Why don’t NFL teams pass the ball around like rugby players?

Maybe we've been watching too much rugby from Japan in the early hours and it's melted our brains, but surely it makes sense to pass the ball more?


On Sunday night, Patrick Mahomes faced pressure from a defensive front, like he so often does, so he skipped outside the pocket and found Travis Kelce, as he so often does, completing a pass against the odds, which he so often does. Kelce caught the ball, which, as you can guess, he so often does – but then, a difference.

Kelce, being hauled to the ground by an opposition defender, looked up and saw LeSean McCoy behind him, so he offloaded.

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I use a rugby term here because this piece speaks more to those who do not understand why the NFL doesn’t take full of advantage of rugby strategy, especially when there’s so often two-v-ones that could be exploited with a simple backwards pass.

Well, it’s not a straightforward answer, but here’s some things to note before casting current NFL play designs into oblivion.

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The coach’s decision is final

The psychology of the NFL is best described by its greatest ever student – Bill Belichick.

He reminds you, constantly, to “do your job”. Accountability is the DNA from which American football has grown. You sit down, you design plays to outsmart defensive coverages and everyone plays a role for your plan to come off.

Most coaches are control freaks. Their plays are their own – a product of their labour, and if your job depends on them being happy with you, you’re going to see it out until the very end.

Imagine Pep Guardiola binging on double-shot espressos and you’ll have an idea of how tightly wound these guys are about their plays.

Players’ instincts aren’t to be trusted like they are in so many other sports. Everything is taught within the context of gameplans, and it’s why the wrinkles are written down by a head coach and planned, drafted and practiced for months.

LOS ANGELES, CA – JANUARY 12: Jared Goff #16 of the Los Angeles Rams recovers a fumble in the third quarter against the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Divisional Playoff game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on January 12, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

It’s the way it’s always been

US sports are completely integrated into the US academic system.

Have an English class? ‘Ah look, we can skip this one if you manage to block that nine-tech on an okie roll blitz’.

But often, the only ways of teaching someone who doesn’t want to be taught something is by either discipline, repetition or dangling a million-dollar future in front of them. In football, it’s often a combination of all three.

So many players, for example, aren’t told why running certain concepts will make a safety try to jump a receiver route, leaving the deep shots completely open, they’re just told to do it.

In a way it makes the improvisational moments like Kelce’s more spectacular. In soccer, it’s shown and remembered for a month. In the NFL, it’s shown every day on a highlight reel with a different name but the same content.

It goes down in history and it’s brought up over and over again.

CLEVELAND, OHIO – SEPTEMBER 08: A Cleveland Browns fan shows his frustration during the second half against the Tennessee Titans at FirstEnergy Stadium on September 08, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Titans defeated the Browns 43-13. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Desperation plays

The best players can improvise in crucial moments. Those moments are generally do-or-die situations. It’s why the lateral pass, or if you’re reading this from a different context, the ‘rugby’ pass exists in some form.

If teams are losing a game, they can often try a ‘hook and ladder’ concept that beats coverages if they over-pursue the ball carrier. Defences are coached to run to the ball and nothing else. Screen passes became popular because it undermines that psychological imprint you’re battling when you’re a signal-calling linebacker.

This is similar. Here’s an example:

Boise State need to convert a 4th-and-18 to stay in the game. There’s mere seconds left and the Oklahoma defence are playing coverage to the marker. This is a very, very low percentage conversion rate.

So when the ball is thrown short, defenders charge towards the receiver, not accounting for the man off the ball. He then strolls in for a touchdown.

There’s acceptance in the game that the concept works, but it’s only ever wheeled out in crucial moments because otherwise it would be accounted for by defences.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA – JANUARY 20: Head coach Sean McVay of the Los Angeles Rams reacts against the New Orleans Saints during the second quarter in the NFC Championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 20, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Risk aversion

It may be hard to believe, but the risk of dropping the ball is very high.

Yes, these are some of the best catchers of the ball in the world, but they’re so focused on a particular set of circumstances in which they catch the ball, that running at an angle to another player to put yourself in the best position for a positive outcome can be a lot to process mid-play.

There needs to be control in American football or it doesn’t work. It’s that simple. Giving big-ego players freedom of expression would result in a free-for-all and then the game becomes nothing other than a showboat contest and coach’s nightmare.

The aim is to win, and the best way to win is by having a game plan. That, and the fact Travis Kelce is a bit of a maverick in the first place, probably goes to show why it’s so rare.

SEATTLE, WA – DECEMBER 23: Travis Kelce #87 of the Kansas City Chiefs tries to get past Bobby Wagner #54 (L) and Delano Hill #42 (R) of the Seattle Seahawks during the second quarter of the game at CenturyLink Field on December 23, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

In a sport that’s so proud of its tactical diversity, it simply doesn’t accommodate for solo-runs like Kelce’s.

Oh, and if you don’t think that a player could possibly forget a slight alteration to the game plan that forces them to know the rules a bit better, you’d be wrong in most cases.

Here’s Utah returning a fumbled lateral pass as USC forgot that any pass that’s backwards is a live ball, whether it hits the ground or not.

It makes you think.

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What do you think?