As we’ve already told you, football can be hard to understand. Playbooks weigh as much as physics textbooks, and when you hear a quarterback barking in the huddle, it can sound like you’ve intercepted an alien transmission. For there to be order in the chaos, the game requires people who have mastered its specifics. Welcome to Masterminds Week, where we’ll spotlight those who have shown expertise in various aspects of the sport—from the big and all-encompassing to the random and hyperspecific.
The pinnacle of baseball deception is the hidden-ball trick. When a runner safely reaches base, a fielder will occasionally hide the ball in his glove and tag the runner out when he mindlessly wanders away from the bag. This is entertaining every time that it’s executed properly. Take this nearly six-minute compilation of successful hidden-ball tricks as proof:
The premise is simple: Baseballs are tiny, and gloves are larger. This is entry-level deception compared with the grander form of trickery some teams have tried on the gridiron: hiding a human on the field of play.
This may sound ridiculous, but it works. There are three methods of making players disappear that have resulted in positive gains—and it’s high time the concepts that have excelled at the college level were fully brought to the NFL. So which minds have mastered football’s hide-a-player techniques? And which pro teams are best suited to run them in the 2017 season?
The Wall Technique
Mastermind: Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn
NFL Team Best Suited to Use It: Philadelphia Eagles
It would be impossible to hide the largest football players on the field. But the largest players on the field can be excellent at hiding other things:
The guy crouching in the above photograph is Ryan Davis, who at 5-foot-9 and 164 pounds was the fourth-shortest and second-lightest player on Auburn’s 2015 roster. He was even smaller than the Tigers kickers, and can be seen here squatting behind three offensive linemen, all of whom are at least 6-foot-5 and 285 pounds. Normally, linemen maintain a crouched stance before the snap in an attempt to keep a lower center of gravity than any oncoming pass rushers; normally, a Malzahn-coached offense would feature linemen positioned reasonably far apart from one another in order to best execute a spread scheme. In this case, though, five linemen stood shoulder-to-shoulder as tall as they could, the center bent over to snap the ball, and 6-foot-5 quarterback Jeremy Johnson stood directly behind.
Davis couldn’t kneel on this play; if he did, he would’ve been called down as soon as he established possession. But he took the ball, waited with his knee hovering slightly above the ground, and then sprinted around the left side for 28 yards, picking up a first down on first-and-25.
Only one defender followed Davis out of the backfield, and he ran smack into another defender who followed the play fake in the opposite direction.
Look at this screengrab. There’s a Texas A&M player still trying to peek over the wall even as Davis bolts past the line of scrimmage.
Malzahn calls the play “Woody.” (After the Toy Story character, and, not, uh, anything else.) He’s the no. 1 fan of this hide-a-player technique; he’s been using it since his tenure as an offensive coordinator at Arkansas, as detailed in this thorough history of the play by Auburn blog War Blogle. Malzahn ran the play against Auburn in 2006, at Tulsa (with an option to pass!) during his stint there in 2008, and then as Auburn’s offensive coordinator in 2010. See, Cam Newton wasn’t the only reason Auburn won the national title that season; sometimes, he just functioned as the 6-foot-5 quarterback who smaller players hid behind.
I’m not sure if Malzahn invented this concept; Ole Miss used it in 2006, the same year that Malzahn first ran it at Arkansas. He has certainly popularized it, though, and now it’s catching on. Texas Tech tried out this tactic against Texas last fall. Red Raiders head coach Kliff Kingsbury called the play “Little People, Big World.” FCS powerhouse North Dakota State dialed it up against rival South Dakota State in the 2012 playoffs …
And South Dakota State ran it right back in last season’s playoffs.
The Dakotas are wild.
It seems silly that this method works. Surely, defenses should be able to see through a wall of humans, and even if they can’t, they surely should be able to sense that something is up. But time after time, the Wall Technique has proved successful. Seven versions of this method are mentioned above: Four resulted in touchdowns and three in big gains. Given that the Eagles have 5-foot-6 running back Darren Sproles and a quarterback from North Dakota State, it’s a wonder that they haven’t tried this several times already.
