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Football Strategies so Zany They Just Might Work in the NFL

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJuly 10, 2018

Sumo grand champion Kakuryu of Mongolia performs his ring entry form at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. The Shinto ritual is part of the annual New Year's celebrations at the shrine. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)
Shizuo Kambayashi/Associated Press

Pro sports teams usually have good reasons not to think too far outside the box.

Take the NBA champion/soon-to-be Planetary Overlord Golden State Warriors, for example. Reddit poster danmaker99 asked during the NBA Finals why four Warriors teammates don't simply join hands and create a personal barrier around Stephen Curry whenever he approaches the three-point line. Curry would get a clean look every time, unless opponents fouled themselves into free-throw Armageddon trying to get close to him.

There's certainly a sound basketball reason not to attempt this tactic. I don't know what that reason is, because I don't cover basketball and am too lazy to research it, but that reason surely exists.

In the NFL, there are plenty of wacky fan theories and thought experiments that work well on paper, on the playground or in Madden but have no place on a real football field. Or do they? Some "Ring Around the Curry" theories are worth exploring, if only to make sure coaches and execs aren't overlooking a potential game-winning tactic just because they are afraid the other coaches and execs will laugh at them.

Here are some NFL pet theories you have surely seen at the bottom of comment threads or heard in the bar around closing time. Are they foolproof? Absolutely not. Would they work? Sometimes. Would it be fun to see some teams try them a little more often? Absolutely.

   

Penalties on purpose

You may remember that Clemson upset Alabama in the 2017 National Championship Game with a goal-line touchdown pass in the final seconds. With Alabama up by three before that fateful play, Nick Saban should have ordered all of his defenders to commit blatant holding penalties. The fouls would have awarded Clemson half the distance to the goal line and a first down, two booby prizes for a team already in scoring position in the final seconds. But the blatant penalties would have burnt the final seconds of the game, forcing Clemson to choose between an overtime-forcing field goal or one final all-or-nothing shot at the end zone.

This never had to happen.
This never had to happen.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

As Chris Brown and his readers later reported at SmartFootball.com, former Eagles head coach Buddy Ryan's playbook contained multiple "penalty on purpose" plays. He called his goal-line tactic "Polish Goalline," because Ryan was from the era when ethnic stereotypes were considered fun sitcom fare.

Ryan's scheme deployed three additional, and illegal, defenders, whose purpose was to stop the opponent from scoring, as well as to run the clock down to the point where the offense would have time for one more play at most. Ryan employed the strategy for a punt against the Vikings in 1989, again with the goal to burn a few seconds late in the game. Shockingly, the refs didn't throw the flag; they were probably investigating whether Ryan put a bounty on the opponent's kicker or something.

In the NCAA, refs can award a touchdown after multiple intentional fouls at the goal line, but they cannot do it for the first one. So Saban presumably didn't opt to take a page out of Ryan's problematic goal-line playbook because he felt it violated some football Man Law.

As we'll see, some useful/innovative/fun strategies are never used in big-time football, not because they don't work but because no one in the football fraternity wants to stray too far from the herd.

   

Sumo wrestlers and shot-blockers

The Eagles drafted 6'8", 346-pound Australian rugby star Jordan Mailata in April and are teaching him to play offensive tackle this year, even though Mailata never wore a helmet in his life before deciding to give the NFL a go.

So why hasn't any NFL team recruited a sumo wrestling yokozuna yet? Former sumo champion Yamamotoyama Ryuta is 6'3", weighed 584 pounds at his peak and was a master of using short-burst quickness and leverage to his advantage. Heck, Ryuta is currently retired from sumo and only 34 years old. Bring him to America and give him a Vince Wilfork role on short yardage plays! Even line him up at guard for 4th-and-1 quarterback sneaks!

After signing a sumo, some enterprising NFL team should also search the globe for the type of 7-plus-footers who wind up in the NBA as backup centers. Find a Manute Bol-sized beanpole, use him to block long field goals and stand him in the middle of the field with his hands up against Drew Brees or Russell Wilson on 3rd-and-long. Then, feed the 7-footer some end-zone fades on offense, or line him up on goal-line defense in whichever corner of the end zone Julio Jones is heading for.

