Talking to people before the game it was near unanimous that should the New England Patriots win their game Saturday evening against the Baltimore Ravens, and the final score was close, someone somewhere would complain about something the Patriots did or some perceived poor call would go the Patriots way. It’s not possible to place a bet on that happening because it’s one of those things the house could never win at; when the Patriots win close games folks say that they cheated.
So it came as no surprise that Ravens head coach John Harbaugh whined in claiming that New England was using illegal substitutions and his defense should have been given an opportunity to react to the Patriots changes. “It’s a substitution type of a trick type of a thing,” Harbaugh told reporters after the game. “So they don’t give you the opportunity, they don’t give you the chance to make the proper substitutions and things like that. It’s not something that anybody’s ever done before. The league will look at that type of thing and I’m sure that they’ll make some adjustments and things like that.”
He continued, “We wanted an opportunity to be able to ID who the eligible players were, because what they were doing was they would announce the eligible player and then time was taken and they would go over and snap the ball before we even had the chance to figure out who was lined up where, and that was the deception part of it. And that was where it was clearly deception. So the officials told me after that they’d give us the opportunity to do that, which they probably should have done during that series but they didn’t really understand what was happening.”
What Harbaugh is complaining about is Patriots head coach Bill Belichick used a formation that contained only four offensive linemen instead of the usual five. Belichick used a player wearing an eligible receiver’s number, Shane Vereen, as his fifth lineman, and Vereen had to–and did–report to the referee that he is not eligible to have the ball thrown directly to him (in other words, that he is an ineligible receiver). The fact that Vereen was split away from the other linemen in an unusual fashion is immaterial to the rules. As long as the ineligible player is lined up along the line of scrimmage, is covered by an eligible receiver, and he doesn’t cross the line of scrimmage before the ball is thrown the rule is followed to the letter. The issue here is Harbaugh, and his defense, didn’t know the rules.
Even funnier in this situation according to a tweet by Sport’s Illustrated’s Peter King on Sunday morning, on the three plays where New England used the unusual formation the time between referee Bill Vinovich announcing who the ineligible receiver was and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady snapping the ball on two of the plays seven seconds elapsed and on one it was 10 seconds. That’s certainly enough time for the defense to adjust to what it was seeing.
It gets better when you find out that not only did referee Vinovich announce Vereen was ineligible and pointed to him each time, on the third play Vinovich clearly stated over the PA “Number 34 is ineligible. Do not cover number 34”. What more could be done to clue in the defense that Vereen is ineligible?
Now, never mind the fact that Harbaugh was completely wrong about “it’s not something that anybody has ever done before” because it’s essentially the same play Alabama ran in overtime to beat LSU, but even if it was something that had never been seen before that’s not a reason for the officials to hold up the offense from snapping the ball. When the Miami Dolphins unveiled the “WildCat” offense against New England no one had really seen that before to that extent in the NFL, but the Patriots didn’t complain play should have been stopped for them to adjust. It was their job to do so, and in that game New England didn’t, losing 38-13 in week three of the 2008 NFL season.
And I don’t remember any whining from the Patriots when that game was over.