New England Patriots Drop Kick: A Possible Explanation


What were the New England Patriots thinking during their drop kick onside attempt against the Eagles?

There was an awful lot to be upset about in the Patriots chalking up their second loss of the season to the even-a-broken-clock-is-right-twice-a-day Philadelphia Eagles.  Tom Brady threw his first pick-six in only God knows how long and special teams looked like a high schooler learning to drive a car.

Plus even though the Pats put up a whopping 427 yards of total offense and only had three penalties for 30 yards, compared to Philly’s eight penalties for 97 yards, New England still lost. There was even a 36-yard Tom Brady reception!  That’s not a typo!

On a positive note, Rob Gronkowski was not flagged for offensive pass interference this week.

(Yes, that was a joke.  Gronk, obviously, didn’t play.)

But the Patriots also pulled off one of the single biggest “WTF?!?” moments that the league has seen since Indianapolis tried that “I’ve made a terrible mistake!” fake punt against New England earlier this year.  In the second quarter, right after Danny Amendola’s 11-yard touchdown grab…well, here’s how ESPN describes it:

“After receiver Danny Amendola‘s 11-yard touchdown catch midway through the second quarter, kicker Stephen Gostkowski tossed the football to Nate Ebner on the ensuing kickoff, with Ebner attempting a drop kick. Eagles receiver Seyi Ajirotutu recovered the kick at Philadelphia’s 41-yard line and the Eagles took advantage of the good field position to score their first touchdown, the first of their 35 points in a row.”

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For what it’s worth, most Pats fans know that Nate Ebner is a former rugby player and was probably the special teams guy with the best skill set to pull this type of trickery off. That being said, Ebner also gave the Eagles credit for sniffing out the play and scoring.  After the game, Nate said “I just tried to put it into space and make it an element of surprise, but they were prepared for what we threw at them.”

The point, one would assume, would be something in between a kickoff and an onside kick – dropping a kickoff into empty space unexpectedly to give your own special teams players a chance to recover it.  Clearly, it didn’t work out.

It’s worth noting, as ESPN did, that the Pats tried a similar trick against Washington a few weeks ago.  Attempting an onside kick in the first half, like New England did against Washington, is pretty unusual, but it worked out in that case.

Bill Belichick was about as enlightening as one might expect when he was asked about the play, which is a tad surprising given that he’s been more open than usual this season when asked about, you know, actual football questions:

“There wasn’t a tremendous downside to the play.  It was like when they mortared their one over there and Williams recovered it.  It was different, but it was kind of the same thing – kicking it to dead space.”

Anyone listening to that press conference was surely thinking “Well, no tremendous downside, except giving the Eagles AMAZING FIELD POSITION, BILL!!”

So why run the play?  Why bother running something that has a decent chance to put your defense in an awful situation and basically give away half the field, especially when the Eagles haven’t exactly been slinging the ball downfield lately?

Here’s one theory.

In the outstanding “Do Your Job” documentary that came out this fall, we learned a whole lot more about Julian Edelman’s amazing double-pass touchdown throw to Danny Amendola in the AFC Divisional Round against the Baltimore Ravens.

Aside from joking around about how Edelman would walk around with ice on his throwing shoulder after running the play in practice, it also came out that the Patriots had actually called that exact play earlier in the season against the Chiefs.

The Patriots ended up calling an audible and changing that play based on the defense, so the play turned into a pass for Brandon LaFell instead.  And then, right before they actually pulled the double-pass off late in the Ravens game, Josh McDaniels walks up to Edelman on the bench and goes “Hey, you don’t need any heads-up before that double-pass, right?”

And finally, McDaniels and Belichick told us that the Patriots hadn’t had anyone other than Brady throw passes in a game for years, because they tried a double-pass play with David Givens against the Jets in the 2003 that ended up being intercepted.

What’s the point?

When the Patriots pulled off the Edelman-Amendola pass, they were down big in a divisional round playoff game.  Calling it a desperation play might be a stretch, but not by much.

On Sunday, when Ebner’s drop-kick went terribly, terribly wrong, New England was up by 14 in the second quarter and had shut Philly out altogether.  Up by two scores against a team with an awful record that had been blown out three weeks in a row?  At that point, it sure seems like a good time to throw a wild-card play into the mix, just to see if it works.

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If it did, or if the Pats had executed a little better, the team would know that they had the drop-kick play in their bag of tricks if they needed it down the road, not to mention they would have had great field position and the ball back.  You can only test a play so much in practice.  At some point, it has to be run against, you know, an actual football team that’s not your own practice squad.

Yeah, it didn’t work.  Yeah, it ended up looking like a backyard football play on a middle school playground that completely backfired, or like a kid hit the wrong button in “Madden”.

But if the idea was to see if a tricky play could be pulled off – on a kickoff, usually one of the most predictable special teams plays in football, nonetheless – now the Patriots know that the execution, by Ebner and the rest of the special teams guys, didn’t work out like they surely hoped it would. Actually, aside from the Eagles running it back for a touchdown, it had just about the worst possible outcome that it could have had.

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But, if you’re the Patriots, it’s much better to try these “GOTCHA!” type plays when you’re up two scores early in a game and shutting a pretty awful team out at home.

As opposed to, you know, having to bust them out for the first time in the playoffs when you’re already losing big and in full-on panic mode, like the Edelman pass against the Ravens… oh wait.