FOXBORO -- Rule out nothing on Feb. 5. Receivers throwing the ball, offensive linemen catching it, Lady Gaga camping out after the halftime show and being declared an eligible receiver at some point in the third quarter. Everything’s in play.
The reason, Bill Belichick explained Thursday, is because if you’ve got some sort of whacky play drawn up and haven’t used it by now, when the hell will you?
“The longer the season goes, I think the more you have to be prepared for those kind of plays because if a team’s been working on it, at some point they’re probably going to use it, and the fewer games there are to call it,” he said. “So if you’ve been working on a play all year, a lot of coordinators, you might as well call it.”
That explanation checks out, as you’ve seen the Patriots get creative in the postseason often. Last week, Tom Brady threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to Chris Hogan on a flea-flicker. Julian Edelman threw a 51-yard touchdown pass in the divisional round against the Ravens a couple years ago (people forget he played quarterback in college; swear to God, look it up), and left tackle Nate Solder became an eligible receiver to catch a 16-yard touchdown in that same game. Back in the 2003 season, they did a direct snap to Kevin Faulk for a two-point conversion in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
So you don’t need to tell Belichick that the postseason is where you’ll find a team emptying out its bag of tricks. Perhaps it’s just surprising that Belichick’s willing to admit it.
Of course, the threat works both ways. Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu played quarterback in high school (swear to God, look it up) and in his time with the Bengals threw touchdown passes to A.J. Green and Andy Dalton. Belichick admitted Thursday that the Patriots will keep an eye on Sanu, whom they already fear for his hands and catch radius.
“Sure,” Belichick said when asked if the Patriots are looking out for Sanu as a passer. “We know he can do it.”
So if you’re in the final game of the season and your own experience with trick play usage has taught you to expect the unexpected, what do you do to combat it? Defenses can blow up such plays right away or they can be embarrassed. In a perfect world, the latter is ideal, but limiting major damage is key.
“You can draw up any gadget play you want. In the end, it comes down to the basic fundamentals of your defense,” Belichick said. “Every defense is designed to defend the perimeter, to defend the deep balls, whether that’s man-to-man or zone, a four-man line, three-man line. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. You can’t defend an offensive formation without defending the perimeter of the formation, without defending the vertical element that the formation could bring.
“On the outside, deep, everything’s in front of you. Every defense has to have that elements to it. Who knows what you’re going to be in? Who knows what play they’re going to run that you haven’t seen before? You just have to count on the sound fundamentals of the defense to handle all those things. Every time we’ve put in a defense, it’s the first thing we do, is run strong, run deep, reverse, halfback pass, passing game, four verticals, three verticals, double-moves, deep crossing routes. Make sure that those plays are handled by the assignments in the defense. If you’re going to be light on something you don’t want to be light on those. You want to be light on something else. You don’t want to be light on a seam route or on a post pattern or not have a run-force guy if they run a reverse. It doesn’t mean you have it done right every single time, but there’s somebody that’s responsible for it and it’s their job to make sure that they handle that responsibility based on however the play is designed.”
Asked again about gadget players later in the press conference, Belichick cautioned against calling every now-there’s-something-you-don’t-see-every-day moment a gadget play. Specifically, he corrected a reporter who lumped in Mike Vrabel’s touchdown catches as part of New England’s goal line offense.
That’s where semantics came in.
“I don’t even know what a ‘gadget play’ is,” Belichick said. “Is a reverse a gadget play? Every team in the league runs them. Where do you want to draw the line? We’ve all seen the flea-flicker that we ran. We’ve all seen that before, too. It’s not like nobody had ever seen that play run.
“For us, defensively, all those plays fall into a certain category and there’s a certain responsibility that has to be handled in order to stop the play. Offensively, you run plays that you think will work, whether it’s what you consider a gadget play, or whether it’s what you consider the most basic play in football. If it’s a good play, then it’s what you want to run.”
So you might see some craziness next weekend in Houston. Or you might see the coordinators play it safe. The Patriots haven’t been afraid to think outside the box, but they’ll gladly stay in it if they feel it will yield better results.
“I know it’s hard to imagine, but we don’t really want to call a bad play,” he said. “That’s not the idea. When that happens, then either we’ve put the players in a situation where they can’t be successful because of the look or the defense or the play or whatever is was, just matches up poorly against what we had called, or we don’t execute it properly and there’s a breakdown somewhere and that’s what happens. But we don’t have intentionally any of those -- that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to have good plays.”