Chuck Pagano

When Trick Plays Go (Hilariously) Wrong

This week, we saw one of the strangest plays in quite some time. It’s something we’ve not seen since 2009, when the Redskins failed to execute it properly as well. It’s called the “Swinging Gate“, and its primary purpose is to create confusion among the opposing defence. It’s existed in some form since the 1930s, and is rarely used for a multitude of reasons – but primarily because not only does it leave the snapper and snap receiver wide open with no protection from the offensive line, but there are many, many better ways to trick the defence into doing something they shouldn’t. So, let’s take a look at how the Colts managed to take one of the most rarely seen trick plays, and – let’s be honest – utterly cock it up beyond hilarity by going very, very off-script.

Step 1 – Sell the trick by lining up in punt formation

4th & 3, with a quarter and change to go, down by a less than a touchdown. The field position for punting isn’t terrible – Pat McAfee, seen at the left of the screen, could easily pin New England inside their own 10 from here. So Indianapolis initially line up in punt formation – but wait, something is amiss. McAfee is already deserting his post and heading to the near sideline.

Colts in punt formation

Step 2 – Create confusion by organising your line behind the line of scrimmage

In the image below, you can see that ball is placed correctly on the line of scrimmage, and wideout Griff Whalen lined up as a center in the correct position (interesting note in that the snap receiver is safety Colt Anderson). However, on the near side, the Colts’ offensive line has stood back a yard, attempting to create a “new” line of scrimmage. What’s the reason for this?

Colts start trick play, shifting to swing gate formation

Well, compare the formation above with the following diagram, showing how the swinging gate formation is typically lined up:

Swinging Gate formation

The key differences? The “standard” (if you can call it that) formation for this play doesn’t involve offsetting the line of scrimmage, and also calls for a wideout on the far side (technically the “weak” side, you could say) as an extra passing option. For those of you who know the rules about formations, Indianapolis will not be allowed to snap the ball in this situation – as not enough of their offensive line is on the real line of scrimmage, they’ll be flagged for illegal formation if they do. They’re hoping that, with the play clock winding down, the noisy home crowd and the sudden shift, that New England will attempt to line up according to the wrong line of scrimmage, thus lining up in the neutral zone – which would incur a 5 yard penalty and give Indianapolis an automatic 1st down.

Step 3 – Let the play clock wind down and hope they take the bait

At this stage, Indianapolis are hoping that this plays out like it would if they left their offence in on 4th & 1 – somebody on the defence will do something stupid and gift them the 1st down. And if it doesn’t play out, well they’ll incur a delay of game penalty and McAfee will have to add an extra 5 yards to his kick – not exactly a game-breaker for one of the best punters in the league. Does it work?

Nope.

In the image below we see how New England adjust to the new play, getting lined up with :03 on the play clock. They have 4 or 5 guys covering the snap, and everyone on the near side is playing a little behind the line of scrimmage in case Indianapolis do line up correctly, snap and break downfield. They’re not going to bite on this one – they know how 4th & short trickery plays out and are happy to make sure they don’t cross the line early, even if it means losing half a step on the snap.

Patriots aren't fooled by the trick

Step 4 – Realise that New England aren’t biting and… oh.. oh dear…

This is NOT how the play was meant to go. For some reason, perhaps blind panic as the play clock reaches 0, Anderson signals to Whalen to snap the ball. Because he’s not an experienced center (remember, Whalen is a wideout), he doesn’t know any better and obliges. As soon as that ball moves, Anderson is buried under a pile of Patrots, who have nothing to stop them plowing through the one-man line. Anderson is swallowed up, the ball is pushed back 4 yards and the Colts concede a turnover on downs. Oh, and they also get a penalty for illegal formation.

Patriots destroy the play

We know that the ball was never meant to be snapped because not only is it a ridiculous idea, but on the sidelines after the play Pagano can be seen chewing his team out, asking why they snapped the ball. What was meant to happen, once it became clear that New England weren’t fooled, was that Indianapolis would take the 5-yard delay of game penalty and punt away as normal. Instead, Pagano relied on inexperienced players to run a play that they hadn’t coached well in practice. An experience center or long snapper, instead of a wideout, would most likely ignored Anderson’s request for the snap, but Whalen’s unfamiliarity with the position and play showed.

Could Indianapolis have done this play better?

Well, yes. Absolutely. Aside from the aforementioned snap, here’s a few things they could have done better:

  1. Line up properly. Defences are more likely to bite on trick plays when everything on the surface looks correct. This is why, in certain situations, coaches will send the offence back out and show a normal play on 4th & 1. Because there’s a big risk that they might actually make a normal play, the defence doesn’t want to be caught napping, and won’t always wait until they see the snap – they might try and jump it. But by lining up off the line of scrimmage, Indianapolis showed that they had no intention of running a real play. New England didn’t need to get jumpy and could just wait it out. If they’d lined up on the line of scrimmage and set up their positions correctly, this trick play may have had a slight increased chance of working
  2. Don’t try it against New England. The Patriots are a polarising team – you either love them or hate them, it seems. But there’s one thing everyone should agree on. There isn’t a team in the league that’s coached better. Not only that, but they came into this game expecting some kind of trickery, because that’s what the Colts have done every time these teams meet. They knew as the game went on that something odd was going to happen, and most likely had a plan to deal with it. The plan doesn’t have to be specific – literally “don’t be an idiot and jump offside” is all you need to say.
  3. Just…don’t. There’s a reason we haven’t seen this type of play in 6 years. It doesn’t work. There was no call for a trick play here either. McAfee could pin New England back inside their own 10, and they’d live to fight another down. There were 6 points in the game, and over a quarter left to go to make up the difference. Instead of giving Brady 90+ yards to go, Pagano’s play calling meant he only had 33. Unsurprisingly, New England capitalised with an 11-yard TD strike to Blount.

So what we have here really is a cautionary tale. If you want to out-coach Bill Belichick, you do so by creating a solid game plan and executing it smartly – not by trying to be more clever than you really are. Pagano already feared his job would be lost by the end of the season but frankly, this seals it.

And here it is, in its beautiful, Tecmo-Bowl glory (thanks to The Cauldron for knocking this up, and Darren Drew of the NFL UK group on Facebook for bringing this absolute gem to our attention!)