Although the New England Patriots’ offensive formations, substitutions and reporting of which players were eligible or ineligible enraged Ravens coach John Harbaugh, the NFL confirmed Sunday that the Patriots didn’t break any rules during their 35-31 win in the AFC divisional round Saturday evening.
“Everything was legal from a formation and reporting standpoint,” NFL vice president of football communications Michael Signora told The Baltimore Sun in an email.
The league weighed in on the Patriots’ actions after Harbaugh vehemently complained that his defense wasn’t granted enough time to adjust to who was eligible to catch a pass.
Harbaugh intentionally drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty during the third quarter when he went onto the field to express his opinion about the officials’ lack of action.
The Patriots went to four offensive linemen after center Bryan Stork left the game with a right knee injury, lining up with tight end Michael Hoomanawanui at left tackle as an eligible receiver and running back Shane Vereen reporting as an ineligible receiver. The Patriots then snapped the football quickly after the ineligible receiver was announced, using the configuration on three plays.
When Hoomanawanui caught a 14-yard pass after lining up at left tackle, Harbaugh decided to make his case to the officials.
“It's a substitution type of a trick type of thing,” Harbaugh said Saturday night after the game. “So, they don't give you the opportunity. They don't give you a chance to make the proper substitutions and things like that. It’s not something that anybody’s ever done before. The league will look at that type of thing, and I’m sure that they’ll make some adjustments and things like that.
“We wanted an opportunity to be able to ID who the eligible players were, because what they were doing was, they would announce the eligible player, and then time was taken, and they would go over and snap the ball before we even had a chance to figure out who was lined up where. And that was the deception part of it. That was clearly deception.”
This isn’t the first time there has been a controversy after a recent playoff game between the Ravens and the Patriots.
After the 2011 AFC championship game won by the Patriots, Ravens kicking consultant Randy Brown suggested that the New England scoreboard operator deliberately displayed the wrong information about what down it was to try to confuse the Ravens’ sideline before former kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field-goal attempt. Harbaugh later downplayed the minor flap, emphasizing that Brown was talking in jest.
Meanwhile, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady took a dig at the Ravens after the game Saturday.
“Maybe those guys got to study the rule book and figure it out,” Brady said. “We obviously knew what we were doing, and we made some pretty important plays. It was a real good weapon for us. Maybe we’ll have something in store next week. I don’t know what’s deceiving about that. [The Ravens] should figure it out.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels employed the tactic while trailing by two touchdowns when their banged-up offensive line was having problems keeping Brady on his feet.
“It’s a play that we thought would work,” Belichick said. “We ran it three times, a couple different looks. We had six eligible receivers on the field, but only five were eligible.
“The one who was ineligible reported that he was ineligible. No different than on the punt team or a situation like that.”
Harbaugh was asked directly if he thought the Patriots were doing something cheap or dirty and replied: “I’m not going to comment on that.”
Ravens defensive end Chris Canty didn’t criticize the Patriots for what they did, but he noted the impact of the unusual play calls.
“They pulled out every trick play in the book,” Canty said. “They threw a lot of different formations at us, guys eligible, guys ineligible. They did a lot of things to keep us on our heels. Going up-tempo, we anticipated that, but unfortunately we weren't able to make enough plays to get them out of it.”