CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The play was called the “Philly Special,” or at least the Philadelphia version of the trick play that gave the Eagles a 22-12 lead over New England in the final seconds before halftime in Super Bowl LII last February.

Quarterback Nick Foles stepped to the line of scrimmage a yard away from the goal line and then crept to the right side of the line behind his tackle. Running back Corey Clement promptly received the snap and tossed the ball to tight end Trey Burton, who was rolling from the backside. Foles waited a second before running into the empty space that was the right side of the end zone where Burton found him for the touchdown.

The “Philly Special” would soon be described as one of the gutsiest calls in Super Bowl history, and for good reason. The National Football League has long been known for its conservative approach to strategy and play-calling, and Eagles coach Doug Pederson’s willingness to call a nontraditional play at a critical time was unfathomable to so many. After all, a field goal would have given the Eagles a six-point advantage heading into halftime.

While the Eagles had only added the gadget play to their arsenal a month earlier, the “Philly Special” has been around for a long time. The Tennessee Volunteers ran the play for a touchdown against Texas A&M in 2017. Rutgers scored on the play against Nebraska in 2015. Texas took its first lead over California in the 2011 Holiday Bowl on the play call. Its origins date back much further. Foles, who had suggested the trickeration to Pederson before the snap, scored a touchdown on the exact same play for Westlake (Tex.) High School before graduating in 2007.

It’s one of many gadget plays that have been in Larry Fedora’s playbook throughout his time in Chapel Hill. North Carolina failed to convert the exact same play against N.C. State in 2016 when Ryan Switzer’s pass to Mitch Trubisky was a bit high on 4th-and-2 late in the third quarter.

Instead of the NFL serving as the proving ground for stylistic novelty, the sport’s top professional league is typically the last to adapt, creating an inverse dynamic in which high school football coaches – look no further than Pulaski Academy (Ark.) head coach Kevin Kelley and his refusal to punt – push the boundaries while college and NFL coaches wait and see how the gambles pay off.

Gadget plays are an integral part of Fedora’s offensive system, fitting seamlessly with his philosophy of taxing the defense in any way possible. At times his methods seem radical, if not perilous. Onside kicks, two-point conversion fakes, double handoffs, an occasional pass attempt to an offensive lineman. Such plays are gambles, although Fedora insists they are not haphazard decisions.

“In a lot of cases, you're taking a risk, but it's got to be, on my part, a calculated risk, something that I feel comfortable with,” the seventh-year UNC head coach said in a recent interview with Inside Carolina. “Then you have to be able to withstand the onslaught of all the experts out there when it doesn't go the way you were hoping it was going to go. If you're comfortable in your own skin and you feel confident in what you're doing, you live with it, and you move on.”

This is a man who coached Southern Miss to the Conference USA title in 2011 by calling not one, but two, fake punts from his own end zone and converting both possibly – probably? - due to the absurdity and boldness of the play calls. UNC installs three or four gadget plays every week. While most of the plays are called during the games, their viability depends on proper matching with defensive sets, thereby forcing the coaching staff to check out of the calls more often than not. In that case, the gadget plays make their way onto call sheets in the weeks to come.

In October 2016, the Tar Heels were tied with Virginia, 7-7, at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, although the Cavaliers had grabbed the momentum with a touchdown on a fake field goal in which snapper Evan Butts hiked the ball side-armed to Matt Johns before streaking down the middle of the field for the 11-yard reception.

UNC answered with trickeration of its own on the following series. With quarterback Mitch Trubisky lined up as a wide receiver on the left side of the formation, tailback T.J. Logan took the snap and handed off to wide receiver Ryan Switzer, who was coming in motion from the right side. Trubisky looped back to the pocket with a safety in pursuit, but Switzer’s hard fake up field froze the defender and he flipped the ball back to his quarterback, who connected with Bug Howard at the goal line for a 40-yard touchdown.

