What’s your favorite NFL play this season? One of Odell Beckham’s game-winning catches? Jameis Winston’s personal game of Frogger? Denver’s game-winning defensive conversion? Kansas City’s game-winning defensive conversion?
For me, there’s no debate. It’s this passing touchdown from Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe to tight end Demetrius Harris in their 33–10 Christmas Day win over the Broncos.
Poe’s throw was magnificent. I’m a voter for the Piesman Trophy, an award that goes to the best non-lineman play by a college football lineman, and I support opportunities for football’s largest players to display talents nobody expects them to have. Poe’s touchdown would have won it. It was truly inspiring to see a man of Poe’s size build up speed, suddenly stop, and lightly toss the ball to an open receiver. No body so big should move so gracefully; no man so heavy should have a touch so light.
Never before has an NFL team trusted somebody like Poe to throw a football, and yet the Chiefs chose to do it while eliminating a division rival from the playoffs. And Poe’s throw was not just a silly highlight: It was an immensely rare football moment.
He became the heaviest man in NFL history to throw a pass, and, since that pass was also a touchdown, he became the heaviest man in NFL history to throw a touchdown. The previous record holder was JaMarcus Russell, who was listed at 265 pounds. Although Russell struggled with weight and reportedly weighed as much as 290, even at his heaviest he couldn’t tip a seesaw with Poe on the other end. Plus, Poe was already the heaviest man in NFL history ever to score a rushing touchdown, breaking a record held by William “Refrigerator” Perry. While Perry was nicknamed for the bulkiest item in a typical home, he was listed at a measly 335 pounds.
Poe’s the first primarily defensive player to throw a touchdown since 1981, when safety Tom Myers of the Saints threw one. I’d argue he’s the first-ever lineman, offensive or defensive, to complete a pass in the NFL. A Pro-Football-Reference search reveals a few players from the 1950 and earlier, but those were days when players’ roles were more interchangeable, and all of those players played multiple positions. At any rate, none weighed more than 234 pounds.
There’s a reason for this, and it’s not just that defensive players are not great at passing. (They’re not, which is why Poe’s play called for a jump pass. You don’t need to be talented at throwing footballs to successfully throw a jump pass.) Wide receivers and running backs often aren’t great at passing, either, but they often get to throw the ball on trick plays because the defense expects them to do the things wide receivers and running backs usually do. The element of surprise makes up for the difference in passing talent between a QB and skill-position player. When a defensive player shows up on offense, the element of surprise is gone. The opposing defense has already been alerted to the fact that a trick play is afoot.
Not so with Poe. It’s the threat of Poe’s brute force that made his touchdown pass successful. On several occasions during Poe’s career with the Chiefs, Andy Reid has inserted him in goal-line sets. This is relatively normal: In these situations, all the offense needs is to push a few feet forward, so teams often rely on their biggest, strongest humans. Sometimes, his job will just be to clear space for the ballcarrier, but it’s also a legitimate football strategy to give the ball to a giant. Force is mass times acceleration. Poe doesn’t have a lot of acceleration, but he’s got plenty of mass, and, sometimes, that’s enough.
When Reid first played Poe on offense, he did so in a fairly conventional way. In 2014, Poe played four offensive snaps, all as a blocker. Last season, Reid got the inkling to let Poe score. He played only one snap and got the ball on a handoff for a touchdown. Still fun, but also still within the realm of football logic.
Poe’s presence on offense now seems less than practical. This year, he’s played three snaps. Once, he was used normally, as a blocking fullback. Against the Raiders, the Chiefs split him out wide as a receiver and targeted him on a bubble screen, a play the Chiefs call “Hungry Pig Right.” He would have been the heaviest player to catch a touchdown pass in NFL history, but unfortunately, the pass was ruled to be backward and was therefore credited as a rushing score. And then there was Sunday night, when Poe got to pass.
The Broncos said they were ready for packages involving Poe, and, when he got the ball, all 11 players charged toward the line. Nobody guarded the single live passing route, and it was an easy touchdown.
So Poe now has three career touches, with two rushing touchdowns and a passing touchdown. Some wondered why, if the Chiefs have a trick play this successful, they would use it in a game that was already decided, hours after clinching a spot in the postseason. Why not save it for the playoffs, when seven points can change a season? Why allow other teams to prepare for the possibility of a Poe pass?
I want to believe in the line of thinking that imagines a throw by a 346-pound man as the most unstoppable play in football. I want to believe in a goal-line offense based around run-pass options for a man-mountain. But there’s a large amount of risk involved in any play featuring a man who specializes in brute force performing tasks intended for skill players.
Poe’s wobbly floater could have easily been intercepted if anybody on the defense had taken care to guard the only live passing route. And while Poe caught the ball on the screen, if he’d dropped the backward pass, it would’ve been a live ball. These plays carry a chance of calamity. But if Poe takes the field on offense during a playoff game and opponents seriously consider him as a threat to throw, or worry about him splitting out wide to score as a receiver on the perimeter, Kansas City has succeeded. Poe’s best use on offense is still as a battering ram, and if an opponent tries stopping him with 10 bodies instead of 11, worrying about a trick play, his job will be that much easier.
But no matter when these plays happen, we enjoy them, and other teams take notice. And perhaps that’s why Reid has stopped using Poe conventionally and started using him as a weapon. The Chiefs eliminated the defending Super Bowl champions Sunday night, and we’re not even talking about the Broncos’ measly offensive performance, or the defense allowing 30-plus points to the less-than-stellar Chiefs. We’re talking about the Broncos allowing a passing touchdown to the nose tackle. And everybody else sees it, and they know they don’t want to be the next team to give up a passing touchdown to a nose tackle.
There’s a reason we tell children Santa Claus is real even though we know he isn’t. (If you’re a Santa-believing child who has made it this far in this article, well, first of all, wow! You’re really good at reading and you love football! You’re cool and smart! Second of all, sorry.) It’s a fun and fanciful distraction from reality.
This also explains the Chiefs’ decision to let an extremely large man wearing red deliver good tidings through the air on December 25. Poe’s touchdown was a Christmas miracle. Nothing would make the Chiefs happier than other teams believing in their Santa Claus, baking him cookies, writing him letters. For every moment teams spend worrying about Dontari Poe, Quarterback, they’re not concentrating on the Chiefs’ core strategy. And the reality is a 346-pound man is lined up across from them, ready to destroy their world.