Many of you probably know exactly what plays I’m referencing (especially if you’re a Baltimore Ravens fan) and already think that Bill Belichick is a cheater, while those of you who didn’t know of this are now probably assuming that Belichick and his band of cheaters cheated their way to a AFC playoff victory.
Well I hate to burst your bubble, New England Patriots haters, but what Belichick did was completely legal.
In the third quarter, after Patriots center Bryan Stork went down with an injury, the Patriots came out running an unusual formation on offense. Instead of the traditional five offensive lineman, the Patriots instead had four offensive linemen on the line. And who was in the traditional left tackle spot? Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui who was in eligible receiver. Now bear with me because in order to explain both the “deception” (as John Harbaugh called it) and the legality of the play, we have to look at the rules:
The rule says that there must be seven players on the line of scrimmage, which there were: The four offensive linemen, Hoomanawanui, Julian Edelman and Shane Vereen. So far, everything is legal.
The rule also states that eligible receivers must be on either side of the line and all players on the line must be ineligible. When the offense comes onto the field, Vereen lets the referees know that he is an ineligible receiver which means that now, despite the fact that Hoomanawanui is the one lined up at left tackle, he is an eligible receiver. What’s also important is that despite the fact that Rob Gronkowski is lined up between Vereen and the offensive line, he is not on the line of scrimmage meaning that he is still technically an eligible receiver.
So, what happens is the Patriots snap the ball, the Ravens focus on Gronk and Vereen instead of the eligible receiver Hoomanawanui and he is wide open down field.
There’s no rule that the seven players on the line have to be in any order, just that there have to be seven players on the line and the middle five of those are ineligible. Perfectly legal.
After the game, Harbaugh had a lot to say on the matter, claiming, “It’s not something that anybody has ever done before. They’re an illegal type of a thing and I’m sure that [the NFL will] make some adjustments and things like that.”
His biggest complaint was that the referees didn’t give the Ravens’ defense enough time to adjust to who was eligible and who was ineligible. This isn’t true, as on all three occasions this formation came out, referee Bill Vinovich clearly said Vereen was ineligible and in fact once even announced, “Don’t cover 34” which is not part of the job description.
While Harbaugh knows that sounding the ‘Belichick cheated’ bell would get all of Baltimore and probably most of the NFL on his side, the fact remains that the Patriots didn’t cheat. They simply had a better understanding of the rules and used it to their advantage.
As Tom Brady said after the game, “Maybe those guys gotta study the rule book and figure it out.”