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“Philly Special” Both Defined Super Bowl LII and Issued a Lesson in the Art of the Trick Play

The Eagles and Patriots ran versions of the same wide receiver pass on Sunday. One worked; one ended in a Tom Brady drop. Why is this play so popular? And what does the difference between the teams’ success and failure reveal about the nature of football trickery?

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

The two most memorable plays from Super Bowl LII were different versions of the same play, one run successfully by the Eagles and the other run unsuccessfully by the Patriots. For Philadelphia, it came in the form of the “Philly Special,” a fourth-down, 1-yard touchdown pass from tight end Trey Burton to quarterback Nick Foles, a play design now memorialized via tattoos on multiple Eagles fans’ bodies. Its legacy has been enhanced by video footage of Foles walking over to the sideline and asking head coach Doug Pederson to run the play.

Yes, Foles called it “Philly Philly.” I don’t believe that sporting events are rigged, but after realizing that the most important play of the Bud Light–sponsored Super Bowl was a pun on a Bud Light advertising campaign, I’m about halfway there.

For New England, this play was run earlier in the second quarter. Wide receiver Danny Amendola threw a pass to Tom Brady, who dropped it.

Tom Brady

It’s rare to see a quarterback drop the ball like this, and predictably the ensuing memes were relentless. Many people made jokes referencing Gisele Bundchen’s 2012 comment that her “husband cannot fucking throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time.” And this, too, was a moment enhanced by mic’d-up video: You haven’t really experienced Brady’s drop until you’ve heard Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins taunting Brady by screaming, “COME ON, TOM!”

These two plays really did decide the outcome of the 41–33 game. Foles’s score came on a fourth down, allowing Philadelphia to get seven points out of a drive instead of zero. Brady’s drop came on a third-and-5; he threw an incomplete pass on the next play, representing the only turnover on downs in one of the greatest offensive showcases in NFL history.

Both plays have the same gist: They begin as reverses, with a running back carrying the ball to the left, then pitching the ball to a receiver running to the right. A reverse bets that once a defense begins tracking the ball as it heads in one direction, that unit won’t be able to stop an offensive player moving as fast as he can in the other direction. But this play goes in the opposite direction even faster than a regular reverse. Instead of trying to outsprint the defense to the opposite side of the field, the reversing receiver throws the ball to the quarterback all the way on the right.

The most notable difference in the way the two Super Bowl teams ran this play is how they executed the quarterback’s release into unguarded space. Brady simply handed the ball off to his running back, James White. Foles, conversely, did a bit of acting: He pretended to yell at his offensive line, a perfectly plausible thing for a quarterback to do, before center Jason Kelce delivered a direct snap to running back Corey Clement. This tactic is a neat surprise that can potentially catch a defense off-guard.

Still, the reason one of these plays worked and one of these plays didn’t isn’t because of trickery. Both Foles and Brady were wide open. The Eagles’ play proved successful while the Patriots’ play failed because trick plays aren’t always about tricks. Often, they’re successful or unsuccessful for the same reasons that any other plays are.

The Eagles’ trick play was called “Philly Special,” but it’s significantly less Philadelphian than Wawa hoagies. This offense didn’t begin practicing the play until the postseason, and admittedly cribbed it from the Bears, who ran it during Week 17 of the 2016 season.

But the Bears were not the first team to run it, either — the Patriots ran the same play against the Eagles in 2015.

Tom Brady

And as Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger tweeted out, Foles’s high school also ran a version of this play.

The “Philly Special” is everywhere in the college ranks. Here is Tennessee running the play at Texas A&M in 2016.

Here is East Carolina doing it, with current Buffalo Bills receiver Zay Jones delivering the successful pass.

And here’s UCLA executing the play in 2013, with current Packers backup quarterback Brett Hundley reeling in the reception.

Some teams opt not to have their QB yell at the offensive line. For instance, here’s Texas’s David Ash catching a touchdown pass on the play in the 2011 Holiday Bowl.

Stanford ran the play in the 2015 Pac-12 championship game against USC, with current Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey throwing the ball to current Browns backup quarterback Kevin Hogan.

