Habib: What happened on Miami Dolphins' gadget plays, and why did zebras kill the fun?

Hal Habib
Palm Beach Post
Dolphins punter Matt Haack throws a pass on a fake punt against the Patriots. The play was nullified by a penalty.

Eighty-seven circle curl lateral.

It might sound like gibberish, but to avid, veteran Dolphins fans, it’s downright lyrical.

It was, in short, the greatest play-call in the history of the organization, producing a stunning touchdown just before halftime that told you the playoff game against the San Diego Chargers in 1982 in the old Orange Bowl was going to be epic.

Until then, few (if anybody) had caught onto the idea that if a desperation score is needed, throwing a pass, then having the receiver lateral to a trailing teammate, is a tough thing to anticipate and even tougher to defend.

Today’s Dolphins know something about the element of surprise. In the past three weeks we’ve seen a punter play quarterback (throwing a pass to a linebacker) and a punter play running back (running for a touchdown).

They are two of the must buzz-worthy plays of late, although, alas, neither play counted.

The term “splash plays” has become almost unmentionable around Dolphins HQ lately. Coaches would rather have four solid plays than one high-impact play followed by a screw-up on the level of, say, a turnover.

Gadget plays make some of the biggest splashes in any game, especially when they both work and count. Some coaches might have you think most everything that can be done running or passing a football has already been invented, which is where gadget plays arrive like that blast of fresh air headed into South Florida this Christmas morning.

We watch sports for the drama — drama that seems as if it can’t be scripted even though game plans are the scripts. We love it when the script gets flipped and Matt Haack doesn’t hold for a field-goal try, but instead sprints 3 yards into the end zone, which he did against the Bengals.

Holder Matt Haack throws a touchdown pass to kicker Jason Sanders against the Eagles last year. The so-called 'Mountaineer Shot' was voted the NFL's play of the year.

Unfortunately, it didn’t count because someone — the official play-by-play curiously never listed who — failed to report as an eligible receiver while lining up on the end of the line. The wild formation used by the Dolphins was reminiscent of the “Mountaineer Shot” touchdown last year in which Haack threw a touchdown pass to kicker Jason Sanders. It was named the NFL’s play of the year.

Fast-forward to last Sunday, when the Dolphins faced a fourth-and-7 on the New England 44-yard line early in the third quarter. Out of punt formation, Haack lobbed a beautiful pass to linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill for 14 yards. Hard Rock Stadium again erupted … until that yellow flag on the turf was noticed. Grugier-Hill was flagged for illegally touching a pass because he had not reported.

So in place of those two “splash” plays, the Dolphins ended up kicking a field goal (against the Bengals) and punting (against the Patriots).

How could two jump-out-of-your-seat plays get wiped out by the same mental error?

“They were supposed to have reported as eligible to the referee or umpire,” coach Brian Flores said. “We didn’t. Those are the things pre-snap we have to do a better job of. Did we report, did we not report; it’s one of those things where we have to do a better job coaching that. Obviously that starts with me and we’ve got to execute it better.”

This is where the plot gets thicker, because Grugier-Hill posted this message on social media: “I reported.”

Several possibilities exist. Maybe Grugier-Hill reported but the referee didn’t hear him. Maybe he reported, but to the wrong official. Maybe he didn’t report. We’ll probably never know.

Maybe there was simple confusion.

“There shouldn’t be,” said Danny Crossman, the Dolphins’ special teams coordinator. “The league has made an emphasis about the middle of last year. They’ve really expanded that process where they want everybody reporting.”

How, exactly? And to whom?

“It’s the referee and it’s solely the referee,” Crossman said. “That’s changed. It used to be the umpire. Now it’s the referee. And it’s letting him know verbally that based on your position and what you’re doing.”

Grugier-Hill wears No. 51, a linebacker’s number, which is a factor.

“If you have an ineligible number, you have to report as eligible,” Flores said. “If you have an eligible number, you don’t.

Also complicating matters: Since referees then flip on their microphones and announce a player has reported as eligible, that could tip off the opposition. Plus, if coaches do not hear that announcement, they should consider calling timeout, preventing not only a penalty but also tipping your hand further by putting your ingenious play-call on tape.

The Dolphins had better luck with a two-point conversion late in the Patriots game. Tua Tagovailoa passed to Isaiah Ford, who pitched to Salvon Ahmed, who ran it in.

Call that inspiration from the Dolphins in 1982. In the case of “87 circle curl lateral,” the beauty was in the simplicity. Quarterback Don Strock threw to receiver Duriel Harris, who pitched to running back Tony Nathan, who cruised into the end zone. Nobody needed to report.

The only thing anyone could do was go bonkers. Which the Orange Bowl did.

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