Fedora told reporters after the win in Charlottesville that this particular trick play had been called the week before against Miami, but was nixed due to the coverage not matching up. By rolling the gadgets from week to week, the Tar Heels typically practice the plays upwards of 30 times. To challenge his players, Fedora installs the plays against base coverages on Tuesday before mixing up defensive play calls on Wednesday and Thursday.

“My deal is if we're always practicing those things, and we don't ever use them when it brings itself up in the game, your players lose confidence in it,” Fedora said. “Why are we practicing these things if we won't ever use it? Those situations come up in the game, and we've prepared for it. Alright, let's go. It only builds their confidence.”

One Fedora gadget staple is the flea flicker. The play, which begins as a handoff to the tailback before he turns and pitches the ball back to the quarterback, has been consistently effective for the Tar Heels. Against Duke in 2015, Elijah Hood took the opening handoff at UNC’s own 11-yard-line, charged forward a few steps and then tossed the ball to Marquise Williams, who connected with Ryan Switzer behind Duke’s safeties for an 89-yard touchdown. “On Thursday we get the openers, and when you walk into the room and see a flea-flicker, it's big,” Williams said following the win.

(Photo: Jim Hawkins/Inside Carolina)

Similar to the play call at Virginia, the flea flicker against Duke was on the call sheet for Pittsburgh the week prior but was shelved due to the Panthers’ defensive alignment. There are various other examples of the flea flicker in use, such as last season when Chazz Surratt connected with Austin Proehl for a 47-yard gain on a flea flicker against Duke. In 2016, Trubisky connected with Switzer for a 75-yard scoring strike on the same play against James Madison, highlighted by Mack Hollins signaling a touchdown before his quarterback had even thrown the ball. “I guess you just expect touchdowns with this offense, so he was just calling the shot,” Trubisky said.

Flea flickers, however, are a relatively safe gadget play that yields a quarterback pass to a wide receiver or running back. Deeper in Fedora’s bag of tricks are plays similar to the “Philly Special,” involving receivers and backs trading roles with quarterbacks for plays destined for highlight reels if they hit. Eight non-quarterback Tar Heels have completed passes in Fedora’s first six years in Chapel Hill, led by wide receiver Quinshad Davis’s stout 4-of-4 passing for 121 yards and four touchdowns. Rising junior wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams is close behind, having completed 3-of-4 passes for 86 yards and two touchdowns. In total, those eight Tar Heels – which includes two punters and a running back – have completed 14-of-19 passes for 390 yards and nine touchdowns without an interception.

“You're always tinkering with the talent level that you have on your squad to try and take advantage,” Fedora said. “To me, it's all about taking advantage. In the past, we've had multiple wide receivers throw passes or touchdowns because they could do that, so you took advantage of those situations. It's always about tweaking the offense and adding and subtracting things according to basically the talent level that you have and what they can do.

“I've watched people run trick plays, and the receiver will throw the ball, and I'm like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ Why would you do that? Why? Are you just hoping that it might happen? That you just get lucky and you complete it? I'm not like that. That's not a calculated risk, in my opinion. That's just a risk. I want to see that guy be able to do it and know that he has the talent level to be able to do it. When he can do it, let's take advantage of it. Let's not be scared of it.”

Since Fedora began his head coaching career at Southern Miss in 2008, there have been 77 D-1 college football games in which a player has thrown 20 or more passes and caught a touchdown pass. Four of those designations belong to Fedora quarterbacks, the first to USM’s Austin Davis in 2010 and the next three to Marquise Williams (2013-15).

Any particular play call should only be a trick play to the opposition and the viewers watching. If it’s complex for the players orchestrating the play, the advantage flips to the opponent. It makes sense that Ratliff-Williams has become a secondary quarterback for the Tar Heels, given his four-star recruiting ranking as a quarterback and the fact that he began his career at UNC in the shotgun. Simply because his athleticism served him better at wide receiver does not negate his ability to throw a football under duress.

