Dark magic

Is it cheating? Is it dishonest? No, it's just the Patriots.

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Explaining the New England Patriots’ crazy and devastating “that guy’s eligible, that’s guy’s not” trick formation from last week’s playoff victory over Baltimore will take some work.

Explaining what it means, though, is pretty easy. It means that, like always, Bill Belichick was ahead of the game. It means that Belichick is one of those rare people in sports who will do anything within the rules (and, his history suggests, perhaps sometimes outside them) to win a game.

And as much as everyone in sports likes to win, most people will not.

* * *

In 1961, Jack Nicklaus was playing a round of golf with his friend Deane Beman, and about halfway through the round Beman told him: “Jack, why don’t you try walking off the course before you start? Instead of guessing how far it is, why don’t you just know EXACTLY how far it is?”

Nicklaus shrugged. “Well, I’ve never tried it.”

Few had. Beman had picked up the idea of getting exact yardage from an amateur golfer with a mathematical mind named Gene Andrews. It seems so fundamental now – golfers all get yardage to the inch – but in those days golfers didn’t try to get exact distances. They eyeballed the flag. They had caddies guess. Sam Snead, one of the great American golfers, believed he lost a dozen tournaments in his life because he misclubbed.

There was nothing stopping golfers from walking off the yardage so that they would have better information to work with. It just wasn’t the way things were done. Until Nicklaus. He began to personally and meticulously walk off every golf course before he played in a tournament. And Jack Nicklaus won a lot of tournaments before everyone else caught on.

* * *

The NFL needs its own data-server farm just to host its many rules about the line of scrimmage and eligible receivers. Heck, Rule 5, Section 3 – which deals only with “Changes in Position” – is slightly longer and more baffling than Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!”.

There are basically three math equations on every NFL play, this from the offensive team’s perspective.

Math problem one: You must line up eleven players, seven on the line of scrimmage and four behind the line.

Math problem two: Of your eleven players, six are eligible pass-receivers – meaning they are allowed to go beyond the line of scrimmage at the snap and catch forward passes – and five are ineligible.

Math problem three: Players wearing uniform Nos. 50-79 and 90-99 are ASSUMED to be ineligible receivers, while players wearing all other numbers are ASSUMED to be eligible receivers.

I capitalize ASSUMED because, as you now probably know, players with ineligible numbers can declare themselves eligible if they tell the referee and vice versa.

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OK, so there you have the convoluted line-of-scrimmage rules. Funny thing is, when you watch an NFL game they don’t seem convoluted at all. Why not? Because, with only rare exceptions, teams do the same thing on every play. They use five offensive linemen, all with ineligible numbers, and they line up the other six players in various ways that conform to the rules.

Sure, there has been some tinkering with formations – shotguns and pistols and wishbones and three receivers on one side and so on – and every now and again (usually in short yardage situations) you’ll hear a ref say “No. 86 has reported eligible.” But coaches have generally not dived into the confusing calculus hidden in the rules.

Saturday, Bill Belichick and the Patriots dived in headfirst.

* * *

In the second game of a doubleheader in July 1946, Cleveland Indians player manager Lou Boudreau decided to shift six of his seven fielders to the right side of the field when Ted Williams came to the plate. Williams had hit three home runs in the first game and opened up the second game with a run-scoring double. Boudreau had to do something. Williams stood wide-eyed at the plate as he watched the Indians fielders move over. And then he began to laugh.

There was no rule against moving fielders around, of course, but managers just didn’t do it much. They might bring in the infield when they wanted to prevent a run. They might bring in the third baseman if expecting a bunt. They might move outfielders around slightly to adjust to a hitters’ tendencies. But mass movement of fielders like the Boudreau Shift, well, nobody really did that.

After the Boudreau Shift, though, everybody did it.

Why did Boudreau order the shift? Why do most people come up with innovations? Desperation.

* * *

The Patriots were in trouble. That was clear more or less from the first moment of the Ravens game. The Baltimore Ravens cruised right down the field for a touchdown and then, a couple of minutes later, did it again. The Patriots’ defense seemed to have no answers, and the Patriots’ offense did not look like it could keep up against an aggressive Ravens defensive line. Early in the third quarter, the Ravens still led by two touchdowns.

And so, Bill Belichick’s Patriots were desperate. Later in the game, they pulled out a wide receiver pass play that was put into the playbook months earlier and had not actually run in more than a decade. The Ravens were completely fooled. Julian Edelman, a former quarterback, threw a pass in stride to Danny Amendola, who scored to cut the Ravens’ lead to seven. “He throws it better than I did,” Brady said after the game.

First, though, it was time to unleash their eligibility plays.

Here’s what they did:

First, they put only four players on the field with ineligible numbers. That meant that one of the other seven would have to report to the referee as ineligible.

Second, they had running back Shane Vereen report as ineligible. The referee – as required by the rules – warned the Ravens that Vereen was ineligible. “Don’t cover 34!” the referee said.

Third, the Patriots split Vereen to Brady’s right, roughly where a slot receiver would be (Vereen as required by the rules was on the line of scrimmage). Even though he was not eligible, he certainly LOOKED eligible.

Fourth, the Patriots lined enormous Michael Hoomanawanui where the left tackle would normally be. Hoomanawanui looked for all the world like he was playing left-tackle. But he was an eligible receiver.

