Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon has plenty to worry about leading up to Sunday. Not only does he have to come up with a plan to stop Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce in the Super Bowl, he also has to prepare for “Ferrari Right,” “Hungry Pig,” “Black Pearl,” “Slot Machine,” “Bloated Tebow,” and much more.
The names sound like Derek Zoolander’s runway looks but instead are the Chiefs’ trick plays inside the red zone.
“They really test your rules, test your eye discipline,” Gannon said. “They’ll give you stuff that you just can’t practice, and then they’ve got big-time players. It’s really tough.”
Creativity, imagination, and trickery inside the 20, and especially near the goal line, have been staples of Andy Reid’s offensive philosophy since he took over as Eagles coach in 1999.
Defending the Chiefs’ red zone offense is almost like trying to crack a magician’s tricks. It can be done, but there’s a lot to keep track of — a receiver in motion, an unusual formation, unexpected personnel, and a lot more.
The Chiefs had the NFL’s No. 2 red zone offense in 2022, converting touchdowns on 69.4 percent of trips inside the 20.
With “Ferrari Right,” Mahomes went in motion, ran back under center, took the snap, did a spin move, then threw a touchdown pass. “Slot Machine Right” and “Black Pearl” also entailed Mahomes going in motion before the snap, but instead resulted in a direct snap to Kelce, or a flip pass to a receiver. With “Hungry Pig,” Mahomes threw a screen pass to defensive tackle Dontari Poe for a touchdown. With “Bloated Tebow,” Poe took the direct snap, faked a scramble, and threw a jump-pass TD.
And just when you think you have the trick play solved, the Chiefs add a different wrinkle. Reid’s deep playbook from 40 years of coaching, combined with the Chiefs’ consistency on offense with Mahomes and Kelce, give the Chiefs a trove of trick plays with which to work.
“We always talk about making sure you try to have them chase the cat’s tail,” Chiefs offensive assistant Matt Nagy said. “We have a lot of fun, and the beauty of Coach, and one of the greatest things he does is he allows people to have ideas and thoughts. And as long as it’s well thought out and creative and you think it’s going to work, he trusts you.”
Reid said he developed his philosophy when he played college football at BYU under coach Doug Scovil. The field gets compressed near the goal line, so a little trickery is sometimes needed to create space and punch the ball into the end zone. The Chiefs had a league-high 50 red zone touchdowns this season, out of their 59 overall TDs.
It’s a philosophy that has trickled down to Reid’s proteges. The coach who executed the “Philly Special” in the Super Bowl win over the Patriots was Doug Pederson, Reid’s longtime backup quarterback and offensive coordinator.
Reid said it is important to let the players have input into the trick plays.
“They love being a part of it,” Reid said. “Normally if a player really likes a play, they go just that little extra inch.”
The Chiefs certainly have fun with it. They came up with “Slot Machine” before playing a game in Las Vegas. They stole a direct-snap play from the 1948 Rose Bowl and used it in their Super Bowl LIV win over the 49ers. Last month, the Chiefs unveiled “Snow Globe,” which involved all 11 players doing a “Ring Around the Rosie” in the huddle before breaking for the line of scrimmage. Jerick McKinnon then took a direct snap and flipped the ball to Mahomes, who threw to Kadarius Toney for a touchdown, before the play was called back because of a holding penalty.
“It was something we had kind of practiced on actually last year of doing that, and we didn’t get the chance to run it,” Mahomes said. “As the season went back on, I was kind of nudging Coach Reid like, ‘Hey, let’s bring it back in a different way.’ We didn’t have that throw back on it the last time we ran it. Hopefully we can maybe do it again and get back to whatever we ran last time and get another touchdown.”
Allowing players and coaches to collaborate on trick plays is another small part of Reid’s program that pays big dividends. It makes the players and coaches feel respected and reduces the monotony of practices and meetings.
“It’s one of the most beautiful parts of him, is he delegates and trusts in others,” Nagy said. “We all collaborate, we all come up with ideas, Coach has his final stamp on it, and then when it’s called, we hope it works. Some of the best ones that show up are [from the players]. We might get it started, and then they take off and run with it.”
Reid has been doing it since his Eagles days, too.
