- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Everybody loves trick plays in football, especially when they work. The Redskins experienced both sides of it in Sunday’s 23-17 loss to the Giants - the thrill of Hunter Smith running into the end zone on a fake field goal try and the agony of Antwaan Randle El getting dumped for an 11-yard loss in New York territory on an end-around pass that turned into an end-around sack.

Had the Randle El Ruse unfolded as perfectly as the Smith Scam, the Redskins might have - repeat, might have - escaped with a victory in what figures to be their final visit to Giants Stadium. But as a wise man once said (or maybe it was just me): There are 100 things that can go wrong when you call a trick play. If you can think of 50 of them, you’re a genius.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Randle El’s play was when it occurred: on the Redskins’ second offensive snap. On the first, Clinton Portis blew through a huge hole on the left side and ran 34 yards to the New York 37, putting his team in immediate scoring position.

Usually, stratagems like these are saved for special occasions, and this didn’t seem to qualify as one. It was only eight minutes into the game, and the Redskins trailed by just a field goal. Why not hold off awhile and see how the offense does on its own?

But Zorn was looking for the quick score, looking to give his team an early lift. The Redskins, after all, have had a lot of trouble scoring against this Giants defense; in two games last season, they managed only 14 points. He also wanted to avoid having to play from behind - as the Giants forced the Redskins to do twice last year.

Then, too, the coach didn’t consider the play to be any great gamble. Randle El, let’s not forget, was an option quarterback in college. He throws the ball well, and he exercises good judgment when he throws it.

“Was it worth the risk?” Zorn said at Monday’s post-mortem. “No question about it. To me, it wasn’t trickster stuff, it was just a solid play. If Antwaan was just a pure receiver and I was hoping he could get the ball out, I probably wouldn’t have drawn it up. I’ve got six other guys [in practice] saying, ‘Watch me throw, coach,’ and I’ve got tackles saying, ‘Watch me catch the ball.’ But I’m not that much of a trickster.”

So Zorn called the play and watched it blow up like an exploding cigar. Not one but two major surprises foiled his best-laid plans. First, the Giants weren’t the least bit fooled and had Randle El’s main receivers, Santana Moss and Chris Cooley, covered tighter than ankle tape. Second, Antwaan, a bit flustered by this development, allowed himself to be dropped for a loss that took the Redskins out of field goal range.

“I shoulda threw it away,” he said afterward. “That’s one of those plays where you either have it or you don’t.”

It was also one of those Moments - capital M - that can tip the balance of a game one way or the other. Soon enough, the Redskins were down 10-0 and then 17-0, a hole that proved too deep to dig out of.

Success or failure aside, trick plays are, for my money, one of the best things about football, as enjoyable as a slice of five-layer cake at the end of a meal somebody else springs for. I’m still waiting for a modern NFL team to run the Statue of Liberty properly - that is, with the quarterback drawing his arm back and the runner circling behind and plucking the ball out of his hand. Now that takes timing.

Years ago, gadget plays were more common. How much more? Well, a while back, while doing some research, I came across a game between the Giants and Cardinals in 1954 in which Giants running back Frank Gifford threw two touchdown passes and flanker Kyle Rote threw one.

There was more of a sense of adventure in those days, no question. But then, there are reasons for that. To begin with, rosters were smaller and players had to perform multiple tasks; it wasn’t unusual, for instance, for a quarterback to handle the punting and/or kicking (see Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Bob Waterfield, Norm Van Brocklin, Bobby Layne, George Blanda, etc., etc.). This, of course, opened the possibility of passes out of punt or kick formation.

Also, in the ‘40s and ‘50s, many pro running backs had been single-wing tailbacks in college - a position that requires ball carrying, passing and punting. (The quick kick, in particular, was a big weapon, often used to flip the field position.) So when an NFL coach asked his halfback to throw the ball, he usually wasn’t asking him to do anything he hadn’t done plenty of times before.

In this regard, Zorn is more of a throwback. The season is only a week old, and already he has run a fake punt (in the second preseason game against the Steelers) and Sunday’s two gambits. Say this for the man: He has a sense of fun.

You can look at trick plays as an admission of weakness if you want. (We can’t beat our opponent head-up, so we have to fool him.) Or you can just sit back and admire them in all their Machiavellian splendor. (We’ll do whatever it takes to win.)

Actually, there’s one other way to look at what happened at the Meadowlands: The Redskins broke out two of their favorite double-crosses, the fake field goal ploy and the end-around pass… and they still lost.

Ouch.

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