By Barry Svrluga
Monday, November 16, 2009
For trickery to work in the NFL, a certain number of planets have to align, and when Jim Zorn and Danny Smith looked out at FedEx Field in the middle of the second quarter Sunday, there they were, all in a row. The Washington Redskins, desperate for a win, trailed the Denver Broncos by seven points. They faced fourth and 20 from the Denver 35-yard line. This was the time: Pull out the fake field goal, the play the special teams unit coached by Smith had practiced, as he said, "for weeks."
So they lined up as if Shaun Suisham would kick a 53-yarder. And then they shifted into a formation with Suisham in the slot, and holder Hunter Smith -- a professional punter with all of one passing attempt in an 11-year NFL career -- standing in as the quarterback, ready to take a shotgun snap.
"We had to stay in the ballgame," Zorn said, and he could have added that they needed to salvage their season, because the Redskins had lost four in a row.
But then Zorn, the head coach, looked up. Disaster. Fred Davis, a tight end and a key element in making sure this bit of chicanery worked, wasn't on the field.
"Pretty frustrated about that," Zorn said.
What happened next was more staggering than even calling the play in the first place, and became perhaps the key moment in what became a much-needed 27-17 victory for the Redskins. Zorn called timeout, Davis went in -- and the coaching staff dialed up the same play again. Forget that Todd Yoder, the other tight end, had already split wide left. Forget that Suisham had already gone to the slot. Forget, too, that Hunter Smith had already shown the Redskins' intention to use him as a quarterback.
"None," Danny Smith said. "It was just a play that we felt would work."
That, though, doesn't mean everyone believed they would -- or even should -- stick with the play. "I was surprised," wide receiver Santana Moss said. As Danny Smith said: "If it didn't work, y'all would want me fired."
It only mattered, though, that the Broncos would be more surprised than anyone else. The Redskins were aware, for instance, that Hunter Smith was long ago recruited to Notre Dame as a quarterback. "He throws darts," Suisham said.
But that doesn't mean he could do it in a game. He had served as the third quarterback for parts of his 10-year career with the Indianapolis Colts. But in that time, he had thrown just one regular season pass, an incompletion back in 2005. He had also missed three games this season with a groin pull, and was only sure he would play on Saturday. Standing behind center, ready to take a shotgun snap with the intention of throwing the ball, not punting it, was more than a bit different.
"There was a moment there when you stand up and you're in shotgun and you kind of look at the defense and you go, 'Wow, I haven't seen this in about 12 or 14 years -- people actually looking at you ready to defend you,' " Smith said. "That was maybe a little intimidating for a second. But I kind of felt like we had the upper hand, just with the trickery of the play."
That's because there was a bit of trickery within the trickery. With Yoder wide of Suisham on the left side -- "They weren't giving me much respect," Suisham said -- the play looked like it might be slanted that way. But then Yoder went in motion right. When Smith took the snap, he rolled right as well. Davis, lined up tight on the right side, slipped off the line of scrimmage and dragged toward the right sideline. Hunter Smith's job: Sell that the play would go to Davis, and he did that with a pump fake.
"When you run a play like that," Danny Smith said, "it takes 11 guys to do their job and make it work."
And it also takes the opposition to fail to account for all 11 guys. Mike Sellers, Washington's fullback, lined up on the right side, another tight end just inside of Davis. But when the ball was snapped, Sellers slipped down the line of scrimmage, running left, completely against the grain of the play. The design: make Davis the featured target, because Sellers had to become an afterthought.
"The whole play hinges on whether they take that bait, and they did," Hunter Smith said. "Everybody hesitated just enough that nobody noticed Mike slipping out until it was too late."
After Hunter Smith faked to Davis, he looked back across the play. Sellers was, by now, well down the field, running outside the left hash marks. Denver defensive lineman Marcus Thomas trailed him by some 10 yards.
"When I turned, I saw him there," Hunter Smith said, "and I knew we were good to go."
The last part was the easiest: Make the throw, and make the catch. Smith let it go from the 43, and the pass looked as if it was thrown by a quarterback, not a punter.
"Hunter throws the ball very well," Suisham said. "He's got a better arm, actually, than what you saw."
Sellers made the catch at the 5, and Denver cornerback Alphonso Smith couldn't get to him in time. He scored. Sellers declined comment on the play, or the victory, afterward. But the Redskins had done more than tie the game. They had turned it around.
"You put people on their heels when you do something different," Danny Smith said. "You don't know how they're going to react."