Thursday, September 20, 2018

In praise of UNT's trick punt return

North Texas scored on a punt return against Arkansas last weekend because the Razorback players (wrongly) assumed that the North Texas punt returner, Keegan Brewer, had signaled for a fair catch and also because the Razorback players (wrongly) assumed that the play was over, even though the referees never blew their whistles. By now most people have seen it, but just in case you missed it:

I like this for three reasons:
  1. I am a North Texas fan. (Hence the name of this blog.)
  2. I am *not* an Arkansas fan. (This goes back to my childhood, when the Razorbacks were one of Houston's biggest Southwest Conference foes.)
  3. I think this play is absolutely ingenious, and something that makes college football so much fun to watch.
I get that some people don't like it. I've seen comments on Facebook and elsewhere calling it a cheap trick, something that only pop warner teams would do. I disagree. Trick plays are a part of football, and there was nothing cheap about this one. It was meticulously planned. It was also exceedingly dangerous, as Will Leitch points out:
There is no player in all of organized sports more defenseless than a punt returner who is looking up at the sky, waiting to catch the ball, while 11 men bear down on him at full speed. It is the equivalent of walking across the Autobahn blindfolded with your ankles tied together. Even if you think football is “too soft” like some people, you can’t argue against the fair catch rule. Players would break their necks every week without it.
So, then, it seems particularly odd, and maybe a little disturbing, at this particular moment in football history, that a coach would exploit a rule meant to keep players safe in order to benefit his team, no? What North Texas’s special teams coordinator Marty Biagi asked Brewer to do, essentially, was stand there and wait to be destroyed … and, fingers crossed, he wouldn’t be! Even Biagi understood what he was requiring of Brewer: “You can’t just put that in on a Wednesday and then go, ‘Hey! Trust me!’” he said. 
It is to the credit of Biagi and Brewer, as well as the rest of their North Texas brethren, that the play was so well constructed and well executed that Brewer wasn’t obliterated right there on the Fayetteville grass. But the very fact that Brewer, who, I feel obliged to point out, is a college sophomore who isn’t even getting paid for any of this, was asked to stand there helpless and naked and this close to having his head ripped off for our amusement, and surely felt that saying no was never an option to him … that’s a little weird to celebrate, right? Sure, it’s funny and clever that North Texas got away with something. But what if they hadn’t? What if an Arkansas player realized that Brewer hadn’t called for a fair catch and just flat laid him out? How funny and clever is it then? 
Leitch, who concedes that this was "the coolest football play I have seen in a long time," suggests that the North Texas coaching staff was gaming a shift in attitudes about player safety:
But it is probably also worth considering that Brewer wasn’t laid flat, wasn’t absolutely destroyed by a rampaging tackler. And that is, in part, because of how football has changed over the last decade, making remorseless hits of defenseless players much, much less common than they used to be. There have been rule changes, but those changes have also cascaded through the way the game is played — they have made players more safety-conscious, as weird as that is to say about football, more deferential to opponents in positions of physical vulnerability. Which is exactly why the play design was so brilliant. What Biagi recognized was that, even if Brewer really was a sitting duck, the defender almost certainly wasn’t just going to go all-out and destroy him, because defenders are discouraged from those sort of big hits, penalized for violent-looking hits even if they are in fact legal, because of the increasing focus on the brutality of the sport. When defenders see opponents standing like sitting ducks, they don’t drool anymore, they ease up, suspicious, looking at the guy with the ball like a kid with a cookie that’s a little too available … a kid who smells a trap. Ten years ago, Brewer might have gotten leveled anyway, fair catch signal or not, out of defensive instinct. Now, the instinct is in the other direction. Now everybody plays it a little bit safer, just in case.
Now that special teams coaches from around the country are aware of this trick, it's probably not going to be replicated (by North Texas or anyone else) very often. Credit goes to North Texas: they probably only had one opportunity - ever - to make it work, and they pulled it off.

The Mean Green won the game, 44-17 - its first win over an SEC opponent in four decades - and are now 3-0 on the season.

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