The earliest version of this play I could find comes from the 2004 Rose Bowl, with Mike Williams throwing to Matt Leinart, also starting from a pitch under center.

Matt Leinart

I can keep going: Boise State used the play against UNLV in 2015; Boise State ran it at UConn in 2014; Boston College deployed it against Maryland in the 2016 Quick Lane Bowl. The list goes on and on.

You’ll notice almost all of these plays end up going to the right. That’s by design: Most players are right-handed, and it’s natural for righties to throw while moving to their right. Maybe a quarterback can make a throw going to his left, but it’s not smart to ask a right-handed wide receiver to attempt throwing against his body. Most teams do not, although Wake Forest benefited by letting current Ravens receiver Michael Campanaro try it in 2013.

The Lions also ran this play to the left, but with Golden Tate, a wide receiver who is left-handed.

Golden Tate

Detroit dialed up this play on a two-point conversion try, which is how I’ve most commonly seen it used. (The reason that there aren’t more two-point conversions shown above is because it’s difficult to search Sports-Reference for two-point conversions; I searched for college games in which a player threw at least 10 passes and caught a touchdown to find many of these plays.) In fact, this is such a ubiquitous two-point-conversion play that in last year’s record-setting seven-overtime game between Western Michigan and Buffalo, both teams ran the play successfully in quadruple overtime.

“They ran the same play we did,” Western Michigan coach Tim Lester said. “And we both hit it.”

The Eagles didn’t run “Philly Special” on a two-point-conversion attempt, but they might as well have: Fourth-and-1 from the 1-yard line is essentially a two-point conversion. And there are two reasons the play is typically used in this scenario. The first is that it exploits the width of the field, making the most of the limited space available when there is no room for players to run deep routes. The second is that most coaches avoid asking their receivers to make tough throws. When done correctly, the quarterback can stand in the end zone 2 yards downfield and the play will be a success. Almost every team I’ve seen run this play has called it from around the goal line, or at least inside the red zone.

There is, notably, one team that likes to run this play from outside the red zone: the Patriots. Their play in Super Bowl LII started from the opposing 35-yard line; their play against the Eagles two years ago began at their own 25. Most teams view this trick play as a way to get across the goal line; New England sees it as a way to pick up a big chunk of yardage.

For this approach to achieve its desired result, a quarterback has to run a route that will put him in position to pick up yards after he catches the ball. That means the wide receiver has to throw a pass that effectively leads the quarterback. Wide receivers, for the most part, are not great passers. When Stanford ran this play from the opposing 28-yard line in 2011, a bad throw from receiver Drew Terrell forced Andrew Luck to make perhaps the best catch any quarterback has ever made.

Tom Brady cannot make that catch. Tom Brady can barely even run. Have you ever seen his combine tape? Dude looks like the ents from The Lord of the Rings. In 2000, he ran a 5.28-second 40-yard dash, tied for the fourth-slowest time of any quarterback in combine history. You know who else clocked a 5.28-second 40-yard dash? Jared Lorenzen.

The Eagles built this play around their players’ talents. Burton, the receiver who threw the ball, played quarterback in high school and also in a handful of college situations. (He had 17 passing attempts over his four-year career at Florida.) Foles isn’t an Alshon Jeffery–caliber receiver, but the play didn’t call for him to be one. This was an easy throw and catch, and both players were reasonably proficient at throwing and catching.

The Patriots, on the other hand, did not cater this play to their players’ skill sets. Amendola did not play quarterback at any level. Brady is just about the worst athlete of any quarterback in the NFL, and entered this game with an injured thumb. Amendola could have attempted a conservative throw for a short gain, but opted to throw a pass to lead Brady farther downfield. That left Brady sprinting down the sideline, trying to corral a catch over his shoulder while cruising at his top speed of roughly 4 miles per hour.

Trick plays are just football plays. They’re about fooling the opposition, sure, but they work only when they’re used in the right scenario, and they have to play to the skill set of a team’s personnel. That was made clear on the sport’s biggest stage, and it’s the reason why no New Englanders are getting trick-play-inspired tattoos this week.