ATLANTA — Not to give Patriots fans a painful and unappreciated flashback to last year’s Super Bowl and the “Philly Special’’ trick play that served as the centerpiece moment of Philadelphia’s 41-33 upset of New England in Minneapolis, but I stumbled upon a potentially crucial discovery about those trick-play-loving Los Angeles Rams in recent days. And who knows, it could wind up deciding Super Bowl LIII.
Rams punter Johnny Hekker, the man in the middle of so much of the Rams’ penchant for chicanery, can throw left-handed. The mind boggles as to whether Patriots mastermind Bill Belichick has ever had to prepare for an ambidextrous punter who is in part known for his accurate right arm, especially one who completed the game-changing fake-punt pass in L.A.’s 26-23 overtime upset of New Orleans in the NFC Championship game.
“He can throw left-handed, and he’s punted left-footed,’’ superb Rams special teams coordinator John Fassel said rather nonchalantly this week of Hekker. “His passing skills are not over-stated. They’re pretty impressive.’’
And what would Fassel say if Hekker ever tried throwing with his left hand in a game? “Oh, I’d be jacked,’’ he said. “I’d be (like), ‘This ball’s going to be complete. Patrick Mahomes’ lefty (pass) has nothing on what Hekker can do.’’
So if you thought the “Philly Special’’ was, well, special, just imagine what fame would attach itself to a fake-punt play where Hekker rolls to his left and fires a key pass for a first down against the Patriots on Sunday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Would the internet — not to mention the six states of New England — survive it?
“So he might roll him the other way, huh? I’d like to see that,’’ said former longtime NFL kicker turned CBS analyst Jay Feely this week. “Hekker I think is 11 for 19 for 156 yards and a touchdown with a 102.1 rating (in the regular season), and that’s a better quarterback rating than Tony Romo had in his career.’’
Shoot, Tom Brady’s only at 97.6 in his 19-year NFL career, so let’s not just pile on the ever-prescient Romo. Hekker’s passing stats bump to 12 of 20 for 168 yards and a touchdown when you add in the pivotal 12-yard fake-punt pass he threw to cornerback Sam Shields in the NFC title game, sparking the Rams’ turnaround from an early 13-0 deficit.
“Johnny’s a great athlete’’ Feely said. “If you did a 10-sport challenge among all the players in the NFL, you’d see kicker or punters win some of those, because they’re usually multi-sport athletes who then at some point decided to focus on just kicking or punting. That’s the change you’ve seen in last 20 years at that position.
“And Hekker is willing to try a lot of different kind of punts. He has all kinds of different punts, He can line-drive them to the side, or inverted, end over end punts to make it hard for their returners. The Rams have a really aggressive mentality on special teams and I love that. I think to be a great special teams coach you’ve got to have balls, you really do. And you can’t be afraid of failure. Because a lot things can go wrong to end up with a bad play on a fake.’’
A high school quarterback, Hekker is an absolutely elite punter, making first-team All-Pro four times and second-team All-Pro twice in his seven-year NFL career. His leg is a weapon, and yet, that arm. It’s versatile and requires no “not bad for a punter’’ qualifiers.
In my memory, Hekker seems to usually throw to his right, out in the flat whenever the Rams call for the fake-punt. As he did to Shields. I wondered to Fassel if the Rams self-scout in that regard, so Hekker’s tendencies don’t become too predictable?
“If you check the tape over the years, he’s thrown quite a few balls to the left,’’ Fassel said, correcting me. “It’s really wherever the play is called and the matchup is. He can throw left or right. He’s probably actually better throwing to his left, he’s more comfortable. It’s really a toss-up. He can throw it short, deep, middle, left, right, it doesn’t matter to him.’’
And it’s not like Hekker is known to lock in on his primary receiver either. Fassel said. That’s right. He’s there to deliver the ball to the open man.
“I can’t delve into it too much, but usually there’s more than one (receiving) option,’’ Fassel said. “You don’t want to go out there and say, ‘Well, it’s either him or nothing.’ (Hekker) has the freedom to have options, keep it (the play) on, take it off, based on the looks he gets. There’s a lot of things that go into it besides just snapping it and hoping one guy’s open.’’
And the Patriots thought the Eagles’ Corey Clement to Trey Burton to Nick Foles subterfuge last year was evil. Now they’re faced with a punter who can work his way through his progressions and take what the defense gives him.
With the Rams successfully running a fake-punt in such a critical spot against the Saints, you wonder if it stands to reason they’re less likely to try something sneaky against Patriots in the Super Bowl, given the surprise factor might be lessened? And is a team known for being disciplined and well-coached the least likely opponent to go the trick-play route against? Or is every team susceptible to being fooled if it’s the right call at just the right time?
“They’re going to be less susceptible because they’re really good, they’re really sound and they’ve got very veteran players,’’ said Fassel, the former Rams interim head coach for the last three games of 2016, after Jeff Fisher’s firing. “You’ve got (Matthew) Slater, (Nate) Ebner, (Brandon) King, (Albert) McClellan, (Ramon) Humber, the list goes on and on. There probably isn’t much they haven’t seen. They’ve played in a lot of postseason games, and they have veteran guys who their only role is special teams, so they’re going to be really good.
“I’m looking forward to competing against them just in regular football. Everybody talks about the fakes, but covering kicks, returning kicks will be I think a really big part of the game. Just in the grind-it-out part of it.’’
The Rams’ reputation for special teams trickery is so well-earned that even a veteran team like the Patriots might be in a reactive rather than proactive mode against Los Angeles, Feely said.
“The Patriots like to dictate to you what happens on special teams,’’ Feely said. “Like when the new kickoff rule happened, many times they kicked it to the goal line, short, on purpose. Last year in the playoffs in the Houston game they caused two fumbles that way, and that’s a huge reason they win that game. But because it’s the Rams, now the Patriots, instead of being the aggressors, they have to be kind of passive and have to protect against these fakes. Taking away that aggressiveness is a big advantage for the Rams.’’
We saw the Super Bowl turn on a trick play last year, with Eagles coach Doug Pederson even writing an autobiography called “Fearless’’ after the success of the Philly Special call. Could Sunday night in Super Bowl LIII feature another such high-impact ruse from the Rams?
“Sometimes you just have to go for it, man. Give it a shot,’’ Fassel said. “Coach (Sean) McVay is fearless, so having that attitude, you feel like you can be, too. He’s very risky, and that mindset really bleeds into the whole team.’’