With 17 seconds left in the Super Bowl, and the Patriots at their own 44-yard line, the Giants trotted out 12 defenders. A Patriots Hail Mary fell incomplete into double coverage, so even though a penalty was called and New England was awarded 5 yards, the Giants did what they had to do: They kept New England out of the end zone and bled eight seconds off the clock.
Some viewers are wondering if we didn’t witness a bit of gamesmanship from Tom Coughlin and Perry Fewell—cheating within the rules. If you were watching on TV, it certainly looked purposeful. NBC never showed a true replay of the snap, only a freeze-frame of 12 Giants defenders, clearly numbered and labeled, spaced out as if they all meant to be there. But rewatching the clip, you can see that the defender at the top of the field isn’t a cornerback; it’s lineman Justin Tuck, helmet off, trying to hustle off the field. He’s just a few steps from the sideline when the ball is snapped. This wasn’t a calculating Giants defense gaming the system, just an old fashioned personnel fuck-up.
It’s too bad, because putting 12, or 13, or 20 defenders on the field would have been a masterly stroke. At that moment, the clock was all that mattered to either team. New England needed a touchdown. Not a first down, not field position, not a field goal try. The Patriots had to get into the end zone, and they only had enough time for two or three plays.
So Brady lofted a Hail Mary to Aaron Hernandez down the right sideline, touchdown or bust. But safety Deon Grant was with Hernandez step for step, and linebacker Jacquian Williams was coming over to anticipate the deep throw. The ball landed out of reach, bouncing on the turf inside the one-yard line, with the clock showing 0:09. The penalty cost the Giants five yards, and it gave the Patriots a replay of the down. But New England had lost those eight seconds forever.
A team in the Giants’ position should be willing to make that trade. This was a game where cutting-edge deviousness was on display. The Patriots got credit for allowing Ahmad Bradshaw to score, but remember that the Giants were equally willing to sacrifice that touchdown in order to work the clock to their advantage. By sending out 12 men, all they would have sacrificed was five yards.
It’s not like there isn’t a precedent for stacking the field with too many defenders, with the aim of running down the clock. Buddy Ryan’s “Polish Goal Line” defense called for three extra linebackers, for a total of 14 men, in late situations with the opposing team knocking on the doorstep.
The idea was to make it impossible to score, even at the cost of a penalty flag. The worst a flag could do was halve the distance to go, but for a goal-line stand, that’s a negligible toll. Because a game can’t end on a penalty, the Polish Defense would be brought out as many times as necessary, till the offense only had time to run a single play. Then the defense would have to make one final stop the legal way—as the Giants did on the Super Bowl’s final play. The previous play was an accident. But it might be sound strategy for the next generation of prevent defenses to keep the 12-man set in the playbook. Taking away the deep play for the low, low price of five yards? Bill Belichick’s probably mad he didn’t think of it first.