During Saturday’s thrilling, up-and-down, back-and-forth win over the Ravens, the Patriots created plenty of confusion on a key second-half drive by using four offensive lineman and playing hide-and-seek with one of the eligible receivers who would be ineligible in any given play.
The strategy worked — and it sufficiently upset coach John Harbaugh to result in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. After the game, Harbaugh elaborated on the source of sideline consternation not seen from him since the night that the lights went out in New Orleans.
“[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.”
Harbaugh said he simply hoped to have a chance to try to make a substitution based on who the eligible receivers would be.
“[W]e wanted an opportunity to be able to ID who the eligible players were, because what they were doing was they would announce the eligible player and then time was taken and they would go over and snap the ball before we even had the chance to figure out who was lined up where, and that was the deception part of it,” Harbaugh said. “And that was where it was clearly deception. So the officials told me after that they’d give us the opportunity to do that, which they probably should have done during that series but they didn’t really understand what was happening.”
Harbaugh explained that he deliberately provoked the flag.
“That’s why I had to go and take the penalty, to get their attention so that they would understand what was going on because they didn’t understand what was going on,” Harbaugh said. “And they said that that was the right thing, that they’d give us the chance to ID the eligible receivers so we could actually get them covered. That’s why guys were open, because we didn’t ID where the eligible receivers were at. So, that’s the nature of that particular thing they were doing, that’s what made it so difficult.”
It was an unprecedented tactic, in Harbaugh’s opinion. Asked whether he considers it to be cheap or dirty, Harbaugh stopped short.
“I’m not going to comment on that,” he said.
It’s clear he believes the Patriots exploited a loophole that sufficiently confused the officials to allow the Patriots to sufficiently confuse the Ravens. While the loophole could be closed by the Competition Committee and then the owners, New England’s ability to identify and to capitalize on a little-known quirk in the rules perhaps should be regarded neither as dirty nor cheap but effective.