Imagine what a shot-blocker like 7'2" Salah Mejri would do to 50-yard field-goal attempts.
Imagine what a shot-blocker like 7'2" Salah Mejri would do to 50-yard field-goal attempts.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press/Associated Press

Worried about some ornery center snapping that shot-blocking twig in half? Line the sumo wrestler up right in front of him!

NFL teams used to be more creative about drafting Olympic sprinters or trying out Andre the Giant types, if only as publicity stunts. But such players are rarely good at "real football," which means lining up for 60 snaps per game, which is something no one does anymore. A 500-pound goal-line specialist or a Dikembe Mutombo type who blocks two 3rd-and-long passes per game would be worth more than the eighth defensive back who plays on the kick coverage unit. But conventional wisdom is king in the NFL. And the top sumo champions probably aren't interested, anyway.

     

The all-QB draft

This is a favorite thought experiment among draft hipsters every March and April: If quarterbacks are so valuable, why not draft one in every single round, pit them against each other in a Hunger Games-style training camp competition and drastically increase your odds of discovering the next Tom Brady?

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

The draft speculators who argue this point seriously have never attended a real NFL practice or training camp. Young quarterbacks are like baby pandas, and there are only so many bamboo shoots to go around. There aren't enough meaningful reps to develop or evaluate the fourth quarterback on a depth chart—who typically only gets a series or two of seven-on-sevens per practice with the future gym teachers and Saskatchewan Roughriders he's playing with—let alone a sixth or seventh option.

OK, so drafting quarterbacks in Rounds 1-7 would be a bit much. But say a team has three seventh-round picks, which often happens. Why not draft three quarterbacks instead of the usual assortment of special-teams hopefuls? Send them to some corner of the practice facility with an assistant coach, or lock them in a film room throughout OTAs. Give them each a quarter in the first two preseason games. Make the winner of the competition the third-stringer, give the runner-up a set of steak knives and a spot on the practice squad, and cut the bronze medalist.

The main reason the NFL doesn't do this is because no team has ever created the infrastructure for an annual seventh-rounder quarterback clinic. In other words, no one has tried it because no one has tried it. The first team to dare to be different may not unearth a Tom Brady every year, but that would increase its odds of finding Case Keenum while becoming a steady source of AJ McCarron types to be used as trade barter. Like most of these pet strategies, it's at least worth trying once in a while.

    

The Cover-11 defense

No matter how many defenders rush the quarterback, the rulebook requires the five offensive linemen to stand around and wait for the ball to cross the line of scrimmage. So why rush any defenders at all on 3rd-and-long? Drop all 11 of them into coverage! Triple-team Antonio Brown! Flood every zone on the field! Clog every available passing lane!

If you are worried about the quarterback sneaking for 10-15 yards behind a barricade of linemen, leave one Aaron Donald/Fletcher Cox type to gum up the middle and dissuade Tom Brady or Drew Brees from showing off his wheels. But why risk a roughing-the-passer penalty against the likes of Brady and Brees (who are not rattled by the pass rush anyway) when you can take all of their options away with the ultimate four-deep, six-under zone defense?

Cover-2 or Man? Why not drop all 11 defenders and do both?
Cover-2 or Man? Why not drop all 11 defenders and do both?Tanier Art Studios

A 10-man zone defense could also limit scramblers like Cam Newton to short gains, because lots of quick defenders end up loitering in underneath zones, ready to converge on anyone who tries to be sneaky. (The Rams used a similar tactic in the playoffs against Randall Cunningham 30 years ago.) And a 0-4-7 defense would blow the mind of a rookie quarterback or the Brock Osweiler-Mike Glennon types who keep getting jobs (and, again, won't run for any first downs).

According to the data compiled by Sports Info Solutions, teams rushed just one defender on 17 passing plays last year, many of them Hail Mary's or 4th-and-20 situations. A few teams, including the Patriots, tinkered with a two-man rush on non-desperate downs. All it takes is one daring defensive coordinator to shock the offense by rushing nobody. Then, we can all stare in awe and wonder as the Seahawks offensive line still somehow gives up a sack.

