NFL 2011

The Wonderful Miracle of Mass Confusion on the Football Field
The stadium scene.
Dec. 21 2011 5:35 PM

NFL 2011

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The wonderful miracle of mass confusion on the football field.

devin hester
Devin Hester couldn't believe it was a penalty, either.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images.

Oh, man, the Bears' fake-out in week three! That play damn near gave me a heart attack. I'm in full agreement with Aaron Rodgers, who declared it "the most incredible play I've ever seen," and even though I was cheering for the Packers—because, Stefan, my soul has not withered to a tiny nub due to years toiling in the sportswriting mines—I groaned in disappointment when the play was called back for a phantom hold. I imagine everyone did, other than bettors.

Dan Kois Dan Kois

Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor, co-host of Mom and Dad Are Fighting, and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

Watching the video, don't you wish that referee Mike Carey had apologized while calling the penalty? Or at least made note in his announcement how bad he felt that he was screwing up the play of the season. "During the amazing return: Holding, on the receiving team, number 21. I wish I didn't have to call it, because, Jesus, these guys just blew my mind." It would have at least made up for Joe Buck responding to the return by raising his voice precisely 0.001 dB, to demonstrate surprise and shock.

As for the Panthers' trick play, my favorite thing about it isn't Newton's pirouette, graceful as it was, or even the celebration—it's watching all the linemen who aren't the center as they stand listlessly at the line of scrimmage for a second-plus after the snap, deking the D-line into believing nothing has actually happened. What I love about both these plays is the extent to which they reward good acting, not just good timing and execution. The Bears return team had to pretend that the ball was headed straight toward Devin Hester. The Panthers' linemen needed to leave themselves defenseless, pretending they were all still listening to the play call and prepping their assignments.

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And so both plays reward the viewer not just with the touchdown that results (or, in the Bears' case, would have resulted in a just universe), but with the wonderful moment when the light dawns upon the opposing players—when their sure-footed certainty, derived from thousands of hours of mindless repetition on the practice field, transforms into panic as the players, as one, realize something isn't right. It's more delicious during the Bears' punt return—Hester camps underneath a ball that isn't coming down, and waits, and waits, and then sort of sneaks a peek at the actual returner, and that's when the veil lifts for the Packers cover guys. They turn their heads so fast they'd strain their necks if their necks weren't as thick as tree trunks. I laugh out loud every time I watch the replay.

I wasn't previously familiar with that indelible moment in Little Giants, but it doesn't hold a candle to some of the all-time great movie gadget plays, like the "QB walks toward the sidelines while the center snaps to the halfback" (The Longest Yard remake) or the "ballcarrier shoots three defenders, self with handgun" (The Last Boy Scout). In the spirit of those scenes, here's hoping that next season, teams try out what looks to be the greatest trick play in cinematic history: a gadget I like to call the "Carpet Bombing," which appears in the trailer for The Dark Knight Rises. It's a tough play to diagram, but it goes like this: Once your return man gets into the second level, you set off tremendous explosive charges, which create a huge crater in the middle of the field, sending 21 players plummeting to their deaths. Beat that, Mike Martz!

The Packers play the Bears again this weekend in the Christmas night game, a.k.a. the game America watches dozing on the couch while America's children scream at each other, hopped up on sweet rolls and wrapping-paper fumes. Presumably the Pack will be on the lookout for the Hester Switcheroo, and will circumvent it by craftily kicking to Hester.

That Packers-Bears tilt is the only game on Sunday this week, which makes for the weird sight of a packed Saturday schedule, a real relief to those of us whose Saturdays are usually spent wishing college football was over. Which makes me wonder: Why is there only football three to four days a week? On any given evening, I'd certainly choose even the lowest-wattage pro game—oh, look, there it is, Texans-Colts—over pretty much any network programming. Why must 90 percent of the games be concentrated on one day? Why couldn't we stagger the schedule, so every night offered an NFL game? Why is the league married to Sunday football?

Emma, what would you rather watch tonight: Who's Still Standing?, or Rams vs. Steelers? I know what I'll pick, even if Bane doesn't blow up Heinz Field.

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