The clock stopped with two seconds left in the first half. The defense lined up with its heels on the goal line. The Philadelphia Eagles emerged from their huddle needing just a single yard to score a go-ahead touchdown.
Everyone at SoFi Stadium knew what play was coming. Fox’s broadcast crew even called it ahead of time.
“They’re going to do the 'Brotherly Shove,' huh?” play-by-play man Kevin Burkhardt said last Sunday.
“They have to,” responded color analyst Greg Olsen, adding that it was “a no-brainer.”
Sure enough, after a timeout, the Eagles lined up in the formation they've made famous, with their linemen shoulder-to-shoulder, quarterback Jalen Hurts under center and running back Kenneth Gainwell and tight end Dallas Goedert just behind him. Hurts then took the snap and surged into the end zone behind his center and left guard, buoyed by Gainwell and Goedert pushing from behind.
Philadelphia’s aggressiveness going for a touchdown in that situation reflected head coach Nick Sirianni’s confidence in his team’s ability to execute its signature play. The Eagles converted roughly 90% of their sneaks last season on their way to a Super Bowl appearance. They were successful 12 of 13 times this season before two failed attempts on third-and-3 and fourth-and-2 last Sunday while trying to run out the clock against the Rams.
“There are very few things you can take to the bank in the NFL,” Olsen said on the Fox broadcast. “This is clearly one of them.”
To some NFL teams, the “Brotherly Shove” — or “Tush Push,” whichever you prefer — is no different than the so-called “Philly Special” that the Eagles memorably unveiled in 2018 during Super Bowl LII. Opposing coaches have stolen both concepts and incorporated them into their own playbooks with varying degrees of success.
To others in NFL circles, the “Brotherly Shove” is more “abomination” than innovation. They insist a designed push for the ball carrier has no place in professional football and question whether it could be a recipe for serious injuries.
Green Bay Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy wrote last March that he hopes the play is banned and that he has “raised this issue with the league.” Washington Commanders defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio complained before a Week 4 matchup with the Eagles that it’s “a nice rugby play” but not a football play. Former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher also called it a “rugby play” earlier this week on “The Dan Patrick Show,” adding, “I think it’s bad for football. There’s nothing strategic about it.”
NFL competition committee chairman Rich McKay told reporters last spring that he and his colleagues came away “split” on whether to outlaw the push play after examining it during the league’s annual meetings. There wasn’t enough support for a proposed rule change, McKay said, but the rules committee intended to keep monitoring the play and how many injuries it produced.
The “Brotherly Shove” also has the attention of the NFL Players Association, especially after two New York Giants were injured attempting the play earlier this month. The NFLPA intends to gauge player concerns about the play and work with the league to review injury data.
When asked Sunday about the NFL exploring banning the play again this offseason, Sirianni smirked and said, “Of course they are.” There might be less uproar, Sirianni hinted, if “Brotherly Shove” copycats around the league had the personnel or attention to detail to match the Eagles’ success rate.
“We’ve watched the rest of the league,” Siriani said, “and, quite frankly, they can’t do it like we can.”
‘Brotherly Shove’ is not a new concept
Contrary to popular belief, the “Brotherly Shove” isn’t a new cheat code that the Philadelphia Eagles invented. Nor is it the next evolution of USC’s famous goal-line “Bush Push,” as Matt Leinart recently suggested.
The “Brotherly Shove” is essentially a throwback to one of football’s most primitive blocking schemes. The Eagles utilize wedge blocking concepts that first became popular more than a century ago and remain prevalent in youth and high school football.
Pushing the ball carrier forward was forbidden at the highest levels of football until the NFL removed that language from its rulebook in 2005 and college football followed suit in 2013. The rule change was meant to eliminate a tricky judgment call for referees, but it also opened a loophole for teams to exploit.
As McKay put it last spring at the NFL’s annual meetings, "We did not think it would become a strategy, [but] here we are."
College coaches began scheming up ways to take advantage of the new rule long before the Eagles first installed “Brotherly Shove.” As early as 2015, Kansas State went to a “Brotherly Shove”-esque quarterback sneak as its go-to short-yardage play after a few failed fourth-and-1 attempts the more traditional way.
Terralle Johnson remembers exactly what crossed his mind when Kansas State coaches first asked him to run up behind the quarterback and try to push him forward. The 6-foot-1, 315-pound offensive lineman thought, “What if I hurt him? What if I break his back?”
Those concerns weren’t too far-fetched, admits former Kansas State quarterback Jesse Ertz. Ertz describes it as a gnarly experience being at the bottom of the pile-up of bodies after a quarterback sneak.
“Your face would be red,” Ertz said. “You’ve got face masks pressed into your shin. Your wrist would be twisted. I don’t know if there’s actually an increased injury risk, but, as a player, it’s just a very uncomfortable play.”
The battle scars proved worthwhile for Ertz as his offensive line fired off the ball quicker, as he learned to identify what gap to target and as his pushers became more adept at redirecting him when necessary. Ertz estimates that Kansas State converted roughly 90% of its short-yardage quarterback sneaks during his two seasons as a starter, including the game-winning touchdown against Myles Garrett-led Texas A&M in the 2016 Texas Bowl.
“After that, we were begging to go for it on 4th-and-short,” Johnson said. “We were like, ‘Dang, this works against anybody.’ ”
‘The low man always wins’
The “tush push” quarterback sneak didn’t migrate to the NFL until the Eagles started messing around with the concept early in the 2022 season.
