Late in the first quarter Sunday, on fourth-and-1 from their 10-yard line, the Ravens lined up to punt. They led 7-0 then, and had no reason to fear what lay ahead: a torrent of Carolina Panthers points in a dispiriting 36-21 loss.
But punter Sam Koch did not punt. In fact, the ball never reached him. Long snapper Morgan Cox’s direct snap went to Anthony Levine Sr., the up back in the team’s punt package. Levine rumbled ahead for 7 yards. First down.
According to an examination of Pro Football Reference data by Pro Football Weekly, whose records date to 1994, no team has gone for it on fourth down from inside its 15-yard line in the first half of a game. (That data set does not include the final 10 seconds of the half.)
Only a penalty kept the Ravens’ brazen fourth-down attempt from that bit of special teams history. Officials called an illegal-shift penalty on the play, and the Ravens punted on their do-over. At his weekly news conference Monday, coach John Harbaugh was still perplexed by the penalty.
Harbaugh said he had told the officials that the Ravens were planning on calling a fake punt during the game, specifically a dive like Levine’s. But Cox, Harbaugh said, was called for not being set for a second, as NFL rules require.
“They called it on the center,” Harbaugh said. “So I don’t know. That’s what the explanation was. We talked to them quite a bit on the sideline about it. Never seen that called in 21 years, and the center was set for a second. So I’m not sure what the call was. We sent it in. We’ll see. But you can’t control the official. The official makes the call that he makes. It was a huge play in the game.”
Afterward, Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said the play call was disrespectful of Carolina’s defense.
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"That was kinda rude when it comes to football,” he said. “And it was kinda like, ‘Wow, did they really do this?’ It definitely ramped us up defensively. We needed some respect. So we tried to just go out there and makes plays to earn our respect.”