It’s common for players with numbers that make them ineligible to report as eligible and then go down the field and become targets for passes. It’s less common for players with eligible numbers to report to officials as ineligible and then refrain from going down the field of play.
On Saturday night, the Patriots took advantage of the “B” side of the rule that made former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel a periodic tight end. Per a league source, the NFL will now explore whether the officiating crew gave the Ravens proper notice that an eligible Patriots player would be ineligible for a given play.
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.
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.
The Vereen-ineligible play is legal, as long as the otherwise eligible player reports as ineligible. Which Vereen did. The question then becomes whether the referee properly informed the Ravens about Vereen’s ineligibility. Which the league will explore.
Even if the referee did what he was supposed to do, the formation and the execution suggested that the referee may have gotten the number wrong, saying 34 when he meant to say 47. Which further underscores the brilliance of the play.
Maybe Rodney Harrison was right. Maybe Bill Belichick really is the greatest coach of all time. After all, Belichick managed to confuse and confound a guy who is destined to end up pretty high on the list of best coaches ever.