Let's take the time to praise the enormous stones on the Rams' coaching staff for calling two of the most exciting and least anticipated trick plays of the season: a fake punt and, before that, a fake punt return. Each played a huge part in St. Louis's upset win over Seattle.
The earlier was the better: the Rams taking advantage of the little-appreciated fact that no one on a coverage team knows where a punt is going other than by watching their opponents. So Tavon Austin and his would-be blockers feinted toward their left sideline, even as the punt settled into the arms of a wide-open Stedman Bailey on the opposite side. Bailey went 90 delirious yards for the score.
The play was called "Mountaineer," since it was drawn up especially for Bailey and Austin, both West Virginia products. But it only entered the Rams' playbooks this week, and only because of two factors: the consistency of the Seahawks' punter, and St. Louis special teams coach John Fassel's obsession with a certain failed Bears play from 2011.
The Bears pulled this same play off nearly to perfection three years ago, using Devin Hester as the decoy. It was called back thanks to a holding penalty, but it stuck in the back of Fassel's mind. He brought it to head coach Jeff Fisher on Wednesday, and worked on his own iteration the rest of the week, repeatedly showing the unit tape of the Bears' version.
What had jogged Fassel's memory, though, was film study of Seahawks punter Jon Ryan that revealed Ryan overwhelmingly kicks the ball to his left when attempting to pin a team back near its own goal line. "When the punter tried to sky it," Bailey said, "the punt always ended up in pretty much the same spot.''
That gave St. Louis, entering the day 29th in the league in punt-return average, the confidence to run the play for Bailey, who had never returned a single punt in his career going back through high school. Bailey, the coaches surmised, was best equipped to unobtrusively field a punt over his shoulder—a little detail that Fisher confirmed was part of the plan.
"From watching the tape, I would know exactly where the ball would land," Bailey said. "For me to catch it, it was just my receiver skills and catching the ball over my head. I turned around, secured it and just started running."
With the Seattle punt coming from midfield, Fisher figured the field position was right to break out the trickery. Given what he had seen from tape of Ryan, he believed there was "a 90 percent chance" the punt was going to go where it went. (Pete Carroll confirmed that the punt went exactly where it was supposed to go.) The only question was the execution. Or, rather, the acting.
Said special-teamer Chase Reynolds:
It seemed like my guy was thinking about going to the left, so I really had to overplay to the right and he ended up following. Their guys just kind of followed the herd, I guess.
Fisher, too, said the key was Austin and Cody Davis "really oversell[ing]" the path of the ball, Austin going so far as to fall on his ass to create a little more chaos.
"I feel like we have the best special teams coach in the NFL,'' Austin said of Fassel. "He drew it up and got us to believe it could work."
The Rams whipped out some more shenanigans to seal the game, and though the play design was Fassel's, the bold decision to attempt a fake punt with three minutes left from inside his own 20 belonged solely to Fisher. It went as smoothly as smooth can be, but had it backfired, that's a job-killer:
Jeff Fisher is apparently a firm believer in momentum, and in that situation—up two, but with Seattle having scored 23 of the last 29 points—he felt he couldn't count on his defense to make one more stop.
"You guys saw the flow of the game," Fisher said. "We were having a hard time stopping Russell [Wilson]. There was too much time left on the clock right there and I didn't want to give the ball back to him."
Fisher said he had his mind made up once the Rams gained a first down on their first play of the drive, and communicated his plan to Fassel. Fassel in turn, told punter Johnny Hekker to get ready.
The play, drawn up for pass-catching RB Benny Cunningham, wasn't a recent addition to the playbook like the fake punt return. This one is a standby that's been drilled deeply into the punt unit, waiting for just the right moment. "Johnny and I stay after practice to work on that play," Cunningham said. "Ten reps, five to each side of the field."
Hekker says it's the perfect marriage of a risk-taking coach and a play that's practiced to the point of being second nature. "Coach Fisher's a guy that's known to roll the dice," he said. "When we prepare the way we do, it makes those gambles that much more sure."
But there was one more variable that needed to shake out. Cunningham, lined up as ostensible protection for Hekker, didn't know which way he was going to head out for the pass until the Seahawks tipped their coverage. But in film study, Fassel had spotted one more potential weakness to exploit:
In the week leading up to the game, special-teams coach John Fassel noticed an opening in Seattle's punt return team where it would leave a single blocker on the outside against the gunner.
In this case, the Rams were looking for [Stedman] Bailey, the gunner, to get a one-on-one opportunity. If he saw what is called a "vice" look (two blockers on one gunner), the Rams were to change the call to send Cunningham the other direction. Sure enough, Bailey was matched up one-on-one.
Bailey went downfield and over the middle, taking his lone blocker, Steven Terrell, with him. That left Cunningham, bolting to the spot Bailey had vacated, entirely and frighteningly open.
"This might be my last play in the NFL if I don't make this catch," Cunningham said he was thinking. "Either they're going to cut me or my teammates are going to kill me."
He made the catch, and afterward, all the players could talk about was how Fisher's decisions made them feel like he had faith in them. Don't underestimate the importance of happy players on a losing football team, and definitely don't sleep on the value to fans of making a team fun even if it isn't very good.
As soon as he got home, John Fassel was grilled by his father Jim, the former head coach of the Giants. Was that call yours? Did you know what you were doing?
Yes, dad, John Fassel assured him, "the odds were in our favor."
Jim Fassel laughed and said: "That's a balls move, boy."