Few sights are more welcome by kick coverage teams in the NFL than Chicago Bears return specialist Devin Hester waving one of his arms above his head to signal a fair catch.
On the other hand, Bears fans tend to be disappointed when the most prolific return man in NFL history lets everyone know that he's not planning on scything through the gauntlet of would-be tacklers rushing toward him.
It seems like Bears special team coach Dave Toub -- or someone with Toub's ear -- is well aware of both reactions. When the Packers punted with just over a minute left in the fourth quarter while holding a 27-17 lead, the Bears executed one of the most mesmerizing trick plays in recent NFL history.
And, it all began with Hester running under a ball, looking as if he was going to catch it in a crowd. Surely, it was a fair catch situation.
UPDATE: The original version of this story stated that Devin Hester signalled for a fair catch to initiate this play by the Bears. FOX announcers indicated that Hester called for a fair catch during the broadcast, but replays suggest he merely feinted that he was going to catch it in a crowd, in what may have seemed to FOX broadcasters to be a "fair catch" situation.
As Green Bay's coverage team converged on Hester as he looked skyward, Bears wide receiver Johnny Knox was actually catching the ball on the far sideline. All alone, Knox sprinted up the fringe of Soldier Field. By the time that the Pack realized that the ball hadn't been kicked to Hester, Knox was long gone. He would score on the play, seemingly putting the Bears in position to attempt an onside kick to prolong their comeback bid.
But an official had thrown a flag during the return and it was called back. It was announced that the penalty was holding, which isn't a strange call on most long kick returns. The only problem here was that this nothing like most long kick returns. Knox had been all alone from the start with no defenders even running in his direction until it was far too late. To make matters worse for the officials, the replays revealed no clear infractions on any Bears players, including No. 21 who seemed to have been named by the refs as the offending player. In the FOX broadcast booth, neither Joe Buck or Troy Aikman could figure out why the hold was called, especially on No. 21.
"There's no one there. He's not touching anybody," Aikman said. "He wasn't even near anybody. I mean I'm pretty sure that they called it on 21."
Then, as if the call couldn't get any more absurd, Joe Buck chimes in and tells Aikman and FOX viewers that it wasn't No. 21 that the referees had flagged for holding. Buck says a member of the FOX crew informed him that it had been called on No. 29. Only problem is that there was no one with that number on the field for the Bears.
In his "Rapid Reaction" post over at ESPN.com's NFC North blog Kevin Seifert did identify No. 21 Corey Graham as the penalized player. He had no comment on the veracity of the call, only mentioning it insofar as it was indicative of the Packers' lackluster finish to the game.
While it's unlikely that the Bears would have come all the way back to win the game even if the return touchdown stood, it's a shame that we didn't get to see them try. That Toub would call this play -- or that Hester would freelance it -- shows just how important this rivalry game was to them. This is a one-time use gimmick and they chose to use it in that moment to make a last-ditch effort to get back into this game. Every team now has film on this feint by Hester and should be prepared for it. This was their chance. And it sure looks like they pulled it off.
If only HBO boxing commentator Larry Merchant were allowed to conduct postgame interviews with NFL refs then maybe we'd get some clarification on that chimeric holding call.
UPDATE: Without the help of Merchant, an intrepid NFL viewer may have found the source of the holding call. A screengrab of what the refs were likely flagging turned up on Chicago Bears blog Da Bear Necessities. The Bears blog titled its post about the play "Where The Hell Was The Hold Here?" It seems that a loyal reader may have found it.
After hearing the shock of his colleagues in the booth, FOX's football rules guru Mike Pereira also came out on the side of the officials. Formerly the VP of officiating for the NFL, Pereira tweeted that he saw an infraction, presumably the same one in the screen grab.
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