Tyler Huntley Did The Bad Thing
10:09 AM EST on January 16, 2023
There's obviously no good place to fumble the ball, but some are less ideal than others. In your own end zone, for example: definitely want to keep the ol' pigskin in your mitts in that situation. Funnily enough, it's just as important to keep a strong grip on that thing when you are making a final push into your opponent's end zone, especially when the form of that push is the tried-and-true quarterback sneak. This is a lesson that Tyler Huntley and the Baltimore Ravens learned all too well on Sunday night.
The Ravens, a six-seed playing without injured star quarterback Lamar Jackson, weren't supposed to have any kind of chance in this game. But then suddenly there they were, matching the Bengals for points through three quarters and getting ready to put the finishing touch on a nine-play, 82-yard, fourth-quarter drive that would have given them a 24-17 lead. The Ravens called a quarterback sneak from the one-yard line, and then, somehow, a few seconds later it was the Bengals who were celebrating a 24-17 lead.
There is really only one way for a goal-line quarterback sneak to go that wrong, and it requires the QB to do exactly what Huntley did—attempt to leap over the line of scrimmage while extending the ball out like an offering. It wasn't so long ago that you used to see players do this all the time, partly because it looked cool when it worked and partly because there seemed to be some logic behind the idea of just negating the offensive and defensive lines by going over the top of both. Nobody really runs that play anymore, though, because coaches and players around the league have realized that A) sticking the ball out in the air and hoping it breaks the goal line before someone has a chance to smack it away is a dangerous game and B) quarterback sneaks are way more effective.
The humble quarterback sneak is the most reliable running play for teams to lean on when they need a yard or two, but the key to that success is in how those sneaks are executed. Going over the line is a game for suckers, but going through or even under it? That's how to keep the sticks moving. Think of how many successful quarterback sneaks you've seen over the years that consisted of little more than the quarterback leaning into his center, pumping his legs a few times, and then relying on his running back or fullback to plow into the back of him and push the ball forward in a big pile of limbs. Or think of how many times you've seen a quarterback snap the ball, take a half step to his left or right, and then burrow his way through a little opening at the level of his blockers' knees. In fact, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow provided a perfect example of how that version of the sneak is supposed to work earlier in this very same game:
Huntley probably should have just done that, but he didn't, and the big question is why. Was the play designed for him to try and dunk the ball into the end zone, or did he just freelance his way in a 14-point swing for the Bengals? Head coach John Harbaugh wasn't shy about providing clarification after the game. "We felt we had a good call, it was a push sneak play, wasn't executed the right way," he said. "Tyler went over the top, that's a burrow play, he's gotta go low on that. That's the way the play's designed."
It's a tough way for Huntley's season to end, particularly given how well he played the rest of the game. Throwing for two scores and 226 yards, with 54 rushing yards added in, is about the best anyone can hope to get from a backup quarterback in a playoff game, and for a while there it felt like Huntley wasn't just going to keep the Ravens in the game, but actively win it for them. Huntley played this season on a one-year deal, and normally you'd assume that a performance like that would convince the Ravens to bring him back next season, but Huntley's fate isn't really his own. He's a valuable backup to this team because of his ability to approximate Lamar Jackson's role in Greg Roman's offense, but whether either of those guys will be in Baltimore next season is an open question. It doesn't feel fair that a guy could go from being inches away from becoming a playoff hero to sitting around wondering if he'll even have a job next season, but such is the life of a backup quarterback. At least Huntley will have something new to add to his résumé: Knows to never, ever, try to take a QB sneak over the top of the pile.