What Happened When a Writer Called the Defensive Plays for the New York Jets

The stadium scene.
Nov. 19 2013 8:15 AM

Dime Spike 1 (Vegas)

What happened when a writer called the defensive plays for the New York Jets.

Eddie Jones and Muhammad Wilkerson
Muhammad Wilkerson and Eddie Jones of the New York Jets celebrate a fumble against the Philadelphia Eagles during their preseason game at MetLife Stadium on Sept. 1, 2011.

Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

This essay is excerpted from Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football, by Nicholas Dawidoff, published by Little, Brown and Company.

In the locker room at the stadium for the Eagles game, the fourth and final contest of the 2011 preseason, we all put on khaki pants and matching green and white Jets polo shirts and caps. I slipped my folded call sheet into my pocket. Then I removed and unfolded it several times to make notes, reminding myself of things. Golf carts drove us through the stadium tunnels to the elevator, which then delivered us to the coaching box at press level. There weren’t enough chairs in the box so I stood behind the coaches, as I’d done each week. In that little glassed-in room, even though there were spectators right there in adjoining boxes or in seats below, you felt removed from the enormous crowd around you, felt you were sealed off in a capsule that was its own little mind space. In the second quarter, quarterback Greg McElroy, following through on a throw, slammed his hand down on a lineman’s helmet, breaking his thumb. He thought it was dislocated and tried to pop it back in and keep playing—he would have done anything to keep playing—but then offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer called another pass, and McElroy discovered he could not grip the ball to throw it.

Up in the booth, coach after coach had his turn calling defensive plays, passing them down to defensive backs coach Dennis Thurman who sent them out to the Mike linebacker. At the very end of the third quarter, with the Jets losing a desultory game, 21–7, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine looked at me. My heart shifted. “Nicky, you ready?” he said in that even voice of his. Defensive assistant Jim O’Neil was going to call the first- and second-down plays of the drive; the third downs were mine. O’Neil, excited, said something about “Let’s do this, buddy.”

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I took the seat beside O’Neil and retrieved my call sheet, covered now with so many notations that some calls were illegible. I put on the headphones, thick and warm as earmuffs. On the open defensive channel I could hear Ryan and Thurman (or, as we called him, DT) talking down on the sideline. Special teams coach Ben Kotwica, who’d flown night missions in Apache helicopters, had told me what to expect from the headphones: “We’ve got six people on five radios and it’s just like Baghdad—that headset chirps as much as any radio frequency I was ever on when I was flying. Rex talks to Pet, DT tries to call in the defense, Sutt doesn’t usually say shit, O’Neil a little bit, but mostly Rex, Pet, and DT.” Kotwica believed that “if you packaged it right, it’s the number-one show on TV. It’s comedy. Should we challenge a call or not? Trying to get eleven guys onto the field. That fog of battle. Everybody’s got a game plan, but things happen and the enemy’s got a vote.”

Pettine showed me which button to push to speak. Behind me, assistant general manager Scott Cohen was calling out the personnel groupings. What looked orderly and matter-of-fact when Pettine did it now felt as though it were happening very, very fast. I looked at my sheet, trying to follow as O’Neil made his calls, doing a nice job of backing up the Eagles to third-and-14. “All yours, Nicky,” he said, his voice thrilling with accomplishment. I had no idea what to call. I blurted, “Nickel Dog,” a five-man pressure. I liked dogs! Then I watched my nice Nickel Dog leave me, trot smoothly through the wires, stop to get a pat and a command from DT, and then dash out onto the field, where the Eagles second-year quarterback Mike Kafka—smart! Northwestern!—showed my nickel dog a trick, completing a 20-yard throw for a first down. My face was scarlet. How can I explain? There was the feeling that Pettine had loaned me something rightfully his, something valuable, something I had no business touching. It was a borrowed sports car I’d wanted to return without scratches and already it had a big dent.

The Eagles drive continued. Again O’Neil got to third down—third-and-two. Again he said, “All yours, Nicky,” his voice a bit less enthusiastic this time. I’d always liked the sound of Dime Spike 1 (Vegas). The call meant that the dime, or sixth defensive back, should blitz. As the dime sprinted toward the line, the defensive tackle would spike, or suddenly switch from the B gap between the guard and tackle on the line to the A gap between the guard and center, leaving the B gap free for the dime to pass through. Meanwhile, another one of the defensive linemen—in this case, Marcus Dixon—would bluff a rush and then make a Vegas drop into short area pass coverage. Quarterbacks didn’t expect a lineman to be prowling around back there, and, if the call worked, they wouldn’t see Dixon. Dixon was a large figure, but quarterbacks were like most people: under pressure, they surmised, noticing only what they had seen before.

Pettine was right. All the sounds around me fell away and it was intoxicating to be in control of these fast, powerful men, to make what was about to happen on a field far below take place. I felt a little like a puppet master: I spoke, they moved. I called for the blitz, garnishing it with the Vegas drop. And then something amazing happened. Kafka, under pressure, threw over the middle, right where Marcus Dixon’s long left arm could reach. Dixon tipped the ball, enabling the defensive back, Ellis Lankster, to intercept the pass and return it 67 yards for a touchdown.

In the box, as Lankster zoomed toward the end zone, everyone was yelling except me. I was incredulous and now felt like a kingpin who’d been sampling some of his own product. In the aftermath, I was struck by how purely happy the coaches were. The play had worked to perfection, just as its designers had imagined it. Dime Spike 1 (Vegas) was such a beautifully conceived football idea that rookies and free agents could succeed with it—I could succeed with it. I thought that even as I was completely dumbfounded by the utter luck of it all.

After the kickoff, Pettine told me, “You call a pick-six, you get to keep going.” Everyone was joking about my “hot hand,” about my getting them “another quick score to tie it up,” about the Jets having finally found an offense in me. Instead, I efficiently drove the Eagles down the field for a game-sealing field goal. When my calls failed, I could hear the coaches on the wires lamenting the missed assignments of linebackers, and now a small part of me wanted to agree with them.

This essay is excerpted from Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football, by Nicholas Dawidoff, published by Little, Brown and Company.