Yes, there is always plenty of chatter about our perennial Super Bowl hopefuls. But I also find that there is always some angle to Seahawks coverage that just doesn’t seem to get enough airplay. This column is dedicated to that “elephant in the locker room.”
I’m guessing that you’ve all seen the play by now, even if you missed the game last Thursday night.
You can hear it in Hall of Famer Troy Aikman’s voice. This completion from Russell Wilson to Tyler Lockett is “unbelievable.”
What’s even more unbelievable is that this TD came off a “play-action pass.”
And no, I don’t mean that I’m surprised a play-action pass worked in this scenario; I mean that I can’t believe this is actually called a “play-action” pass. I have never been able to believe it.
Yeah, I know football columns are supposed to be about “Xs and Os”—and I’ve done my fair share of that, if you’ve been paying attention. But today I want to talk about “Ps and Qs,” if you will. That is, I want to talk about the language of football.
There are a bunch of arcane expressions that legitimately describe the specifics of football: “fits,” “12 personnel” (and that doesn’t mean Seahawk fans in the stands), “safety” and “safety” (yes, they are two different things), the “red zone,” “Mike, Sam, and Will” (not actually people at all), the “onside” kick (which has nothing to do with), “offsides,” even “flea-flicker.”
But “play-action” pass? What does that even mean?
It means “a pass play that begins by looking like a running play.” It’s trickery, designed to fool a defense into playing the run rather than the pass, thereby springing a receiver or two open deep because the safeties (!!) have cheated up to stop the run.
Let’s break that down a little.
There are two basic types of offensive plays in the playbook if you are not punting the ball: a pass play, and a run play. So technically speaking, “play-action pass” is a meaningless phrase. It’s like saying “frozen-dessert-style ice-cream.” See what I’m saying? “Pass” is a type of play. “Ice cream” is a type of frozen dessert”; consequently, you’d never say “Hey, Mom! Can we stop for some frozen-dessert-style ice-cream?” Because your mom would look at you with the hairy eyeball and you’d never want to pipe up from the back seat again.
You simply can’t use a less-specific adjective to meaningfully describe something more specific. Like, you’d never describe Lockett’s jersey on Thursday night as “color-hued green.”
But broadcasters and NFL professionals alike say “play-action pass” all the time. Why is that?
Because by and large, football players mangle (or at least brute-force) language with great regularity. My favorite instance of this was while watching a Monday Night Football game circa 1986, and listening to color commentator John Madden narrate the replay of a missed field goal attempt in which the football bounced off one of the uprights. “And there it is: Doink! Off the upright.” Only John Madden would say, “Doink!” That is, until John Madden said it, and then it passed into Official Football Parlance—because it was so darned funny and memorable. We even have “double-doink” in the Football Lexicon now.
And that’s how language seems to work in the NFL. Somebody uses some word or phrase inappropriately, memorably, or even completely incorrectly, and other football people latch on.
Which brings us back to Lockett’s touchdown against the Rams. It’s a classic example, these days, of a quarterback “dropping a dime.” Which is to say, “throwing a ball downfield with remarkable accuracy.” (Something Wilson is leading the NFL in this season, by the way, with 14 deep throws for completions so far.)
But what does “drop a dime” actually mean?
Well, remember payphones? And do you remember when it cost a dime to make a phone call (on a rotary-dial phone) in a phone booth?
Well, even if you don’t… “Dropping a dime” was playing “stool pigeon” to “rat on” your buddies by putting a dime in the pay phone to call the cops. So “dropping a dime” had nothing to do with football (unless you make some really nasty connection between the “pigskin” and “police”) and was decidedly an un-good thing.
Somewhere along the way, basketball players (who, like football players, are pretty good at mangling language) conflated “dropping a dime” with “stopping on a dime” (which, in car terms, has to do with precision handling, as you might suspect) and started using the phrase to mean “a really sweet pass for an assist.”
Probably three years ago or so, football broadcasters started (inappropriately) using a (corrupted) basketball term to describe a really sweet and accurate pass (not an assist at all, but an actual completed play).
And now you can’t get away from it.
Now, I may complain about the use of “drop a dime” and “play-action pass”… but I have no complaints at all about continuing to watch Russell Wilson “drop a dime” or two (or three) on play-action passes to Tyler Lockett. It’s no crime at all.
Unless you happen to be Russell Wilson’s victims.