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This was dark magic. The Ravens had no idea who to cover. Given enough time, they might have come up with a defensive scheme that left alone Vereen and covered Hoomanawanui, but even this strategy might have failed because there’s another part of this play that you have to consider: An ineligible receiver is not allowed to catch a forward pass. He is, however, allowed to catch a backward pass. If Vereen was left entirely uncovered, he could conceivably catch a ball thrown backward and pick up huge yards. And if you want your mind blown, based on what seem to be the current rules, an ineligible receiver could also throw the ball.

As it was, the Ravens were so confused that Brady did not need a second option. His left tackle, Hoomanawanui, was wide open, and Brady threw a strike for first down.

Two plays later, they ran a slightly different version of the play … this time Hoomanawanui declared himself ineligible, and it was star tight end Rob Gronkowski who lined up as the left tackle. The Ravens were scurrying around helplessly (on the previous play, they’d had twelve men on the field) and this time Edelman (who the Ravens KNEW was eligible) broke wide open for an eleven-yard gain.

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By now, Ravens coach John Harbaugh had a cloud of exclamation points hovering over his head. What the Patriots were doing was absolutely legal… it just wasn’t done.

The third time, the Patriots repeated the first play with Vereen ineligible and Hoomanawanui at the left-tackle position. Nobody covered Hoomanawanui, the Patriots moved the ball down to the Ravens 10, and Harbaugh was so irate he ran on the field to purposely draw a penalty just so he could yell at somebody.

“That’s deception!” he screamed at the officials and, later, at the press.

Yep. It was definitely deception.

* * *

Jim Valvano was well aware of his team’s deficiencies as they entered the 1983 NCAA Basketball Tournament. N.C. State wasn’t a great team. It entered the ACC Tournament at 17-10; it had to win the ACC Tournament to get into the big one. And it did.

It should have been a short stay. NC State trailed Pepperdine by six points in the final minute of its first NCAA tournament game. Desperation. Valvano had his players foul to stop the clock, and twice they fouled Dana Suttle, Pepperdine’s best player and a superb free throw shooter. Under the strain, though, Suttle missed the front end of both one-and-one chances. And the Wolfpack came back to win.

The rule then was that, after a team got into the bonus, every non-shooting foul was a one-and-one. This was a dreadful rule, one the NCAA would soon change. But first, Jim Valvano’s N.C. State team had to take advantage of it. In the second round, the Wolfpack played a much superior UNLV team and trailed by a dozen points in the second half. Valvano had his team start fouling, and N.C. State came back to win by a point.

“The more I see of that team,” UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian said, “the more I’m convinced they could just be a team of destiny.”

After an easy win over Utah, N.C. State needed missed free throws to beat Ralph Sampson’s Virginia team and go to the Final Four. And in the championship game, against a supreme Houston team, there were nine more missed free throws. The Wolfpack won on Lorenzo Charles’ last second dunk.

It was legal to perpetually foul players on superior teams in order to make them shoot one-and-ones. Other coaches just didn’t do it. And Jim Valvano did.

* * *

The aftermath of the Patriots’ ineligibility plays was pretty comical. Harbaugh, as mentioned, griped about deception. Tom Brady, when asked about Harbaugh’s complaint, shrugged and said, “Maybe those guys should study the rule book and figure it out.” When pressed further, he said: “Ask coach”

And Belichick, as anyone might expect, feigned ignorance. “It was just something we thought could work,” he said. A couple of days later, when asked if all this was in the spirit of the rules, Belichick said, “You’re allowed to do that. We did it. I don’t really understand what the question is.”

Of course, he understood the question perfectly well. The Patriots are on one of the most remarkable runs – maybe even THE most remarkable run – in NFL history. They have had a winning record every single year since Tom Brady first became the team’s quarterback in 2001 – and that includes an 11-5 season the year Brady was hurt. They have been to nine AFC Championships in those years. They are one game away from reaching the sixth Super Bowl of the era.

And the only player who has been there for all of it is Brady. The Patriots have had eight different running backs lead the team in rushing. They’ve had eight different receivers lead the team in receptions. They’ve had 12 different players lead the team in sacks. They have won with an unstoppable offense, won with a great defense, won with a combination of both, won when neither their offense nor defense was especially noteworthy.

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How? There is no one answer to that, but one part of it is that the Patriots do whatever they have to do to win. Yes, you can bring up Spygate, or whatever you want to call the incident where Belichick was fined a half-million bucks for filming the Jets defensive signals, but this willingness to push the edge is visible in every game. The Patriots did not hand the ball off one time in the second half against Baltimore. Not one time. How many coaches would do that? One time to stop Peyton Manning, the Patriots rushed two players and dropped nine into coverage. How many coaches would do that?

You would imagine that coaches have played around with the line-of-scrimmage rules. But how many in a playoff game would really play four offensive linemen, mix and match who is eligible and ineligible, and throw passes to the left tackle?

In many ways, Brady’s “Ask coach” comment was the perfect one. The Patriots players – whoever they happen to be in a particular year – fully trust Belichick and his staff to come up with the plan. They then follow that plan.

It’s a pretty good bet that the NFL will tinker with the rules to prevent teams from using eight or nine players with eligible numbers, playing hide-and-seek with who is actually eligible, throwing laterals to receivers lined up at center and bombs to big guys lined up at right tackle. But, as usual, any coaching complaints, any rule changes, any well-planned defensive strategies will be too late to slow down the Patriots. They’ve already won.