If there was a theme to Week 3, it was quarterbacks catching passes. Andy Dalton's first career reception went for a touchdown. Russell Wilson nearly scored one of his own. But the coolest and sneakiest of the afternoon's unorthodox grabs nearly went to the Browns and Johnny Manziel, with a trick play that was illegal in multiple ways and still absolutely worth it.
Manziel, who's been used for a play at a time this season just to give defenses a different look, came in in the second quarter and handed the ball off. He then jogged off the field as starter Brian Hoyer re-entered, but never quite left the field of play. Manziel stopped just shy of the sideline and pretended to argue with OC Kyle Shanahan, until the ball was snapped.
I love the paper wave and the "go, go" from Shanahan, sending Manziel streaking down the sideline where Hoyer found him for what looked like a 39-yard gain.
Unfortunately for the Browns, it faked out RB Terrance West, who didn't get set in time and was flagged for an illegal shift, nullifying the play and costing the Browns five yards. It should have been even worse—the NFL confirmed after the game that Manziel's trickery should have been called unsportsmanlike conduct, with a 15-yard penalty (emphasis mine):
The league office, referred to page 64 of the rule book, which states unsportsmanlike conduct is "Using entering substitutes, legally returning players, substitutes on sidelines, or withdrawn players to confuse opponents, including lingering by players leaving the field after being replaced by a substitute and an offensive player lining up or going in motion less than five yards from the sideline in front of his team's designated bench area. However, an offensive player is permitted to line up less than five yards from the sidelines on the same side as his team's player bench, provided he is not in front of the designated bench area."
There's logic behind wanting to keep the game from turning into a farce, but trick plays are just the best, there aren't nearly enough of them, and I instinctually despise any rule that limits creativity. Even if, in typical Browns fashion, they drew up this misdirection without doing enough homework to realize it went against the rules.
"It was our understanding that where he was lined up was sufficient,'' said coach Mike Pettine.
Hoyer said the Browns had been informed that it was a legal play and spent a lot of time on it.
Update: Pro Football Daly recalls the play, run almost exactly 60 years ago, that forced the NFL to rule the "hideout play" illegal.
Even with the Browns crimping their own style, it was a banner week for this sort of thing. In Seattle, Russell Wilson faked the handoff to Marshawn Lynch before giving it to Jermaine Kearse on what looked like a WR reverse, then went downfield to grab the 17-yard toss from Kearse.
Wilson took a shot after catching the ball, but said he's used to that. Kearse expressed disappointment it couldn't go for a score, saying "I might be the next franchise quarterback."
But the afternoon's first star goes to Andy Dalton, who pitched the snap to Mohamed Sanu, the bolted to his left for the catch-and-run, an 18-yard touchdown. That's TDs thrown in back-to-back games for Sanu, a high school quarterback, but the real magic was in Dalton doing work after the catch.
Please believe me when I tell you that trick plays make me happier than anything else in sports, and yesterday made me very happy.