It’s not hard to spot the similarities between rugby and football.
The basic principles of both sports are very similar. Both rugby and football are games based on gaining territory and keeping possession of the ball to ultimately score more points than the opponent. The methods of moving the ball down the field and transferring possession – running, passing, and kicking – occur in different ways in both sports. The formulas to victory may differ, but it’s based on those same core principles.
One of the glaring differences is that forward passes are illegal in rugby. But they’re also illegal in football once a team has crossed the line of scrimmage, another forward pass has already been thrown, or the ball changes possession.
I’ve always wondered why football teams couldn’t implement concepts from a rugby attack into aspects of their game plan. If executed properly, strategic laterals that occur past the line of scrimmage with legal downfield blocking – something that is illegal in rugby – could add a dynamic attacking element to any team’s arsenal and could maybe even help teams win a few more games a season.
Some of football’s greatest moments were born out of this idea. Cal stole a game from Stanford in 1982 with the help of a few laterals – and the band – to create ‘The Play’. The Music City Miracle was born out of two laterals that helped the Tennessee Titans win a playoff game en route to an appearance in Super Bowl XXXIV. You don’t even have to look very hard to see some of these concepts in action in the NFL this season.
In Week 5, the Indianapolis Colts’ Darius Leonard scooped up a Lamar Jackson fumble and pitched the football – called an offload in rugby – to the much speedier cornerback Isaiah Rodgers who returned the ball the rest of the way for a touchdown that was ultimately called back.
— PFT Commenter (@PFTCommenter) October 12, 2021
In Week 4 Chicago Bears linebacker Khalil Mack tried to flip the ball to free safety Eddie Jackson in the middle of a fumble recovery in a game against the Detroit Lions. That pitch was very obviously a forward lateral, but Jackson looked ready to receive the pass.
KHALIL MACK PITCHED IT ON THE RETURN. #DaBears
?: #DETvsCHI on FOX
?: NFL app pic.twitter.com/7xMpUK2UTB
— NFL (@NFL) October 3, 2021
In a Week 6 matchup between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Philadelphia Eagles, Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady’s pass was intercepted by Philadelphia strong safety Anthony Harris who immediately lateraled the ball to cornerback Darius Slay.
A pick followed by a little razzle dazzle.#TBvsPHI | #FlyEaglesFly
?: FOX/NFL Network/Amazon pic.twitter.com/ePP89bnmlb
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) October 15, 2021
I’d venture to guess that an American football team that spent even a little time practicing running support lines and offloading would be more dangerous in certain scenarios than a team that hasn’t.
Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin agrees.
“I have actually thought about it, but ball security for years has been taught and preached so much,” Kiffin said on an episode of Pardon My Take when asked whether or not he’s considered implementing plays that incorporate downfield laterals. “But if you would play more like you play in the park, or like people play video games, I bet you you would be better in some areas. We don’t do that because of ball security, but I do think there is something to that.”
The obvious answer as to why teams don’t try it is because possession is so important in the game of football. That’s not necessarily the case in rugby. Possession is important, but field positioning is arguably more important in rugby because there are simply more ways to regain – and lose – possession of the ball. That can occur when the attacking team commits a penalty or the defense poaches the ball in a ruck or intercepts a pass.
“There are very few stats that I think directly correlate to winning in the game of football more than turnovers,” Jake Novotny, Fountain-Fort Carson High School’s head coach said on the importance of ball security. “When we’ve had a really good year, we’ve been positive in the turnover differential meaning we’ve taken more turnovers than we’ve given up and the years that we haven’t been so good it’s been the opposite.”
To Kiffin’s point, though, there are scenarios throughout a football game that this concept would likely be more successful than some of the tactics that occur on a regular basis. The late-game Hail Mary is a prime example.
How often is that a successful play? Wouldn’t it make more sense to complete a pass that is shorter, but at least puts the ball in play? Theoretically, a shorter pass to set up a structured lateral play could at least get the ball into the hands of some of the best athletes on the field and force the defense to make one final stop rather than throwing a prayer of a pass into the endzone. If a team is in a situation where they need to complete a Hail Mary to win, a turnover doesn’t matter.
