Trick plays are lighting up the CFL this year; the Eskimos’ failed fake punt shouldn’t alter that

There have been a surprising number of trick plays in the CFL so far this year, and that's good to see. Beyond merely increasing the entertainment value of a given game, trick plays add to the coaching chess matches going on, make the league less predictable and have effects well beyond individual plays. However, not all trick plays work out, and when they fail, they're often seized upon by fans and media as key examples of what went wrong. That's somewhat fair, given the high-risk, high-reward nature of many trick plays, but it doesn't always accurately reflect the whole picture. For an example, consider the Edmonton Eskimos' fake punt that didn't quite work out in Thursday's loss to Calgary:

That was a gutsy call by Edmonton head coach Chris Jones to go for it on third down (and do so with a trick play) deep in his own end, and it almost paid off. Speedy Eskimos' DB Aaron Grymes caught the Stampeders by surprise on that pitch from punter Grant Shaw, and he came within half a yard of getting the first down. If Calgary hadn't recovered so quickly, he might have had a touchdown. However, Grymes didn't quite make it far enough, leading to a turnover on downs and favourable field position for the Stampeders, and Edmonton's defence couldn't come up with a stop on the next play, leading to a Calgary touchdown. Given that the final score was 26-22 Calgary, many media reports cited this as the game's turning point. Here are a few examples:

Edmonton was guilty of a couple of major gaffes in the game, including the questionable decision to try and run a fake punt out of the end zone late in the second quarter, a failed effort which led directly to a costly Calgary touchdown.

- Shane Jones, The Canadian Press

Under the category of ‘what was he thinking?’ fell the Eskimos’ first unsuccessful trick kick of the season.

- Con Griwkowsky, The Edmonton Sun

Maybe the only time all eyes came off of the running tally on the scoreboard was at the end of the first half, when the Eskimos made the call that swung the game in Calgary’s favour.

A botched fake punt call blew up on head coach Chris Jones and the Eskimos, when punter Grant Shaw flipped the ball to defensive halfback Aaron Grymes deep in the end zone. Grymes came up short of the first down, and Calgary took over the ball on the 16-yard line, where quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell (14 of 29 passing, 124 yards, one touchdown) only needed a 16-yard flick of the wrist to receiver Jeff Fuller to steal the lead and essentially the game from the now 4-1 Eskimos.

- Chris O'Leary, The Edmonton Journal

None of that is completely wrong; the fake punt's failure was an important moment in the game, and in such a close game, it certainly can be spotlighted as a moment that made the difference. It wasn't the only moment that did, though, and it's worth noting that CFL history is written to highlight the victors (or perhaps even more accurately, to spotlight the mistakes of the losers); Calgary went for it on 3rd-and-one at one point (as one should) and failed, which was reduced to a footnote in the game stories but might have been elevated to the lede if the Eskimos had come out on top. However, it's worth noting that the tone of media coverage around Jones' trick play calls was substantially different when they worked, as the two in Edmonton's season-opening victory over B.C. on June 28 did. Here's the fake field goal they pulled off there (which led to a touchdown and then a successful onside kick):

And here's some of the media coverage of that:

Any time a football coach calls for a trick play, it’s a gutsy move.

But when you’re making your head coaching debut and your team is in dire need of a go-ahead score and you respond with a pair of trick plays, you’ve got more than guts.

It’s one thing to call a fake field goal to extend a drive, as Edmonton Eskimos head coach Chris Jones elected to do on Saturday against the B.C. Lions. The play worked — Calvin McCarty took the shovel pass from placeholder Matt Nichols and gained the necessary first down — and after quarterback Mike Reilly found Fred Stamps for the go-ahead score, Jones went to his other sleeve to see what he could do.

Grant Shaw went from making a convincing phantom field-goal kick on the first play to chipping an onside kick to the sideline at BC Place near the Eskimos bench. Pat Watkins was there and pulled the ball in, giving the offence another chance to go out and put some distance between themselves and the Lions.

