That’s because other teams may find it tougher to nail the timing as perfectly as New England did on Sunday night against the Miami Dolphins.
New England special teams ace Brenden Schooler blindsided the Dolphins by using a running start to smother Jason Sanders’ 49-yard, third-quarter field goal attempt. Schooler lined up well wide of the formation with his eyes trained on Miami holder Jake Bailey. Then, without warning, he sprinted inward six steps and cut upfield just as the ball was snapped, zooming untouched past a flat-footed edge protector.
— NFL (@NFL) September 18, 2023
The timing of Schooler’s sprint suggests that New England knew exactly when Miami long snapper Blake Ferguson would release the ball and designed its field goal block as a sneak attack to take advantage. As former longtime NFL kicker Shayne Graham told Yahoo Sports on Monday, “Obviously they saw something on film where they were able to time it perfectly. That’s the only way you’d be able to practice that.”
ESPN’s Pat McAfee, a former Indianapolis Colts punter and holder, offered further insight during his Monday show, pointing out that Bailey turns his head to ask Sanders if he’s ready and then takes a deep breath before the ball is snapped. McAfee suggested that Bill Belichick could have picked up on that tell during Bailey’s four seasons as the punter and holder with the Patriots from 2019-2022.
— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) September 18, 2023
“Bill Belichick probably watched in self-scout going, ‘How has nobody picked up on the fact that this guy does this?’” McAfee surmised.
Other coaches can certainly install a field goal block concept to mirror New England’s, but those copycats will lack the element of surprise. Graham expects that special teams coaches across the NFL have already begun to emphasize the importance of hard counts while also poring over their game film in search of giveaways that could tip off a defense.
“I guarantee you that this came up during every single special teams meeting on Monday,” said Graham, who helped coach special teams at Michigan State and Florida after retiring from the NFL in 2017. “They’re telling the long snapper, ‘Hey we’ve got to do something to change up the timing of our snap count.’ Everybody is going to be guarding against this.”
Miami coach Mike McDaniel said his staff did exactly that when Sanders attempted another field goal with six minutes left in the Dolphins’ 24-17 victory. The varied snap count allowed Sanders to get that kick off, but he hooked it wide left.
“He wasn’t impacted on that play because we made the appropriate adjustments, but that was a great design,” McDaniel said. “They kind of used one of the motions that we use on offense all the time, basically as a field goal block. Hadn't seen that before. So that was a great job by them.”
This isn’t the first time that NFL teams have gotten creative in their efforts to block field goals and extra points. Defenders for years would take a running start and try to leap over the long snapper until the NFL banned those block attempts in 2017, citing concerns about player safety.
It wouldn’t surprise Graham if Belichick’s clever field goal block design eventually meets a similar fate.
“They figured out a loophole back then and the NFL closed it,” Graham said. “Now they figured out another loophole, and I’m sure it will be a matter of time before the NFL closes this one too.”
Until then, long snappers and holders will have to guard against tipping off when they’re going to snap the ball. If they don’t, special teams coaches now have a weapon in their arsenals.
“I’m sure people are going to try to copy it,” Graham said. “I just don’t know if they’re going to have the same success as New England did the first time.”