NFL Teams Aren’t Lateraling Enough (A Serious Take)
1:29 PM EST on December 8, 2022
Drew Magary’s Thursday Afternoon NFL Dick Joke Jamboroo runs every Thursday at Defector during the NFL season. Got something you wanna contribute? Email the Roo. And buy Drew’s book, The Night The Lights Went Out, through here.
It’s 2022, which means you’d think that every NFL team—every sports team in general—has already unearthed every market inefficiency out there and cannily exploited it. Fourth-down attempts, jet sweeps, two-pointers at the gun, etc. But you know the NFL. You know how stubborn these coaches and executives can be, which means there’s still plenty of meat hanging off of the bone. So allow me, for a moment, to ponder the juiciest morsel of all: the lateral. Here are the Chargers executing a deft crossing lateral with basically no time left against the Raiders a week ago:
This is when you’re most likely to see laterals: when the game is all but lost and there’s no real downside if you fuck up and fumble the ball away on your backwards pass attempt. That’s how you end up with 10 percent of all close NFL games ending with a failed attempt to recreate the Stanford band play. "Yakety Sax" comes pre-scored on such plays. Sometimes you get a successful, perfectly executed one that’s been carefully schemed, like so:
Or you get a brilliantly drawn-up special-teams lateral. You know the one…
Or you see a lateral anytime a DB picks the ball off and pitches it to a teammate in a fit of inspiration/stupidity. There are too many such examples for me to embed, but you can already see that kinda play unfolding on the big screen in your head right now. All of these laterals are cool, even when they fail. But they’re always restricted to specific, and rare, in-game situations. Rare is the mid-game hook-and-lateral, especially if the game is close. But sometimes … sometimes you’re treated to feats of brilliant improvisation:
The analytics on laterals is scant because, as with fake field goals and fake punts, the sample size is small and the situational variance is sizable. But there’s no reason an NFL team can’t TRY to see what kind of benefit might be provided by incorporating more laterals into their situational drills. There’s no reason that plays like the one above have to happen only every 20 years. Not if you’re serious about laterals.
And I’m serious about them. I’m not trying to do some cutesy, circa-2015 SB Nation bullshit when advocating for laterals. I’m not doing the “What if we added some rugby to our football?” thing. It’s just that, game after game, I see players who are in the perfect position to extend a play by a good 10 yards, and perhaps more, by pitching the ball to an open teammate right nearby. A play like that can extend a drive, boost the crowd (or silence it on the road), and, most important, give me a fat boner.
You and I have been deprived of such plays, and such boners, because coaches hate laterals. Laterals are anathema to even our youngest, friskiest head coaches. They’re not worth the risk of a turnover, and they’re far too… EXTRAVAGANT… of a play for any coach to tolerate. If an offensive coordinator wants to draw up an umpteenth ripoff of Philly Special and call that on third-and-3 at midfield, THAT’S somehow OK. But give your wideouts and backs the authority to pass the baton when they spot an opportunity and surely there’d be anarchy.
Horseshit. The risk of a fumble on can be mitigated if teams make lateral drills a more regular part of their practice schedule. Defenders practice scooping and scoring—picking up a loose ball while on the run—all the time, and lord knows I’ve still seen many a potential turnover gifted right back to the offense because a defender blew the scoop part. Laterals aren’t all that different. They’re risk plays, but the potential payoff has been both unexplored and unexploited. NFL coaches long ago decided that the reward for the scoop-and-score was worth the risk. Many of them believe that interceptions are worth the risk to keep pushing the ball down the field, and they’re not wrong to believe it. Teams could tolerate laterals in a similar fashion. The reason so many laterals get dropped presently is because they’re executed out of desperation. Take the desperation out of the equation, train your guys in the art of pitching and catching (I’m guessing they have plenty of experience in doing so, from both high school football and touch football pickup games), and see what happens. You can also concoct a code word to shout out anytime you plan to pitch the ball, the same way that special teams units call out FIRE on a botched snap and have to execute an impromptu fake. It’s not rocket science, although it’s roughly as cool.