The incredible Hail Mary + Laterals that ended the inaugural 2014 #BahamasBowl, the Chips went for 2 and lost—but it was an auspicious start to one of our favorite games:pic.twitter.com/l2voNvuUQp
— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) December 17, 2021
“I think that’s probably the only scenario,” Matt Loyd, Ralston Valley High School’s head football coach said of whether he thought a downfield lateral play might eventually find a home on the football field. “Once you get 15 or 20 yards, there aren’t going to be a whole lot of coaches that say, ‘Yeah, let’s try to pitch it back to somebody else to see if we can get 10 more yeards.’ Because the risk of the ball going to the other team is what coaches are going to tend to lean against. I think at the end of the half, last play of the game, that might be your only shot.”
Loyd’s opinion is one that is shared by almost all of the football-minded people that were interviewed for this piece, and it’s a fair answer. In the mind of a football coach, the pros don’t necessarily outweigh the cons.
“Coaches are so much about ball security,” Loyd said. “While yes it may help you win a game, it can end up losing you a game. I still just think the risk of turning it over is going to be a tough one to get past.”
Interestingly enough, though, no one completely ruled the idea out.
“The percentages on a Hail Mary are not very high,” Loyd added. “I think that would be the only scenario. I don’t see too many football coaches excited about getting 20 yards, and then trying to toss it down the field. But, you see a lot of times guys get tackled and there are two or three offensive guys behind him. It wouldn’t be that tough. I just don’t think coaches are ready to take that risk.”
“The lateral has been around forever, and nobody has ever really bought into doing that,” Novotny said of the idea. “I don’t know if that’s something that will ever be bought into because of the way that the game of football is structured, but I won’t put it past anybody to come up with something that may incorporate that on a more consistent basis. If I’m thinking outside the box, I don’t put it past anybody.”
Former American Raptors prop and captain Tani Tupou sees both sides of the coin. He was the player on the Raptors – a team composed almost entirely out of former collegiate and NFL football players crossing over into rugby – with the most NFL experience having played fullback and defensive line for the Seattle Seahawks, Atlanta Falcons, and Arizona Cardinals from 2016 to 2018. Tupou also played for the San Diego Fleet of the Alliance of American Football and the XFL’s Seattle Dragons before picking up rugby in January of 2021.
“I think it could be valuable,” Tupou said of the idea of implementing rugby concepts into a football offense. “Offensive gameplay throughout the years is always evolving. You look at the way offenses were run in the early 2000s and the 1990s, they are just totally different. Now the game of football is moving towards basketball on grass. You’re seeing a lot more team in 11, 10 personnel where they are trying to create space for their athletes.”
The pitch works to perfection! #DallasCowboys #SuperWildCard
?: #SFvsDAL on CBS/NICK/Prime Video
?: NFL app pic.twitter.com/prGKsPlyhJ
— NFL (@NFL) January 17, 2022
Tupou is right. Football is an ever-evolving sport and there are already a handful of rugby elements evident throughout the game. Rocky Seto, a former coach for the Seattle Seahawks from 2010-2016, helped popularize rugby-style tackling throughout the NFL after proving that it was not only safer but also more successful.
“If you want my honest answer, I think it’s really helped to save the game of football,” Novotny said of his experience with rugby tackling.
“I have personally been around rugby tackling since 2014 when I was at CSU-Pueblo,” Novotny said “We had noticed previously, the year before that, we kind of had some concussions and some different things that resulted from tackling and missed tackles. Consequently, we went to rugby tackling in 2014. That was the primary technique that we taught. Just even with the barebones ability to teach tackling – in terms of just knowing the techniques – we had our lowest rate of missed tackles ever and probably our lowest rate of concussions resulting from tackling. I’ve been a believer in it ever since.”
