacked twice in three plays, the Seahawks found themselves facing a 4th-and-23 from the Rams’ 49-yard-line. While Seattle has had their struggles on offense this year, no offensive coordinator has a strong play for converting on 4th-and-23. The Seahawks sent on their punt unit.
The Rams had studied Seattle’s tendencies before the game. After analyzing the landing area for their short-yardage punts, Rams special teams coach John Fassel determined that the Seahawks consistently punted to their left (the return team’s right) when trying to pin a team deep in their territory. As Rams returner Stedman Bailey told the St. Louis Post Dispatch, “Coach Bones (Fassel) saw the Bears try it a few years back — it worked for them, too, but it was called back on a penalty. He noticed that when (Seattle’s) punter tried to sky it, to pin us deep, the punt always ended up in pretty much the same spot.” With Seattle in a short-yardage punt situation on the Rams’ side of the field, Fassel called for a fake punt return.
If the words “fake punt return” don’t roll off your tongue, that’s because they aren’t supposed to; Teams don’t fake punt returns. They simply don’t. It doesn’t happen. The primary objective of any punt return is to secure the football. Any yardage that happens after the catch is secondary to this objective. So, in deciding to fake a punt return, Fassel essentially abandoned the number one commandment of any special teams unit: deliver a play with the best chance of either getting your offense the football or pinning the opposing offense as deep as possible. This was not just a gutsy call. This was a call that, if it went badly with the Rams leading by eleven points, could dramatically reshape the dynamic of the game.
This still shows the Rams lined up in what appears to be a return formation, with six men along the line of scrimmage, and Cody Davis (#38) several yards away from the line:
The end zone vantage point typically affords the best view of how blocks develop down the field on special teams plays, which is why coaches utilize it. However, this view does not give us nearly enough detail as far as the overall scope of the play. In order to see the entirety of what is going on, we require a sideline view as well:
Circled in blue, the Rams have decided to double-team the gunner at the top of the field. This is a clear sign that a return team wants to prevent him from getting down the field, with an emphasis on redirecting him in their desired direction. So even without any fake involved here, it should be obvious to Seattle that the Rams are planning on a return to that side. Also in this screen, Davis has begun to move slightly deeper, dropping off to set up potential blocks down the field.
The next still from the sideline shows the play just after the ball is snapped:
On the top of the frame, the Seattle gunner has gotten, or more likely was given a clean release to the inside. This allows him to work quickly down the field towards where he expects the ball to be. It’s almost too easy for him to work inside this early in the play. On any other play, the ease of release would be a flashing red light for the gunner that something is wrong. But he most likely doesn’t adjust anything in this case because teams don’t fake punt returns. Also noted in this screen is that the second man on the gunner, Bailey, has begun to work down the sideline towards where the ball is actually going.
Shortly after the ball is kicked, the Seattle team begins to work down the field in this still:
There are seven Seahawks pursuers circled in red, completely free of any block. In most cases, there is no Ram within five yards of them. On a regular play, this would also be something that would cause alarms to sound in the Seattle players’ heads. However, they continue to head down the field because teams don’t fake punt returns. Meanwhile, Bailey continues his route towards where the ball is actually going at the top of the screen. At the same time, Davis begins to drop off towards the bottom of the screen in an attempt to lead the Seahawks away from the ball.
It works. As the ball continues down the field, the Seahawks are rapidly closing in on the Rams deep return man, Tavon Austin, circled in blue near the far right of the frame:
Circled in red are seven Seattle defenders who are completely outside of the hash marks. They are in hot pursuit of who they believe to be the return man. Unfortunately for them, the actual return man is highlighted in the second blue circle, towards the top of the frame. He is currently just inside the numbers on the opposite side of the field, nearly twenty yards away from any of these defenders. If this view doesn’t show just how badly Seattle has been hoodwinked at this point, perhaps a view from the end zone will do it justice:
Nearly all of the Seattle players are bearing down on the left side of the screen. Bailey is off to the right side, completely ignored by every member of the Seahawks. Also in this screen, there are two Rams players who will begin to work back to the right side of this frame in an attempt to set up what is called a “wall” return. This term is exactly what is sounds like. They gain outside leverage on their blocks, and wall them off to the inside of the field, away from the returner.
As the play continues on, we have now unfortunately reached the point where the end zone camera completely loses track of where the ball is:
I don’t really blame him. He’s just a camera guy. It’s not his fault. He isn’t one of the seven members of the Seattle punt unit who are actually paid to tackle the punt returner. But again, I can’t be too upset at them either, because teams don’t fake punt returns. The worst part is that as bad as the end zone view looks, it doesn’t come close to the sideline view, because you can actually see just how much distance there is between the Seahawks and the real returner:
The rest of the return is arguably the easiest punt return for a touchdown in NFL history. By the time the end zone camera finally catches up to Bailey, he’s nearly into Seattle territory ‒ with the three Seahawks who were actually on that side of the field in no position to come anywhere near making a tackle:
This is what happens when NFL coaches break out of safety mode so many of them remain stuck within. There are more points to be had in the NFL without calling illegal contact penalties on defensive backs every other play. Those points are found by coaches who are willing to break from the risk-free philosophy that permeates nearly every NFL organization and who look for innovative ways to generate offense instead of simply trying to avoid making mistakes.
This is not a “gimmick play”. It is no more of a gimmick than a team running a screen pass on offense. In fact, it employs many of the same mechanics that a screen pass utilizes – an easy release for defenders, misdirection to one side of the field, setting up blocks off the misdirection, and the eventual run to the other side of the field. Misdirection is at the core of many successful offensive plays. And punt returns can be just as much of an offensive play as anything run by a quarterback.
Teams don’t fake punt returns. But maybe they should.
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.