Because do you know how many shitty teams there are in this league right now? The Rams just won the Super Bowl and they’re fucking AWFUL at the moment. What do they have to lose by expanding their lateral playbook? Wouldn’t they prefer Tutu Atwell pass the ball backward than Baker Mayfield pass it forward? Now is the time for that team, and its wunderkind head coach to treat the field as a true laboratory, because NFL teams are often innovative only in playbook terminology and rarely in playbook design. The Lateral section of that playbook is easily the ripest section of that playbook (if it even exists!) to expand, study, and utilize. It’s only razzle-dazzle if you suck at it. Sharpen your lateral instincts and normalize that play, and you never know what kind of miracles you’ll end up producing.
All games in the Jamboroo are evaluated for sheer watchability on a scale of 1 to 5 Throwgasms.
Jets at Bills: The Colts aren’t playing this week, which is the best thing for both America AND the Colts. But while we all get a proper rest from Jeff Saturday’s clock mastery, do take a moment to read Distraction guest Seth Wickersham’s definitive profile of Andrew Luck, which dropped this week. Yes, the article is paywalled, but we Defector folks aren’t exactly in a place to badmouth paywalls now, are we? Even if you don’t like football, even if you don’t know who the fuck Andrew Luck is, this is still some seriously fascinating shit. Even beyond the whole “Why is this asshole ordering for the whole table?” gossip couched within. So many athlete profiles are either puff pieces (“What makes this guy so determined?!”), or they have two juicy bits padded with 3,000 extra words of purple bullshit. This one was the real deal. Four stars.
Bucs at Niners: The Bucs aren’t the most imposing team right now, but after Monday night I’m on high-ass alert. I can picture it now: Tom Brady down on his (enormous) luck, a year past his apparent expiration date and playing for a losing team … suddenly finding his resolve, getting up off the canvas, doing his patented Leg Drop, and running the table for his eighth title. I know “Never count out Touchdown Tom” is one of the oldest memes ever to exist, but it’s also true. I WANT to count this man out, but I can’t. He’s still hanging around. You never wanna see this fucker in your rearview.
And the Packers aren’t formally eliminated from the playoffs yet, either! Someone get me a sledgehammer and two XXL garbage bags. I can’t leave anything to chance.
Eagles at Giants
Vikings at Lions: This is the month I turned against analytics. I’ve heard every last convincing, data-driven argument against these Vikings. Their point differential is negligible. Their DVOA is crap. On any relevant EPA matrix, their logo rests comfortably right where the x-axis and y-axis intersect. Vegas very much knows what to do with them (they’re underdogs in Detroit on Sunday). If this were any other team, I’d happily join in the hogpile and scream FRAUDS, and then laugh when they finally regressed to the dreaded mean.
But since this is my team, I hate all of that discourse. I’m like SINCE WHEN DID IT BECOME A SIN TO BE CLUTCH, YOU FUCKING NERD-ASS PIECES OF SHIT?! ARE WINS NOT A RELEVANT STAT OF THEIR OWN? MAYBE YOU GUYS JUST DON’T LIKE SPORTS! So yeah, I can’t talk about this team with a sound mind at the moment. Best if I leave these Vikings capsules blank from here on out.
Should the subject of Minnesota’s validity still interest you (it doesn’t), my friend Matthew Coller over at Purple Insider parsed the analytical cases for and against the Vikings in thorough detail. Coller is cool by me. The rest of these poindexters can die. I will now shut the fuck up about it.
Dolphins at Chargers
Ravens at Steelers
Patriots at Cardinals: Normally when a disgraced Pats assistant goes crawling back to New England after leaving some other team an ashen heap, they magically return to competence. So let’s all give Matt Patricia and Joe Judge a big round of applause for breaking that treacherous cycle:
Burn it down, Matty Boy. BURN IT ALL WHILE THE OLD MAN IS STILL ASLEEP AT THE SWITCH.
