Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Trick plays and playing tricky

  Back in the day when I played baseball and fast pitch softball, my favorite ‘trick play’ when I was pitching or catching was to try to strike out a batter early in the game using the slowest pitch possible. The batter would look silly swinging at a pitch that hadn’t even gotten to the plate yet, and most of the other players would make sure that they didn’t look silly also. They would wait for the slow pitch so they could hammer it, but instead would get a steady diet of fast balls that they weren’t ready for, with a few slow balls that were way outside or in the dirt so they couldn’t hit them. When it worked, either I or my pitcher had an easy game to pitch, my opponents hated me, and my teammates thought I was really smart.

  Last Saturday, the Iowa State Cyclones football team was battling the Nebraska Cornhuskers in Ames. It was a close contest and when the score was tied at the end of the final quarter, the 2 teams played an overtime session where each side takes turns trying to score from the 25 yard line. After each side has a chance to score, if the score is still tied another overtime session is played. The Cornhuskers got the ball first in overtime and scored in a touchdown in 2 plays. They kicked the extra point and were ahead by 7 points. If the Cyclones didn’t score a touchdown on their turn, they would lose, but the Cyclones got a touchdown in 3 plays and lined up for the extra point to tie the game.

  Instead of taking the almost sure extra point by kicking, Cyclone coach Paul Rhoads called a trick play. Instead of holding the ball on the ground for the kicker, Cyclone holder Daniel Kuehl stood up and threw a pass into a 25 mile an hour wind towards an open receiver in the end zone. If the pass was complete, the Cyclones would get 2 points and win the game. Sadly, the wind kept the football from reaching its target and it was caught by a Nebraska player and the Cyclone lost by a point instead of winning by a point or even being tied and playing another overtime session.

Rhoads has been almost universally acclaimed for having the guts to make the decision to stake winning or losing the game on one play. This surprised me since I’ve always noticed that the admiration or ridicule the coach receives for a trick play is almost always proportional to the success of the play. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema’s manhood was nationally celebrated after he called for a successful fake punt late in a game against the Iowa Hawkeyes that gave his team a chance to win the game (the team capitalized on the chance and won the game in the last 2 minutes). This came a week after Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio pulled off the same trick play in a come from behind win against Northwestern. Last month Dantonio pulled off a successful fake field goal in overtime against Notre Dame.

  I think there were a lot of differences between Rhoads trick play and the ones pulled off by Dantonio and Bielema. For starters, the successful fake punts were called in fairly desperate situations where a failed play would have just hastened an almost sure defeat. Dantonio’s overtime fake field goal call was on a problematic 45 yard attempt, not a fairly sure extra point. I’m sure Rhoads wouldn’t have made the call unless he thought it was going to work, but if I was going to stake the entire game on one play, I’d just as soon have my offense on the field to try to win it instead of relying on trickery.

  Another factor to be considered when going for broke on a trick play is that it is quickly forgotten if it doesn’t work. In a month, no one outside of Ames, Iowa will be talking about the Cyclones failed attempt to beat the Cornhuskers, but if it had worked, it would be celebrated for years to come.

  Two years ago, the NFL’s favorite trick play was to call a timeout just before the opposing team would snap the ball for a game winning field goal. If the time out was called at the right moment, the officials would signal the timeout after the kick was attempted. The kick wouldn’t count and if the kicker made the first kick but missed the second one, the coach was celebrated for his gamesmanship (if not his sportsmanship). If the kicker made both kicks, he would be feted for his fortitude. Eventually, a coach called the time out, but the kicker missed the kick, and then made the second kick. The coach was lambasted as a poor sport that finally got his comeuppance and this trick has been rarely used since.

  Occasionally I would try my 'trick play' on a player who was ready for it. Once I caught the ball with my face. My opponents laughed and snickered while my teammates told me I should have known better. My face was even redder than the blood gushing out of my busted lip. I wasn't so smart that day, but I still remember the look on some of the players faces after they swung and missed at the slowest pitch they'd ever seen and then caught the smirky smile on my face that informed them they'd been had.