Football is like a high-contact game of chess: bloody, bone-breaking chess. Sometimes, however, the idea of skill goes out the window, and a game-winning play has to be chalked up to random luck as players and coaches go for broke, say “F*** it,” and throw out a play that can be really amazing, or really, really bad. As the great John Madden once said, “Don’t worry about the horse being blind, just load the wagon.” Madden also once said, “Usually the team with the most points wins the game,” so you know his game analysis is second to none.
But are those all in plays really just lucky? Taking a page from John Madden’s amazing chalkboard analysis, I aim to dig deep to see if those “all-in” plays can be considered good, old-fashioned strategy, or just based on a Hail Mary and a dream.
#4) Matthew Stafford Fakes Out Entire World
Date: October 27th, 2013
Match-Up: Dallas Cowboys VS Detroit Lions
The Detroit Lions were trailing 30-24 in the final minute of their game against the Dallas Cowboys after Tony Romo inexplicably finished a high pressure drive with a field goal and not an interception, fumble, or some other way of Romo-ing the game. Luckily, they had two things going for them: someone who could throw the ball in Matthew Stafford, and someone who could catch the ball in Calvin Johnson. When you put those two talents together, there are always big plays to be had.
One of those big plays was a 22-yard pass from Stafford to Johnson that brought the Lions to the 1-yard line, a whole 1-yard from a touchdown for those of you keeping track. With 14 seconds left and the clock still running, the Lions lined up to spike the ball, stop the clock, and collect themselves before they did something stupid, like not call in a play. Instead, they did just that as Matthews Stafford faked out the Cowboys’ defensive line, linebackers, his own offensive line, receivers, the stadium, Jim Schwartz, and maybe even himself when he joined Dan Marino in great fake spikes in NFL history by jumping over the top of the line for a game-winning touchdown.
While Stafford himself stated that he “was yelling that [he] was going to spike the ball,” he instead opted to pull the old hidden sausage play in order to get just the tip of the football past the line…and succeeded.
#3) Steve Young Runs…and Runs…and Runs…and Falls Down
Date:October 30th, 1988
Match-Up: Minnesota Vikings VS San Francisco 49ers
In these days of the read-option quarterback, it’s hard to believe anyone on the field could be out of shape, especially the quarterback. But there was a time that even the most mobile quarterbacks could be considered lazy-asses by today’s standards. One of those Hall of Fame quarterbacks is Steve Young.
During his bid to supplant Joe Montana as the starting quarterback for the 49ers, Young played his most memorable game against the Minnesota Vikings, not because he ran for 49-yards (+ about another 50 scrambling around), but because he fell over into the end-zone while doing it. Suspicions of San Francisco micro-brewed beer being the cause for the play continue to be speculated by absolutely no one.
The play has been known as The Flop Heard ‘Round the World, and couldn’t have been drawn up any better. Steve Young rolled out from under center, where wide receiver Mike Wilson was to be covered. This helped Young find his way into a pile of defenders so that he could shed them, giving him a clear run for about a whole 5 yards, where he then turned in order to bump into other defenders who proceeded to not tackle him. This left even more running room for Young, who zig-zagged until he collapsed over the goal-line, scoring a touchdown and showing Joe Montana what staying on the team past his prime could do to his body.
#2) Hot Potato
Date: December 6th, 2009
Match-Up: New Orleans Saints VS Washington Redskins
No miracle Super Bowl run is ever complete without an insanely lucky play showing how a team is destined to be champions. That play occurred for the New Orleans Saints against the Washington Redskins.
On a 3rd and 36 with 42 seconds left in the first half and the Redskins up 17-10, Drew Brees dropped back to pass, pump-faked his own receivers twice, and hurled a Hail Mary down the field that was promptly intercepted by Redskins free safety Kareem Moore. Still untouched, Moore then ran in the opposite direction in order to help his team put the Saints away. Instead, the ball was wrestled out of his hands by Saints wide receiver Robert Meachem, who then ran back in the original direction of the play for an offensive touchdown.
The play puts to shame all other extended lateral plays because, in this case, the Saints seemed to plan on including defenders in the lateral process. Drew Brees allegedly visited a voodoo temple in the New Orleans area later in the week in order to pay homage to the football gods.
#1) The Immaculate Reception
Date: December 23, 1972
Match-Up: Oakland Raiders VS Pittsburgh Steelers
NFL playoff games are always ripe for ridiculousness. It’s been that way for decades, as proven by the Immaculate Reception from Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw to Raiders defender Jack Tatum to Steelers fullback Franco Harris in the AFC divisional playoff game in 1972.
The Raiders had just scored their first points of the game, which happened to also be their first touchdown, which happened to put them in the lead 7-6 because this game was a low-scoring battle between defenses that would have lead NFL officials to change the rules to make it more exciting, aka higher scoring.
The Steelers had the ball on 4th and 10 at their own 40-yard line with 22 seconds left in the game. Forever balding Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw dropped backed to pass, scrambled to elude a sack, and then heaved the ball across the field to receiver John Fuqua. Instead of catching the ball, Fuqua was stone-walled by Raiders defender Jack Tatum, who bounced the ball into the air almost 10 yards backwards and into the hands of Steelers fullback Franco Harris, who ran for the game-winning touchdown.
The play has been part of multiple controversies. For one, it has been speculated that Fuqua may have touched the ball first, making Harris’ recovery illegal at the time based on a rule that a pass that deflects off an offensive player can only be recovered by that same offensive player (that rule has since gone the way of the tuck-rule.)
Another controversy is that this play aged Terry Bradshaw 50 years, causing him to look like an old man on the football field ever since. It may have worked to his advantage in the long run, as he seems to look the same age now as a sportscaster as he did as a player. I blame the hair.
Patrick Emmel is a die-hard sports fan, but you won’t find him rifling through athletes’ garbage cans. Unless he’s “lost his wallet.” You can see more of his work at Sports Jeer, The Inept Owl, or heckle him on Twitter @Patrick_AE.