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Which Of These Was The Worst Trick Play Of All Time?

12:25 PM EST on January 23, 2023

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 22: Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys reacts during the second half of the game against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Divisional Playoff game at Levi's Stadium on January 22, 2023 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Rather than attempt a standard Hail Mary, the Cowboys got creative on their final play of Sunday's divisional round loss. It went poorly. Really, really poorly. But was it the worst NFL trick play attempt ever? Below, three connoisseurs of bad football make their cases.

That Cowboys disaster

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but desperation is the father of stupidity. And the Cowboys were as desperate as it's possible to be in football: They needed 76 yards on one play, or their season was over. Teams plan for moments like this. Coaches draw up their One Big Play, synthesizing generations of NFL strategy with their own personal creativity. They keep these plays in their back pockets, for years if necessary, only breaking them out when no other play-call will do. What was Mike McCarthy's great innovation, his break-glass-in-case-of-emergency play? Make Ezekiel Elliott snap the ball for no good reason.

You can sort of see, if you squint hard enough and also maybe drink four beers before drawing the play up on a wet napkin, what they were going for. A hook-and-ladder, with some extra bells and whistles. I think Malik Davis, the RB lined up in the backfield, was supposed to take a quick lateral from the pass-catcher and dash down the left side, where several offensive linemen had lined up. You can also see that it never, ever could have possibly worked. The Niners only rushed two, which proved to be one more than needed to force Dak Prescott, with a single, out-of-position halfback as his entire pass protection, into getting rid of the ball before anyone could run anything resembling a "route." San Francisco, in an ultra-prevent with only DBs and linebackers, expectedly blew up the play before KaVontae Turpin even got his feet down.

"It didn't get going," McCarthy said, which is less an excuse for the result than an explanation. There is no version of this play, not even an ideal one, where having Zeke at center adds value in any way. It is a gadget play only in the sense of shoving your face into a machine's moving gears. The offensive coordinator should have been flagged for roughing the passer before the ball was snapped.

The one thing this play could have had going for it—the one single, solitary theoretical advantage to inventing positionless football before immediately demonstrating why that's not a thing—was the element of surprise. (A defensive back taking one second to mutter, What are they doing? That's dumb as hell, qualifies. I'm being generous.) The Cowboys didn't even have that. They showed the unorthodox formation, the Niners immediately called a timeout to talk it over and prepare for it, and then the Cowboys showed it again. Staking a season on a foolish, impossible fever dream of Xs and Os that the defense knows is coming makes this quite possibly the worst and most satisfying play I've ever seen.

Ah, who am I kidding, it's still the Colts. — Barry Petchesky


Washington's swinging gate

It was Week 15 of Washington’s singularly miserable 2009 season. Jim Zorn’s entirely checked-out team, then 4–9 on the year, was down 24–0 to the New York Giants in front of a hostile, downright bloodthirsty D.C. home crowd, with two seconds left before halftime. Washington’s special teams lined up for a 38-yard field goal attempt, and then suddenly shifted the entire offensive line and all but four players to a confused cluster by the left sideline. Backup tight end Todd Yoder became the center, with backup wideout Malcolm Kelly to his right, alone on that entire half of the field. Punter Hunter Smith lined up as quarterback, at an approximate depth of shotgun-and-a-half. Diminutive kicker Graham Gano loitered behind Smith, and then went into pre-snap motion to the offense’s left. 

The play that followed—a Hail Mary pass from an unprotected punter against a professional defense—went, if anything, less poorly than anyone had any right to expect, for the simple fact that it very narrowly did not result in points for the opposition.

How was this supposed to work? Apparently Zorn, then playing out the string on his short and spectacularly humiliating head coaching career, designed the play to catch an opposing defense in a state of confusion, anticipating that the Giants might fail to realize that Yoder—who, again, was the only person blocking for the punter playing quarterback—was in fact an eligible receiver, and might therefore neglect to cover him. Under the very best of circumstances this would’ve been an extreme long shot—NFL defenses for most of the past three decades have always been less stupid than the clown-car-ass Commanders need them to be—but in this case the chances were nil. For, you see, Washington had lined up in this exact formation just moments earlier, inspiring Giants head coach Tom Coughlin to simply call a pre-snap timeout, expressly for the purpose of making sure his players understood the scenario. With the element of surprise thus wiped entirely away, God knows what made Zorn think that his team’s best chance of scoring points would come with his punter playing quarterback, and no offensive line.

"It was good defense. It was really good defense,” Zorn explained that dismal afternoon, giving the Giants credit for foiling the stupidest harebrained Wile E. Coyote-ass play in the sad history of his notoriously self-defeating franchise. "That's what hurt that play. I contemplated just going back, after [Coughlin] had called timeout … I wish it was no timeouts on the clock on their side. I contemplated just kicking the field goal after that. The play was unique enough to where I didn't think they saw what we were really trying to do. And then they smelled it out pretty good. We didn't really have a chance. It didn't get started."

It is very funny to me that Zorn and McCarthy both said their dead-on-arrival plays failed because they never really got started. No shit, morons! 

Where the other plays under consideration in this blog were called in situations where the offensive teams were within a long-shot touchdown of tying the game or taking the lead, this particular abomination came with the score already out of hand, en route to an eventual 45–12 rout. Maybe that makes the other plays more catastrophic, and thus dumber, but to me the swinging gate is more pathetic and much sadder and vastly more humiliating, possibly than anything else that has ever happened in the history of organized sports. The image of Zorn hurriedly running off the field that afternoon, his grim and cold-flushed face struggling to maintain a collapsing veneer of professional calm but radiating deepest anguish, has come to represent an entire and ongoing era of professional football in Washington D.C.

