I often criticize the New England Patriots for their play-calling. I argue that they throw the ball too much, and the only reason they usually get away with it is that Brady is so good.

But, as a student of the game, it’s only fair I give them credit where it is due.  And at the end of regulation in Super Bowl LI, with the score tied at 28, they ran one of the most brilliant plays I’ve ever seen.

They pretended like they were just going to take a knee to run out the clock and go to overtime. But instead, they either handed off or direct snapped (I couldn’t tell which) to the running back Dion Lewis, who was lined up close to Brady in standard kneeldown formation.

Brady acted like he took a knee, then rolled out and faked that he had the ball while the rest of the team ran to block for Lewis as he ran down the sideline.

The Falcons ultimately ran Lewis out of bounds, so nothing came of it.  Some fans even criticized the play since Lewis seemingly got injured on the run.

 

Even though it didn’t work,the play was a stroke of genius for two reasons:

  1. There are very few situations where a fake kneeldown makes any sense. Obviously, you usually take a knee when you are about to win,so faking in that case is a needless risk. And no one would ever take a knee when they are trailing. The only other time it would make sense to run such a fake would be at the end of the first half. The fact that the Patriots even bothered to think about and practice such a highly specific play shows why they are so dominant.
  2. The logic is impeccable. It is a low-risk, high-reward play.  The risk is a fumble, which would only be a problem if the other team ran it back for a touchdown, since there wasn’t time for any additional plays to be run.  The odds of that were low, especially since Lewis was careful to stay near the sideline.  On the other hand, the potential reward was winning the Super Bowl.  It was very calculated.

So, well done, Patriots play-callers. Good decision.  Now just learn not to throw the ball with the lead in the 4th quarter, and not to send Tom Brady to throw blocks on reverses, and you’ll really have this football thing mastered.

[Apologies to all of my readers who don’t care about football–I promise there will be lots of non-football content here soon.  For the next seven months, actually…]

So, defense still wins championships.  The historical pattern I alluded to in this post held true.

Given that history, what should a strong offensive team do when they find themselves facing a strong defensive team in the post-season?

Probably the best thing to do is run a bunch of unorthodox plays.  In this case, since they were a famous passing offense, Denver should have used more running plays.  And not just vanilla running plays; strange ones, like reverses, fake reverses, direct snaps to the running back, maybe some wildcat. I don’t know if Denver has a back-up quarterback who can run the option (they certainly did at one time) but that would have been useful.

The idea would be to make Seattle have to deal with stuff they had not prepared for and have not seen film on.

So, why don’t teams do this? Answer: if they do that and lose anyway, everyone will call the coaches morons for going away from their strength.  Plus, why would you go away from your greatest strength on the biggest stage? Denver had arguably the greatest passing offense ever–certainly in the Top 3. It’s perfectly understandable why their coaches would be reluctant to abandon what worked all through the regular season and playoffs.

Still, risky though it is, I think that’s the best bet for a strong offensive team playing a strong defensive team: be as unconventional as possible.