After lateralling epidemic hits NFL, Packers have no plans to take more unnecessary risks
GREEN BAY – Randall Cobb felt the football leave his fingertips, and his stomach drop.
The fourth-quarter clock had expired when Cobb, among the Green Bay Packers most astute veterans, flirted with disaster. His lateral started the type of rugby-style play seen at the end of games, when trailing teams frantically try to score. It was also, he immediately realized, unnecessary. A gamble. With the football in midair, his team’s Week 4 game against the New England Patriots hung in the balance.
Four seconds earlier, coach Matt LaFleur had called a last-ditch Hail Mary from the Packers’ 42-yard line. The play changed to a simple checkdown when the Patriots dropped six defensive backs more than 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Bill Belichick wasn’t giving the Hail Mary a prayer. Cobb didn’t make the adjustment in his mind, he said. As soon as he heard the Hail Mary play call, his objective was to score at any cost.
When he caught Aaron Rodgers’ checkdown, the Patriots defense closed quickly. Behind him, offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins meandered downfield. In one motion, Cobb turned and pitched the football to his right tackle. His lateral was low, forcing Jenkins to dive. The play ended harmlessly, but walking off the field, Cobb realized he never should have lateraled.
The Packers and Patriots were heading to overtime, tied at 24.
“As I was walking off," Cobb said, "I was like, 'Oh, (expletive).' Had Elgton not been there to catch it, what might’ve happened?”
Cobb got his answer Sunday afternoon while watching New England against the Las Vegas Raiders. In what instantly became one of the most infamous plays in NFL history, Patriots receiver Jakobi Meyers caught a lateral downfield from running back Rhamondre Stevenson. Meyers should have ended the play there. The fourth-quarter clock had expired. They were headed to overtime, tied at 24.
He instead pivoted away from his own end zone, ran several steps in the wrong direction, and uncorked an overhand lateral toward his quarterback. Raiders defensive end Chandler Jones intercepted it, stiff-armed quarterback Mac Jones, and dashed 48 yards for a walk-off touchdown.
Back in Green Bay, Cobb had flashbacks to his Week 4 lateral and realized how close he might’ve been to the wrong side of history.
“I was like, ‘I know not to do that anymore,’” Cobb laughed, sheepishly.
Rasul Douglas didn't get the memo
As if Meyers’ gaffe wasn’t enough to remind NFL players how perilous lateraling the football can be, the circus came to Lambeau Field one night later. Early in the fourth quarter, the Packers had a 24-12 lead when cornerback Rasul Douglas intercepted Baker Mayfield in Los Angeles Rams territory. If Douglas simply went down, the Packers were in field-goal range.
Douglas wanted to score. He returned the interception 11 yards, but Douglas had no path to the end zone. Intended receiver Ben Skowronek caught him from behind, pulling at Douglas’ jersey, spinning him around.
Before Douglas hit the ground, he saw teammates Adrian Amos and Rudy Ford behind him. With his back turned, Douglas flipped a no-look lateral. The play had no chance. As Douglas watched the football bounce 11 yards backward, he wondered if he might’ve repeated Meyers’ gaffe. Douglas finally exhaled after Amos recovered it, averting disaster.
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Leaving the locker room that night, coach Matt LaFleur pulled his veteran aside.
“We don’t teach it,” LaFleur said, shaking his head. “We don’t coach it. Outside of those specific situations, where we have called plays with that within the play call, we don’t coach that. I’m a realist at the same time, and I grabbed ‘Sul – he probably wasn’t happy to see me – on the way out (Monday) night. But he saw me, and I just said, ‘Hey.’ Because he’s an extremely intelligent player. He’s one of the smarter players on our football team. So I want to be realistic.”
It’s one thing, LaFleur said, if a ball carrier is running alongside a teammate when he’s tackled, and there’s nobody else around the play. The coach made it clear he would still prefer no lateral, but he can at least stomach it in that situation.
“But when you just kind of carelessly flip it back when you’re under duress,” LaFleur said, “and there’s a lot of people around you, that just can’t happen.”
The Packers could smile, even laugh, about their laterals in a way the Patriots could not. No harm. Move onto the next week. Except sooner or later, they know, an impromptu fumble can cost victories. Each game is designed with the same purpose, preventing an oblong football from bouncing the wrong way.
A lateral only increases odds of an improper bounce.
Veterans have a little sway to take risks; rookies have none
LaFleur might not coach laterals, but the NFL is a meritocracy. Some players, such as veterans who are among the smartest football minds on the roster, can get away with shenanigans others can not. In practice, Douglas said, he laterals the football after interceptions. He’s warned teammates to expect a lateral in games.
“I was going to do that regardless,” Douglas said. “Once I was getting tackled, I always tell my teammates, ‘If I’m about to get tackled and I see you look at me, I’m going to give you the ball.’ Because I’d rather us just score on defense than wait on the offense.”
On the sideline, Douglas thanked Amos for recovering his lateral. He expected defensive coordinator Joe Barry to “curse me out” if Amos hadn’t. Douglas never got a scolding from Barry, just a gentle reminder from LaFleur.
Rookies aren’t so fortunate.
Samori Toure, a seventh-round draft pick this spring, doesn't dare lateral in practice. He knows his place. Rookies, Toure said, are liable to get "cussed out" if they deviate off script. The reaction is different with a veteran like Douglas.
“It depends who you are,” Toure said. “Some people can get away with it. ‘Sul, it was more like, ‘You know you’re my guy, right? But don’t be doing that.’ If a rookie is doing that, it’s like, ‘What the (expletive) are you doing, man? Come on.’”
Toure has only lateraled once in a game. Fortunately, he picked the proper time. With 5 seconds left in Washington, the Packers were outside field-goal range and trailed by 2 points. They initiated the rugby-style play, hoping for a miracle. Toure caught the third lateral on the left sideline, cutting across the field until pitching to his quarterback on his right.
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The play briefly appeared to have a chance, but Rodgers’ lateral across the field bounced in front of guard Jon Runyan. It ricocheted off the grass, through Runyan’s legs, out of bounds.
“It’s such a risky thing to do,” Toure said, “you only want to do it when the game is on the line. Because if you fumble at that point, oh well, you already lost if you’re behind. But there’s really no other way to lateral the ball, unless it’s an option play or something like that.”
Cobb has no plans on unnecessarily taking that risk again. He didn’t need a reminder of what could’ve gone wrong, but the Patriots gave him one anyway. He watched Meyers’ lateral mishap in horror, knowing it could’ve been him.
The parallels were too close to ignore.
“Maybe,” Cobb said, “I set him up for failure.”