THERE'S A PLAY THAT DRIVES D-BACKS AND OLD-SCHOOL COACHES CRAZY—AN UNDEFENDABLE, BODY-TWISTING TECHNIQUE THAT GOES AGAINST THE GRAIN OF EVERYTHING A PASS CATCHER IS TAUGHT. AND WHILE THE BACK-SHOULDER PASS HAS BEEN AROUND FOR AGES, TODAY'S FREESTYLING QBS ARE BLOWING THE LIDS OFF DEFENSES WITH IT
THIS IS WHAT Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco saw as he prepared to throw: the white cloth stretched across wide receiver Anquan Boldin's shoulder pads and chest, with the number 81 stitched on the front in purple and gold; the shiny, dark crown of Boldin's helmet, with a clear visor and a half-cage face mask; the pants, the shoes, the gloves on both of Boldin's hands—all in various shades of black; and the white socks halfway up his calves. Flacco saw these things for only an instant, but they were as clear as if the two men were alone in the Superdome having a catch.
This is also what Flacco saw: the back of 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers's jersey, with its white number 22 on a red background; and Rogers's helmet, gold with red-and-white stripes over the top, turning back as if to locate Flacco—but turning back much too late, a desperate move by a beaten man. Flacco probably saw many other things too, but these were the important ones. And upon registering them he threw the football to Boldin.
Just over seven minutes remained in Super Bowl XLVII last Feb. 3 in New Orleans. The Ravens were leading the 49ers 31--29, and they faced third-and-inches from their own 45-yard line. They desperately needed a first down to continue grinding down the game clock and possibly add to their lead. Flacco had reached the line of scrimmage with three plays called: two runs and a pass. Upon seeing that Boldin, the lone receiver on the boundary (short) side of the formation, would be covered one-on-one by Rogers, he initiated the pass call.
Boldin was to run a 9 (go) route, straight up the field. If he achieved a clean release and ran past Rogers, Flacco would lead him down the field with a traditional deep ball. But if Rogers jammed Boldin at the line of scrimmage and remained with him stride for stride up the field, making a deep completion very difficult, quarterback and receiver would adjust their plan on the fly.
Flacco pulled five steps away from center Matt Birk and gave a quick pump fake at the bottom of his drop. Boldin dipped his shoulder to the inside, then sprinted upfield outside Rogers—but he failed to create separation from the defender.
Six months later, during training camp at the Ravens' facility in Owings Mills, Md., Flacco is sitting behind a desk during lunch when he puts a plastic Dasani water bottle and a Styrofoam Dunkin' Donuts coffee cup on the surface in front of him. He moves the two containers across the desk, representing Boldin (bottle) and Rogers (cup) running together. "Anquan did a little jab step at the line," says Flacco, "and then he got about half a body on [Rogers], but it wasn't like he was going to be able to just put his foot in the ground and go by him. Then Anquan kind of faded to the outside"—here Flacco moves the bottle laterally away from the cup, toward an imaginary sideline—"and he turned his head back to me."
The next part is important. "The defender didn't [turn]. So I threw the ball at Anquan's head. I knew he would get around and see it first. And I knew he would go up and get it." Here Flacco shrugs and smacks the bottle on the desk like a man who has just knocked back his last shot of tequila on a Saturday night.
On that evening in New Orleans, Boldin broke off his route abruptly, rose into the air and brought down Flacco's pass for a 15-yard gain and a first down. And five plays later Justin Tucker kicked a 38-yard field goal to give the Ravens a 34--29 lead that would force the 49ers to go for a touchdown (unsuccessfully) instead of a field goal in the waning seconds of the game.
That critical completion to Boldin came on what is called a back-shoulder throw, so named because the quarterback is throwing the pass not in the traditional manner—to a receiver's downfield (or front) shoulder—but to his trailing (or back) shoulder. The technique has long existed in some form but has exploded in popularity over the last five years, matching increasingly sophisticated throwers with powerful, athletic receivers. It simultaneously exploits defensive backs' fear of giving up long touchdown passes and rules changes that have steadily eroded defenders' ability to control receivers with their hands without being penalized. "It's an amazing weapon," says Colts backup quarterback and 15th-year NFL veteran Matt Hasselbeck. "If it's properly executed, the defender can't be right."
This is how the back-shoulder throw works: A wide receiver lines up against man-to-man coverage by a defensive back. (The back shoulder is used almost exclusively against single coverage, a staple of modern, pressure-based defensive schemes; it is far less likely to be available against conservative zone-based or bracketed double coverage defenses, which tend to leave defenders both in front of and behind receivers.) What is on this defensive back's mind at this point? "Do not get beat over the top, do not get beat over the top, do not get beat over the top," says former Raiders and Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden, now an ESPN analyst. "Defensive backs have been getting that drummed into their heads for years."
