Winning games in the National Football League is incredibly difficult. All 32 teams — even the Cleveland Browns — are equipped with world-class athletes and some of the best football minds in the business. Because of this, coaches around the NFL are constantly looking for ways to exploit the league’s rulebook in hopes of finding some sort of competitive advantage. And in their Week 12 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Baltimore Ravens brilliantly took advantage of an obscure rule en route to a 19-14 victory.
With 11 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, the Ravens faced a 4th-and-8 while holding a 19-12 lead. Instead of punting the ball away and risking a long return or a potential Hail Mary attempt, Baltimore punter Sam Koch took the snap and scampered around behind the line of scrimmage while his teammates committed intentional holding penalties on all nine Cincinnati players who were rushing the punter. After the last second had ticked off the clock, Koch stepped out of bounds and took a game-ending safety.
Here is a look at the controversial play from start to finish.
To some, this move lacked class and sportsmanship, but at the end of the day, the Ravens technically did nothing wrong here. As long as they weren’t holding in the end zone, there was no risk of giving the Bengals an untimed down. Even Cincinnati cornerback Adam Jones couldn’t help but call it a “smart play.”
Had the Ravens pulled the stunt twice in a row (if the clock hadn’t run out), it likely would have been deemed a “palpably unfair act” and all 11 seconds would have been put back on the clock. However, since that wasn’t the case, this can simply be chalked as an excellent coaching performance by the Baltimore staff.
Interestingly, this isn’t the Ravens’ first time manipulating this rule. During their Super Bowl XLVII win over the San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh called for the same play with 12 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. And in that game, the clever move essentially locked up the world championship for the Ravens.
As we previously alluded to, Harbaugh is far from the first coach to bend a rule in an attempt to gain an advantage on the field. The coach who is most well known for these types of tactics is Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, who, in our opinion, is the greatest coach in NFL history.
There are three rule-bending instances that instantly come to mind in regards to Belichick. The first is “Spygate,” which in our eyes is by far the biggest blemish on Belichick’s amazing resume. During a game in 2007, the Patriots were caught filming the play-call signals coming from the New York Jets’ sidelines. The Jets’ discovery led to a lengthy investigation that ultimately revealed that this was a common practice for New England from 2002 through 2007. In the end, the Pats were fined $250,000, Belichick was fined $500,000, and the team lost a first-round draft pick.
The next occurrence was something that was completely legal at the time, but has since been banned by the league. In a playoff matchup with the Ravens, the Patriots used a formation (that is now illegal) that made it extremely difficult for Baltimore’s defense to establish which New England receivers were eligible and ineligible. This instance was later nicknamed “Deception.”
The third transgression, otherwise known as “Deflategate,” is actually a case of Belichick being guilty by association. New England quarterback Tom Brady allegedly was in cahoots with the team’s equipment staff and instructed them to slightly deflate the footballs the Patriots were using in the 2014 AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts. As a result, the NFL fined the Pats $1 million; they took away a first-round draft pick; and they suspended Brady for four games.
Other than Belichick, the league has also seen occurrences such as the Atlanta Falcons and Indianapolis Colts pumping fake noise into their indoor stadiums; the Buffalo Bills, New York Giants, and New York Jets strategically opening doors in their stadiums to affect the wind conditions on kicking plays; the Denver Broncos strategically (and illegally) manipulating their salary cap and having a videotaping scandal of their own; multiple teams placing bounties on opposing players; and even a couple of coaches (Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Sal Alosi of the New York Jets) “accidentally” tripping opposing players that were running down their team’s sideline.
When you put things in perspective and look at the big picture, the Ravens intentionally holding and taking a safety is nothing more than small potatoes. What we should all really be talking about is what an outstanding piece of coaching this was by John Harbaugh and his staff.