The Kansas Chameleon
Mastermind: Chiefs head coach Andy Reid
NFL Team Best Suited to Use It: Not the New York Jets
Kansas was not the first team to ask a player to hide by lying down in the end zone, but the Jayhawks’ camouflage execution was unquestionably the best. Their jerseys in this case were blue with a white-outlined red pant stripe, and they perfectly matched Memorial Stadium’s blue-painted end zones featuring white-outlined red letters:
If a coach asked a player to lie down on the field during a regular play from scrimmage, the opposing team would probably notice. But return men on a kickoff start about 70 yards away from the coverage team. The kicking team might not see a player walk onto the field and promptly fall to the ground the equivalent of a full city block away. And when the ball is kicked, it’s only natural that most players’ eyes follow it.
The key to this hide-a-player technique is to put one return man on the side of the field where the opponent’s kicker generally likes to direct his kickoffs. The player who lies in the end zone sets up on the other side. Once the return man who’s standing catches the kick and pretends as if he’s setting up his return, the lying man pops up and gets into position to receive a cross-field lateral. If all goes according to plan, the coverage team is slow to realize that he’s there, and this returner has a clear path to the end zone.
In theory the strategy will work like this play from the 2012 season, when Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper coasted 94 yards to pay dirt:
Unfortunately for Philadelphia, Cooper’s touchdown didn’t count. The pass from the other return man, Brandon Boykin, traveled forward, and forward passes are against the rules on kickoffs. Boykin threw the ball on the 6-yard line, so the resulting penalty brought the ball half the distance to the goal, giving the Eagles possession on their own 3.
As cute as the Kansas Chameleon is, I don’t like it. It carries huge risks. For one, it requires a kick returner to abruptly turn sideways and chuck the ball approximately 30 yards across the field. If the throw goes forward, it results in a penalty and awful starting field position. If the throw is inaccurate, it results in a fumble, in which case the best-case scenario becomes awful field position rather than an opposing recovery and likely touchdown.
This play can go terribly wrong. To demonstrate, let’s turn to the Jets, the Things Going Wrong champions of the world:
Bills kicker Dan Carpenter boomed a kick deep with plenty of hang time, a boot that the Jets shouldn’t have even thought about returning. But since the trick play was on, return man Percy Harvin caught the ball and brought it out of the end zone. But by the time he got in position to execute the throw, the Bills coverage team was right on top of him—and the fact that it took so long for things to develop meant the lying man, T.J. Graham, blew his cover far too early. Even if Harvin had made a perfect throw, the Bills presumably would have tackled him, or possibly even intercepted the pass.
Two NFL teams have tried this play, and the result was two drives that started within their own 5-yard lines. The best-executed version of this technique came from TCU in 2014:
Risks are involved in every football play, but big risks should come with big rewards. TCU’s return got the Horned Frogs just past their own 45-yard line. I don’t think a team should flirt with potential disaster if the payoff is field position that’s only 20 yards better than a touchback.
My advice is that NFL teams should not run this play. But I’d like to watch the Jets try it a bunch more times.
The Sideline Hide
Masterminds: Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, and Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh
NFL Team Best Suited to Use It: San Francisco 49ers
Every football team has dozens of players standing in uniform within a few yards of the field. On the Sideline Hide, one player pretends to substitute out of the game and stands near those off-field teammates before sprinting open to receive a pass. Here is Georgia Tech turning a fake field goal into a Demaryius Thomas touchdown in 2009:
It’s easy to see why this works so well. Thomas is completely uncovered. Even though the pass to him is awful, the play succeeds with ease.
There’s only one problem: This play is explicitly illegal. ACC officials later declared that Thomas’s touchdown should have been flagged for a penalty. The college rule book broadly specifies that “no simulated replacements or substitutions may be used to confuse opponents” and “no tactic associated with substitutes or the substitution process may be used to confuse opponents.” That’s pretty obviously what the Yellow Jackets did: Thomas ran toward the sideline with the offensive unit as it was replaced by the field goal unit, and then simply stayed on the field.
For whatever reason, though, officials don’t seem particularly interested in calling this very obvious rules violation on the rare instances it takes place. Here’s Notre Dame making a big play against USC, also on a fake field goal, also in 2009:
Look at the line judge, the official all the way at the bottom of the screen. He’s maybe 5 feet away from the hiding player. A few days later, the Pac-10 admitted that this play should have warranted a flag.
