It's not an uncommon play in football. A defender encroaches on the line of scrimmage, perhaps fooled by the quarterback's cadence. Flags fly, the ball is snapped and the offense has what's known as a "free play."
If something goes wrong, of course, the play can be nullified by accepting the penalty. So it makes perfect sense to go for broke, so to speak, and I bet you can guess who the most aggressive quarterback in the NFL is in such situations.
Since the start of the 2011 season, no quarterback has attempted more big passes in such situations than the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers. He completed two of them last Sunday against the St. Louis Rams and, as NFC West blogger Mike Sando points out, has caused opponents to flag them in weekly gameplans.
John McTigue of ESPN Stats & Information provided these details: Rodgers has attempted an NFL-high 14 post-encroachment passes since the start of 2011. They have averaged 25.8 yards past the line of scrimmage, the highest total of any quarterback with more than two such attempts. Five have been completed for a league-high 128 yards, including two touchdowns. He has thrown two interceptions, but both were nullified by the penalty.
Against the Rams, Rodgers completed a 52-yard pass to receiver Jordy Nelson and a 39-yard touchdown pass to receiver Randall Cobb in similar situations. Speaking this week on his ESPN 540 radio show , Rodgers took listeners through the Cobb touchdown in extraordinary detail. In summary, the entire play was an ad-lib after an overt attempt to draw the Rams offside.
"There was about 3:45 left on the clock and it was third-and-long. Third-and-9 there. We had just had a negative run. We had ran two plays. We got the call in and there was a little bit of confusion and I couldn’t exactly hear just what the call was.
"I said, 'Hey let's line up and I am going to just try to run the clock down and see if they jump. But if they jump, let's get open.' We are in our empty shotgun formation and I did my leg kick a couple times and they ended up jumping. But it wasn't a major jump so my immediate reaction was, … 'Did they throw the flag or not?'
"I couldn't tell if there was a flag going up on my right. I figured the guy on left wasn't. I peaked to the right, but I couldn't tell if a flag had been thrown and then my next feeling was that the left side of the line had kind of collapsed. I moved to my left. As I moved left, my first thought was I might be able to run this one for a first down. My calf was feeling pretty good at this point in the game and I knew at bare minimum I could stay in bounds and a field goal gets it to a 10-point game even if I just get five yards."
Host Jason Wilde asked if center Jeff Saturday snapped the ball because he thought the Rams were offside. Rodgers:
"Yeah, he figured they were offsides. But I was kind of looking off to the left so I couldn't tell if he was offsides or the end just rocked in his stance a bit. My next look was to the left as I thought about running. Randall put his hand up as he was running and that is something we have talked about in meetings: Let me know what you are thinking. If you are putting your hand up in a certain direction or way, I know you are going to continue on that path and not come back or swim them.
"He went inside of [the defender] and then kind of came around him and put his hand up and I actually double clutched it, because I wasn't sure where the safety was. I was able to put the ball in a decent spot and he was able to make a great catch."
It's rare that an NFL player or coach will provide the public with such a detailed analysis of a play. But as Rodgers discussed, the touchdown to Cobb was neither accidental nor random. Many NFL teams scheme to draw defenses offside and then capitalize with big plays, but no one has done it more frequently or with better results than Rodgers and the Packers.