     

Madden punt-block pass rush

While we're giving playground and video game tactics their due, why not visit that classic Madden standby: using the "punt block" play as the ultimate blitz package? Cram 10 defenders onto the line of scrimmage with one deep safety, and then see if the quarterback dares to try anything!

This is not a tactic for use against Brady or Brees; they would cackle with laughter before throwing quick slants that go for 40-yard gains. But again, the NFL is full of Osweiler, Glennon, Trevor Siemian and Nathan Peterman types, plus rookies likely to react like dogs at a fireworks display if they see 10 defenders ready to blitz. Show them a punt-block unit on 3rd-and-10 now and then, and they will at least burn all their timeouts.

For added fun: Show 10 pass-rushers, and then drop all of them into coverage as soon as the quarterback uncorks a desperate wobbler.

     

More hooks, more laterals

Search YouTube for hook-and-lateral plays, and the first thing that pops up is a legendary Dolphins touchdown from 1981. Next, you get Boise State in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. After that, you get a mix of high school highlights, last-play-of-the-game silliness and feats of Randy Moss that aren't hook-and-laterals but are still pretty awesome. There are some hook-and-lateral heroics that are hard to find on the internet, like Tiki Barber's almost-touchdown against the Eagles in 2001, but not many—you can count NFL history's great hook-and-lateral moments on one hand.

The hook-and-lateral is a trick play teams should run three or four times per year. Instead, they run it about three or four times per century, at most. Coaches fear a fumble on the play, of course. Have you ever seen a fumbled hook and lateral? Of course not. You practically have to be over 40 or a college film junkie to have even seen a hook-and-lateral!

Imagine it's 3rd-and-10. The quarterback does what quarterbacks often do in that situation: He throws a limp, little eight-yard pass. But then Odell Beckham or Tyreek Hill sprints behind the receiver at full gallop, takes the lateral and keeps on going. If a team did that twice early in the season, opposing defenders would begin looking for Beckham, Hill (or Alvin Kamara, Tarik Cohen, etc.) after every short completion to another receiver. That would result in more yards after the catch for those other receivers. A win-win for the offense!

Like most of the tactics we've explored, the hook-and-lateral is a victim of inside-the-box football thinking. No coaches want to be the first in recorded history to lose a game on a hook-and-lateral gone wrong (or because 11-man coverage failed, or the sumo wrestler somehow ended up in man coverage against Antonio Brown), so they miss out on the opportunity to win lots of games by being unorthodox.

      

Activate the 12th man

Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher stepped onto the field and nearly clocked a Jaguars defender returning a blocked field goal for a touchdown in 1997. Cowher contained himself, making for a funny tough-guy moment with no impact on the play or game.

But what if he hadn't?

Imagine some Cowher or Buddy Ryan type assigning a third-string safety the role of coming off the sideline to make an emergency, game-saving tackle. Imagine if something like that happened in last year's Vikings-Saints playoff matchup: Stefon Diggs eludes the Saints secondary, only to get tackled by Scrubby McScrubbington, who wasn't even in the game, at the 2-yard line.

Such a play would be so illegal that fines and suspensions would surely result. But again, we're talking about a playoff game. Would the NFL dare overturn a result? What if the Patriots were involved? Could America withstand such a ruling?

Something like this actually happened in the AFL in 1961. A fan ran onto the field during a last-ditch goal-line play as the Dallas Texans tried to beat the Boston Patriots. This fan, wearing a trench coat, according to legend (it doesn't look like a trench coat on film), possessed the 1960s equivalent of a 99 awareness rating in Madden, so he flowed with the motion of the play and broke up the pass.

Was this "fan" really a fan? Urban legend claimed it was former Patriots owner Billy Sullivan, whose trench coats were the Bryan Colangelo collars of the era. But perhaps it was a costumed backup safety. Or a time-traveling Mark Wahlberg. Just don't blame Bill Belichick; he was only nine years old.

No matter who it was, 12th-man tactics, unlike some of the other strategies we've explored, are best left behind in the Leave It to Beaver era. There's a big difference between holding on purpose and letting randos scurry onto the field. Some tactics are so silly that they harm the integrity of the game. Even if they result in a win.

      

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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