No one saw it coming. Not the 74,059 fans in Miami's Sun Life Stadium. Not the millions watching on television. And, certainly, not the Indianapolis Colts. It came off exactly as its name, "The Ambush," implies it should.
The New Orleans Saints truly blindsided the unsuspecting Colts when they opened the second half of Super Bowl XLIV with an onside kick. They recovered the ball and quickly turned a halftime deficit into a 13-10 lead. Although they would fall behind again, the play provided the momentum boost necessary to carry the Saints to a 31-17 victory and their first Super Bowl championship.
It has since been universally lauded as a brilliant decision -- a classic guts-and-glory moment. Such calls are hardly uncommon in pro football, but when they impact the Super Bowl they become the subject of lore. "The Ambush" ranks as the latest in a line of bold coaching moves made more memorable because they took place on the grandest gridiron stage of them all.
"All the scrutiny, everything that's involved with the game leading up to it, is certainly something you're very aware of," said Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, who led his team to Super Bowl XLIII and was the offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers when they captured Super Bowl XL. "But, ultimately, when you get into the game, you want to win the game. You don't think about whether you're going to be second-guessed. That's the only way that it will work -- that you believe (in the play) and you're not afraid to call it."
Through the years, several coaches have broken free from the grip of conservatism often made tighter by the Super Bowl's ultra-high stakes and employed strategy that brought out their inner riverboat gambler. Some notable examples include:
» The New England Patriots choosing to go for the win with a young quarterback named Tom Brady -- rather than playing it safe and going to overtime -- in the final moments of their 20-17 upset of the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.
Former Steelers coach Chuck Noll, who made a gutsy call of his own in Super Bowl X, put it best for all of his peers who have been willing to roll the dice on Super Sunday when he said, "I have a great deal of faith in fate. I used to know a guy who worried about getting hit by a car every time he crossed the street. He never did â¦ but he did have a nervous breakdown."
As spontaneous as it might have appeared, the Saints' onside surprise was cooked up about 10 days in advance of Super Bowl XLIV. The inspiration came from a tendency that the team's special teams coaches noticed in the Colts' kick return unit: When an opponent kicked off from the right hash mark, the Colts' front-line players were quicker to move back to set up for the return. That, the assistants told Saints coach Sean Payton, made for a perfect opportunity to spring an onside kick.
Once Payton saw the flawless execution of rookie kicker Thomas Morstead and the rest of the Saints' kick coverage in practice, he locked it into the game plan. The only question was when he would call it.
"At halftime I just told them, 'Hey, we're going to open up the second half with this. It's going to be a great play,'" said Payton. He was so confident it would work that he spent the remainder of halftime -- extended several minutes by a concert from The Who -- giving his offense the first eight scripted plays to run after the recovery.
Despite Payton's confidence, Morstead later confessed he was "terrified." How could he not be, given what the Saints were about to try and when they were about to try it? On top of being a rookie, Morstead was a punter who had never attempted an onside kick in a game; he assumed kickoff duties solely because of his strong leg. Morstead, however, did have enough savvy to make a point of displaying his considerable leg strength to the Colts by booming a kickoff deep as he warmed up for the second half.
But after teeing up the ball, the right-footed Morstead angled a low line drive perfectly to the left side. Following a frantic one-minute scrum, the Saints' Chris Reis ended up with the pigskin.
"It's hard to force turnovers and to sack (Colts quarterback) Peyton Manning," Saints safety Roman Harper said. "We knew we had to steal a possession some kind of way, and we did that with the onside kick. You can't go out there and play with scared money, and our coaches were not afraid to do the coaching they did.
"We didn't have to win a seven-game series. We just needed to win that one. We understood that, and our whole game plan, our whole mindset, was going ahead and just winning one game."
Which is exactly what the Saints did, thanks in no small part to their coach's gutsy call.
Bold thinking has factored into other well-remembered coaching moves in the Super Bowl.
Riggins' run for glory
Why did Washington coach Joe Gibbs decide to go for it?
Dolphins coach Don Shula was expecting a punt, so when the Redskins kept their offense on the field, he had to call a timeout. The play selection was obvious: An I-formation run with two tight ends and a wing, called "70-Chip," because it was the Redskins' best play. They had run it frequently during the season and more than a half-dozen times with success in the NFC Championship Game against the Cowboys.
