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The Story Behind the Play That’s Defined the 2018 NFL Season

How did one jet-motion concept go from the outskirts of the football world to the forefront of the league? Well, Stitt happens.

Ringer illustration

Midway through the third quarter of their 35-23 win over the Chargers in Week 3, the Rams faced a first-and-10 from the opposing 45-yard line. Jared Goff and the offense broke huddle in shotgun, a formation rarely used by this group. After signaling running back Todd Gurley into the backfield from a split-wide alignment, Goff called for a second player to go in motion. The quarterback waved his left hand to send receiver Brandin Cooks streaking across the field from the left slot. Just before Cooks crossed his line of vision, Goff took the snap, and with barely any movement, flipped the ball forward to his sprinting wideout. Cooks tore around the right side for a 15-yard gain. Just like that, the Rams were threatening.

This jet-motion play design — and subtle variations of it — have been a staple of the league’s most creative offenses this season. Kansas City scored two red-zone touchdowns off a similar action in Week 1. The Patriots used it to get James White into the end zone in Week 7 against Chicago, perhaps a small form of payback for how effectively the Bears have implemented the concept against other teams.

The play’s path to this point was 15 years in the making. It began as a stroke of genius from Division II football coach Bob Stitt in 2003, devised during a Colorado School of Mines practice as a way to shoehorn a chic trend into his shotgun offense. As Stitt’s team piled up yards and wins, it seeped into the major college ranks. The preeminent mad scientists at that level, from Mike Leach to Hal Mumme to Dana Holgorsen, wanted to pick Stitt’s brain. Eventually the play became of staple of Holgorsen’s high-flying Air Raid offenses. The success of Holgorsen’s teams at West Virginia brought both the concept and Stitt’s name into the national consciousness, but it would still be years before this iteration of the jet sweep made its way to the NFL. Now, a decade and a half after Stitt’s epiphany, his play design is a featured element for Super Bowl contenders. “It’s just really a crazy thing,” Stitt says, “that you could come up with something at Colorado School of Mines at a practice, and it works a little bit, and it just continues to snowball.”

Stitt’s version of jet motion, a concept that’s also often referred to as fly motion, isn’t merely an oddity being employed by a few scattered NFL coordinators. Much like the RPO craze that took the league by storm last season, it’s an integral option for teams cruising toward the playoffs. Gurus like Andy Reid and Sean McVay have adopted Stitt’s tactics because they comprehend what many of their peers don’t: The walls between the college and pro games have fallen. The migration of Stitt’s idea from the outskirts of the football world to the sport’s biggest stage is a testament to the power of ingenuity, and a statement about how the game operates in 2018.

In 2003, Stitt watched with envy as the original version of the jet sweep took over college football. He recalls Emporia State, a small school in eastern Kansas, obliterating opponents with it. The team’s running back, Tyler Paul, finished that season as the MIAA’s leading rusher. Stitt, who’s now an offensive analyst at Oklahoma State, wanted to incorporate the concept into his scheme, but until then it had been used only with a quarterback lined up under center. Mines was exclusively a shotgun team. Each time Stitt tried to install the sweep, an errant snap would disrupt the offense’s timing and sabotage the play. “I was getting really frustrated, because the fly sweep was really popular, and we just couldn’t get it done,” Stitt says. “I was on the field [in practice], and it just dawned on me: ‘Why can’t we just put it in the air?’”

Stitt halted practice and reinstalled the play without the handoff, electing instead to have the QB flip the ball forward to the man coming in motion. “It was so much faster,” Stitt says. “And the neat thing was, it was a forward pass, so if you had any issues with it, it was an incomplete pass.”

The play soon became a focal point of Mines’s offense, and the Orediggers went undefeated during the following regular season. Their lowest point total in a game all year was 27. Word of the prolific offense at a school of 6,000 students in Golden, Colorado, began to travel, and tales of Stitt’s handiwork ultimately got to then–Texas Tech coach Mike Leach. College football’s swashbuckling spread guru reached out to Stitt and asked whether he had any interest in trading film. By 2007, Stitt was asked to speak at the One Back Clinic, an annual gathering for the sport’s premier spread-offense minds, which that year was being held in Las Vegas. “I’m like, ‘Great,’” Stitt says, “‘I love Vegas.’”

