The matchup between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots last night saw more of Pat McAfee’s brilliance in the punting game. So Chuck Zodda was stunned when the Colts turned to a trick play on a fake punt instead of playing to win the field position game, and went to the film to see what went wrong.
The play is called the swinging gate fake punt. It is designed to catch an opposing special teams unit off-guard by moving the entire offensive line to one side of the field, with the intent of either leaving skill players behind the offensive line uncovered, leaving the “quarterback” and center uncovered, or forcing the defense to take a timeout.
With 1:14 remaining in the third quarter, the Colts trailed 27-21. Basic math is tough on Monday mornings, but in general, that means that a touchdown and successful extra point from uber-kicker Adam Vinatieri would put the Colts up by a point. Indianapolis shuttled out the punt team, with fellow uber-punter Pat McAfee tasked with pinning the New England Patriots inside their 10-yard line as he had all night. In case it is not clear, the Colts specialists are arguably the top guys at their positions, and if they renamed themselves “Uber” and started charging 6x surge pricing for how far they blast the ball, it would not be out of line. But just after the Colts punt unit came onto the field, something unexpected happened::
McAfee (#1) and personal protector Colt Anderson (#32) run for the near sideline (blue arrows). The Patriots align in punt safe formation, with two men off the line of scrimmage (red box). They are waiting for a fake. This is usually the time when a good coaching staff steps in and calls off the fake. NBC was also kind enough to show just how good McAfee had been all night, with a 49-yard average that would have pinned the Patriots at their own 13-yard line if he had simply matched it. But the Colts were undeterred:
The punt unit sprints to the near sideline in unison. I had visions of the Blue Angels, while the Patriots momentarily appeared confused near the center of the field. Perhaps Chuck Pagano and the Indianapolis coaching staff had actually found a weak spot in the normally-solid New England special teams:
Oh boy. Indianapolis officially resets in swinging gate formation – two yards behind the actual line of scrimmage (gold line and black line) and in an illegal formation with not enough men on the line. McAfee lines up in the right spot, showing that even when things are falling apart in front of him, he is ready to rock and roll. The key to this play is Brandon Bolden (#38, red circle), who maintains outside leverage on the long snapper and now-quarterback, Anderson. Bolden holds his spot on the field, preventing Anderson from seeing any clear lane initially and utilizing a quick snap. Once again, we come to a pivotal moment where the play should have been stopped. And it is not just the coaching staff that could put an end to this. This is an “If you see something, say something” situation. Even if I am the waterboy on the Colts sideline, I think about speaking up.
New England has now defended the play perfectly. They have seven men devoted to covering the swinging gate formation to the sideline (red circles) and three men covering the battery (yellow circles). Every avenue is covered. There is no escape. Anderson continues his move to go under center, which is not the worst thing in the world if you want to try to draw the Patriots offside. Except that the center actually snapped the ball, which is the worst thing in the world:
Patriots coach Bill Belichick appeared to be some kind of time traveler based on his reaction to another play earlier in the game:
In short, this is the most embarrassing special teams play since the New York Jets attempted their “chameleon” kickoff return 341 days ago. It now has a special place in football history, along with the Butt Fumble, and really nothing else. There were no fewer than three opportunities to call this play off, and just about any member of the Colts should have put an end to the play at some point during this process. Indianapolis has the best punter in the league in a one-possession game, with a defense that had been keeping the Patriots in check during the second half, and instead chose to run this play despite every indication that it had no chance of success.
Punters are like magnets – they work mysteriously and no one has been able to adequately explain how they function. In this case, Pagano and the Colts should have trusted the mystery instead of placing their faith in a poorly-designed play that cost them a chance at a win.
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.