Trick plays stand out in a Super Bowl a little like clown suits at a cocktail party.
In this highest-of-high-stakes contest, the appetite for NFL coaches whose strategies lean more conservative than not is typically low for gadgets and gimmicks. Surprising the other team with a safety blitz or deep pass, sure, but the risk of true trickery can be steep with a title on the line.
Yes, the reward of a valuable touchdown remains. Mess up a trick play in a game of this magnitude and lose a close one in the end? Well, good luck living that decision down, coach, for the rest of your career.
Perhaps another gimmick or two will emerge next week in Arizona when New England plays Seattle. The Patriots threw a touchdown pass to left tackle Nate Solder in the AFC championship game, after all, and the Seahawks scored on a fake field goal toss by punter Jon Ryan to spur their comeback victory for the NFC title.
For now, here’s a list of the best trick plays in Super Bowl history:
‘Ambush’ in Miami
Onside kicks are expected at the end of the game when the trailing team is running out of time, but New Orleans stunned Indianapolis and everyone else watching the game by recovering the kickoff to start the second half in Miami after the 2009 season.
The play was called “ambush,” a stutter-step tap by rookie kicker Thomas Morstead out of a standard formation that came with the Colts leading 10-6. The Saints responded with their first touchdown six plays and 58 yards later and went on to win 31-17.
Payton was inspired by his mentor Bill Parcells, one of the boldest coaches in history. Payton drew praise from President Barack Obama at the White House ceremony for the first-time champions.
“I make some tough decisions every day, but I’ve never decided on an onside kick in the second half of the Super Bowl. That took some guts,” Obama said.
Twenty-three years earlier, Parcells was the coach who saw the opening for a surprise with his team trailing at the break. The New York Giants lined up for a punt on fourth-and-1 near midfield when backup quarterback Jeff Rutledge moved up behind center before the snap. He took it 2 yards on a sneak, and Phil Simms had them in the end zone five plays later for a 16-10 lead over Denver at the Rose Bowl stadium.
Later in the third quarter, Parcells struck again. With the Broncos focused on stopping the run, Joe Morris took a handoff he flipped back to Simms, who found Phil McConkey wide open for a 44-yard completion on the flea flicker. With a touchdown on the next play, the Giants were up by 16 points and went on to win handily.
Stick it to ’em
The Super Bowl after the 1977 season was held in New Orleans, where Dallas had a 10-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. After Denver lost a fumble on a sack at its 29-yard line, Cowboys coach Tom Landry called for the kill shot. Running back Robert Newhouse took a pitch and ran left before stopping to throw right to Golden Richards for the game-sealing touchdown.
Newhouse said later he was nervous in the huddle because of an excess of Stickum, the now-banned substance once used by skill-position players to grip the ball more easily, on his hands.
“Preston Pearson handed me this rag, and I was in there scrubbing it all,” Newhouse said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News.
Let ’em have it
Trick plays aren’t only for the offense. Green Bay, the champion after the 1996 season, was going for back-to-back titles the following year in San Diego. With the game tied after the two-minute warning, Packers coach Mike Holmgren liked his team’s chance of scoring another touchdown with the ball back better than stopping Denver on second-and-goal from the 1. So they let Terrell Davis into the end zone without trying to tackle him.
The strategy almost worked. The Packers had 105 seconds left and drove to the 31, but the Broncos held on for the 31-24 victory.
Leading Seattle by four points early in the fourth quarter in Detroit after the 2005 season, Pittsburgh got the ball back with an interception at its 5-yard line. A return, a penalty and three plays later, coach Bill Cowher made a bold call.
Running back Willie Parker handed off to wide receiver Antwaan Randle El on a first-and-10 reverse from the Seahawks 43. Then Randle El, a former college quarterback at Indiana, halted his run and heaved the ball to a wide-open Hines Ward for the 21-10 final score. That’s the only touchdown pass by a wide receiver in Super Bowl history.
“When we called it, my eyes lit up and I had to try to not give it away,” Randle El said.