Packed into a room with Air Raid legends such as New Mexico State head coach Mumme and up-and-coming stars like Texas Tech assistant coach Holgorsen, Stitt presented his theories on the fly sweep and laid out why he believed it could serve as the basis for an entire offense. “Hal Mumme was so fired up about it because it was a run play, but it counted as passing yards,” Stitt jokes about the notoriously pass-happy innovator.

After the conference, Holgorsen relayed to Leach what he’d heard. The Tech coach was fascinated. “It’s really ingenious,” Leach says. “[Stitt has] got the caveman version of the fly sweep like we do, but he’ll do play-action passes off, hard iso off it, misdirection counters off it. What he did is he took that action, attached it to many formations, and even if the fly sweep was a fraction of the plays, he’d use fly sweep action on most of [them].”

The following spring, Stitt was in Houston attending a golf fundraiser for Mines. After the event, he decided to swing by the Cougars’ practice to see Holgorsen, who’d recently been hired as the team’s offensive coordinator. As Stitt wandered between fields in his golf gear, Holgorsen spotted him and excitedly told him that Houston was using a portion of his jet-motion offense, including the sweep. “I’m like, ‘Yeah,’” Stitt says, “‘but how come you’re not putting it in the air?’” Holgorsen had forgotten the tiny wrinkle that defined Stitt’s version, and over the next 15 minutes the pair taught quarterback Case Keenum and one of the team’s receivers the finer points of the approach. The next time the first-team offense and defense took the field together, Keenum and his wideout broke out the play for an easy gain. “Nobody’s blocking for it, anything, and it goes for 9 yards,” Stitt says. “Dana will tell you it went for a touchdown, but it went for like 9 yards.”

Holgorsen left Houston in 2010 for Oklahoma State, but continued to use the play at each of his subsequent coaching stops. In his debut season as the head coach of West Virginia, Holgorsen deployed the jet sweep to torch Clemson 70-33 in the Orange Bowl. “Geno [Smith] sets the Orange Bowl record for touchdown passes, and they were all an inch long,” Stitt laughs. After that 2012 win, ESPN’s Lisa Salters asked Holgorsen how he devised the play. “[Holgorsen] said, ‘I got that from my good friend Bob Stitt at Colorado School of Mines,’” Stitt recalls. “And my phone started buzzing, buzzing, buzzing, constantly. Millions of people were watching it. Bruce Feldman texts me and says, ‘You’re trending on Twitter.’”

Holgorsen was responsible for Stitt’s college football spotlight moment, and he may have also been indirectly responsible for bringing the concept to the professional ranks. While jet motion and the plays that extend from it are all the NFL rage in 2018, the concept first came to the league four years ago, in the Texans’ 23-17 win over the Jaguars in Week 17. On a second-and-11 from the Jacksonville 44-yard line, Houston lined up in shotgun with two receivers to the right. Before the snap, slot receiver Damaris Johnson tore across the formation parallel to the line of scrimmage. As he ran, the QB took the snap and flipped the ball to Johnson, who burst around the right side for a 34-yard gain.

That quarterback was Case Keenum. The same network of spread coaches and players who’d turned Stitt into a college football cult hero had brought a play he devised on a random spring afternoon all the way to the NFL.

Over the past four seasons, Stitt has watched the play transform from a quirk of the Texans’ playbook into a foundational concept for some of the NFL’s best offenses. This fall especially, his patented jet-motion flip has shown up all over the league. The Chiefs, Saints, and Dolphins have all incorporated it, and other teams are likely to follow.

Some teams, like the Rams, have used Stitt’s philosophy in even more revolutionary ways, showing that the jet sweep doesn’t have to be limited to merely one page in the playbook. It can serve as the through line for an entire scheme. “In my case, the fly sweep is a play,” Leach says. “Bob Stitt made a whole offense out of it.”

The jet sweep was originally designed to get the ball to the perimeter as fast as possible and let players gain extra yards along the sideline. That was Stitt’s plan when he installed his version in 2003. “Defenses did not know how to adjust to it on the fly,” Stitt says. “They were so used to a motion that they could adjust to [when] the motion [man] passed the center. People would just stand there.” In time, though, defenses started adapting. Stitt later realized that nearly every concept in his playbook could be enhanced by adding some type of jet-motion wrinkle.

