For most of us in orange, the 2010 Tennessee-LSU game brings up painful memories of a potential upset for the ages ruined by an epic mistake by a young, inexperienced team and coaching staff. But what if the Vols' defense having too many men on the field was a tactical decision designed to maximize the chance of victory? Bill Barnwell's article The Fearless Super Bowl Recap on ESPN's Grantland yesterday contained an interesting analysis of an illegal participation penalty by the Giants late in the fourth quarter: Barnwell believes that Tom Coughlin may have intentionally placed too many men on the field, preventing the offense from completing a long pass and trading yardage for time.
According to Barnwell, the tactic was invented by NFL defensive legend and noted innovator Buddy Ryan, who called it the "Polish Goalline". The motivation for using such tactic is simple: having too many men on the field after the snap (illegal participation) is a live ball penalty, meaning that while the offense is awarded penalty yardage or the result of the play, no time is added to the clock. Skip forward to 5:10 in the following video and watch the play unfold: the Patriots have the ball at the 43 and a half yard-line, 2nd and 10 with 17 seconds to go when Brady takes the snap and throws deep down the left sideline, incomplete. After the penalty for too many men on the field is assessed, the Patriots have the ball at the 48 and a half yard-line, still 2nd and 10... with only 9 seconds left.
Compare that play to the end of the 2010 Tennessee-LSU game (assuming you've recovered enough from the heartbreak of that day to actually watch the clip): if Jefferson attempts a pass, the result is likely an incompletion, while time is run off the clock and the offense gains a modest 6-8 inches on the penalty yardage. If Jefferson attempts to pull the ball down and run, or hand off to the back, the play is likely stuffed while the clock runs down. In either case, the penalty yardage is inconsequential; meaning the question is: would you rather defend several plays or just one? Unfortunately for the Vols, the emotional swing from having the game won to playing a last, untimed down was too great for a defense that played lights out all game.
Do I think it's more likely than a mistake? No, but I do appreciate the idea that there's method to the madness... aka Dooley is trolling us.