Panthers at Seahawks
Browns at Bengals
Texans at Cowboys
Chiefs at Broncos: I missed this when it was first published, but we got an honest to God Slate take to close out the year. This one was mad at Wordle:
When the New York Times announced, on November 7, that Wordle would have an editor, I didn’t give it much thought. How much could the mere presence of a person really change it?
Oh, how naive I was! Four days later, I got my answer. And that answer was MEDAL. MEDAL? On November 11th? Wait a minute—was the Times punning with its Wordle on Veterans Day? Hmm.
I was willing to chalk it up to a coincidence, until November 23rd, the day before Thanksgiving, one of the busiest travel days of the year … when DRIVE appeared. I tapped angrily on my phone, muttering to myself.
IT’S A FUCKING WORDLE. It’s one goddamn word. One syllable on certain days. Who the fuck cares if they have a laugh with it every now and then? Do you know how many awful puns there are in the average Times crossword puzzle, lady? That thing is ALL shitty puns. Did you know you can download one of 58 Wordle ripoff apps (and you should download them, because Times workers are on strike today) that aren’t edited by this new enemy you’ve willed yourself into having? Get your shit together. What an absolute nothing take.
Jaguars at Titans
Raiders at Rams
Pregame Song That Makes Me Wanna Run Through A Goddamn Brick Wall
“Fuck These Fuckin’ Fascists,” by The Muslims! Now that’s a very ambiguous title for a song, so let’s have reader Jason fill us in on The Muslims’ whole deal:
I would like to present The Muslims "Fuck These Fucking Facists." This recommendation serves the dual purpose of breaking up some of the white guy band monotony, and also introducing the readership to possibly the best new punk band out there today.
And from the band’s label:
The Muslims are the only true punks to have ever existed. Drawing from the influence of the most legendary artists and revolutionaries of our time, they have successfully synthesized the “fuck you” energy of the oppressed into an ass-kicking, head-smashing, fascist-punching sonic experience. This all-queer, Black & Brown punk band emerged onto the U.S. music scene shortly after the inauguration of 45 in 2017, and have been chugging white tears and destroying lives ever since.
Sold. Chug my tears, Muslims!
Great Moments In Poop History
Reader Chris sends in this story he calls POOPEYE THE SAILOR MAN:
I still work from home. I love it, and my treat to myself is driving to different places in the area for takeout lunch: little delis, pizza places in the city, and sometimes a Popeyes.
This story happened right after they debuted the spicy chicken sandwich. It was delicious. After work, I drove twenty minutes to play doubles outdoor tennis with my friends: a two-hour, intense match. Tons of fun, no issues. Leaving the courts a little early as the guys were still talking, I was walking back to my car when I got the first gurgle. Hmmm, ok, I guess I’ll walk over to the clubhouse, something is off. I have a very rigid well known poop schedule: 10:10am every day, not a typo or a joke.
Four steps later, a fart comes out uninvited and wet. Oh boy. A real issue. I’ll drive to the clubhouse in my car it will be quicker. Six steps later, as I open the door to the car, I’m doubled over with eye-popping abdominal pain and a real urge to shit myself. I can’t drive now, and the clubhouse door is 60 paces away on the other side of the parking lot.
I made it less than halfway and then took a standing up full shit in the parking lot. Instant panic. The boys are still talking and unaware. I have no extra clothes or towel. My shorts have a sports lining that is now acting as the only barrier between me and humiliation.
No choice, I get in my own car. I place a desperate call to my wife. She thinks I’ve been in a car accident by my tone. I tell her, slowly and calmly, to open the garage door and place a yard trash bag, opened, in the middle of the garage. Place another trash bag, a roll of paper towels, wet wipes and a towel you never want to see again next to the open trash bag, and then go inside. Lock the inside garage door. Her response haunts me:
“So you shit yourself again.”
