In 2009, with knowledge that he was going to be fired at the end of the season, Jim Zorn decided to call an absolutely ridiculous play. At the end of the first half, he lined his team up in field goal formation. Instead of kicking the field goal, the holder, Hunter Smith, audibled almost the entirety of the field goal team to the left side (with the exception of the center). This unique formation has long been called the “Swinging Gate,” and the result of the play speaks to why it is almost never seen. Obviously, Zorn would never decide to do something like this if his job was actually still on the line because, at the professional level, there is no known success or history of the swinging gate. Watching this play, we can see why the formation, at the professional level, could never be used with any consistency in an offense.
This “Swinging Gate” formation has a very obvious flaw in the fact that the lack of protection for the quarterback prevents any extended play from developing (it also doesn’t help when you send your punter out as the quarterback). The defense rushes the passer, and with no blockers (even the center in this play runs a receiving route), the defense is able to immediately pressure the QB, preventing anything other than a quick pass play from developing. There is absolutely no chance that it could be consistently used in an offense.
However, high school and college football teams have been using the Swinging Gate for many years as a formation for conversion attempts after scoring a touchdown. It’s actually a very simple idea; the kicking team lines up in this bizarre formation with a quick, pre-planned play in mind. If the defense lines up in response to the formation in a vulnerable way, they then run the play and try to convert for two.
However, if the defense lines up correctly, as is usually the case, the holder then reads the defensive formation and simply audibles into a regular kicking formation and proceeds to kick a normal extra-point. There are a wide variety of unique, complicated, and confusing play calls that can be made out of the Swinging Gate, most of which are simple set plays that only require reading the defensive formation before the snap to find a weakness.
Using this formation has never transferred from the high school and college game to the NFL. Like much of the game at lower levels, the Swinging Gate formation on extra points has seemed like a gimmick that would have no chance of transferring over to the intense speed and athleticism of the NFL and subsequently has been deemed unworthy of devoting practice time towards installation. However, with the arrival of Chip Kelly in the NFL, this could soon change.
During his tenure at Oregon, Chip Kelly’s play calling displayed the potential that the Swinging Gate has for success as a conversion alternative at the highest level of collegiate competition. One only has to think back to the 2013 Fiesta Bowl against Kansas State to see an example. In fact, during Chip Kelly’s tenure at Oregon, they attempted a 2-point conversion 25 times and succeeded 19 times, resulting in a ridiculous conversion rate of 76% that dwarfed the standard 2-point conversion percentage of 45%. Is it possible that Kelly’s success using the Swinging Gate could transfer over to the NFL? The intrinsic appeals of setting up in the Swinging Gate, or other wonky formations, appear to still be in place.
What makes the Swinging Gate so appealing and successful under the right implementation is ironically (given the complexity of the formation) the fact of how little a risk it is to use for an extra point, at any level of football. Normally a huge shift from the Swinging Gate to a different play would be complicated for the offense and cause the quarterback to lose time reading the defense or prevent a second audible. This is not a problem with a field goal, a play that is incredibly simple and requires basically no further reading of the defense.
Basically, if a team has a unique play that they think will work against the opposing defense’s alignment more than 50% of the time, and are in the early stage of a game where there main goal is to maximize points, then they have a point-value incentive to run the play out of the Swinging Gate formation. If not, it only requires a simple audible into field goal formation to allow the extra point to go on as normal. There is even the possibility that the defense will line up to defend the Swinging Gate with standard defensive personnel, reducing the amount of trained kick blockers on the field and decreasing the likelihood of a blocked kick.
Kelly has even taken it a step further, giving the holder the option to check into a fake field goal if the defense wasn’t gap sound after Oregon audibled back into field goal formation, displayed early in the 2011 BCS Championship against Auburn. Simply put, lining up in a formation the defense isn’t used to only helps the offensive team, and provided the offense has presumably mastered its plays, does not reduce the effectiveness of any other offensive options.
There are two potential downsides to initially lining up in the Swinging Gate prior to every single field goal attempt, but the benefits generally outweigh the costs. The first is that it makes it easier to incur an illegal formation or other similar pre-snap penalty. Although this could possibly matter if the Swinging Gate was applied for longer field goal attempts, it shouldn’t matter for extra points, where an NFL kicker should be expected to make a 22-yard field goal with about the same consistency as a 17-yard field goal.
The other, more commonly discussed downside is the idea that practicing ridiculous formations takes away from valuable practice time that could be used elsewhere. I don’t think that this is that huge a problem, however, because of the fact that it has been successfully implemented in both high school and college football, two places where the restrictions on practice time are significantly greater and the football IQs of the players are generally lower than at the NFL level. Additionally, by showing this formation, opposing teams would be forced to spend their practice time learning an alignment to defend it, leading to the “lost” practice time of each team being about the same.
With Chip Kelly coming to the NFL, it is very likely that we could see an implementation of unusual formations like the Swinging Gate on extra points in Philadelphia. If he is able to find success, it isn’t hard to imagine other teams adopting this same idea, given the copycat nature of the NFL as a league. It is even possible that we could see the same use of the formation on 4th-and-shorts within field goal range (to be fair to Zorn, the one minute mark here shows the potential of unexpected formations). At the very least, I can see the use of the Swinging Gate causing a decline in the already rare blocked kick. Defenses would have to defend the Swinging Gate first and the kick second, leading to less emphasis on blocking kicks.
From a spectator’s standpoint, it is also easy to root for the success of the Swinging Gate, as it would change the after touchdown experience for the viewer. Instead of restocking on snacks after a clear break in the action, viewers won’t want to miss the must see TV possibility that a back-up tight end could be throwing a conversion pass to the center (who was actually a back-up linebacker) who snapped him the ball.
Georgetown University Class of 2016
Image from ESPN