With the Dolphins packing eight defenders at the line of scrimmage and the Redskins blocking the play to perfection, the 250-pound Riggins had only one man to beat on his way to the end zone: 192-pound cornerback Don McNeal.
It was no contest. McNeal desperately latched onto Riggins' jersey with both hands, but Riggins simply shoved him aside and kept going. And with that touchdown, the Redskins were on their way to winning their first NFL championship in 41 years.
Giant gamble pays off
When the Giants beat Denver in Super Bowl XXI, they resorted to a bit of trickery that was almost as surprising to their offense as it was to the Broncos' defense. The Giants had only run flea-flickers in practice, never in games, so it was the last play quarterback Phil Simms expected offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt to call on second-and-6 from the Denver 45 late in the third quarter. But Erhardt felt more than comfortable with the strategy because of how well the Giants were implementing their game plan.
"It gets set up with what you're doing with the running game, and we were running the ball really well," Erhardt said. "We were doing good things with play-action, and the shifting of our tight end (Mark Bavaro) was putting people in different places that the defense had to cover."
Free safety Steve Foley was one defender pulled out of position when Simms handed off to running back Joe Morris, who pitched the ball back to Simms, who then completed a deep throw to Phil McConkey to the Denver 1. On the next play, Morris bounded into the end zone and the Giants were firmly in control, on their way to their first NFL title in 30 seasons.
Two is enough
Four years later when the Giants were playing in Super Bowl XXV, their challenge was to stop -- or at least slow down -- the Bills' highly explosive K-Gun scheme. They devoted so much attention to Buffalo's passing game that they virtually ignored a rushing attack featuring Thurman Thomas, one of the best backs in league history. Thomas went on to have a big day (135 rushing yards, including a 31-yard touchdown run), but not quite big enough to overcome the surprising ineffectiveness of the Bills' passing attack.
Bill Belichick, the Giants' defensive coordinator at the time, primarily alternated between two looks: Five defensive backs and three linebackers, and six defensive backs and two linebackers. In front of them were only two linemen, nose tackle Erik Howard and end Leonard Marshall.
Helping matters was the Giants' overwhelming edge in ball control, a Super Bowl-record 40:33 in possession time, that made the Bills' offense even more anxious. Perhaps confused and perhaps pressing, Buffalo converted just one of eight third-down opportunities.
"Their attitude was, 'Fine, throw the ball; we're just going to (get after) your receivers,'" recalled Jim Kelly, the Bills' Hall of Fame quarterback who completed 18 of 30 passes for 212 yards, but with no TDs. "It's tough enough for any receiver to catch the ball over the middle. Having two linebackers waiting there makes it a hell of a lot tougher.
"If I had it to do over again, I'd probably call a few more running plays. But spending so much time on the sidelines while the Giants moved the ball up and down the field, I wasn't as patient as I should have been once I got on the field."
The Patriots had every reason to wonder about Tom Brady's patience and general state of mind when their offense took possession at their own 17 with the score tied, 17-17, and 81 seconds remaining in Super Bowl XXXVI. After all, Brady had all of two years of NFL experience, he was making only his 17th career start, and he was trying to rally his team after the favored Rams had knotted the game with two late TDs.
No one would have second-guessed the Patriots' coaching brass if they simply ran out the clock and took their chances in overtime against Kurt Warner and the "Greatest Show on Turf."
"They've got all the momentum," Weis answered. "I think we should go down and try to score."
Belichick told Weis to give Brady the green light to do exactly that, although the priority in the early part of the drive was to make sure St. Louis wouldn't get the ball back. Once J.R. Redmond caught a flare-control pass and stepped out of bounds for a first down with 33 seconds left, the Patriots became more aggressive. Two plays later, Brady connected underneath on a 14-yard throw to Troy Brown, who picked up nine more yards before going out of bounds at the Rams' 36. After a six-yard dump-off pass to tight end Jermaine Wiggins and a spike that stopped the clock with 7 seconds to play, Adam Vinatieri came on to kick the winning field goal.
"In a lot of ways, I think for me, for the quarterback, I looked at it as a great opportunity," Brady said. "Because that's when the true test of a team and the true test of the leadership on a team come out. Can you get the guys down the field, in a short amount of time, with the stakes at the highest? That's really what playing quarterback is all about."
