When the New England Patriots stormed back twice to beat the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs, they used a controversial formation that toyed with the idea of eligible and ineligible receivers. The Ravens complained after the game that it was illegal—they were wrong. However, the NFL just passed a rule making the formation change illegal.
And that is how Bill Belichick can rewrite the NFL rule book all on his own.
In the playoff game, the Patriots tricked the Ravens by lining up running back Shane Vereen so he looked like a wideout, standing outside of the tackle box. However, he had actually reported as an ineligible receiver and he didn’t run a route on the play, instead running the wrong direction so he didn’t get downfield.
The Ravens didn’t know what he was doing and tried to cover him anyway. This meant they weren’t covering a receiver on the other side of the formation who actually was eligible, giving the Patriots an easy completion.
It wouldn’t have been as confusing if a lineman had been standing where Vereen was, wearing an ineligible number and clearly playing a lineman’s role. Though Vereen acted as a blocker on the play, he was wearing an eligible number. That made the formation impossible for the Ravens to sort out in the seconds before New England got the snap off.
The NFL has now outlawed that type of trickery. The new rule simply states that ineligible players have to remain within the tackle box. If someone who has on an eligible number reports that he’s going to be ineligible on the play, he can still do so within that box, but it’s an offensive penalty if he’s outside of it.
In some ways, it’s a shame. Trickery has always been part of football. Every fake handoff is just an attempt by the offense to trick the defense into thinking it’s a run when it’s really a pass. The fake punt or the surprise onside kick can be two of the most exciting plays in all of football. Why eliminate something that created a chaotic, but ultimately exciting play?
For the most part, the reasoning is solid. Coaches were just worried these plays would start happening too often, making it all but impossible to play defense. While the Patriots ran the formation only a handful of times, there was concern that a coach would decide to start doing it all of the time, having his receivers constantly stepping back and declaring they were ineligible so the defense wouldn’t have a chance to adjust.
If it happens once, it’s exciting. If it happens on every play, it’s confusing and annoying and it makes the games less competitive.
Consider this: If the Patriots were playing the Seattle Seahawks, they could consistently send ineligible receivers out toward Richard Sherman. They’d have to send him real wideouts some of the time, to keep him honest, but they could effectively make him cover no one on half of the plays.
While the Patriots would no doubt love to remove one of the best corners in the game from that many plays, the NFL doesn’t want games to be dictated by trickery. They want wideouts to compete with Sherman—and other top corners—using size, strength and ability.
They want those big matchups. That’s truly exciting football — watching two players who are at the top of their craft go against each other. Not watching them stand around while Tom Brady throws the ball to an uncovered backup tight end, or some other unlikely target.
So to keep it from spiraling out of control, the NFL quickly stepped forward and cut off the issue completely. It’s a testament to the brilliance of Belichick that he could have that type of impact on the fundamental rules of the game. But it also means that specific play will never be seen again.