Fedora’s not afraid to take calculated risks at critical times. After Trubisky’s 16-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Thorpe gave UNC a 28-27 lead at Virginia with 4:05 to play in 2014, the Tar Heels surprised the Cavaliers by recovering an onside kick to run out the clock. Sometimes such attempts fail to work, drawing the ire of the fan base. With UNC needing a two-point conversion to tie Stanford with 25 seconds to play in the 2016 Sun Bowl, Fedora called a play that included a screen pass to left tackle Bentley Spain as an option. With left guard Tommy Hatton rolling into the flat to block, UNC’s offensive line was overrun as the Cardinal sacked Trubisky.

In certain occasions, Fedora’s gadget plays not only provide a boost to his offense, but are also needed to counter stout defenses. In last season’s 24-19 loss to Miami, quarterback Nathan Elliott caught a 33-yard pass from Ratliff-Williams on his first play subbing in for Chazz Surratt. Ratliff-Williams later connected with Beau Corrales for an 18-yard touchdown pass play. A fake field goal pass play from Manny Miles to Brandon Fritts on 4th-and-19 came up short and a second Ratliff-Williams pass to Elliott was incomplete early in the fourth quarter.

The loss to the Hurricanes marked the second time in the Fedora era that four different players completed a pass (ECU, 2014).

Certainly none of Fedora’s gadget plays have drawn more criticism from his base than his determination in testing opposing field goal/PAT block teams. In most every game that UNC scores a touchdown, its PAT unit takes the field and lines up in one of a myriad of formations, forcing its opponent to scramble to cover eligible receivers and fill gaps up front. If the opponent succeeds in matching the holder’s checks, he waves off the play and the Tar Heels hustle to line up for a standard PAT.

One prevalent argument against such theatrics is the rationale in handing the ball to a backup quarterback or even a punter on a designed scoring play when the starting quarterback is standing on the sideline.

Fedora is quick with an answer to that criticism: “If your quarterback's on the field, then the defense changes, right? So it just depends on what you're trying to accomplish. I would say 90 percent of the time in every game, we have some type of trick two-point play deal. We only have two or three things we're looking for. If it's there, let's go. Do it because it should be a guarantee if it's there. If it's not, line up and kick it.”

Basic game theory principles suggest equilibrium will eventually be established once special teams units prepare adequately for both kicks and fakes. In this variety of calls, players are asked to execute skills they don’t routinely perform; therefore the calls work best when opponents least expect them. That equilibrium, however, has yet to be established and still appears to favor the risk-taker.

In 2012, Drive-By Football’s  Keith Goldner compared the NFL success rates between standard attempts and fakes on fourth down during the previous 12 years. He found that fakes were converted at a higher rate, especially inside of six yards to go, thereby highlighting a current, albeit slim, advantage for coaches willing to get creative on fourth down.

Fedora can make the case the same holds true on PAT attempts. UNC has converted just one of six two-point conversions since 2012 with the starting quarterback behind center. With a non-quarterback taking the snap in that same timeframe, the Tar Heels are 8-of-15. Even if UNC were hitting at a rate below 50 percent, the increased workload for the opponent would still offer value.

“The next team has still got to prepare for something,” Fedora said. “The team after that? They’ve got to prepare for something. Even if you don't use it, if you just lined up. They don't know what you were going to do about it, either. So it's all, again, a calculated risk. It's not, for me, at this point in the game, we need to go for two. That's not the way it is. You have those plays, too, and I'm more reserved in using those toward the end of the game when I know what's going on. These are just bonuses, in my opinion. The players love it. They have fun with it.”

It is a game, after all; one merging philosophy and strategy with the backyard antics that entice so many to the gridiron at a young age. Now that the NFL is seemingly embracing the benefits of gadget plays more than ever, maybe that aforementioned equilibrium will be reached sooner or later. Until then, Fedora will continue to push the boundaries.