It started late in Philadelphia’s season opener when Goedert pushed Hurts over the first-down line on fourth-and-1 to clinch a three-point victory over Detroit. Only after cycling through a half dozen other iterations did the Eagles settle on the now-familiar formation with Hurts under center and two escorts lined up in position to push him from behind.
What became clear is that how the Eagles lined up didn’t matter nearly as much as who the Eagles lined up. Their success starts with a quarterback who famously never skips a leg day. Hurts, a former powerlifter with the leg strength to deadlift 600 pounds, has the football savvy to pick out the most vulnerable gap and lower-body power to push a pile.
It also helps that Philadelphia boasts one of the NFL’s most respected offensive line coaches. Jeff Stoutland has helped mold a former rugby player, karate black belt, college quarterback and walk-on running back into the pillars of one of the most feared offensive lines in football.
If the center is the key to a quarterback sneak, then that’s an especially big advantage for the Eagles. Six-time Pro Bowl selection Jason Kelce is comfortable playing low to help him offset a size disadvantage against taller, heavier defensive tackles. Kelce has an uncanny knack for getting underneath his man and driving him backward.
The Eagles’ personnel is so well suited to the sneak that the pushers often become little more than window dressing. Hurts frequently surges forward for the necessary yardage even before his teammates barrel into him from behind or redirect him toward a sliver of space.
“Unpopular opinion: If they weren’t allowed to push from behind, the Eagles would still be just as successful at QB sneaks,” three-time NFL defensive player of the year J.J. Watt wrote on X last month. “Yes it helps, but the push isn’t the reason it’s successful. The OLine and Jalen are.”
The other unsung aspect of the Eagles’ quarterback sneak success rate is their preparation. In a recent episode of his podcast, Kelce revealed that Stoutland brought a Scottish rugby coach to Eagles practice one day and asked him, “How would you stop this play?”
“There’s nothing they can do to stop this,” Kelce recalled the Scottish visitor saying. “It’s organized mass, and there’s nothing they can do as long as you’re organized. It’s too many people going in the same direction at the same time.”
In an effort to better understand whether rugby holds the secret to stymying the NFL’s most unstoppable short-yardage play, Yahoo Sports reached out to a Pennsylvania man who has played and coached both sports. Scott Moore of the Harrisburg Rugby Football Club rolled his eyes at frequent comparisons between the “Brotherly Shove” and a rugby scrum, but he did acknowledge similarities with a rugby maul.
In a maul, the player with the ball is surrounded by teammates who attempt to drive him forward as a tightly packed unit, while the defense desperately seeks to hold its ground and halt the advance. Just like the “Brotherly Shove,” Moore said, “The low man almost always wins.”
Therein lies Moore’s advice to defenses trying to stop the Eagles or other teams running the “Brotherly Shove.”
“If you let the offense get lower,” Moore said, “it’s very, very hard to stop.”
'How can we get this outlawed?'
It’s easy to take the Eagles’ quarterback sneak success for granted until you watch other NFL teams attempt variations of the “Brotherly Shove.”
The New York Giants tried it earlier this month with extra linemen in the backfield to push Daniel Jones forward. They not only failed to convert fourth-and-1 but also lost a lineman and a tight end to injuries in the process.
It didn’t go much better for the Patriots or Chargers on recent fourth-and-1 attempts. They both tried push sneaks but got stuffed for no gain.
Then there was a quarterback sneak attempt gone wrong from the Green Bay Packers last month. Quarterback Jordan Love later took the blame, saying that he didn’t shout out the correct word to trigger the snap.
With other teams struggling to match the Eagles’ success rate on push sneaks, Dallas Cowboys edge rusher Micah Parsons recently said on his weekly show that it would be “suckerish” for the league to outlaw the play.
Added Parsons: “I don’t want to 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 of the game.’ No, guys, this is football.”
How likely is the NFL to ignore Parsons’ advice and outlaw the “Brotherly Shove?” A former NFL referee suspects a rule change is coming sooner than later.
Granted anonymity in exchange for his candor, the former referee pointed out that the NFL a decade ago banned defenses from overloading one side of a formation, pushing players through the line and then rushing through the newly created gaps to block a kick. The purpose of the rule change was to protect long snappers and other linemen who were being put in a vulnerable position.
If that posed too great an injury risk, the former referee wondered, how can these quarterback sneaks be any different? Echoing McKay, the former referee noted that the NFL didn’t mean to allow teams to install designed pushes of a ball carrier in 2005 when it tweaked the rules governing aiding a runner.
“It’s like, OK guys, we’re getting back to the flying wedge,” the former referee said. “Sometimes we change rules and there are unintended consequences. We probably need to close that loophole to eliminate pushing a ball carrier like this from taking place.”
On the most recent episode of his podcast, Kelce said that if the “Brotherly Shove” ever gets outlawed, the threat of injury will be the impetus. Kelce suggested that defensive coaches might start instructing players to feign minor injuries after the “Brotherly Shove” in an effort to draw the attention of the NFL rules committee.
“I swear, I guarantee, guys are going to start faking injuries,” Kelce said. “They’re already thinking about ‘How can we get this outlawed?’ ”
The NFL could forbid the Eagles from running their signature play as soon as this offseason, but for now the “Brotherly Shove” is still legal and lethal.
As Sirianni said Sunday, “The competition committee can look at it, but until then people have to stop it.”