“He thought it was important to have the players have at least some fun at practice,” said former longtime Eagles president Joe Banner. “Part of it was when he found the right moment to spring it on the opposition and steal points or make a defensive play with something no one had seen. But some of it was not wanting the players to get bored or feel it was redundant or lose energy in practice.”
The Chiefs’ latest trick during these playoffs was old the hook-and-ladder play. The Chiefs may run it again in the Super Bowl, or run a different variation of it, or ignore it. But the Eagles have to worry about it.
“It will be interesting to see if he will have more of that, or variations in the Super Bowl,” Banner said. “But I promise you, Andy is happy just knowing the Eagles have to think about it and plan for it, just in case.”
BOLD IS BEAUTIFUL
Being aggressive has paid off big
One lesson that the other 30 NFL teams can learn from the Eagles and Chiefs: Fortune favors the bold. Both Super Bowl teams got to Phoenix thanks to aggressive tactics and bold decisions that paid off.
For the Chiefs, it’s not just how they call trick plays in the red zone. It’s how they traded All-Pro receiver Tyreek Hill and didn’t bat an eye. They acquired several new receivers — JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Skyy Moore, and Kadarius Toney — and still had the NFL’s No. 1 passing offense, scoring offense, and total offense.
“We had hoped to bring him back, it was our goal initially to bring him back, but the receiver market really shifted this offseason,” Chiefs owner Clark Hunt said of Hill. “It was something that nobody wanted to see happen, but it was the right decision. And then [general manager Brett Veach] did a fantastic job with the draft capital that he received in bringing in new players, mostly on the defensive side.”
The Eagles, meanwhile, may have the most aggressive and unconventional front office in the league under GM Howie Roseman. He made several tough decisions, such as bailing on Carson Wentz after just five seasons despite giving up several assets to take him with the No. 2 overall pick. Roseman went for broke before last year’s draft, trading a first-round pick to the Titans for receiver A.J. Brown and giving him a four-year, $100 million contract.
“The great players get great money, and that’s just the nature of the business,” Roseman said. “You’re not going to get great players at cheap prices.”
And Nick Sirianni’s offense is the most aggressive in the NFL — the Eagles ranked fourth in fourth-down attempts (32), even though they were the NFL’s best team all season and rarely played from behind. The Eagles converted 22 of 32 fourth downs for a 68.8 percent success rate that ranked fourth.
“So many people in the league operate from a perspective of self-preservation, and self-preservation as a priority makes it very difficult to make bold moves,” said Joe Banner, a former 19-year executive with the Eagles and Browns. “The headline that differentiates the Eagles and accounts for their success is this approach of boldness and no fear of failure and never hesitating to be aggressive. I think we’re living in an era where aggressiveness in the NFL is being rewarded, and they’re probably the most aggressive franchise in the league.”
Backup plans are also important
Another lesson the other 30 teams could learn from the Eagles is their emphasis on investing in backup quarterbacks. In 2017, the Eagles decided that Chase Daniel wasn’t the right backup, and they released him before the season even though he had $5 million guaranteed. The Eagles had to eat the contract but swapped in Nick Foles, who led them to a Super Bowl win that season.
And in 2020, a year after giving Carson Wentz a four-year, $128 million contract, the Eagles still took Jalen Hurts in the second round of the draft. It proved fortuitous, as Wentz bombed out in 2020, and two seasons later, Hurts has the Eagles in the Super Bowl.
“I guess it’s our nature to take the financial hit. That wasn’t going to be a concern whatsoever,” Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said. “Be self-critical wherever you’re at, and know that your second quarterback is hugely important. We’ve always believed in that.”
Getting it done in a different way
A couple of personnel notes for the Super Bowl:
▪ The Chiefs may still be the NFL’s most efficient and dynamic offense this season without Tyreek Hill, but they certainly aren’t the same offense.
For one, they are far less explosive. Per NFL Next Gen, Patrick Mahomes threw deep on just 8.2 percent of passes this season, the lowest mark of his career (it was 10 percent in 2021 and as high as 15.2 percent in 2018). Mahomes threw just one deep TD pass this season,a 41-yarder to Justin Watson in Week 2, after throwing 47 deep touchdowns in his first four seasons. Mahomes’s 31 touchdown passes or fewer than 10 yards this season were the most since Next Gen began tracking in 2016.
