The story behind ‘Arctic Circle,’ the Chiefs’ trick play that baffled the Raiders

Their creative boldness began when their archrival called a timeout.

The Chiefs were already in command of the game Saturday night when the Las Vegas Raiders used their first timeout, a move to preserve the final minute before halftime. With the Chiefs already in the red zone, superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes walked toward the sideline to have a quick chat with coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. Together, the trio wanted to find the correct play for the next snap, a second-and-3 from the Raiders’ 9-yard line.

A few seconds later, a decision was made: The Chiefs, in their regular-season finale, were going to run one of their most unique plays.

“It was really surprising because nobody was expecting that play to be run,” receiver Kadarius Toney said, grinning.

“I was super excited,” right tackle Andrew Wylie said, laughing.

“You have to have fun out there,” Mahomes said, smiling.

In a manner of just five seconds, the Chiefs, in front of opposing defenders they already had been dominating, used a never-before-seen huddle to further baffle and embarrass the Raiders. Mahomes relayed the play call to his 10 teammates on the field by saying two words: “Snow globe.”

Then the Chiefs linked their arms together and began shuffling their feet toward the right, transforming their huddle into a counter-clockwise carousel. It resembled school children dancing in a circle while singing “Ring Around the Rosie” on the playground at recess.

Following the Chiefs’ antics, several of the Raiders’ defenders looked at one another.

“That’s the benefit,” Reid said. “It’s just to create a little bit of confusion and then line up in something that’s not familiar to the opposing team. I thought the guys executed it well.”

The unusual formation featured Mahomes, Toney, superstar tight end Travis Kelce and running back Jerick McKinnon all in the backfield.

McKinnon, a college quarterback at Georgia Southern who ran a triple-option offense, received the snap in the pistol and went through a run-pass option action with Toney. Next, McKinnon pitched the ball back to Mahomes, who threw a pass across the field — from the numbers on the perimeter of the right side of the field to the numbers on the left — to Toney. Mahomes’ across-the-field screen pass to Toney surprised strong safety Roderic Teamer, the lone defender on the left side of the field who could thwart the Chiefs’ trickery with a tackle. Teamer, though, whiffed on his attempt, and Toney ended the play by traversing 9 yards into the end zone.

“We had to show (Reid) that all the work we’ve put in throughout the weeks that we’ve practiced it that it was ready to go when it was time,” said Toney, who joined the Chiefs in late October via trade with the New York Giants. “It was kind of like, ‘All right, bet.’”

The lone problem for the Chiefs: The touchdown didn’t count. The score was nullified by a holding penalty from star center Creed Humphrey. When referee Scott Novak announced the penalty, ESPN’s cameras captured Reid’s shocked facial expression.

Then ESPN showed one of the most alluring replays of the season, which allowed the Chiefs’ special huddle to go viral on social media. Dan Orlovsky, one of ESPN’s color analysts for the game and a former NFL quarterback, laughed as he watched the replay for the first time.

“I’ve never seen that before in my life,” Orlovsky told the TV audience. A few seconds later, he disagreed with Humphrey’s penalty, adding: “That’s incorrect.”

Fortunately for the Chiefs, they scored on the next play as Toney, on a jet sweep, evaded a tackle attempt by rookie free safety Isaiah Pola-Mao during his 11-yard sprint to the end zone.

With the second half being a dull formality, the most memorable moment from the game — and the moment discussed the most in the visitor’s locker room inside Allegiant Stadium — was the Chiefs’ trick play, its creation, evolution and the small details that were polished before it was revealed. Reid explained that the nickname for the play is “Arctic Circle,” since he approved it to be added to the Chiefs’ complex playbook a few weeks prior to Christmas. One way in which the team added humor to the play’s concept was by calling the skill-position players involved in the play — one running back, one tight end and three receivers — the reindeer personnel.

“I’ve got 51 percent of the vote,” Reid said, smiling. “If I like it, we go with it.”

Since 2018, when Reid made Mahomes the starter and promoted Bieniemy to the offensive coordinator role, the Chiefs have boasted one of the league’s most potent offenses. The unit has also become known for its extensive collection of plays, particularly in the red zone, that involve razzle-dazzle.



