Ethics Quiz: The New England Patriots’ Loophole Victory

Cap Anson would have loved the Patriots strategy. If he wasn't dead, of course. And if they had football when he was alive....

Cap Anson would have loved the Patriots strategy. If he wasn’t dead, of course. And if they had football when he was alive….

On Saturday night, the New England Patriots ran a series of plays that exploited the complicated receiver eligibility rules, confusing the Baltimore Ravens and officials, and allowing the Pats, who were trailing badly, to get back into the game. They eventually won in a thriller.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was so upset during the sequence that he drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Later, he stopped just short of calling new England coach Bill Belichick a cheater. “[I]t’s a substitution type of a trick type of a thing,” Harbaugh told reporters after the game. “So they don’t give you the opportunity, they don’t give you the chance to make the proper substitutions and things like that. It’s not something that anybody’s ever done before. The league will look at that type of thing and I’m sure that they’ll make some adjustments and things like that.”  Indeed, the NFL will investigate whether the officiating crew gave the Ravens proper notice that an eligible Patriots player would be ineligible for a given play.

Let me quote NBC Sports to explain what happened: I barely understand it myself:

[Patriots] Running back Shane Vereen, wearing the eligible number 34, lined up split wide from the nearest offensive lineman, but because Vereen was “covered up” by another eligible receiver (i.e., an eligible receiver lined up on the line of scrimmage between Vereen and the sideline), it remained a legal formation. Vereen was, in essence, an offensive tackle with a very wide split from next lineman. On the other side of the line, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui was on the line of scrimmage tight to the next offensive lineman. But Hoomanawanui remained an eligible receiver with an eligible number. Vereen was required to report as an ineligible receiver, and he did. Hoomanawanui was not required to do anything.

The confusion apparently came from the configuration of the offensive line and the presence of a slot receiver (lined up behind the line of scrimmage) between Vereen and the next offensive lineman. Although Vereen technically was the right tackle in a five-man offensive line, the center shifted one spot to the right, putting a pair of guards between the center and Vereen. Which created the impression that Vereen was eligible. To the left of the center, there was a guard (who was actually the left tackle) and Hoomanawanui, who appeared to be the left tackle but was actually an eligible tight end.

The Ravens would have (or should have) known that an eligible receiver had reported as ineligible, but the alignment of players suggested that Hoomanawanui and not Vereen was the ineligible receiver. The Patriots furthered the ruse by having Vereen behave like a potential receiver. At the snap, he back off the line and raised his hands for a screen pass. On the other side of the line, Hoomanawanui took off for a pass from what appeared to be the left tackle position.

In the ensuing confusion, Patriots quarterback Brady completed three passes for a crucial 41 yard  drive that cut the New England deficit to 28-21.

Your first Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of 2015 is:

Did the Patriots cheat?

My take: I don’t see how this can be called cheating. Catching both the opposition and the officials unprepared for a legal but rarely seen play is just smart, audacious football, or gamesmanship generally.  This is also how rules get refined: by players and teams sniffing out their flaws and exploiting them. I’m reminded of Cap Anson, the early Chicago White Sox great (well, sort of great: he’s also substantially responsible for keeping blacks out of major league baseball) who was a genius at finding legal ways to confuse opposing teams. For instance: Anson was a switch hitter, and would come to the plate batting right, then jump to the other side of the plate, to bat left, while the pitcher was in his windup. A rule was quickly passed to make this illegal. I’ve always loved the idea: sounds hilarious.

[Full disclosure: I’m from Boston, and was once a Patriots fan. That ended when I realized that I was supporting an unethical League and sport by watching the NFL.]

I think NBC’s Mike Florio gets it right:

“Is it deceptive, as Ravens coach John Harbaugh alleged? Sure it is. But so is a play-action pass, a draw play, a flea flicker, a statue of liberty, a lateral pass to a receiver who throws the ball to another receiver, the zone blitz, the fake blitz, the delayed blitz, every pre-snap look aimed at making the opponent think the play is something other than what it will be, a fake punt, a fake field goals, a surprise onside kick from conventional kick formation, and a punt returner pretending the ball is coming to him when it’s actually going to a guy left alone on the other side of the field.”

In other words, most innovations are deceptive the first time they are tried. That doesn’t make them unethical. That makes them ingenious, at least until they are made illegal.

16 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The New England Patriots’ Loophole Victory

  1. Not unethical, unless it turns out they were thoroughly misinterpreting the rules. You are correct, if a thorough and proper reading of the rules prohibitions reveals a “hidden strategy” of non-prohibited game play, then all it is is innovation.

    Isn’t this sort of related to the development of the forward pass?

