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.
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.”