One of his standbys became an inside-zone run that went in the opposite direction of the jet motion. Stitt’s early jet-motion plays called for a stretch blocking scheme to the motion side, but as teams started to aggressively bump their linebackers at the sight of the motion man, Stitt learned how vulnerable defenses became to an inside run in the opposite direction. Maryland interim head coach Matt Canada came to the same realization in 2012 when he was the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin. In that season’s Big Ten championship game, the Badgers offense kept Nebraska distracted with jet action as Melvin Gordon and Co. gashed the Cornhuskers for 539 rushing yards in a 70-31 rout. Four years later, Canada brought the same designs to Pitt, and the Panthers used it to score upset wins over both Penn State and Clemson. “We started doing it because you don’t have to block everyone perfectly,” Canada says.

The misdirection creates a moment of hesitation for the linebackers and gives offensive linemen better angles with which to get to the second level. It’s a win-win for offenses that can run it well, precisely what the Rams have discovered this fall.

McVay’s team has run 30 jet sweeps this season, according to Pro Football Focus, 19 more than any other NFL offense. (The Chiefs and Chargers are tied for second most with 11.) That comes out to about four sweeps a game, which Leach says is a higher commitment to the scheme than most people realize. But it’s not just the plays in which the Rams toss the ball to a streaking Cooks or Robert Woods that set them apart. They also will forgo the sweep entirely and use the motion as a means of deception.

One of McVay’s staples this season has been an inside-zone counterpunch similar to the one that both Stitt and Canada have used for years. After the second-level defenders react to the jet motion, the backside tackle is able to make his way to the linebacker who was originally set up on the play side. That initial reaction causes a tectonic shift for a defense before a play even starts, and it gives the offense a distinct advantage. “There’s not that many things you can do to get a presnap look at their coverage, and this forces them to show their hand,” Stitt says.

The Rams also use play-action, screens, and a bevy of other designs off the motion. It’s a hat-tip of sorts to the idea that Stitt developed all those years ago: The motion is only the beginning. “It’s morphed into something more than that,” Stitt says. “The fly sweep is good. But fly motion is even better.”

Fly motion may have initially been conceived as a college spread concept, but Leach says the Rams are in an ideal position to perfect it. When he was the offensive coordinator for Oklahoma in 1999, Leach preferred not to run the fly sweep out of shotgun. The play, which the Sooners dubbed “Gator” in honor of former Florida head coach Steve Spurrier, was one of the only concepts (fade passes being the other) that Leach thought worked better with the quarterback taking a direct snap. “To be perfectly honest, to this day, I think [under center] is the best way to run the fly sweep,” Leach says. “You’re kinda covered up by the linemen.”

No team is better equipped to run Leach’s ideal version than the Rams, who run two-thirds of their snaps under center, the highest clip in the NFL. That adds another layer to what makes L.A.’s use of the concept so effective.

Stitt loved the fly motion so much that, if the conditioning of his speediest players held out, he’d be tempted to use it on virtually every play. That devotion to the concept has always mesmerized Leach. Even as he studied Stitt’s designs, he knew he’d never be able to adopt the play in a wholesale way, because it would force him to scrap too many of the other designs he loved. “I’m not gonna get rid of Y cross,” Leach says. “I’m not gonna get rid of mesh. There’s a point, as much as I love and admire his offense, I’d have to commit to it, and I’d have to make the choice to cut too big of a portion of the offense that I currently run.”

Therein lies the brilliance of what the Rams and some other NFL teams have done as they’ve incorporated the concept into their playbook. They understand how it fits within the larger schematic themes they already favor. It opens up a world of possibilities, and it’s likely that some iteration of the jet sweep will help determine this season’s champion.

For McVay, this concept has added another chapter to a playbook that was already brilliantly devised. Fifteen years after his moment of clarity, Stitt has loved watching the walls around the sport begin to crumble. “The NFL used to be a really rigid league as far as offensive concepts,” Stitt says. “This is how we’re gonna do things, and we’re gonna call plays that have 15 words in them, and we’re gonna go slow, and we’re gonna huddle. Finally, some people in the NFL have looked at our game and how we’re doing things, and they’re realizing that it’ll work.”

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