Chip Kelly and The Sucker Play
He doesn’t mean a bet designed for fools, but rather a running play Oregon used against USC in their 62 point annihilation of the Trojan’s defense. (That game led defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, a football legend who invented the Tampa-2 defense, to quit and take a job with the Dallas Cowboys as penance, though his feckless son Lane didn’t take the hint.)
The Sucker Play is a trap, a misdirection running play where you pull a guard or tackle in one direction and run the other way. Usually an offensive lineman aims to push a defender back and to the side, creating a hole for the running back to burst through. Sometimes, in a “power play,” a lineman steps back and runs to the side (“pulls”), usually looking to sweep toward the sideline on an end around. Naturally, linebackers who see this move run in that direction to tie up the play.
In the Sucker Play, the lineman pulls and runs, say, to the left. With any luck, defenders follow. But the pulling lineman has also created a hole just by running away, if he can get his opposite number to follow him, and a quick enough running back can slash through that hole, or sweep in the other direction. The lineman has “blocked” his opposing player without even touching him, in the same way that the quarterback “blocks” a linebacker or defensive end in a zone read play simply by looking at him — and redirecting the action.
Chip Kelly didn’t invent the Sucker Play; it’s as old as the hills. Kansas City used it to beat the Minnesota Vikings and their frightening defense in Super Bowl IV, way back in 1970. In the first game a coach was mic’ed for the Super Bowl, Hank Stram called out “65 Toss Power Trap” against the overaggressive Viking defense and Mike Garrett ran through a hole as big as a subway tunnel for the Chief’s first touchdown. (It was also the first Super Bowl with a celebrity halftime show, starring Carol Channing, but the less said about that the better.)
The Sucker Play is, however, quintessential Chip Kelly — a form of gridiron jiujitsu that uses a defense’s strength and quickness against it. At Oregon, Kelly almost always had smaller offensive and defensive lines, especially against recruiting powers such as USC, Stanford, and the entire SEC conference, so he had to use speed and treachery to compensate. Oregon had used the Power Play against USC for two years, so the Trojans were ready to bite.
As Fischer diagrams, Oregon not only pulled multiple linemen to the left, but even had a lineman on the right side block his man to the right, even though that was the direction that Kenjon Barner was going to run. All of this misdirection led the Trojan linebackers to overreact and sprint left, allowing Barner to score a touchdown wide to the right. In a second example, De’Anthony Thomas (aka DAT) runs right, after the Ducks show a Toss Sweep left, for another big gain.
Now these plays may not work for Chip in the NFL. After all, running away from his blockers leaves the running back unprotected, and a back not as fast as DAT — who is headed to the NCAA track championships as we speak — facing a quicker, older and wiser NFL linebacker may just get smooshed. But the point is never that Kelly uses play X or scheme Y. He’s a master at setting the rhythm of his offense — and playing against that rhythm to confuse his opponents.
In the NFL, Kelly won’t face the recruiting disadvantages he struggled with at Oregon, either. He will probably never mutter the words “65 Toss Power Trap,” but you can be sure he’ll find a way to use his opponents’ strength and effort against them.