The swinging gate is, to me, the second-dumbest play in the history of football, but even it cannot compete with the Colts play. Nothing can. — Chris Thompson


Whatever the hell the Colts were doing that one time

The thing I always remember is the standing around. The Colts hustle through the formation shift with recognizable urgency, 10 members of the punt team running to their right toward their sideline, and then Colt Anderson running back to his left, to where Griff Whalen, who'd run over from the left-side gunner position, waits to snap the ball. That all makes sense, more or less, or at least a kind of sense: The absolute only chance a play like this has of doing anything all that much like "working" is if the Colts can get the ball snapped in a chaotic moment, while the Patriots defenders are still going What the hell is happening right now?

But then a weird thing happens. Anderson pulls up abruptly a few yards away from Whalen's waiting ass and takes those last few strides at a leisurely saunter, then comes to a complete stop a couple feet behind Whalen and stands there, surveying the field. This whole venture almost certainly was doomed from conception, but now it is double-doomed. Anderson settles under Whalen's buttocks with almost theatrical slowness, a magician drawing out the suspense before he pulls the rabbit out of the hat, or an actor pantomiming severe rheumatism. Now it is triple-doomed: Already a few headier New England players have figured out that, pretty much no matter what the designed play is, and no matter whether they originally were supposed to stick to their man, all they have to do is line up in the now 25-yard-wide A gaps over Whalen and they will nuke this play. These men are not astrophysicists. They have simply observed that it is real easy for a group of large men to tackle a guy who is, or will be, just standing there with nobody around to stop them. Not to put too fine a point on it, but pretty much everything about the sport of American football is built on this observation.

Here it's important to note that the Colts needed three measly yards for a first down. Three yards! Never has a situation demanded less ingenuity than this: Three yards is the most normal thing for a normal NFL play to produce. They needed three yards.

Anyway there's Anderson, gingerly settling under Whalen. Do my eyes deceive me, or is he leaning back a little bit? Has he foreseen his grim fate? Years later the Colts' (decorative, it turned out) punter on the play, Pat McAfee, tried to explain the whole thing on his execrable talk show. The idea, he explained, was that as the entire punt team turned to its right and began jogging toward the sideline, the Patriots might think they were seeing the punt team come off, to be replaced by the offense; they might try to quickly send their defense out there, and the Colts, by quickly snapping the ball, might catch them with too many men on the field, a penalty that would award a first down no matter how the play actually unfolded.

That is the stupidest thing I've ever heard of. They needed three yards. This is like calling 9-1-1 when you need a carton of milk and some toilet paper, in hopes that the fire truck might randomly happen across those things on its way to your home. Flip to literally any page in an NFL team's offensive playbook, and on it you will find a better, higher-percentage way to get three yards than running a fake punt with a theatrical formation shift in hopes that you will bait the other team into happening to have 12 men on the field at the precise moment you snap the ball. This is uncannily like that scene in Austin Powers where he's playing blackjack against the evil henchman and he stays on five because he likes to live dangerously.

Then, of course, no Patriots leave or enter the field at all—why would they? Why in the damn hell would they? And so then, McAfee says, the idea was that Anderson might use a hard count to bait New England into an offside penalty (or, like, encroachment or a neutral-zone infraction or whatever). That is the second-stupidest thing I've ever heard of. Why on earth would the Patriots jump offside? They don't need to do anything at all! By the time Anderson gets into his hard count, no fewer than three Patriots are in position to tackle him without even moving their feet, by simply reaching out and grabbing him. Every second that goes by, you can see more New England players figuring this out. He could have stood there and hard-counted for 1,000 years and nobody would have so much as lurched toward the line of scrimmage, ever.

McAfee says that the plan was never for Whalen to snap the ball at all; that if the hard count didn't draw the Patriots into a penalty, the Colts would let the play-clock run down and take a delay of game, then punt from a few yards farther back. That is the third-stupidest thing I've ever heard of. They needed three fucking yards! They needed three yards, and their plan was to try the two doomedest zero-percentage trickerations imaginable, then forfeit. That's incredible. This is like a boxer hitting himself with a haymaker because nobody will see it coming and because he fell asleep less than halfway through somebody explaining what the phrase "element of surprise" means.

In any event somebody evidently forgot to tell Whalen about the whole not-snapping-the-ball part of the plan. McAfee says the guy who'd practiced being the snapper on that play missed the game, that Whalen got pressed into service on short notice, and that Whalen read in the playbook that if the play's quarterback settled in behind him, he should snap the ball. Because, sure, why would anybody want the playbook to say what everybody should do on the play, when instead it could tell them to do the opposite of that.

Which is to say that the Colts ran this moon-shot of a play when literally the only guy on the team who was supposed to touch the ball didn't know how to run the play. When they needed three yards. This is like fishing with dynamite in the lobster tank at the grocery store.

I like to imagine that both Anderson and Whalen let the clock run a few extra seconds, just in the desperate hope that head coach Chuck Pagano would come to his senses and call a timeout. I also like to imagine that Whalen, on principle, decided he could not snap the ball until he had expressed proper condolences to Anderson. I'm so sorry, man. I'll see you in hell. In any case the snap seems to take Anderson—and literally no members of the New England Patriots—by surprise, leading to an immediate pile-on and a two- or three-yard loss.

The play did draw a flag, though. On the Colts. Literally no one but Whalen had lined up on the line of scrimmage. The Patriots declined.

Three yards, man. They needed three yards. — Albert Burneko

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