Steelers seal victory
Although he was a receiver for the Steelers, Antwaan Randle El could relate to Brady's thinking because he had played quarterback at Indiana University. And, because of repeated success with him throwing the ball on a reverse-pass during the regular season, the Steelers planned to give him an opportunity to do it against the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. The only question for Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt was when.
His gut told him that the right moment was with 9:04 left in the fourth quarter of a four-point game, one play after Ben Roethlisberger had run a quarterback draw giving Pittsburgh a first down at Seattle's 43. One night earlier, Whisenhunt and then-Steelers coach Bill Cowher discussed situations that would be good to call the reverse-pass. But not everyone agreed. When Cowher gave his OK, running back Jerome Bettis, who was standing on the sidelines, yelled, "Boo!" He felt the Steelers had enough momentum and were doing a good enough job keeping the Seahawks' defense off-balance without any gadgetry.
The coaches weren't dissuaded.
Roethlisberger pitched the ball left to running back Willie Parker, who handed off to Randle El coming from the right. Randle El pulled up and launched a scoring strike to wide receiver Hines Ward that effectively sealed the win.
"Ultimately, what you have to think about are the players who are making the decisions," Whisenhunt said. "You have to have confidence that if the play's not there or if there's something screwy, they're going to make a good decision that's going to keep you from getting hurt.
"Antwaan was very good at that, so the risk factor for us wasn't that great. We felt the play was going to work."
It started on his team's first possession, when a drive stalled at the Vikings' 41-yard line. Instead of trying to pin Minnesota deep with a punt, Stram turned to Norwegian-born kicker Jan Stenerud for a long field goal.
"They couldn't believe it when they saw Jan come onto the field," recalled Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson, the game's MVP. "When he made the kick, they were in shock. They never had to contend with that kind of (weapon) before. It forced the Vikings to rethink their whole approach to field position."
Stenerud followed his 48-yarder with field goals of 32 and 25 yards that pushed the lead to 9-0. Now late in the second quarter, Stram made another decision he thought would catch the Vikings off-guard and deliver a staggering blow. With the Chiefs driving at the Minnesota 5-yard line, Stram called a running play that relied entirely on trapping Alan Page, the Vikings' exceptionally talented and quick defensive tackle.
"(But) the problem was," Stram recalled, "Page generally lined up in the gap between center and guard."
That still didn't stop Stram from sending in "65 Toss Power Trap." And when he noticed that Page moved between Tyrer and Moorman, the coach "almost squealed."
The play worked to perfection, with the two linemen clearing Page out of the way to create a gaping hole through which Mike Garrett ran for a touchdown that put the Chiefs in a commanding position for victory in the final game before the AFL-NFL merger.
Noll's risky call
All of this brings us back to Noll, who in Super Bowl X made a coaching decision that some critics continue to believe was as bizarre as it was risky.
Holding a tenuous 21-17 lead with 1:28 left in the game, the Steelers faced a fourth-and-9 from the Dallas 41. The natural call was for a punt that would pin the Cowboys, who were out of timeouts, deeper and provide an added advantage to the Steelers' dominant defense. Add in the fact that Dallas had a bit of momentum going, having scored a TD minutes earlier on Roger Staubach's 34-yard pass to Percy Howard (No. 6 one-shot wonder).
Instead, Noll kept his offense on the field and called a running play that had virtually no chance of producing a first down. Sure enough, Rocky Bleier picked up only two yards, leaving Staubach -- well-known for his late-game heroics -- with 61 yards to work some of his last-minute magic.
It never happened. After scrambling for a first down, Staubach attempted four consecutive passes. The first produced a 12-yard gain; the next two fell incomplete; the last one ended up in the hands of Steelers free safety Glen Edwards, whose 30-yard return from the end zone was the final play of the game and ultimately took Noll off the hook.
Not that Noll felt he had put himself in any position that called for rescuing. The coach insisted afterwards that, presented with the same situation, he would have made the identical call all over again.
"They had no timeouts left, they had to have a touchdown to win, and they had to throw," Noll said. "We like our defense to have a team in a position like that."
Spoken like a coach who truly embraces the guts-and-glory approach to the biggest game of them all.
Vic Carucci is a senior columnist for NFL.com. He has covered the NFL for 32 years and is a past president of the Professional Football Writers of America. The author of eight books, he is a regular host and analyst on Sirius NFL Radio.