Which Idiot GM Is This?
You know your team is in good hands when the man in charge of the roster is a professionally sweaty guy who MEANS BUSINESS. Which team does the man below hold in his meaty paws?
That’s Texans GM Nick Caserio, who looks like he went to the plastic surgeon, showed them the Autobot logo, and said, “I’d like this.”
By the way, if you read this Rivers McCown blog post (and I recommend that you do), you’ll learn that Caserio, yet another piece of rotten fruit from the Patriots’ Tree Of Leadership, usurped full control of the Texans long before Jack Easterby was tossed out on the curb. So the 1-10-1 team you see before you now, one of the worst teams I have ever seen, is largely the result of Caserio’s handiwork. They have no offense, nor any quarterback to speak of. Their head coach clearly doesn’t want to be there anymore, and he’s only been on the job for three months. They’re locked in a cold war with their only credible wideout, who isn’t even good. And they just got their jocks handed to them by a Browns team that couldn’t muster a single touchdown from its offense. There’s no future here. BUT HEY, LOOK AT THAT GUY’S JAWLINE! Now that’s the jawline of a real warrior.
Also, despite the fact that I already put him in this space this season, let’s have one final look at outgoing Titans GM Jon Robinson:
A powerful fit.
Gametime Cheap Beer Of The Week
Siamsato! From Shaun:
Found Siamsato in Thailand last month. It is fitting that, in this country, the beer featuring a topless woman reigns supreme. I do not actually remember trying this beer, but I assume it tastes like someone mixed Budweiser and Heineken together, as all beers in Thailand do.
Who hey don’t besmirch Singha in front of me, sir. This other beer, though? I’ll allow you to slander this one without consequence. I do not trust this beer. Those poorly drawn boobies are a trap.
Gameday Movie Of The Week For Texans Fans
Annihilation. Six years ago, I was in San Francisco to cover the Super Bowl for GQ, and I was eating dinner out with Will Leitch, whom you might remember as the founder of Deadspin. You might also remember that Leitch is an enormous movie dork. So we were eating our food and I told Leitch that I thought any good director had only two jobs to do: 1) Make the movie look like it cost more than it did, and 2) Make sure the actors do their jobs well. This offended Leitch so badly that he nearly broke Midwesterner kayfabe to become visibly pissed. But Leitch managed to rein in that anger and just stammer out a terse, “No, no I don’t believe that at all.” In my mind I was like LOL YOU TRIGGERED BRO?! I thought directors got way too much credit for good movies and that everyone else on the set didn’t get enough.
But that was back when I was still nut-deep in parenting small children and barely watching any movies of any sort. When I finally emerged from that fog, I found myself living in a world where the very concept of a director had been smothered by media conglomerates and the cynical franchising out of everything and everyone on celluloid. Even though I had been a dedicated Movie Guy back in my teens and 20s, I had forgotten that a great director is often the voice of a great film. They’re your eyes and your ears for two hours, and they have the ability—through lighting, setups, composition, and other creative choices—to make you see and feel new things. New ideas. New emotions. And fuck me, do I ever crave new voices on my screen.
Alex Garland, who made both Annihilation and Ex Machina (along with Men, which I haven’t seen), is one such voice. You can tell a movie is his just from the look of it alone: spare interiors, sophisticated tech, lots of sunlight flooding every shot, characters growing profoundly terrified of one another until the tension finally breaks. This is a fucking kick-ass director. So I owe Leitch an apology, although doing so would be way less fun than pissing him off. Four stars to Annihilation.
Gratuitous Simpsons Quote
“My course can help you with every personality disorder in the ‘Feel Bad Rainbow.’ Let's look at the rainbow. What's in there? Depression, insomnia, motormouth, darting eyes, indecisiveness, decisiveness, bossiness, uncontrollable falling down, geriatric profanity disorder (or GPD), and chronic nagging... nagging... nagging...”
Enjoy the games, everyone.