Assuredly, most football fans have already had the treat of watching what may have been the dumbest play in sports history, which occurred during the Indianapolis Colts’ 34-27 loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday night. If not, let us at Halftime do the honors.
I must have watched this play 100 times since Sunday night, and I have so many questions. What were the Colts thinking? What was the ideal result of this play? And why was this play pulled out at such a critical juncture, trailing by only six late in the third quarter? So, I decided to dedicate this post to unpacking one of football’s greatest mysteries.
Facing a fourth and 3 from their own 35, the Colts initially lined up in a punt formation. Then, in a maneuver known as the swinging gate, the entire offensive line shifted to the right, with one of the gunners from the left side, Griff Whalen, at center and a gunner from the right side, Colt Anderson, under center. One would think that some sort of trickery was on the way. Surprisingly, the fullback simply stood still and let the Patriots’ special teams wash over him.
This play, anointed “The Snapfu,” by Grantland NFL writer Bill Barnwell, was not always headed for doom. The swinging gate has worked in the past, albeit most often against less-disciplined college players. Unsurprisingly, Bill Belichick’s team remained disciplined.
Still, even with Patriot defenders lined up in the A-gaps, and what would be the B-gaps, were there more blockers, the play could have worked, in theory. The point of the swinging gate is to catch teams by surprise and give a man advantage to either the man under center or the rest of the team out wide.
The Colts that split out wide, who lined back up in punting formation, may have had the numbers necessary to complete a screen pass to the fullback, who would have seven blockers in front of him, in theory, potentially enough to pick up the necessary yardage, but by the time the Colts got set, the Patriots had seven defenders to square up with their blockers.
Thus, it would have essentially been a standard screen play, but instead of it being snapped by an actual center, thrown by an actual quarterback to an actual receiver or running back, and blocked by actual linemen and receivers, it would have been snapped by a receiver, thrown by a safety to a backup fullback, and blocked by a unit of special teamers only accustomed to punt protection, much more straightforward than blocking for a screen pass. Sure, the element of surprise would be on their side, but it seems like a foolish decision to bet on a team coached by Bill Belichick to be caught by surprise, especially by something as recognizable as a swinging gate.
If they didn’t think they had the necessary numbers to try a screen pass, they could have potentially thrown it back to punter Pat McAfee, but this seems like a recipe for a blocked punt.
Or, most importantly, they could have called a timeout, of which they had three, if they felt that the matchups were not in their favor.
Even with the unlikeliness of this play working, the execution may have been worse than the call.
Upon further review of the play, it seems that Whalen may have snapped the ball prematurely. This theory is bolstered by this GIF of Colts coach Chuck Pagano, who appears to be saying, “Why did you snap that?” to makeshift center Griff Whalen.
So it seems that the Colts had something else up their sleeve, instead of Colt Anderson just getting swarmed by the Patriots. Yet, the ball was snapped with just 5 seconds on the play clock, so I’m not sure what the Colts were waiting for. Maybe the plan was to draw a defender offside, but the Patriots would be unlikely to jump early with their 4 on 1 advantage, so this likely was not Pagano’s grand plan. In this vein, Pagano has since tried to claim that the plan was to catch the Patriots with 12 men on the field, which is clearly a lie to save face because they would have known immediately whether or not they had 12 men on the field, and if they didn’t, it would have been pointless to bleed down the clock before calling a timeout, as they wouldn’t have added an illegal man to their formation.
The icing on the cake for this play from hell is the fact that the entire reassembled punt formation was penalized for illegal formation because they were off the line of scrimmage. So, even if by some stroke of wizardry the play worked, it would have been called back.
And, of course, the Patriots scored on their next possession, which ended up being the decisive touchdown. So not only did this play become an immortal blunder, it also may have caused them a chance to extract revenge for last year’s AFC Championship against a hated rival, which would have surely provided a necessary spark for an otherwise disappointing season. So, maybe they should have called that timeout.