Chiefs’ latest innovations on full display in the red zone

The trend and frequency of such plays from the Chiefs became evident in 2019, when the team reached Super Bowl LIV. In the first quarter of that game against the San Francisco 49ers, the Chiefs unleashed “Shift to Rose Bowl Right Parade” on a 4th-and-1 play. Before the snap, Mahomes, former Chiefs running back Damien Williams and former receivers Sammy Watkins and Demarcus Robinson lined up in a full-house backfield and all four players spun to the right. The offensive line, except for center Austin Reiter, also shifted slightly to the right. The play perplexed the 49ers for a moment, which was just enough time for Williams, who received the snap directly, to gain 4 yards. Williams fell a few inches short of the goal line, but he earned an important first down and the Chiefs score a touchdown two plays later.

In 2020, the Chiefs scored touchdowns on several creative plays. In a win over the Carolina Panthers, the Chiefs ran a play called “Ferrari Right,” a nod to Mahomes’ nickname from ESPN analyst Louis Riddick. With the ball on the 1-yard line, Mahomes motioned to the right before running to the left and catching Reiter’s snap on what appeared to be a rollout to the left of the formation. But Mahomes spun back to the right and threw a quick touchdown pass to Robinson in the back of the end zone.

The play nicknamed “Catch and Release” worked in a win over the Baltimore Ravens. In a jumbo formation using an extra offensive lineman, former left tackle Eric Fisher performed his best acting skills, initially blocking linebacker Malik Harrison before releasing to run a route. Mahomes executed his rollout play-action pass and delivered the ball to Fisher, who ran a hesitation fade route. Fisher displayed his exceptional receiving skills, too, catching the pass near its apex, never letting the ball come into his sturdy body to record the 2-yard touchdown catch.

Last season, the Chiefs used three unusual plays to score three touchdowns in their playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mahomes completed an underhand pass to McKinnon for a 4-yard touchdown, backup guard Nick Allegretti caught a 1-yard touchdown pass and Kelce, in another full-house backfield, completed a 2-yard touchdown pass to receiver Byron Pringle.

“The players enjoy doing that stuff,” Reid said. “They come up with these things. We just throw them out there and let them work on them.”

Reid revealed after Saturday’s game that he, Bieneimy and Mahomes consider the quarterbacks’ room inside the Chiefs’ training facility to be the offense’s laboratory for developing trick plays. Reid and Bieniemy have encouraged and empowered any member of the offense, whether they are a player or an assistant coach, to become a mad scientist by drawing plays on the whiteboards that they believe should be innovative or wacky additions to the playbook.

“It was that similar genre of plays that Coach Reid has where you just try to catch a team off guard, seeing a lot of stuff going on,” Kelce said. “And sure enough, we ran it almost to perfection.

“I walked in the building (earlier this season) on a Friday, and that’s what we had on the board.”

Perhaps the most mysterious aspect of “Arctic Circle” was whose idea it was to have all 11 players shuffle in a circle, a la “Ring Around the Rosie,” before lining up in the play’s abnormal formation. After the game, all five starting offensive linemen — Wylie, Humphrey, right guard Trey Smith, left guard Joe Thuney and left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. — refused to give the answer. Reid also didn’t give credit to one person. The best clue in the mystery belonged to Mahomes, who shared that he thought of such a trick midway through last season.

“We practice hard, and the coaches let us have fun,” Mahomes said. “I think that’s what keeps us going. It’s a long season, and sometimes you want to just play the games. But we’ve built this culture of, ‘Let’s go out there and practice and have a great time doing it.’”

Similar to the origins of previous exceptional plays, Mahomes approached the idea with his teammates during one of the special teams periods in practices. In November, in downtime during a walkthrough, Wylie noticed that the initial reaction from Bieniemy was a good sign for the players.

“It caught EB’s eyes, so he put it in the playbook,” Wylie told The Athletic while chuckling. “It was cool to get that on film.”

Instead of holding hands, the Chiefs realized that placing their hands on the backs of the players next to them made the circle huddle tighter, allowing their revolutions to be completed at a quicker pace. But Reid, Bieneimy and Mahomes also had to consider the play clock. Should the play start with only one revolution or two or three? The Chiefs determined the correct answer while working on the play in Friday practices.

“I got dizzy a couple times,” Humphrey said, which led to Brown laughing. “Pat prolonged it a little bit.”

