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Dungy: NFL needs to restrict New England’s substitution game


Lost amid the furor over #DeflateGate is New England’s newfound penchant for playing the ineligible-eligible receiver game. Whether it’s a player wearing an ineligible number reporting as an eligible receiver or a player wearing an eligible number reporting as an ineligible receiver, the Patriots have begun aggressively using the tactic in an obvious effort to confuse defenses regarding who will be running a pass route and who won’t be.

“The NFL is going to have to do something about the Patriots’ ineligible-eligible substitution game,” former NFL head coach and current NBC Sports analyst Tony Dungy told PFT by email on Friday. “It is nothing but an intent to deceive and they are doing it very well. They’re reporting so fast and going so quickly the defense can’t respond. In fact, the officials can’t keep up.”

Dungy believes the officials missed at least one foul with this maneuver during the postseason.

“In the Baltimore game, [Shane] Vereen reported as ineligible several times,” Dungy explained. “If he stays in the game he must report again and continue to be ineligible. He must come out of the game for one play or there has to be a time out for him to play as an eligible receiver. On the touchdown drive Vereen played one play as ineligible and then played the next play in an eligible position. There should have been a penalty.”

Dungy also believed initially that the officials had missed an illegal formation foul on the Nate Solder play in the AFC title game (as folks like Jim Miller of SiriusXM NFL Radio have suggested), but Dungy has since become satisfied that receiver Brandon LaFell was close enough behind the line of scrimmage to not be “covering up” Solder, who was an eligible receiver on the play.

Dungy also noted that Cameron Fleming, who wears No. 71, had reported as eligible on the play before the Solder touchdown. Fleming then stayed in the game on the next snap, returning to an ineligible position. Because, as Dungy explained it, an administrative stoppage occurred between the two plays, Fleming was able to revert from eligible to ineligible.

The broader problem is that the Patriots, specifically against Baltimore, combined the legal ineligible-eligible receiver maneuver with a hurry-up offense to confuse both the defense and the officials. At field level, the audio from the referee’s microphone isn’t as clear as it is for folks in the seats or who are watching the game at home. Along with the overall confusion that arises when a team tries to snap the ball quickly, it becomes too much for a defense to fairly process -- which is one of the reasons New England does it.

In Dungy’s view, it’s no different than making quick personnel changes in a no-huddle attack or using extra players in the huddle who run off the field seconds before the snap. The defense needs to have a fair chance to know who they’ll be facing, and until the NFL stops the Patriots from deliberately confusing defenses and rushing to the line to snap the ball, the only way to combat the scheme will be for defenses to bend a rule or two of their own.

Dungy said that, if he were coaching the Seahawks, he’d reluctantly tell the players to fake defensive injuries in the Super Bowl to counter New England’s tactic.

“It’s something I’m totally against doing but I would certainly tell my players to do it rather than have the NFL issue an apology the next day after we lost a Super Bowl,” Dungy said, adding he would do it only as a last resort.

The fact that Dungy would even consider that approach proves how strongly he feels about a tactic he believes the NFL should prevent the Patriots from utilizing in Super Bowl XLIX.

UPDATE 1/24/15 7:42 a.m. ET: Coach Dungy has reconsidered his position for dealing with the substitution ploy. “I apologize for suggesting an illegal tactic to counteract this,” Dungy said via email. “That is not the way to handle it. The proper thing is to address it in the offseason with the Competition Committee. I’m sure that will be done by the coaches but I’m sorry for my comments that weren’t well thought out.”