The receiver streaks off the line, heading upfield, while the defensive back swivels his hips and sprints alongside. By now the defender's back is to the quarterback; he will watch the receiver's hands and eyes to determine when (or if) the ball is coming his way. The back shoulder is designed to use the defender's speed and his head position against him.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who has thrown for more than 46,000 yards in his 13-year NFL career, explains what happens next: "If my guy is on top of the defender [farther downfield], then he's got him beat and my throw is going over the top. If my guy is even with [the D-back] and I know my guy is faster, I still know he's going to get past him, so I'll put a little extra air under the ball and let him run under it. But if my guy is obviously not getting over the top, then there's going to be a lane for the back-shoulder throw."
From the receiver's perspective: "If the corner stays over the top of me," says the Ravens' Torrey Smith, "we're going to throw it back shoulder, where I can see the ball and he can't."
The back-shoulder play is almost never called in the huddle or at the line of scrimmage (a rare exception is in the tight red zone, which is where Houston's DeAndre Hopkins hauled in a three-yard back shoulder on Sunday); rather, it is an adjustment by the quarterback and receiver, honed during hours of practice-field repetitions. "It's something you read," says Flacco, "and then react to." Both the quarterback and his target must sense together that the defender has run too deep, at which point the QB throws to a spot slightly behind the receiver, who applies his brakes, opens his torso and twists to the outside, away from the defender, as the ball arrives.
When asked about the back-shoulder throw, veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall of the Redskins nods his head. "That's a play where if they do it right," he says, "it's tough to stop."
FOOTBALL'S TECHNICAL evolution is often imprecise and without rigid chronological boundaries. Three years ago I wrote a book that attempted to detail the development of various offensive and defensive systems at all levels of the game, and in my research I learned one lesson above all: Nothing in football is fully new. Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, a three-time Lombardi Trophy winner, told me, "You'll never hear me say that I was the first to do anything. There's a pretty good chance somebody did it before me, but nobody knows about it." Think of football as abstract art; successive generations splashed it with their own brushstrokes, applying new paint to the old.
Ron Jaworski entered the NFL in 1974 as a second-round draft pick from Youngstown (Ohio) State; in '77 he became a full-time starter; in '80 he led the Eagles to the Super Bowl; and in '90 he retired. The back-shoulder throw wasn't part of his Eagles playbook. Instead, "What we had was the long-ball underthrow," says Jaworski, 62, and now an ESPN analyst. "Your receiver couldn't get past the defender, so you would lob it up short and let him come back to it. It was not done with anything resembling the precision that these guys have today."
Dan Fouts was from the same generation, but he was a far more accomplished passer. Drafted by the Chargers out of Oregon in 1973, he earned a place in the Hall of Fame by quarterbacking coach Don Coryell's downfield passing game, Air Coryell. I visited Coryell's home in Friday Harbor, Wash., in October 2008, and we went to the town library to make photocopies of the Chargers' 1979 playbook. (Coryell died at 85 in July 2010.) On a page detailing his pioneering route tree for wide receivers, Coryell describes a 5 route—"Sprint for head-up position on corner"—as having three options, one of which is, "If corner is riding [receiver's] shoulder at 15 yd depth, drive two more strides, plant and drive back down the sideline toward the line of scrimmage." That's most commonly called a comeback route, but it also contains elements of the back-shoulder throw in that it uses the corner's downfield aggressiveness against him.
"We had more success letting it fly and having our guy outrun the corner," says Fouts, "but cover guys today are better at taking away the deep ball, so the back shoulder is more effective." The playbook description of Coryell's 9 route offered no back-shoulder alternative.
It is important to understand the context of the passing game in that era. In 1970, Bill Walsh, then an offensive assistant under Bengals coach Paul Brown, was forced to retool his downfield passing offense (which he had adapted from Al Davis's in Oakland) when 6'4" Cincinnati quarterback Greg Cook went down with a shoulder injury. The backup was 6'1" Virgil Carter, a clever Brigham Young graduate with good feet and a popgun arm. To adapt to Carter's skill set, Walsh installed a short passing game that formed the foundation of what came to be known as the West Coast offense. Among its core principles was that passes always be thrown significantly in front of the receiver, facilitating gains after the catch. Bruce Coslet, a Bengals tight end under Walsh and later head coach of the Jets and the Bengals, said in 2009, "If the ball wasn't thrown one and a half feet in front of the receiver, Bill would go ballistic."