    • For example, even though the history is not settled, as a generalization, Shaka Zulu was an innovator in south African tribal warfare (and if not Shaka personally, certainly a variety of influences during his time were revolutionizing warfare). Generally limited to clandestine raids and quick assassinations, battlefield meetings by tribal “armies” would occasionally occur, and while actual bloodletting *could* occur, it was generally avoided through a ritualized system. Shaka (or if not him, someone) decided, “screw this, I want to win, my men know how to win, and it’s hidden in the rule book. I want my front ranks to hold the enemy, and my rear ranks to envelop them and slaughter them”.

      But, of course, stringent tests must be applied to ensure that such conduct, not violating the spirit of the law, doesn’t run afoul of the “It isn’t illegal” rationalization.

  2. Isn’t deception a key part of football? What is a pump fake? Making the defense look one way while the offense actually goes another is what all those highly paid assistant coaches and coordinators are supposed to do, right? So, when they actually do your job it is cheating? Harbaugh should be mad that his people don’t think up stuff like this.

  3. Are you thinking of Bob “Death to Flying Things” Ferguson as the switch-hitter? Anson is usually listed as right-handed, and wasn’t known for agility.

    As to the football play, of course it’s not cheating. The (not my team) Patriots took the risk that the Ravens would rightly ignore the ineligible receiver and send all of their pass rushers against the four real linemen the Patriots still had in place. It’s a rule that’s been begging for exploitation for years.

    • No, that was Anson’s trick. I guess he started out batting left, always intending to switch to right.
      Cap wasn’t agile, except in his mind. He was also one of the players who stole bases in reverse order on occasion.

      “Death to Flying Things” is pretty clearly the best sports mick-name ever.

          • You get a free throw on that one, sport.

            Cpl. Frederic Schiess, NNC: A Zulu regiment can run — RUN! — 50 miles and fight a battle at the end of it.

            Pvt. William Jones: Well, there’s daft it is then. I don’t see no sense in running to fight a battle.

              • Ah, yes – 50 years old last June. Zulu has all the excitement and fun that’s missing from football — two sides playing with completely different rule books.

                Contrasts of culture and warfare between the two armies (the overdress on one side vs. non on the other); sardonic humor twisted and dry enough to scrape the grease off the cannonballs (the Welsh came in for a good share of it too). Which prompted me to make a second search for the quote I was looking for originally (it had more points of reference):

                Pte. Henry Hook: “Rourke’s Drift… It’d take an Irishman to give his name to a rotten stinking middle o’ nowhere hole like this.”

                • The movie also contains the most succint and one of the best lines on duty I can find. A great ethics quote, especially one that puts the military and any fighting man’s role into perspective.

                  A young private, upon seeing the 1000s of Zulu warriors with all likelihood of wiping out the 100 man garrison, lost his nerve, “why us? Why does it have to be us who has to fight them?”

                  The Sergeant (portrayed by a 40 year old, but in real life was something like a 20 year old) replied, “Because we’re here, and no one else is.”

  4. I’m sure the league will look at it in some capacity, but they’ll only make a change to the rules if they determine that such actions are disruptive to the game – if they would become so pervasive that they change the “calculus”.

  5. From the NFL rule book:
    Section 3 Changes in Position
    REPORTING CHANGE OF POSITION
    Article 1􀀃􀀃An offensive player wearing the number of an ineligible pass receiver (50-79 and 90-99) is permitted
    to line up in the position of an eligible pass receiver (1-49 and 80-89), and an offensive player wearing the
    number of an eligible pass receiver is permitted to line up in the position of an ineligible pass receiver,
    provided that he immediately reports the change in his eligibility status to the Referee, who will inform the
    defensive team.
    He must participate in such eligible or ineligible position as long as he is continuously in the game, but prior to
    each play he must again report his status to the Referee, who will inform the defensive team. The game
    clock shall not be stopped, and the ball shall not be put in play until the Referee takes his normal position.

    Based on this rule it is incumbent upon the referee to inform the defensive team. If the officials did tell the ravens then no foul. If they did not the officials should be relieved of post season work until they have a complete understanding of the rules.

    Failure on the part of the officials to know the rules cannot be used to excused illegal play. Complaining of cheating cannot be used to justify failure on the part of the Ravens to defend against a legal formation.

    My concern over this post is this statement . ”

    In other words, most innovations are deceptive the first time they are tried. That doesn’t make them unethical. That makes them ingenious, at least until they are made illegal.

    Does this sentiment hold for all financial, political or social behaviors as well? I thought ethics and what is legal are unrelated concepts. If something is not unethical then why should it ever be made illegal.

    • Spirit. Just because a loophole can be exploited doesnt mean its in the spirit of the game. Trickery in football though is a pretty common and accepted part of the culture so it’s tough to say that it violates the spirit of the game.

      For example, in football calling a timeout right before a field goal or other important play is perfectly acceptable form of trickery. In Ultimate (my sport) it’s legal but considered massively dickish and when it happened at a college nationals game last year the community came down hard on the offending team and their social experience at subsequent tournaments were not pleasant – frosty post games handshakes, no party invites, and a mountain of hate mail from the most ethical sports community out there.

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