PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Eagles were facing a fourth-and-1 at midfield early in the second quarter Sunday, and everyone in the stadium knew what was coming before the offense even lined up.
A capacity crowd of nearly 70,000 rose for a standing ovation, anticipating perhaps the most talked about play in the NFL.
The “tush push.”
Or is it the “brotherly shove?” The nicknames vary, but the results have been remarkably consistent.
“It’s been a good play for us,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said. “A really good play for us.”
The play is a glorified sneak where the quarterback is pushed forward by teammates lined up behind him. It has been wildly successful for the Eagles since they made it a regular part of their offense in 2022. They have run it 37 times in the regular season, per ESPN Stats & Information, and have gotten a first down or scored a touchdown on 34 of those attempts for a success rate of 92%.
Other teams are following suit — there have been 36 attempts through four weeks, up from five at this point in 2022 — with mixed results. Four teams are 0-for-1, but the overall success rate is 81%.
“It’s not as automatic as people think, as we’re seeing across the NFL,” Sirianni said.
It might not be automatic for the Eagles, but it’s close. And their success might explain why it has become controversial, with critics saying it’s more rugby than football and should be outlawed. The rules committee will review the play in the offseason, and the league alerted officials to watch for infractions such as illegal formations and blocks. The backlash prompted the take-your-whining-and-stick-it standing ovation during Sunday’s game against the Washington Commanders as Eagles fans showed their support for a play that has become part of the team’s identity.
“Well, it’s not being officiated as illegal, so we just have to prepare for it,” Washington defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said before the game. “I would personally like to see it eliminated, not just because they run it better than anybody, although they do run it better than anybody. But I don’t think that’s a football play. I think it’s a nice rugby play, and it’s not what we’re looking for in football.”
The debate is starting to heat up. The NFL competition committee was “split” over whether to outlaw the play this offseason, per Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, who is also the chairman of the competition committee. There wasn’t enough support to propose a rule change at the league meetings in March, but multiple members of the committee said they’d further analyze the play this coming offseason, when more injury-related data will be available.
On Monday night, two members of the New York Giants — rookie center John Michael Schmitz and tight end Daniel Bellinger — were hurt while executing a tush push in the first quarter of a 24-3 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, and they did not return.
“I think in the near future, rules might change,” Tampa Bay Bucs quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “But for now, offenses might as well take advantage of it.”
The fact that not all teams have taken advantage as successfully as the Eagles strengthens the argument that the play is less about the push and more about the men attached to the tush.
“There is clearly a talent to it that our guys have,” Sirianni said. “I get that some people are complaining about it, but stop it. Stop the play.”
Sirianni couldn’t pinpoint exactly how the quarterback push made its way into the Eagles’ scheme, but he cited the goal-line sequence at the end of the 2005 classic between USC and Notre Dame as the moment the play pierced the football world’s collective consciousness.
With the Trojans trailing by three with seven seconds left, quarterback Matt Leinart ran a sneak and was greeted by a wall of Irish defenders who appeared to have had him stopped. But Reggie Bush flew in and shoved Leinart into the end zone for the score.
The play — known as the “Bush push” — was against the NCAA rules at the time (although not any longer), but no flag was thrown.
Also in 2005, the NFL removed language from the rulebook that prohibited pushing a ball-carrier forward. But the purpose was to eliminate a tough judgment call for the referees, not to open the door for the modified QB sneak.
There was concern by officials that in some of the goal-line situations it was “very hard to tell when a guy was coming in to block and when a guy was coming in to push. So we took it out,” McKay said in March. “We did not think it would become a strategy, and here we are.”
The first Eagles tush push in ESPN’s database came in Week 1 of last season against the Detroit Lions, when they snuck it on fourth-and-1 for a first down to secure a 38-35 win.
“I love pushin’, man,” said Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert, one of the players responsible for muscling Hurts through the line of scrimmage. “It’s fun to be back there. It’s fun to see the defeat on defenses’ faces before we even run the play.”
Some players inside the Eagles locker room are hesitant to share the intricacies of the play. “You don’t go into McDonald’s and ask for the Big Mac sauce recipe,” guard Landon Dickerson said. But the basic tenets are cut and dry.
Hurts picks a gap on either side of the center, and dives in after the snap. As soon as he meets resistance, the two players behind him rush in and begin to push Hurts forward.
The Eagles have one of the most savvy centers in the game in Jason Kelce, and he’s surrounded by massive men in Dickerson (6-foot-6, 332 pounds), Jordan Mailata (6-8, 365 pounds), Lane Johnson (6-6, 325 pounds) and — to a lesser extent — Cam Jurgens (6-3, 303 pounds).
Then there’s Hurts, the former high school powerlifter who can squat 600 pounds — a level of strength that comes in handy when you’re trying to force your way through a mass of humanity.
“They’re putting the two H-backs right behind the quarterback, and it’s kind of like a rugby scrum,” said Dan Koppen, a former New England Patriots center who helped pave the way for arguably the best QB-sneak artist of time, Tom Brady. “And now you’ve got 1,500 pounds upfront. You’ve got a 200-250-pound quarterback [Hurts is listed at 223], and then you’ve got 250-400 pounds more pushing from the back.
“It’s a really hard play to stop.”
Out of the 36 attempts at the push this season through Week 4, 29 have resulted in first downs, including four touchdowns.
“But I think it’s just kind of low man wins. If our O-line can get low, and I can get low behind them, we’re going to have some success. Now if it’s the other way around, not so much success.”
The QB push against the Commanders that had the Lincoln Financial Field crowd on its feet didn’t count. Dickerson was called for the rare offensive offside. The Eagles were penalized 5 yards and had to punt.
Kelce said the NFL had given them notice the week leading up to the Washington game that it was going to “start looking for offensive players sneaking into the neutral zone.” Sirianni confirmed it was a point of emphasis for officials that week. Video appears to show Dickerson’s hand in line with the ball pre-snap, but Kelce said that was actually his hand, as he gets into a four-point position on QB sneaks.
“I think they messed this up actually,” Kelce said on his “New Heights” podcast. “But that’s what happens when you go searching for things.”
After declining to bring the legality of the play to a vote in March, the competition committee sent out a memo to all 32 teams recommending that the NFL football operations department “closely monitor” specific techniques utilized by the offense, including illegal formations, chop blocks and personal fouls “like spearing and use of the helmet by an offensive player in an effort to gain leverage and push the pile forward.”
One common thought is defenses will begin taking extreme measures to halt the play now that it is gaining in popularity with a reputation of being unstoppable.
Commanders coach Ron Rivera, a member of the competition committee, indicated the QB push will be put further under the microscope this offseason.
“It is something that we all have to study,” Rivera said. “There’ll be a lot of issues that’ll come up. There’ll be some safety issues that’ll probably be brought up. There may be some refereeing issues that’ll be brought up, but I can’t speak for anybody else on it. I think it will be a point of conversation.”
Time might not be on the side of the tush push, but the rest of the 2023 season offers an opportunity to those who have mastered the play.
“We did a lot of studies on everything in the offseason to help ourselves be even better at it,” Sirianni said, “but it’s about those guys up front. It’s about Jalen.
“I think we would be pretty successful without the push, but we’re just pushing them sometimes to give that extra thump.”
Contributing: John Keim, Brooke Pryor, Todd Archer
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