Just six players, the linemen and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, are required to do the full rotation, as Humphrey begins with his body directly behind the ball and breaks from the circle in much the same spot.

“My favorite part of the play is the fucking circle,” Brown told The Athletic. “It’s up to (No.) 15 (to break the huddle). I’m just waiting on the go call to burst to the line of scrimmage.”

Mahomes and several of his teammates considered it a victory that Reid actually included “Arctic Circle” among the 200-plus plays in last week’s game plan vs. the Broncos. Many of the defensive players, who have served as props and landmarks to help the offense predict the potential success of the trickery in several Friday practices and walkthroughs, were stunned to watch the play occur in a game.

“I’ve seen it a bunch of times,” safety Justin Reid said, smiling. “It’s so fun. I love that Coach Reid allows us to have our personalities show and do fun things like that. I don’t think the well ever ends in Coach Reid’s bag of tricks.”

In fortuitous and coincidental timing, the Raiders proved to be one of the better opponents to use the play against. The Chiefs, even with all their success in the red zone by weaponizing misdirection to their advantage, hadn’t run a trick play against the Raiders in more than two years. The last time just happened to be when the Raiders last defeated the Chiefs. The Raiders, then led by former coach Jon Gruden, used their rented buses to take victory laps around Arrowhead Stadium to celebrate their first win at the venue since 2012.

An argument can be made that Andy Reid’s decision to authorize his players to move in circle in front of the Raiders accomplished two tasks at once: The Chiefs demonstrated just how much they could outclass their archrival, and they knew their huddle would irritate the Raiders, who were in the midst of a season-ending blowout loss.

“Their D-line was kind of hating on us for it,” Wylie said of players such as defensive end Maxx Crosby and defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. “They were like, ‘What the hell was that?!’ I was like, ‘Don’t ask me, go look at EB!’ I’m glad we did it. It was awesome.”

Early in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs ran another specialty play near the goal line, one that Wylie told The Athletic is nicknamed “Leatherneck.”

The play is named in honor of Khalen Saunders, the superbly athletic defensive tackle who played in college at Western Illinois, who are nicknamed the Leathernecks. Lined up as the running back, a position he played in high school, Saunders ran a short route to the flat and toward the pylon, which gave him a few feet of separation against linebacker Luke Masterson. But Mahomes was forced to throw the ball out of bounds once he was pressured by two defenders.

“I told Khalen, ‘I’m pretty sure Travis was wide open as my second read,’” Mahomes said of Saunders, who is listed at 6-foot and 324 pounds. “But I was just like, ‘I’ve got to give him a chance.’ I don’t know if he would’ve caught it. He actually has really good hands. But I don’t know about his vertical. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to throw him a jump ball.”

Saturday’s game marked the third time this season Saunders has been on the field to play on offense. In late November, Saunders was going to be Mahomes’ primary passing option early in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Rams. The Chiefs lined up for a second-and-goal snap from the 4-yard line with Saunders as the third tight end. But Rams coach Sean McVay, upon seeing Saunders on the field, called a timeout to disrupt the Chiefs’ plan. The Chiefs changed plays during the timeout.

Unfortunately for the Raiders, the Chiefs’ drive after “Leatherneck” resulted in the same outcome as “Arctic Circle.” This time, though, the Chiefs reached the end zone two plays later, as rookie running back Isiah Pacheco scored on a 1-yard run.

“It was great getting Khalen in there for his play,” Wylie said. “It’s just really cool to get a different dude out there because we’ve been running that play in practice for about a month and a half.”

Of course, several players acknowledged Saturday that the Chiefs offense has a plethora of trick plays that opposing defenses have yet to see. Such an advantage could help the Chiefs, who earned the AFC’s top playoff seed with their win Saturday, advance to Super Bowl LVII.

Naturally, the Chiefs can — and likely will — continue to contemplate and tinker with such plays ahead of their first playoff game in the divisional round.

“The only thing is it has to work,” Mahomes said. “Whenever we run it, it has to work.”

(Photo of Kadarius Toney in the end zone: Jeff Bottari / Getty Images) The story behind ‘Arctic Circle,’ the Chiefs’ trick play that baffled the Raiders

Russell Falcon

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