The Tush Push is one of sports’ greatest loopholes and the NFL would be silly to close it

The Tush Push is one of sports’ greatest loopholes and the NFL would be silly to close it

Nick Sirianni’s Philadelphia Eagles have replaced the Philly Special as the franchise’s most beloved trick play with an ancient formation that dates back to Walter Camp’s Saga of American Football manual. The Tush Push is the most transparent play in modern history. Unlike the vanilla QB sneak it evolved from, everyone can see it coming. They just can’t stop it. It’s akin to a train rumbling down the tracks at 80 MPH while defenseless front-sevens are parked on the tracks.

I remember watching the uproar over Reggie Bush pushing Matt Leinart over the goal line in 2005. Not long after, the NFL and the NCAA removed language that prohibited pushing a ball carrier forward. It’s amazing that it took nearly two decades for a team looking for an edge to exploit that. Philadelphia’s Brotherly Shove is one of the greatest intersections of exploiting a loophole in the rules and talent this millennium.

The 2017 Warriors exploited an accounting loophole to fit Kevin Durant under their cap. A once-in-a-lifetime cap surge during the summer of 2016 in the wake of $24 billion in TV contracts and Steph Curry’s discount rookie extension left the 73-win Golden State with enough salary cap space to execute a sign-and-trade for the former league MVP.

But in the context of actual X’s and O’s, the Tush Push is garnering the same opposition from outside their team confines as James Harden’s controversial gather dribbles. At his peak, Harden’s stepback was a sledgehammer to opposing defenders because of his timing and footwork. Harden would time his gather so perfectly that when he moonwalked to create separation it appeared to be a travel to the untrained eye. Or rather, it appeared to be a legal stepback to the trained official’s eye.

To make matters worse, Harden twisted the rule book further by crashing into defenders or warping into their arms in an attempt to create the illusion of a foul to such an extent that defenders resorted to guarding him with their hands behind their backs. The league eventually issued new guidelines on foul-baiting, which coincided with Harden’s declining play. But Harden still has his pass to travel. He’s just not as quick with his deceptive footwork as he used to be.

Philadelphia’s short-yardage brilliance has the league in a similar chokehold. Instead of finding a counterplay, the NFL’s other 31 teams are searching for a bailout from the NFL rules committee, which refused to outlaw the play during the offseason. They’re better off asking the league to mandate Tyreek Hill wearing ankle weights instead of socks. Philly’s peers have tried and failed to pull off their short-yardage heists with the same efficacy. The Giants attempted the sneak with their mediocre offensive line in early October and wound up injuring a center and a tight end.

While the rest of the league struggles to master the original recipe, it’s spawned its own subset of offensive trick plays. Against the Washington Commanders in Week 8, the Eagles set up in their usual wedge formation, but instead of pushing Hurts across the finish line, he turned and handed to one of his shovers D’Andre Swift, who cut across the field on a counter run and into the end zone before Washington’s defenders knew that hit em. On Saturday, Rutgers executed a fake Tush Push that was so effective, it even fooled the broadcast team.

No precedent in NFL history

Finding an equivalent for it in football lore is a Herculean challenge. It’s not as niche as the Chargers’ banned holy roller and not as intricate as the West Coast offense. It’s also not a skill that’s very transferrable. Carson Wentz lacked Jalen Hurts’ lower body strength. Wentz lacks plenty of Hurts’ strengths, but in the context of the Tush Push, Hurts squatting 600 pounds on offense explains his ability to drive forward.

Few plays in football history rely on such a uniquely gifted group of offensive line than the Philadelphia Eagles. Travis Kelce is the more famous brother, but center Jason is one-half of football’s most important relationship, along with Hurts. Lane Johnson hasn’t given up a sack in ages, and Landon Dickerson is a top-five guard by any measure. As a unit, the Eagles have turned turning 1st-and-10 into 1st-and-8. Jalen Hurts has now scored 16 rushing TDs from inside the 2-yard line since the 2022 season began.

Earlier this month, Cowboys pass rusher Micah Parsons referred to Philadelphia’s signature play as a cheat code due to Philadelphia’s offensive line and the strength of Hurts. He also defended its usage.

“The Eagles have the best O-line in the game, so yes, it’s a cheat code. They’re unstoppable at it,” said Parsons.

“We just have to deal with it. We have to adjust, we have to prepare to stop it,” he added. “That’s kinda suckerish. I don’t wanna be part of a league that’s like, ‘Hey, I can’t stop something. I’m not strong enough, I’m not good enough to beat it, so we gotta take it out the game.’ No, guys, this is football,”

Every so often, teams stumble upon an advantage that can alter their trajectory. In an age of finesse, showtime offenses, and quicker, agile defensive linemen, the Eagles are winning at the point of attack through brute strength. At some point, teams will begin putting their heaviest ball carriers under center. Philly’s former offensive coordinator Shane Steichen is trying that approach with 6-foot-4, 240-pound tank and quarterback Anthony Richardson, but he’s also more injury-prone than Hurts, so they haven’t been able to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

En route to a berth in Super Bowl LVI, the Tush Push played a smaller role in Philly’s destiny because of their massive points differential. However, during a season where the Eagles are winning at the margins, every inch matters and it’s become their personality as frustration mounts from opponents who can’t stop them. The best thing for the league to do would be to allow the Eagles to continue flourishing until football Darwinism catches up with them.

Follow DJ Dunson on X: @cerebralsportex

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.