Aside from tackling, rugby-style roll-out punts have become a tactic that football teams at all levels across the country have employed to neutralize rushing defenders. On the offensive side of the ball, Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has recently incorporated rugby’s rolling maul into his team’s offense to help their ball carriers gain a few more yards when they are stood up on a play.
Why couldn’t more rugby-style laterals become the next thing that changes offensive football – even if it’s only employed in late-game scenarios – forever?
Kelce with the pitch ?
?: #KCvsTEN on CBS
?: NFL app pic.twitter.com/mlTydFD0kh
— NFL (@NFL) October 24, 2021
“It’s not like there is not a place for it, but I just don’t think that you can live and die by it,” Novotny said. “I think that if you are doing that, you’re probably not very good at what the game is built around. You’re probably not very good at blocking and tackling, and running the ball. You’re probably trying to come up with a gimmick.”
While that can be true, the first coach to prove that the philosophy was an effective way to move the football and score points could change the game of football.
“But it really just takes one guy to try it and see if it works,” Novotny said. “If it did work and it was something that somebody felt that they could do consistently, I think it would catch on like fire.”
After a year on the rugby pitch, Tupou agrees.
“It’s only a matter of time before somebody takes the leap and does it,” Tupou said. “It’s a copycat sport across the board. Once somebody does it, and they can see the concepts, how it works, and somebody teaches it, it’s all over.”
Jets get creative on 3rd & 15! #TakeFlight
?: #NYJvsMIA on CBS
?: NFL app pic.twitter.com/ZFWPFNUxLq
— NFL (@NFL) December 19, 2021
Football coaches have always been about finding a way to get even the slightest edge up on an opponent, and it seems as if this concept has the potential to make a team’s offense just a little bit more dangerous. It can also help teams with very little to lose claw their way back into games that they may already be out of.
“I don’t think we’ll see it in traditional down and distance,” private quarterbacks coach Tim Jenkins said of the idea. “I don’t think we will ever see a world in which it’s first and 10 and the Broncos open a drive with it. There is just too much risk to mitigate, but I do think where you’ll see it is in extreme comeback situations, and you already do see it.”
Jenkins lives and breathes offensive football. He had stints with the St. Louis Rams and the Calgary Stampeders as a quarterback in 2013 but has since launched Jenkins Elite, a successful quarterback and wide receiver development program for players looking for college and pro football opportunities. On top of that, Jenkins also runs the ‘All Things QB’ YouTube page and blog dedicated to breaking down offensive gameplay.
“You’ve seen some stuff where teams run option twice,” Jenkins said of the incorporation of laterals that occur past the line of scrimmage. “They’ll give it on a jet sweep, and then the jet sweep guy is trailed by the halfback and then they’ll run option downfield.”
One of the big reasons that Jenkins believes that you won’t see teams fully adopt the idea simply boils down to the inability to dedicate the time necessary in practice to master the skill. He’s right. Rugby players will tell you that passing is one of the hardest skills to develop and maintain. As football continues to reduce the amount of time that teams can practice to attempt to reduce injuries, it becomes more difficult to work on out-of-the-box ideas.
“In terms of fully adopting it, there is less risk when you practice it every day and I just don’t think you’ll ever see – with practice restrictions and everything else that’s coming out – I just don’t think you’ll see a day in which a coach will want to dedicate two hours a week to this because I don’t think they have enough practice time to begin with,” Jenkins said. “If there was someone that was going to innovate through this way, I think there isn’t enough practice time to develop the skillset.”
The closest thing to a rugby-style offense that you’ll see on a consistent basis is the triple option that college football teams like Navy, Army, and Air Force run. But as the rules of football continue to change to encourage more spread out, high-flying brands of offense, the triple option is not as prominent as it once was. Colorado State University-Pueblo offensive coordinator Daren Wilkinson knows that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will never make a comeback.