Walsh's West Coast offense became one of the most copied systems in the game, and it left little room for back-shoulder improvisation. When Hasselbeck played for Walsh disciple Mike Holmgren in Green Bay and Seattle, he says, "back-shoulder throws were basically illegal, because they weren't a Bill Walsh--type thing."
Against this backdrop, quarterback Bob Gagliano of the United States Football League's Denver Gold lined up for a red-zone snap in a game against the Pittsburgh Maulers in the spring of 1984. Gagliano was just 25, but he was already a journeyman of sorts: He had played high school football in Southern California; college ball at Glendale Community College, United States International University and, after a transfer, at Utah State; and he had been signed and cut by several NFL teams before sticking with the Chiefs in '82 and '83 (during which time he attempted only one pass). On this résumé he became the Gold's starter for the '85 season.
"This one play, on about the six-yard line, we've got a fade called to a guy named Leonard Harris," says Gagliano, now 55 and working for a title insurance company in California. "But the corner gets way over the top on Leonard, so I basically just throw the ball at the back of his helmet, and he turns around and catches it for a touchdown." At the start of the next season the Gold were in a film review session when new offensive coordinator June Jones (an NFL quarterback of four years before that gig) asked Gagliano why he had made the throw. Gagliano explained that there was no fade option but that the defensive back had been far over the top of Harris, so he tried it.
"You know," said Jones, who would go on to coach the Falcons and the Chargers and is now the head man at SMU, "I think that could be a play, and I think we could run it anywhere on the field."
Jones and head coach Dar-rel (Mouse) Davis, a devotee of the run-and-shoot passing offense that has influenced almost every spread game in the last three decades, called the play a "fade stop," and in 1987, Jones took it with him to Houston, where the Oilers' quarterback was Warren Moon. "It was a called play for us," says Jones. "Five-step drop. Receiver runs 17 steps, turns. Ball comes high and away." Moon ran the fade stop to perfection throughout a Hall of Fame career that ended in 2000. (Jones and Davis later reteamed on the Falcons' staff and at the University of Hawaii, where they kept at it.)
Some teams followed suit. Others did not. "A quarterback here or there, once in a while," says Bob Bratkowski, an NFL offensive assistant from 1992 to 2012. "It wasn't big or common." Mostly the back-shoulder throw lay in the weeds, raising its head only sporadically until the end of the millennium.
In 2001 the Chargers took Brees with the first pick of the second round of the draft. Brees had been a passing machine in high school and college, throwing for 5,461 yards over two seasons for West Lake High in Austin, and 11,792 yards in four years at Purdue. As a Boilermaker he operated a high-octane one-back spread offense for coach Joe Tiller, and thus he came to the NFL armed with advanced passing knowledge. But he had never seen an intentional back-shoulder throw until his first training camp—and that first exposure had an unlikely source.
"Doug Flutie was the pioneer of the back-shoulder throw for me," says Brees of the man he would back up in all 16 of San Diego's games his rookie season. "I felt like I understood football pretty well, but then I saw Doug making those throws in practice, and we talked about it. He said he did it in Canada [where Flutie played from 1990 through '97] and a little bit with some other NFL teams. So I started working on it." In 2006, when Brees left the Chargers as a free agent, he took the back-shoulder throw with him to New Orleans, where Saints coach and de facto offensive coordinator Sean Payton embraced the idea.
By then the concept was sinking roots around the NFL. In 2005, DeAngelo Hall was in his second year in the league and starting for the Falcons when the Eagles' Donovan McNabb threw a back-shoulder 9-route completion to Terrell Owens, beating the Atlanta cornerback's tight coverage. "I was thinking that I might see this again," says Hall, "but it was a few years before I did."
Two years later, in Week 3 of what would become the Patriots' undefeated 2007 regular season, Bills cornerback Jabari Greer (who is now with the Saints) covered Randy Moss over the top on a red-zone fade route, only to see Tom Brady throw behind him at the front right pylon for a three-yard touchdown. "First time," says Greer. "I knew it was coming after that."
The trickle-down effect can be captured in snapshots: Mike Shanahan, a longtime West Coast guy who'd learned under Walsh, was coaching Denver in 2006 when two rookies, quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Brandon Marshall, began making back-shoulder connections in practice. They "taught the back shoulder to me," says Shanahan. "The nature of the play, I'm sure somewhere back down the line it was a couple of players who came up with it."
In Seattle, Hasselbeck was the Seahawks' incumbent starter when USC coach Pete Carroll took over in 2010. "We had a little back-shoulder stuff with Jim Mora [who preceded Carroll]," Hasselbeck says, "but then Pete met with all the quarterbacks one day and said, 'This is the hardest throw to defend.' He told us to throw it shoulder pads or higher, about a foot behind the receiver. Coaches with defensive backgrounds, like Mora and Carroll, they really understand how tough it is to play that throw."
