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Quick Inside Slant: Week 7

Impressions of the 2014 NFL Season as perceived by a Creative Writing graduate student, part-time amateur stand-up comedian and collegiate intramural flag football legend.

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By: Dustin Fisher

The look on the Seattle Seahawks coaches face was the best part of the whole play.

The look on the Seattle Seahawks coaches case was the best part of the whole play.

I’ve seen a lot of football plays – an estimated 250,000 in my lifetime – so not a lot surprises me. Halfback passes, zone blitzes, quarterbacks pretending they can’t hear the play and yelling at the sideline with their chin strap unbuckled while the center snaps the ball directly to Marshall Faulk. I’ve pretty much thought of everything you could think of to do within the rules of the game. But once every ten years or so, I see a play that reminds me that I can’t think of everything. That play happened last Sunday.

The Most Awesome Play Ever

First of all, the Bears ran this exact play back in 2011 against the Packers, and I literally leaped out of my chair when I realized what had happened. Then when I saw the flag and to this day, NEVER SAW THE HOLD THAT NEGATED THE MOST AWESOME PLAY EVER, I literally sat back down. I then moped about how no one would ever remember the greatest play of all time because of the phantom holding call, and now that teams had seen it, it may never happen again. Well, it took three years, but it finally did.

By now, I’m sure you’ve seen the play. If not, please take 21 seconds to check it out and meet me back here. The Seahawks were punting the ball to the Rams from their own 48-yard-line midway through the second quarter. The punt went toward the left side of the field, but the punt returner, Tavon Austin, ran toward the right side of the field, looking up into the air for a ball that would never come. Meanwhile, back on the left side of the field, Stedman Bailey hucked all the way back from the line of scrimmage, where he had lined up as part of a two-man vice on the Seahawks’ left side gunner, to catch the ball and run relatively unchallenged 88 yards into the end zone. Print can only do so much for this play, so please watch it if you haven’t yet. What makes this play the Most Awesome Play Ever are all the things that had to go right for this to work.

Everything That Needed To Go Right

Jon Ryan, the Seahawks punter, seems to be the only one pn the field who actually knows where the ball is.

Jon Ryan, the Seahawks punter, seems to be the only one pn the field who actually knows where the ball is.

1. The position on the field: This happened right about at midfield, where punter Jon Ryan was trying to place a ball within the 10-yard-line, rather than kicking it as far as he could. If it had been further back, the punt may have been out of the range for Bailey to get to it. If it had been closer to the end zone, the Seahawks may have tried to go for it or kick a field goal, or the ball may have been more easily punted out of bounds. The 48-yard-line was just about the perfect place on the field to try this.

2. The direction of the kick: Back in 2011, 31 teams had one simple rule for their punting units. DO NOT PUNT TO DEVON HESTER. His alignment on the right side of the field made it easy to force the Packers to punt it toward the left sideline, where Johnny Knox was. However, the Rams had to do more research. They noticed a tendency of Jon Ryan to punt to his left when trying to pin a team deep in their end zone. So the Rams had to gamble that he would punt the ball to the left. Of course, had Ryan punted the ball to the right, I suppose Austin could have just called for a fair catch and no one would be the wiser of this scheduled trickery. Which leads me to wonder how many times this play has been called before and not carried out. Hmmm…

3. The Seahawks needed to be fooled. Or most of them anyway. During the replay, you can see Jon Ryan pointing at Stedman Bailey, pleading with his team to help him take on the four blockers he needs to get through to stop this tragedy, like William Shatner from that episode of the Twilight Zone where there was a man on the wing of the plane. Why won’t any of you believe me? He is the only player from the Seahawks who is actually watching the ball. And therein lies the heart of the play. The Rams relied on the other ten Seahawk players to react to punt returner Tavon Austin, who is (normally) the only guy watching the ball on the return team. You can even see the Seahawks (and the Packers from 2011 even more clearly) release to the left initially – where the punt was supposed to go, only to change their direction based on the returner’s actions. It’s a brilliant tendency to exploit, which is why I’m surprised it’s taken so long for someone to do it. When sprinting down the field while being blocked, to try to stop the fastest guy on the other team from finding a crease in the punt coverage team, who the hell has time to look up into the sky over the shoulder to make sure this yahoo isn’t just playing pretend? Awesome.

4. The returner needed not to signal for a fair catch. Which he did not. In 2011, Hester just stared up at the sky until it became uncomfortable. Austin decided to make a weird motion with his arms and fall down. It was equally effective, as all he needed to do was attract attention. He could have replicated Gabby Douglas’ gold medal-winning floor exercise if he wanted. And the rest of the team needed to not hold anybody, or even do anything with their hands, just in case that same ref was there.

5. Stedman Bailey needed to run a lot, make a catch, and run a lot more. This catch wasn’t nearly the over-the-shoulder, pinned-at-the-sideline level of difficulty that Knox had back in 2011. But Bailey still had a ways to go to catch a ball travelling end-over-end without bobbling it, which also needed to be kicked in bounds and not out of his range. Then he needed to reverse his field and pick up a couple blocks here and there to make sure he didn’t do anything stupid and get tackled. Because this play is only the Most Awesome Play Ever if it goes all the way.

6. The Rams needed to win. Because if they lose, this play is merely an anecdote. Especially if they blow an 18-point lead. But if a 1-4 team actually uses it to beat the defending Superbowl champs, it cements its legacy as the MOST AWESOME PLAY EVER. Which is why the fake punt in the 4th quarter, which wasn’t so much creative as it was ballsy, was necessary to put this play on the mantle, where it deserves to be.

There are a lot of things that need to go right for this play to work, but if one of them goes wrong, the worst that can happen – unless somebody muffs the punt – is a loss of a few yards of field position. If Austin had gone over to return the ball, he likely would have fair caught it anyway. If Bailey didn’t field the ball cleanly – or had to let it bounce – or the Seahawks weren’t fooled, the result would probably be about the same. It would just look like a lot of work went into something that didn’t work. So why not continue to try to exploit this tendency for teams to trust the punt returner to tell them where the ball is going? Remember how the Wildcat started popping up all over after the Dolphins shocked the Patriots with it back in the Chad Pennington era? It’s a copycat league. Don’t be surprised if you see this happen a few more times this year, until teams start to figure out how to do things differently. Or until the NFL decides to make another rule against creativity.

Dustin Fisher is a writer, comedian, storyteller, and stay-at-home dad. Follow along with his dad blog at http://daddyneedsanap.com/ or buy his first book, Daddy Issues.

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Dustin Fisher is an amateur standup comedian, storyteller, freelance writer, and stay-at-home dad, all of which are just better ways of saying “unemployed.” He worked in the area of collegiate recreation for the previous 14 years at UMBC, Miami University and the University of Baltimore. There, he became somewhat of a folk legend on the flag football field and actually got paid to play fantasy football. Dustin is currently in the MFA program at the University of Baltimore seeking a Masters degree in Creative Writing. He has made contributions to various publications including The Good Men Project and the Baltimore Fishbowl. For more about Dustin, check out his stay-at-home dad website, Daddy Needs a Nap. Dustin lives with his wife and daughter in New Carrollton, MD in a house surrounded by too many trees to get the Dish Network.

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