NFL 2011

Cam Newton’s Trick Play Was My Second-Favorite Moment of the Season
The stadium scene.
Dec. 21 2011 1:17 PM

NFL 2011

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Cam Newton’s trick play was my second-favorite moment of the season.

136063605
Can Newton: "Fooled ya!"

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.

Oh, you kids and your teams. My own fandom–that is, my reflexive elation or dejection over the final score–has moved in inverse proportion to my proximity to the games. After two decades of sportswriting, I just can’t get worked up when HOW COULD YOU DROP THAT CATCHABLE BALL, HAKEEM NICKS! ACK! ELI MANNING FACE! Sure, I’d still choose to watch a Giants game over others, and my vestigial fan tail wags faster when, say, Big Blue is driving toward a Super Bowl victory over smug New England, or even when they come back and beat the Cowboys in a 37-34 regular-season thriller. But my rooting these days is rooted more in whom I know or what I’ve seen. Even though I grew up loathing the Redskins, I was glad for Mike Shanahan that he beat New York on Sunday.

Stefan Fatsis Stefan Fatsis

Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic, a regular guest on NPR's All Things Considered, and a panelist on Hang Up and Listen

What I love more than particular teams are particular plays. We’ve had a wide-ranging conversation about football’s Big Issues here, from Tebow to HGH to the existential crisis of the player to Tebow to end-zone celebrations to going for it on fourth down to Tebow to concussions to Tebow. But apart from my own personal obsession, we’ve offered scant appreciation for the individual acts that make football football. I may be anhedonic about wins and losses, but I love athletic genius–the one-handed catch, the two-feet-just-in-bounds interception, the ACL-defying cutback, the precision pass, the punt that dies on the 1-yard line, the 108-yard kickoff return. I even love watching Tebow slash and cut and bull his way into the end zone. Really

Fans take for granted how remarkably gifted NFL athletes are. Instead, they are the protectors our irrational allegiances, our fantasy-team starters, the psychic bulwarks that determine whether Monday is good or bad. They’re also, as Nate Jackson has explained, cogs in the machine, denied their creative instincts in the service of the master plan. The master plan itself is deployed in the service of something even greater–winning–but it can often be dull, for players and fans alike. If news is something out of the ordinary, then there’s nothing more newsworthy than an unusual play, and I love those, too. 

NFL players slog through the work week “installing” an entirely new set of formations and plays designed to outwit the next opponent. Over the course of the season, they memorize and implement in practice several hundred plays, each slightly different than the last, most of which are never used. Teams also practice a few unusual plays on the rare chance a coach will roll the dice; retired Broncos kicker Jason Elam told me Shanahan had him practice a fake field goal called “Rainbow Right” for a dozen seasons before agreeing to call it. (Elam pulled a hamstring on the play.) So a “trick” play is not just an aesthetic break from what we normally see, for the players it’s a psychological release, a deviation from the scripted and familiar. When it works, players are as joyful as you will see them on a field.

So here’s to my second-favorite play of the NFL season, executed beautifully by Carolina on Sunday. (No. 1 by far is the Bears’ brilliant punt-return bait-and-switch against the Packers in Week 3.) The Panthers, up 14-0 to Houston on the road, have the ball on the Texans’ 7-yard line. Quarterback Cam Newton stands two yards behind center Ryan Kalil. Tight end Richie Brockel stands adjacent to Newton on the right. Running back DeAngelo Williams and wide receiver Steve Smith line up in an I formation four and six yards behind Newton.

The Panthers’ linemen are upright as the Texans’ defense tries to figure out how to position itself. Normal pre-play stuff. But while everyone’s still getting situated, Kalil snaps the ball to Newton, who takes a stutter step to his right, pirouettes, and sprints rightward, with Williams trailing as if they’re running the option. Unnoticed by the entire Texans defense, however, Newton has tucked the ball under Brockel’s butt and into Brockel’s hands on the other side. Brockel freezes in his blocking stance for nearly a full second before he–with the entire Panthers line protecting him–runs to the left and into the corner of the end zone. 

If you didn’t see it, take a minute and go watch it now. It’s brilliant. As is the pure, Pop Warner end-zone celebration. Brockel spikes the ball, his linemen jump up and down, Newton rushes over and leaps, dogpile style, on his teammates. No one does anything to offend Bob Costas. It’s pure athletic elation. And why? Because the Panthers got away with something. They fooled the other guys. They had fun. 

Cynics will say that when you’re 4-9, your season is no longer about the deathly serious business of Making the Playoffs, so you can afford to install a play that writers claimed was inspired by the game-winning “Annexation of Puerto Rico” hidden-ball play in the cinematic classic Little Giants (6:00 mark). And you can’t do it all the time, anyway, because opponents would be prepared. And the TV companies aren’t paying $7 billion a year to watch the football version of the Harlem Globetrotters.

And, finally, coaches, willing though they might be to “install” a routine-breaking play occasionally, don’t want players or fans to become accustomed to such frivolity. After the game, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera talked about the “timing” and “execution” of the play. Not a word about the fact that it looked like everyone had a great time running it. “We're not here to get fans excited about [trick plays],” Rivera party-pooped. “We want to get them excited about the fact we can win football games.” 

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Photos of the Crowds That Took Over NYC for the People’s Climate March

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

I Wrote a Novel Envisioning a Nigerian Space Program. Then I Learned Nigeria Actually Has One.

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 11:13 AM Your Own Personal Rand Paul How the libertarian hero makes his foreign policy contradictions disappear.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 22 2014 9:39 AM Adrian Peterson Has a Terrible Contract, and Cutting Him Would Save the Vikings a Lot of Money
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 22 2014 11:15 AM Avenue of the Baobabs: Madagascar's Magical Upside-Down Trees
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Science
Sept. 22 2014 8:08 AM Slate Voice: “Why Is So Much Honey Clover Honey?” Mike Vuolo shares the story of your honey.
  Arts
Television
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 7:47 AM Predicting the Future for the U.S. Government The strange but satisfying work of creating the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 22 2014 5:30 AM MAVEN Arrives at Mars
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.