Steve Clarkson, whose quarterback development program has produced dozens of FBS and several NFL quarterbacks, incorporated the back shoulder into his work with promising high schoolers roughly six or seven years ago. "We found that defensive backs were getting more adept at defending vertical routes," says Clarkson. "The back shoulder offsets a defensive back's forward motion. It lets the quarterback throw the receiver open, as the phrase goes." Even with his teenage prodigies, Clarkson says, nearly every back-shoulder throw is a read throw, not a planned one.
And Bob Gagliano? He started one game as a 49ers replacement player in 1987 and a total of 12 with the Lions and the Chargers between '89 and '92. In the last outing of the '89 regular season with the then 7--8 Lions, Gagliano completed 17 of 30 passes for 213 yards and one touchdown in a 31--24 win over the woeful (3--12) Falcons. Six of those completions were to Robert Clark, and Gagliano says most were back-shoulder passes. "Easy throws," says Gagliano. "I think [the Falcons] felt like it was cheating."
WHILE THE BACK-SHOULDER throw has become a potent and widespread tactic, it's not equally practiced—or executed—by all NFL offenses. "It's not a routine throw," says Jaworski. "It's a precise throw." Unsurprisingly, those who use it most effectively are among the best quarterbacks in the league.
"Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Drew Brees," says Gruden, "and Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson." Brady and Peyton Manning throw it less frequently, though that could change.
Adds Greer, the Saints cornerback, "If you're over the top on a receiver, Matt Ryan is going to throw to the back shoulder. Cam Newton, at this point, might not."
Rodgers is regarded by peers and defenders as the most consistent practitioner of the back-shoulder throw, and Brees as the most versatile. While the majority of back-shoulder throws come on 9 routes at the edge of the field, or in the tight red zone, Brees will throw to a receiver's back shoulder on a slant or seam route in the middle of the field—a very evolved skill that Saints wideout Marques Colston recalls Brees showing off in the 2006 NFC Championship Game, against the Bears. "I ran right up the seam, and [Chicago middle linebacker] Brian Urlacher was covering me in Tampa Two," says Colston. "He's right with me on my front shoulder, but he's turned around, so Drew throws the ball at the [trailing edge] of Urlacher's helmet and I catch it on my back side."
Brees says, "It's as simple as this for me: When I've got one of my guys one-on-one, I feel like no matter how well he's covered, there is a place I can throw the ball where my guy can catch it and their guy can't. Sometimes it's over the top, sometimes it's back shoulder, sometimes it's low and outside, almost on the ground."
Adds Flacco, "The back-shoulder throw has really redefined what open and covered mean."
Timing is critical. Defensive backs study receivers to determine when and where a ball might be delivered. (Hence, receivers are taught to have "late hands" when reaching for a grab.) With back-shoulder throws, a pass catcher might realize after just a few steps upfield that a back-shoulder throw is coming, but he has to maintain the illusion of a fly pattern until the last possible second, lest the cornerback react. An intercepted back-shoulder throw is probably going to be returned for a touchdown. "The one thing that can kill the route," says the Ravens' Jacoby Jones, "is if the receiver isn't patient enough. You've got to delay turning for the ball as long as possible. You might even know it's in the air, but you've got to wait."
Against that patience, defenses are left with little recourse. One veteran defensive back declined to speak to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED on the record about defending the back-shoulder throw because when it's properly executed, he said, there's no way to defend it.
"It's so much fun [for offenses] to play today," says former 49ers quarterback Steve Young, who in his day used the back shoulder a little, but with his receiver making a much more dramatic move away from the defender. "You can't really defend the back-shoulder throw. Rules have to be changed to allow for more physicality for things to be fair again."
Football has always been relentlessly cyclical. When one tactic seems certain to dominate the game, a defensive or offensive adjustment—or perhaps a rules change—swings the pendulum back. It's uncertain what can be done to contain back-shoulder throws; the NFL is vigorously trying to diminish the physicality of the game, whether for the health of its players or for the image of the sport. In an era of offense and safety, the back-shoulder throw seems positioned to survive football's natural selection. Or as DeAngelo Hall puts it, standing in the bright sunshine of a summer afternoon: "You can't stop everything."
"If it's properly executed," says Hasselbeck, "the defender can't be right."
"They felt like it was cheating," one QB says of the DBs he burned with the back shoulder.
Back It Up
The top three throwers and pass-catchers at using the back shoulder