“You’ve got to do whatever you’ve got to do to win a game,” Jones said of his special-teams trickery, giving credit to special teams co-ordinator Craig Dickenson for drawing up the plays.

- Chris O'Leary, The Edmonton Journal

Despite the fact the Eskimos only managed to win four games last year, there seems to be more buzz in Edmonton about the two trick plays than the two points they produced for openers.

You don’t realize the extent fans have been starving for a little fun football until you see that reaction.

Special teams co-ordinator Craig Dickenson, the man most responsible for putting fun back in football under head coach Chris Jones, picked up on that this week.

“Yeah, I’ve noticed there’s a lot of excitement over those two plays,” said Dickinson.

- Terry Jones, The Edmonton Sun

Again, none of that's wrong, or even necessarily inconsistent; the trick plays certainly played at least as much of a role in the Eskimos' win over B.C. as they did in the loss to Calgary, so praising them when they work and criticizing them when they don't makes some sense (and at least it's highlighting them consistently regardless of outcome). However, an issue shown here is that coverage around games and shortly thereafter is outcome-oriented, not percentage-oriented. It's similar to why we see third-down timidity in this league; when decisions outside the conventional football wisdom are made, they're widely derided if they don't work out (see Ken Miller's 2010 punt to win), but if teams lose playing conventionally, no one spotlights the coaches. Similarly, much of the criticism of the fake punt call Jones made this week appears to be because it didn't work, but the real way to discuss it is whether it was the right call based on its percentages of success and the outcomes if it worked or didn't.

We don't have good data for all of that thanks to how unusual a play of this kind is, but it's worth noting that most of Jones' trick plays so far have worked out. They're never going to succeed at a 100 per cent rate, but his success rate so far is impressive. Moreover, this was a high-upside play; it seemed to have an excellent chance of producing a first down, and could well have created a touchdown if the Stampeders had been a little slower to catch on. The downside also appeared limited; Edmonton was pinned so deep that the conventional wisdom would have been for them to concede a safety (it's notable that conceding a safety is almost never a good move by the numbers) and give up two points, so even if their third-down conversion failed and they were able to hold Calgary to a field goal, that's only a one-point swing. Yes, things went very wrong for the Eskimos here, but that doesn't make this a bad call by the percentages.

It's notable that trick plays have an effect beyond merely the play in question, too; they force teams to be alert for the chances of a trick play, which can reduce the effectiveness of their traditional defence or special teams. For example, Calgary's special teams were alert to stopping this fake punt, but that may have hurt the efficiency of their return game; their punt and kick returners didn't pick up a lot of yardage Thursday, perhaps partly thanks to blockers knowing Jones' penchant for tricks and focusing on stopping those instead of just setting up a return. That's where trick plays can be particularly effective; they can get inside opponents' heads and make them prepare for the unusual (which also reduces their film study time of your conventional plays), and that's a season-long effect. Where they really get interesting is when you execute tricks on offence as well as on special teams, forcing teams to be alert on every conceivable down instead of just punts and field goals. The winning coach Thursday, Calgary's John Hufnagel, can tell you a bit about that. Here's what his team pulled off against the Argos on July 12:

Trick plays like the ones the Eskimos and Stampeders have tried this year shouldn't be judged solely on whether they worked or not, but on their chances of success, the upside if they succeed, the downside if they fail, how they compare to the alternatives and the role they play in the larger picture. Jones knows that, as evidenced by his post-game comments this week. Eskimos' GM Ed Hervey knows that too, and he backed Jones' call. Some media members, including John MacKinnon of the Journal and Gerry Moddejonge of the Sun, have taken the longer view of trick plays this week as well. It seems unlikely this particular play's failure will cause the Eskimos (or any other CFL team) to start calling less trick plays, and that's a good thing from this corner. Trick plays are shaking this league up, and they can still be a great idea despite one not working out.

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