When Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of one of the offensive formations run by New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, “It’s not something that anybody has ever done before,” he didn’t mean it as a compliment.
Down 14 in the third quarter, Bill Belichick dug deep in his bag of tricks to insert running back Shane Vereen as a lineman. Vereen’s size, jersey number, and positioning wide from the four other lineman confused the Baltimore Ravens and enraged their coach, who ran onto the field in protest. The officials flagged Harbaugh, which, along with the confusion wrought by the unique formation, ultimately led to a Rob Gronkowski touchdown reception to the put the Patriots back just 28-21. New England ultimately won the classic contest 34-31.
The losing coach denounced the formation as “illegal,” “clearly deceptive,” and a “trick” after the defeat.
“Maybe those guys gotta study the rulebook and figure it out,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady opined following the game. “We obviously knew what we were doing and we made some pretty important plays. It was a real good weapon for us.”
Though coaches, to beef up their blocking on run plays or catch the defense off guard on pass plays, generally report a tackle eligible on an every-game-or-so basis, the idea of posting a running back on the line and reporting him as ineligible hadn’t occurred to anybody–at least by Harbaugh’s telling–until Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels employed the perplexing formation in the third quarter of Saturday’s game. Despite Alabama running a similar–but not nearly as unconventional–formation against LSU earlier this season, Harbaugh appeared caught completely off guard: “Nobody’s ever seen that before.”
Although Vereen split from the four other interior lineman (tackle Nate Solder, who played some tight end at Colorado, lined up as a flanker in the Vine below), an end split wider than him, making him a lineman ineligible to catch a pass. At 5-feet, ten-inches, Vereen surely didn’t strike any of Baltimore’s defensive players as a right tackle, which naturally created confusion for coverage assignments. One of Harbaugh’s complaints to the referees centered on the officiating crew’s failure to give adequate notice to the defense about Vereen’s status as ineligible because of New England’s no-huddle offense.
Like the reactions of coaches more than a century ago to the first appearances of the forward pass and the flying wedge, Harbaugh wants the rules committee to address the legality of Belichick’s offensive scheme. It may, like the pass, become a far more familiar component of the game, or it may, like the flying wedge, become merely legendary because of a quick prohibition against it.
Belichick’s tricks did not cease with the series using just four regular linemen. A few minutes after running the back (who wasn’t back but on the line) ineligible plays, the Patriots ran a double pass–a Brady backwards pass to slot receiver Julian Edelman, a quarterback at Kent State, who threw a perfectly placed ball to doppelganger Danny Amendola–for a touchdown to tie the game at 28.
The normally tight-lipped New England coach appeared almost verbose in his postgame analysis of the controversial receiver-ineligible play.
“It’s a play that we thought would work,” Belichick offered. “We ran it three times, a couple different looks. We had six eligible receivers on the field, but only five were eligible. The one who was ineligible reported that he was ineligible. No different than on the punt team or a situation like that.”