MINNEAPOLIS – It’s called the “Philly Special,” and it will forever hold a special place in the hearts of Philadelphians.
The trick play that had Nick Foles fake an audible, Corey Clement take a direct snap, Clement flip to Trey Burton, Foles release into a route, Burton throw to Foles and the Eagles score a touchdown will forever be a part of not only Super Bowl lore, but also in the annals of Philly sports.
There were many moments from the Eagles’ remarkable 41-33 victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl LII that will have a lasting imprint in the minds of Eagles fans. Foles, in an MVP performance, tossed three touchdowns, each one seemingly better than the previous one. But his catch — the first ever by a quarterback in the Super Bowl — was a memory marker.
And it wasn’t in the Eagles’ playbook until just before the NFC championship game against the Vikings. Press Taylor, the Eagles’ assistant quarterbacks coach, dug the play up after watching the Bears successfully pull off the trickery against Minnesota in 2016. Taylor is responsible for bringing trick plays to Doug Pederson and the Eagles coach loved it right away.
“I said, ‘Doug, do we really want to run this play if the Vikings had seen it just a year ago?'” Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. “But you know Doug. He’s like, ‘Hell, yeah I do.'”
The Eagles practiced the play the days leading up to the NFC title game and Pederson included it in the game plan. On the Saturday night before the game, Pederson and Reich met, as they always do, to go over the call sheet one last time.
“Doug said this would be our knockout punch in the second half,” Reich said. “But we got so far ahead that he never needed to call it.”
But the Eagles had practiced the play so well that Pederson decided that he wanted to keep working on it for the Patriots. They ran it during the bye week and they ran it again early during Super Bowl week. But they needed to work on a few details. Foles was releasing up and out rather than just out. And Reich was worried about using it against Bill Belichick and New England.
“It’s the Patriots. You don’t often fool them,” Reich said. “They can sniff out any old trick play.”
So the Eagles simulated the play one last time during an informal walkthrough late in the week in the Radisson Hotel ballroom at the Mall of America.
“We just needed to go over it one more time,” Reich said. “We worked on when Kelce would snap the ball. When Nick would walk up to Lane [Johnson] to try and get him set for a new play, he would yell, ‘Lane, Lane’ twice and on the second ‘Lane,” Kelce would snap the ball.”
Reich said that he didn’t know when and if Pederson would call it against the Patriots, but with the Eagles up, 15-12, and facing a fourth down at the 1-yard line with 38 seconds left before the first half, the Eagles’ play caller dialed it up.
“I’ll tell you what, for a coach to call that play in that situation — are you kidding me?” Reich said. “That’s just the aggressive play caller that he is. It couldn’t have come at a better time.”
Before the play, however, the Eagles called a timeout. Foles walked over to the sideline and he said that Pederson told him of his plan, and “we agreed on it.” As Foles ran back onto the field, Nelson Agholor, the Eagles’ gadget guy ran off.
Foles broke the huddle and the Eagles bunched three receivers to the left – Torrey Smith, Zach Ertz and Burton. Alshon Jeffery lined up alone to the right. And Clement was behind Foles, who was in a pistol formation. Foles then started motioning with his hands as he walked toward the right side of the line as if he was changing the play. He tapped Johnson on the end and the ball was out of Kelce’s hand.
Clement, who earlier in the drive had a spectacular 55-yard catch and run on a wheel route, ran to his left. He flipped to Burton, who had run back across the formation. The Patriots were caught flat-footed. Linebacker Elandon Brooks followed Clement and linebacker Kyle Van Noy was late to react to Foles, who released toward the end zone.
“A quarterback going out on a route?” Foles said. “I was pumped.”
Burton, who played some quarterback in college and who was the Eagles’ emergency quarterback, then lofted a strike to Foles at the goal line. The Patriots had dialed up a similar trick play earlier that involved a pass to quarterback Tom Brady. But he dropped the over-the-shoulder toss from receiver Danny Amendola.
Foles would make no such error. He pulled the ball into his grasp and Pederson’s roll of the dice had come up sevens.
“I’ve been dreaming of throwing a touchdown pass since college,” Burton said. “I still don’t believe it. Guys said, ‘You just threw a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl.'”
As aggressive as Pederson has been as a head coach, he hadn’t called a trick play all season until the NFC championship game. As far as gadget plays go, the flea flicker that Foles tossed to Smith for a touchdown two weeks ago was tame, especially compared to Sunday’s Super Bowl sensation.
But Pederson was no stranger to going for it on fourth down. In two seasons, the Eagles converted 30 of a league-high 53 fourth down tries (56.6 percent).
Pederson would gamble once more time midway through the fourth quarter. Trailing 33-32 with four minutes and 52 seconds left, the Eagles faced fourth and one on their own 45-yard line. A failed conversion there and the game was possibly over.
But Foles stood in against the rush and chucked a dart to Zach Ertz for two yards and a first down. Six plays later, he hooked up with his trusty tight end again – this time for the go-ahead 11-yard touchdown.
The Eagles never lost the lead again.
In a battle of coaching wits, Pederson got the better of Belichick. Why? Earlier in the second quarter, the Patriots faced a fourth down and 1 on the Eagles 8. The Eagles were up, 9-3. The Patriots had already proven that they could move the ball. But rather than go for it, Belichick turtled up and attempted a field goal.
It wasn’t the Patriots coach’s fault that the snap was bad and that kicker Stephen Gostkowski clanked his attempt off the left upright. But Pederson would have likely gone for it. That’s how the game should be played. Indecisiveness is hardly rewarded in the NFL, especially against the likes of Belichick.
Jaguars coach Doug Marrone played conservatively in the AFC championship game and it cost his team. Pederson would not fall prey to the same thinking. He would lay it all on the line and for his efforts the Eagles were rewarded.
Pederson had once been doubted. He had been underestimated. He had been lampooned. But the Eagles coach had the last laugh. Of course, he didn’t take any credit for the success of the “Philly Special.”
“The guys executed it brilliantly,” Pederson said.