The Browns tried this play in 2014 with promising rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel—wow, Johnny Manziel was a promising rookie in 2014.
Manziel had come into the game to spell starting Cleveland quarterback Brian Hoyer, and when Hoyer turned around and came in, Manziel ran to the sidelines and stood face to face with then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. On first glance, this looked a coach giving a young player a stern talking-to, but Shanahan slyly signaled when the ball had been snapped.
Refs threw a flag, but not for the sideline tactic; they called an illegal shift on Browns running back Terrence West. However, those around the league agreed that even without the West penalty the play should have been called illegal. The NFL’s rules are different than the NCAA’s, but they’re also designed to prevent teams from using this strategy. The current rule book not only states that using “substitutes, legally returning players, substitutes on sidelines, or withdrawn players” to confuse opponents is illegal; it also specifically outlaws “an offensive player lining up or going in motion less than five yards from the sideline in front of his team’s designated bench area.” The “designated bench area” wording is in place to prevent a player from attempting to use his teammates, who are allowed to stand only between the field’s 32-yard lines, as a form of camouflage.
This tactic has been banned for decades. In 1954 the Rams ran a version of it against the Baltimore Colts on the first play of the NFL season. That infuriated then-commissioner Bert Bell, who ensured rules against it were in place for the 1955 campaign.
Still, I believe that if executed properly, this play could fit within the rules of both the college and the NFL games. In fact, several coaches have argued as such. In 2015, Michigan tried a take on this concept against Rutgers. Tight end Jake Butt ran toward his team’s sideline a few seconds after the team’s actual substitutes did, hung out, and caught a big pass. But unlike all of the examples listed above, this drew a flag.
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh got mad, as Jim Harbaugh often does. He felt that Butt waited sufficiently long enough after the team’s substitutes ran to the sideline and that the tight end’s deception should have been considered a normal offensive shift. Per Harbaugh:
He did not go off with the substitutes as they were leaving the field. They were practically off the field when he left the huddle. It was not even near our bench area. ... We may game plan next week too, if somebody substitutes and the receiver lines up wide, just don’t cover him, just put an extra person into the box to stop the run. And if they happen to throw it to an uncovered receiver, it’s a 15-yard penalty. You could make that argument.
Harbaugh was lying. Butt was clearly running toward the sideline as the subs were entering and exiting in an attempt to act like one of them. But what if there hadn’t been any substitutions? Let’s say a team huddled with 11 players, and one lackadaisically jogged to the sideline and waited. Would that qualify as “simulating a substitution?” Would it be the offense’s fault if the defense was dumb enough to buy it? Does any player walking toward the sideline under any circumstance constitute a “tactic of substitution?”
Clemson was the victim of the Georgia Tech touchdown shown at the beginning of this section, so of course Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney loudly argued that what the Yellow Jackets had done was illegal. But he couched that argument in a defense of a play that he had called the year before against South Carolina. While Georgia Tech clearly attempted to disguise Thomas among substitutes, Swinney said the play he ran against the Gamecocks was legal because there was no actual substitution. Wide receiver Jacoby Ford merely ran to the sideline and pretended to tie his shoes. It wasn’t a simulated substitution, just a simulated shoe-tying:
I think an NFL team could pull this off. It would have to run the play outside the designated bench area, and the faux-exiting player would have to wait until all of the team’s actual substitutions had been made to start his attempts at fakery.
I particularly like the two-quarterback wrinkle that the Browns used. When the Ravens saw Hoyer entering the game and Manziel jogging toward the sideline, they assumed that Manziel was subbing out. The best way for a team to execute this technique would be to huddle up with 11 players, two of whom are quarterbacks, and then have one QB leave.
Shanahan is now the head coach of the 49ers, and he’s reunited with Hoyer. They just need to teach backups Matt Barkley and C.J. Beathard how to act and catch. I think it’s possible to fool an opponent with this method and run a legal play, provided that the snap takes place within the proper area of the field. But maybe paying attention to the rule book isn’t even necessary in this case; this play seems to fool referees as often as it fools opponents.