The Secret Dance of PI revealed
Super Bowl could turn on how refs react to grabbing, shoving and flopping
In the eyes of the NFL, the most critical factor in determining the winner of Super Bowl XLVIII won't ever, officially, take place.
But you and I, we know better.
We know all about the strategic importance and the nuanced brilliance behind what has become The Secret Dance of PI.
Thanks, in part, to The Magazine's Super Bowl preview, we now know how the best defenses in the game, starting with the Seahawks, expertly manipulate the rulebook and the human-nature based shortcomings of officiating in order to compete in the pass-happy era of the NFL. "Defensive backs are being far more aggressive downfield than I have ever seen before," said Gerry Austin, an NFL official for 26 years who now serves as a rules analyst for ESPN. "And Seattle is the most aggressive of them all, believing that there's no way officials won't call them two to three times in a row -- and that has to change."
Ah, but we also know how the best offenses in the game, starting with the Broncos, counter this strategy and exploit pass interference for their own gain. Exhibit A: Eric Decker drew five PI's this season, third most in the league. Exhibit B: Wes Welker's fourth-quarter flop in the postseason win against San Diego.
So I set out, like a field reporter from NatGeo, to explore the beautiful, mysterious Secret Dance of PI and how it will play out for viewers Sunday across the frozen swamps of New Jersey. In a whisper: Ah, yes, notice how the defender expertly hides his free hand on the receiver's downfield hip, nudging him ever-so-slightly off his intricately timed route as the ball sails by, untouched, and, with the danger temporarily averted, the cornerback leaves his island to rejoin his herd for another down.
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That's The Dance.
"The receivers do a little pushing off, we do a little pulling in," Patriots safety Steve Gregory explained. "He tries to push you with his arm, you kind of tug it real quick. If he sticks his arm in your chest, you grab his arm or swat it down. The battle within the battle."
For years that battle had been dominated by the offense. Why? Well, economics. Passing equals scoring, scoring equals entertainment, entertainment equals ratings and ratings equals money. The NFL has hardly been secretive about adjusting the rules in order to help offenses.
Defenses, meanwhile, have always been left to adjust, evolve and manipulate the rules in order to keep up. And that's just what they did with PI. It's genius, really. The idea is the same concept blockers have long used with holding. Hide it in plain sight on every down. Repeat after me: If everything in the NFL looks like pass interference, that's the same as saying nothing is.
Still, the idea to embrace pass interference as a weapon on defense didn't really take off until last year's Super Bowl when Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith used aggressive -- and controversial -- coverage to shut down Michael Crabtree on the 49ers' final possession. "This is a trend you are going to see a lot more of -- more tight, physical press coverage -- because it works," Smith said. "Even the biggest, most physical receivers in the game, they don't want to be touched; it throws their timing off."
Trust me, the Seahawks were watching and learning. This year they led the league in two categories we used to think were mutually exclusive: PI and overall defense. In fact, they were so good at it, Austin says the NFL is planning to take a serious look at revamping PI -- but not until after the season. So, The Dance will continue for at least one more game. Advantage: Seattle. "You have to go for it and play as aggressive as you can," All-Pro Seahawks safety Earl Thomas said. "If that means a PI call goes against you, so be it."
Somewhere along the line the Seahawks also discovered that playing tighter and more physical coverage is also the best way to hide the two cheats -- the jersey tug and the hip pull -- most effective in obstructing finicky pass receivers and intricately choreographed offenses. "When the receiver cuts you, get you a little pull to kind of sling shot you with him," Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib said. "I do the little jersey pull more than I do the hands on the hip. A little jersey pull, a little tug, don't hurt nobody. It's effective sometimes. Sometimes you get a flag."
Not just sometimes. Pass interference penalties were assessed 233 times in 2013, to be exact. This cost defenses 4,058 yards. It sounds like a lot. It's not. It's peanuts. Each defense lost an average of just 7.9 yards per game to PI calls this season. So when I heard Jim Caldwell arrive in Detroit preaching about how important it is to be disciplined and penalty-free, I said: wrong, wrong, wrong.
In 2012, the most penalized team in the NFL was the Ravens. How'd that work out for them? The answer includes a ring the size of a paperweight with 243 diamonds. We know about the Seahawks, but the Broncos were also among the league leaders in penalties. Physical corner Chris Harris was flagged seven times in coverage this season before injuring his ACL. Now, if you understand how losing a defender with that many penalties will actually hurt the Broncos in the Super Bowl, congratulations, you're catching on to The Secret Dance of PI.
If not, consider this: In the past decade, the most penalized pass defenses all have one thing in common: winning records. I know Vince Lombardi would hate this, but in today's NFL it's simply more important to play with a physical edge on defense than it is to be flag-free. Just ask the 3-13 Redskins, who had only one PI penalty all season. "These days," Smith said, "the more physical team always wins."
It's The Dance.
"A big thing for me, I put my hand on the receiver's hip because your hip is a very strong joint," Panthers safety Mike Mitchell said. "So if I was to chuck you in the hip, it's going to throw your whole stride off. If you're pulling on me and I need to slow you down or at least have a good feel of where you're trying to go, I put my hand on your hip. I can literally feel where you're trying to go. I do that all the time. I haven't gotten a penalty this year."
The Dance may have helped the Panthers beat the Patriots in Week 11, but Mitchell & Co. never had to face the Broncos. Decker and Welker are experts at getting calls downfield. And -- shocker -- Manning (an icon and rainmaker for the league) is perhaps the best ever at putting the ball in a place where if he can't get the completion, he will at least have a shot at a huge PI spot foul.
It's an oft-copied technique that has affected a handful of critical games this year. "I've had plays where I'm running a route, a guy holds my arm or my jersey or something and I can't really get out or in where I'm trying to go," Panthers receiver Ted Ginn Jr. said "So you try to flop, like in the game of basketball."
Why do wideouts flop? For the same reason defensive backs grab and twist and bump when no one's looking. Because it works. And with a guy like Manning able to put up 400 yards passing without breaking a sweat, they don't have a lot of options.
More from Flem File columnist and ESPN The Magazine writer David Fleming:
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• Jim Harbaugh's greatest fits
• Measuring coach-QB relationships
• Cup check: Protection lacking
• 2013 Turkey of the Year Awards
• Beginning of end for NFL
• In appreciation of batted passes
• Who did it: Lions or Will Ferrell?
• Luck-Manning link goes way back
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• Brees, Payton belong together
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• OTL: Marathon of their lives
"When you look at the numbers for completions and yards passing, defenses don't really have many other opportunities to keep up," Austin said. "Unless they let defenses play with 12 men on the field, that's about the only way to make things equal out there."
Until that changes, The Dance will go on.
I jam you, grab some jersey, you push off. I move your hip, you pick me with a teammate. I roll a safety over top who matches you stride for stride down the sideline, you underthrow the ball. I try to turn around and play the ball, you flop like a soccer player hit by sniper fire. Then we both land on the ground in a tangle and hold our breath while the fatigued and unsure human being in black and white stripes hovers over us and tries to decide in a split second if he really wants to insert himself into sports history where he'll be judged by 100 million experts with the benefit of unlimited replay.
That, my football friends, is The Secret Dance of PI.
And, if you ask me, what better way could there be to determine the biggest sporting event in American history?
The best cheater wins.
Theresa Manahan also contributed to this report.
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