As Vince Lombardi once proclaimed, "Football is a game of inches" -- and when there are just inches to go, the easiest way to move the chains is via a straight line.
The Philadelphia Eagles have embraced this simple geometry on their road to Super Bowl LVII, extending drives with one of the surest play calls in sports: the quarterback sneak. The Eagles have gained 31 first downs on quarterback sneaks in the 2022 season, including in the playoffs, per Pro Football Focus. To put that in perspective, no other offense has cleared 20 first downs on quarterback sneaks in a season over the last decade-and-a-half.
The Eagles are certainly an outlier in how much they have used quarterback sneaks this season, but they do represent an overall trend. League-wide usage of the short-yardage designer play has exploded over the past two seasons.
Even with a massive increase in volume, the play call remains as reliable as ever. NFL teams averaged a first-down conversion rate of 83 percent on quarterback sneaks this season, which is actually the highest mark on record going back to 2006. Over the course of PFF's dataset, the conversion rate is roughly equivalent to a free throw in the modern NBA (78 percent). This begs the natural question: What took so long for the league to lean into the quarterback sneak?
The origin of the quarterback sneak is surprisingly hard to track down, but diagrams of the play call can be found as early as 1922. Even back then, coaches like Ernest "Pot" Graves understood that the QB sneak was a cheat code for short-yardage conversions, including it in his book from that year, 40 Winning Plays in Football. In the playbook diagram for the sneak (highlighted by Timothy P. Brown in an article exploring the history of the sneak), Graves explained that "[w]ith a good center and guards it is almost impossible for a defensive team to stop this play short of a yard or two."
Though modern football may be unrecognizable compared to what it looked like a century ago, the shortest distance between two points is still a straight line. And in a league where teams are going for it on fourth down more than ever, there have never been more opportunities to call quarterback sneaks. But the surge in quarterback-sneak usage goes beyond a shift in fourth-down philosophy -- the Eagles (and teams across the league) called more quarterback sneaks on third down than fourth down this season.
Quarterback sneaks have become part of Philadelphia's identity. The team's elite offensive line sees the play call as an opportunity to prove its worth in the trenches via what essentially becomes a one-on-one matchup, with the goal being to move the biggest bodies on the defense just enough for the quarterback to cross the sticks. The Eagles' quarterback is a former high-school power lifter who has squatted 600 pounds. They are led by a creative coaching staff that has exploited an obscure 2006 rule change that allowed teammates to push the ball-carrier forward. The organization has one of the most established analytics departments in the league, which appears to have translated to a willingness to go for it on fourth down.
This perfect storm of roster construction and organizational philosophy has helped propel the Eagles to the forefront of the league's recent embrace of quarterback sneaks. The immediate impact of this strategy is obvious: keeping drives alive, extending opportunities to score, dominating time of possession and tiring out the defense. Few things are more demoralizing to a defense than to stop an offense short of the sticks on third down, only to fail to get off the field on fourth-and-short.
Beyond the tangible benefits of an effective quarterback-sneak package are the second-order effects. Without the pressure to convert on third down to keep a drive alive, the playbook opens to attack the areas short of the sticks and to set up an easy conversion on fourth-and-short. The Eagles called a designed run this season on a league-high 32 percent of third-and-medium plays (3-to-6 yards), gaining a first down on over half of those runs (12 of 23). On the 11 such plays where the Eagles did not convert on third down, they kept the offense on the field eight times and picked up six first downs. That translates to a ridiculous 78 percent series conversion rate when they called a run play on third-and-medium -- the same conversion rate that quarterback sneaks have enjoyed league-wide over the last decade-and-a-half.
Philadelphia's success on quarterback sneaks also forces opposing defensive coaching staffs to devote valuable time in their game preparation to trying to stop the unstoppable. Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn even went so far as to consult with a professional rugby coach about ways he could translate rugby scrum techniques to defending against the sneak. It did not work.
As defenses devote more resources to halt the quarterback sneak, they open themselves up to counter moves attacking the vacated space. We've already seen this in the playoffs with former Eagles head coach Doug Pederson, now leading the Jaguars.
On a crucial fourth-and-inches situation late in the fourth quarter of Jacksonville's historic comeback against the Chargers on Super Wild Card Weekend, Pederson aligned his offense in a quarterback-sneak look. At the snap, QB Trevor Lawrence instead pivoted back to hand the ball off to Travis Etienne, who beat the Chargers' defenders to the edge for an explosive 25-yard run that set up the game-winning field goal.
The Super Bowl is prime time for tendency breakers, so the Chiefs will have to be on red alert if and when Jalen Hurts aligns under center in short-yardage situations on Sunday. The game projects to be a close matchup, and both teams will want to exploit every edge available to them.
When it comes to quarterback sneaks, Philadelphia has the clear advantage. When on offense, the Eagles should be able to keep up their success -- the Chiefs' defense has allowed a first down on 14 of 15 quarterback sneaks this season, per Pro Football Focus. On the flip side, Patrick Mahomes has not attempted a quarterback sneak since he suffered an injury on one in Week 7 of 2019 and was forced to miss two games. The Chiefs have only called six quarterback sneaks since then (compared to 70 attempts by the Eagles), and all of them featured tight end Blake Bell or Noah Gray motioning under center to run the play.
If the Eagles can salvage an extra couple of drives and minimize the amount of time Mahomes has the ball in his hands, they will have a good chance of raising their second Lombardi Trophy on Sunday.