“Football, in general, goes in cycles in terms of what type of offenses and defenses are run,” Wilkinson said. “Somebody finds a gadget type of thing or a formation to beat a defense that a lot of people run and then everybody will copy it and then it goes back to the start. I think someday football will get back to where teams run more options.”
While Wilkinson, like everyone else, is doubtful that the rugby-style lateral will be adopted by offenses looking to gain an edge, he does admit that there is a time and place for it. He cites the famous ‘Circus’ hook and lateral play that Chris Peterson’s Boise State Broncos used to force overtime and ultimately defeat the Oklahoma Sooners in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
“It’s not an ‘A’ type of play,” Wilkinson said. “It’s definitely more of a specialty. But everybody does practice that I can guarantee you that.”
15 years ago today,
Boise State (+7) stuns Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl in one of the all-time greatest endings to a CFB game pic.twitter.com/XbfH0frrAq
— Barstool Sportsbook (@BSSportsbook) January 1, 2022
Tupou played for Peterson during his time at the University of Washington, and from his experience, it only solidified his belief that a coach like Peterson could come up with a way to incorporate some sort of rugby-style lateral plays into a football offense.
“I’d say just from my own experience, I played for Chris Peterson for a little bit at Washington,” Tupou said. “He and those guys came from Boise and they are notorious for gadget plays. I think it can be implemented.”
Just as Novotny said, it just takes one person to prove that it can be done successfully on a consistent basis. Football, like the rest of the world, has benefited in ways from the emergence of social media. Coaches can share strategies, plays, and tactics a lot quicker than they could have in the past. That has ultimately aided in the evolution of football.
“We have access to more information and how to learn things than we did 15 to 20 years ago,” Novotny said. “Now everybody seems to be doing some of the same stuff because people are learning it through online clinics, going to clinics, and reaching out to people on social media. You’re learning it and you’re having the chance to see it.”
Everyone that was interviewed for this piece was asked what level they thought we might see this idea occur first if someone were brave enough to give it a shot.
The consensus was that there was no way you’d see it in the NFL first, and that’s most likely the correct answer. There is too much money to lose, and too many people to let the coach hear about it when it doesn’t work. After eliminating that option, though, everyone’s answers were a bit different.
“I think the first place that you’d probably see it would be in college,” Tupou said. “People don’t realize that the hashes are wider in college. That’s why people say that when guys go to the NFL, people say, ‘Oh, they’re not fast.’ Or, ‘Everyone is faster, bigger, stronger.’ In a sense that is true, but you have less room in the NFL because the hashes are set up differently.”
“Maybe if it was a little bit organized I could see it happening at the high school level,” Loyd said. “At the youth level, it’s about having fun anyways. I coached a couple of years of youth with my son and we would’ve been fine with it. It wouldn’t have bothered me at all.”
“I do think there is a way that you can do that and I do think it has to start at the high school or small college level because really at the end of the day, that’s where a lot of things get innovated from,” Jenkins said. “Your high school coach isn’t getting run out of town if you lose a game. I do think it’s one of the things that we could see at smaller levels, and if it’s successful we could see it adopted all the way up.”
“I think high school coaches are willing to try things because they get different personnel every year,” Novotny said. “They also don’t have millions of people watching every Sunday criticizing them. Don’t get me wrong, we get people that will criticize us, but the stakes aren’t as high sometimes. If somebody were to dive into that, I think you will see it at a small college or a high school before you see that in the NFL.”
“I think definitely in high school you can see stuff like that,” Wilkinson said. “In college and high school – especially in high school – you put your best athlete on the field at quarterback. You want him touching the ball every play.”
It’s probably safe to say that we won’t see this incorporated in 2022, but I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility to say that this could be a part of an offensive game plan in 10 or 15 years from now.
“I think that right now is a really cool time to be an offensive coordinator because the game is changing,” Novotny said. “I think if the idea of the lateral was successful and you can consistently do it and you can prove that it can help you win X amount of ball games, you’d see it catch on with coaches all over. I really do.”
We will just have to wait for a coach to take the chance.