Keith Kirkwood can thank the Los Angeles Rams for providing his first NFL highlight.
The rookie wide receiver was still on the New Orleans Saints practice squad when they played the Rams on Nov. 4, but he was called up a week later and made his debut when the Saints played the Bengals.
During the third quarter of that game, Kirkwood made his longest reception of the season. It wasn’t the first catch of his career, but it's the one he will remember most from his first NFL game.
The design of the 42-yard reception was immaculate. A go route up the left sideline and a deep crossing route to the same side occupied two cornerbacks and a safety, clearing out space for Kirkwood. The rookie ran a shallow crossing route and then took off up the right hashes. The play put Kirkwood on a linebacker, who never stood a chance. If not for a pass that was a little underthrown, Kirkwood would have scored.
If something about the play looked familiar, there was a reason for that. A few weeks earlier, the play carried out almost identically when Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp used it to score a 70-yard touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings.
Rams coach Sean McVay did an excellent job of drawing it up, and the Saints did a solid job of lifting it.
It was a blatant case of theft, but all is fair in football. McVay has helped himself to more than a few of Sean Payton’s concepts and plays over the years.
“Are you kidding me?” McVay said. “I take stuff from them all the time, man. The Saints are one of the best; been doing it as well as anybody for the longest period of time. I’m watching Saints film every single week without a doubt.”
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McVay isn’t blowing smoke. When asked about the play against Minnesota, which was designed to get Kupp out of the “back door and on a ’backer,” the first thing he said was the Saints “ran it against the Bengals a few weeks later.”
You have to be paying attention to notice something like that.
New Orleans was not the only team to borrow the play. After reviewing the plays across the NFL this season, The Advocate determined Atlanta also ran it in Week 6 against Tampa Bay (the result was an incompletion to Justin Hardy), and the Bills used it against the Jets for a gain of 33 on a pass to Zay Jones.
There is no question that, much like Payton, McVay has become one of the more influential minds in football.
THE ART OF IT
The Saints aren’t shy about being thieves.
There’s no shame here. Payton openly talks about the subject and will tell anyone who asks that he watches every touchdown scored in the NFL each week, as well as a handful of other teams he deems “must-watches.”
The Rams and Eagles are two of the teams on his list.
Quarterback Drew Brees has talked about how he’ll watch other games and send plays back to offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael and quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi, asking them to consider stealing it. Each play comes replete with Brees’ narration of what is happening and how he thinks it could apply to the Saints offense.
“We steal football plays (from) all over the place,” Brees said. “That's why I love watching football.”
But it isn’t as simple as lifting a play and dropping it into the next week’s game plan.
As he discussed this topic before the Saints played the Rams during the regular season, Payton explained that a new play has to fit within the fabric of the offense for players to digest and understand it easily.
“A lot of times you have video looks where you can show them, ‘See, take a peek at this,’ ” Payton said. “And you show them a picture: ‘Picture if we do (that).’ And so we try not to come up with a lot of new inventions. Might be formation, might be personnel grouping, but I think there’s a balance there of things that they know well.”
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An example of this might have happened during last week's NFC divisional playoff win against the Eagles.
The Saints had previously used a “shield screen” on a touchdown against the Cleveland Browns, which occurs when one wide receiver lays a block for another to run a screen underneath it. The Saints added a twist against the Eagles. After Kirkwood laid down a block for Michael Thomas to slip under, Kirkwood peeled off and ran to the corner of the end zone for a touchdown catch.
Philadelphia ran this same concept two weeks earlier against the Houston Texans. The slip screen and the route coming off it were both covered, forcing the Eagles to target another route — but it looked suspiciously similar to a play New Orleans used in the playoffs. Even if it was just a coincidence, the play serves as an excellent example of the Saints taking a play and adding it to a pre-existing concept.
But New Orleans was only returning the favor. The week before, the Eagles took a play from the Saints and ran it during their NFC wild-card win against the Bears. New Orleans used the same play — during which the offense fakes a screen to both sides of the field before throwing a pass to a tight end up the seam — against Chicago last year.
Yes, sometimes it stings when it happens.
“I think sometimes, ‘Hey, we did that formation,’ or something like that,” Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael said earlier this season. “Sometimes I think, ‘Ugh, they stole our play.’ But I think pretty much every team is looking for good ideas.”
The Saints did another excellent job of blending in an Oct. 28 game at Minnesota, using a shovel pass on a touchdown to Alvin Kamara. The Saints lined up in an empty set. Kamara started to motion, as he often does, before pulling in the pass. It looked like a regular Saints play — until you realize the Patriots scored on the same one against Chicago the week before.
The influence didn’t stop there. The Panthers ran the same play the next week, gaining 4 yards. Cam Newton hadn’t attempted a shovel pass to a player coming out of the slot all season with an empty backfield until that point.
The Saints later used some fake-jet-sweep action on a running play Week 15 against the Carolina Panthers before Tommylee Lewis took the ball on an end around that he fumbled out of the back of the end zone. The inspiration for that call came from the Cleveland Browns, who ran the play against Carolina a week before. The Panthers also used it during the same game against the Saints.
Sometimes an idea is really good, and everyone wants a piece of it.
It makes sense that Payton and McVay keep tabs on one another. They started in similar places.
In 1997, Payton served as the quarterbacks coach for Philadelphia, where Jon Gruden was the offensive coordinator. McVay was the assistant wide receivers coach in Tampa Bay in 2008, Gruden's final year there.
Payton can see the influence in both offenses.
“Plays that start off looking the same that are different,” Payton said. “I remember hearing that one hundred times and Sean has taken his spin on it.”
One of the hallmarks of both offenses is how detailed they are, which is something McVay said Gruden hammered into him as a young coach. Drew Brees remarked how well quarterback Jared Goff handles all the “moving parts” within Los Angeles’ offense earlier this week.
Nothing is as it seems in either offense. The Rams like to use motion and run a lot of plays out of the same look. The Saints want to disguise with motions and through the use of multiple formations and personnel groups. While the approach differs, the goal is the same: Make sure the defense never sees what it's coming.
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“We have a base offense, and then we evolve and build off of that offense,” Brees said. “We are very game-plan oriented. So each and every week, there are very few calls replicated from the week before, and if they are, it’s new shifts, motions, formations, personnel groups potentially.”
The Rams are much the same way. They change, morph and shift every week. It’s one of the reasons Payton put McVay’s offense on the list of teams he watches for new ideas.
And McVay feels the same. He considers Payton one of the greatest play-callers of all time.
Both of these coaches have had an evident influence on the NFL. Payton’s started years ago and continues to this day. McVay’s is just beginning, but he is already changing the game.
So when one of their plays shows up on the other team’s film, you can bet the other coach is going to see it.
It might sting at first to see one of your designs working for another team, but it is just a sign of respect.