The Chiefs also have turned to their tight ends to replace Hill. The Chiefs scored 14 touchdowns and gained 957 yards out of three-tight-end groupings, the only offense over 700 yards this season. Travis Kelce caught 12 scores, but Jody Fortson caught two and Blake Bell and Noah Gray one each.
▪ The Chiefs’ Chris Jones gets most of the spotlight, and deservedly so, but watch out for another defensive tackle to potentially wreck the game. The Eagles’ Javon Hargrave, a seven-year veteran who was a third-round pick by the Steelers, has been nearly unblockable this season.
Hargrave, who had a career-high 11 sacks, has generated pressure on 17.4 percent of pass rushes since Week 11, the only tackle in the NFL over 15 percent. This is nothing new for Hargrave, who also led all tackles in pressure rate last season (15 percent).
Gronkowski in fine form
Rob Gronkowski was promoting his Super Bowl commercial this past week and noted that “Patriots legend” Adam Vinatieri has been coaching him on how to kick a field goal. An Indianapolis reporter quipped back that Vinatieri is also a Colts legend, and Gronkowski wasn’t having it.
“I don’t really associate myself with the Colts,” Gronkowski said. “I never lost to the Colts. In my time, I swear, it was the Colts that was our main rivalry. I never really liked them. They had to come up with Deflategate because we were womping them so bad. That’s my theory on why they did Deflategate. They had to come up with an excuse.”
Gronkowski went 8-0 in his career against the Colts, with 573 receiving yards and seven touchdowns.
He also had a good quip about whether the Chiefs, who have reached three Super Bowls in five years, are a dynasty.
“They would have to win this game, and then they would have to continue the success for about another 10 years,” Gronkowski said. “I mean, the Patriots were what, 18 years, 20 years? If they win this game, then have another 10 more years, that’s considered a dynasty.”
Brian Flores made an interesting decision this past week, reportedly choosing the Vikings’ defensive coordinator position while still in the running for the Cardinals’ head coaching job. It’s yet another sign of how poorly the Cardinals job is viewed around the league, but also a smart decision by Flores to take a stable job — he’s only 41 and can afford to be patient when it comes to head coaching gigs. Flores is a terrific hire for Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell, whose defense ranked 28th in points and 31st in yards … Bad news for Mahomes and Chiefs fans: NFL MVPs are 0 for their last 9 in Super Bowls, with Kurt Warner in 1999 the last MVP to also win a Lombardi Trophy. And quarterbacks who led the league in passing yards and TD passes are 0 for 4 in Super Bowls (2013 Peyton Manning, 2007 Tom Brady, 2001 Warner, 1984 Dan Marino) … Seen walking around downtown Phoenix on Tuesday night: Giants coach Brian Daboll, a five-time Super Bowl winner with the Patriots, grumbling about how much he hates being at the Super Bowl when he’s not in it. The NFL required Daboll to come for Thursday’s NFL Honors, and his trip surely was brightened by being named Coach of the Year. But he had no desire to stay for the weekend … Eagles GM Howie Roseman got the better end of two trades with the Saints this season, getting their 2023 first-round pick (No. 10 overall) and also getting a great bargain in cornerback C.J. Gardner-Johnson. Roseman was posed this question on media night: “What is it about the Saints front office that makes it so easy for you to continually take advantage of them with the first-round picks?” “That’s not fair,” Roseman responded. “Mickey [Loomis] is a tremendous GM. I don’t think that’s fair. Obviously, they’re doing what they think is in the best interest of their team.” … Patriots owner Robert Kraft said Friday on Fox Business, “I think bringing in Bill O’Brien has been a big plus for our franchise. That was done in full cooperation with coach [Bill] Belichick.” I would hope so, given that he’s the head coach. But this implies that adding O’Brien was really Kraft’s idea, not Belichick’s … Derek Carr met with the Saints this past week, and that’s a landing spot that makes sense. The Saints only have Jameis Winston under contract for next season, and coach Dennis Allen was the Raiders’ coach in 2014 when they drafted Carr, lasting just four games before getting fired that season. The only question is whether Carr will waive his no-trade clause or force the Raiders to release him by Feb. 15, which could lead to a more lucrative contract in free agency.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.