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A trick play (the old trick-a-roo), also known as a gadget play, gimmick play or trickeration, is a play in American football that uses deception and unorthodox strategies to fool the opposing team. A trick play is often risky, offering the potential for a large gain or a touchdown if it is successful, but with the chance of a significant loss of yards or a turnover if not. Trick plays are rarely used not only because of the riskiness, but to also maintain the element of surprise for when they are used.

Trick plays take advantage of the fact that nearly all American football plays are either a pass from the quarterback or a run by the halfback. As a result, defenses will think pass when the quarterback has the ball and run when the running back has it. Trick plays depart from these expectations, and therefore tend only to work if they are unanticipated.


Common trick plays

Halfback pass. (See also Halfback option play.) In this play the quarterback pitches the ball to a halfback as if it were an outside run, but instead of running up the field the halfback looks for an open receiver to pass the ball to. Teams that have a player who is both a skilled runner and passer use this play more often. San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson is a notable example, having thrown seven touchdown passes off halfback options in his career.

Wide receiver pass / Fake reverse. Similar to the halfback pass, the ball is given to a wide receiver on an end around or reverse, but instead of turning upfield he looks for a passing target (which in some situations might include the quarterback, who has run a pass pattern after the handoff.) Like the halfback pass, this play often utilizes a multi-skilled player; Antwaan Randle El is a wide receiver who played quarterback in college and is known for his ability to pass, throwing a 43-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward, another wide receiver who also played as a quarterback in college, during Super Bowl XL.

Fake punt. This play can take a number of different forms. Usually the punter will simply take the snap and look to throw a pass or run with the ball after the defenders have turned downfield to block for the punt return. In another variation, the ball may be snapped directly to one of the up-backs (usually a halfback or fullback) who then runs downfield or throws.

Fake field goal. As with a fake punt, there are a number of different forms for a fake field goal. Usually the holder (often the punter or backup quarterback on most teams) will throw or run as with the fake punt. Danny White was both quarterback and punter for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1980s and often executed this play. Less frequently, the placekicker, who virtually never handles the ball in an American football game, will serve as the passer or rusher on a fake field goal. Examples include then-New England kicker Adam Vinatieri receiving a direct snap and throwing a touchdown pass during an NFL game in 2004, and LSU kicker Colt David rushing for a 15-yard touchdown in 2007 after receiving the ball on a blind lateral from holder (and starting QB) Matt Flynn.

End arounds and reverses. In an end-around play, a wide receiver or split end runs laterally behind the line of scrimmage, takes a handoff from the quarterback, and continues around the opposite end of the line. Because the defense normally expects the wide receivers to run a downfield pass pattern, an end-around that catches the defenders by surprise can result in a big gain.

A similar trick play is a reverse, which often begins as an end-around. In a reverse, a ball-carrier running parallel to the line of scrimmage in one direction hands off to a teammate coming in the opposite direction. This abruptly reverses the lateral flow of the play; if the defense is slow to react, the second ball-carrier might make it around the end of the line to a near-open field. Variations of the basic reverse include the double reverse (which involves a second flow-reversing handoff), exceedingly rare triple reverses involving even more handoffs, the fake reverse described above, and the reverse flea flicker described below.

Reverse Flea Flicker. As the name implies, this is a combination of a reverse and a flea-flicker. After one or more reverse handoffs, the ball is lateraled back to the quarterback, who looks for an open receiver downfield. As with all flea-flickers, the play is designed to trick the defensive backs into coming upfield prematurely to defend what they believe to be a rushing play.

The offense (left) run a "halfback direct snap": In this case, before the play the quarterback (#9) has gone to the far side of the field (lining up as a receiver), while the ball is being snapped directly to a running back (#22).

Halfback Direct Snap. These are plays, usually run from shotgun formations (or "Wildcat Offense" formations), where someone other than quarterback (usually, but not always, a halfback) takes the snap. From this start, the offense may try a running play, a passing play, or a flea-flicker.

Double Pass. This play appears to be a screen pass to a wide receiver, who then passes the ball to another downfield target. For this play to be legal, the first receiver must remain behind the line of scrimmage and behind the quarterback, rendering the initial pass a lateral, as only one forward pass is allowed per play. In a variation of this play, the quarterback will intentionally skip the lateral to the first receiver, who catches the ball off the bounce. The hope is to trick the defense into believing the play is dead due to an incomplete pass, allowing the second receiver to run or pass the ball freely. One possible example of this was during a 2007 game between the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Other variants include the Double Lateral, which calls for the first receiver to lateral back to the quarterback so that he may make the final forward pass to his downfield target.

Hook and lateral. Also known as a "hook and ladder", the hook and lateral play involves a lateral pass after a completed forward pass. The most common variant of this play involves a receiver who runs a curl pattern, catches a short pass, then immediately laterals the ball to another receiver running a crossing route.

Other trick plays

Other types of trick plays rely on sleight of hand, simulated confusion on the part of the offense, or misdirection. Plays of this type are seen most often at the high school and collegiate level.

  • One example is a play in which the quarterback leaves his position behind the center before the snap and walks towards the sideline. He might pretend that he cannot hear the coaches' instructions or that he is about to call a timeout. If the defense relaxes, the ball can be direct-snapped to a halfback and a play run. This maneuver is legal in American football because one offensive player (in this case, the quarterback) is permitted to be in motion, laterally or backwards, at the time of the snap. However, under high school rules, if the quarterback or coaches on the sideline say anything that may lead the defense to believe that a snap is not imminent, then the play is not legal under the Unfair Act section of Rule 9. The Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints, Pittsburgh Steelers, and St. Louis Rams have used variations of this play in the NFL, and it was also used in the movie The Longest Yard (2005) for a winning two-point conversion.
  • A similar play is the fake spike, in which the quarterback in a hurry-up offense pretends to spike the ball after the snap to stop the clock. Here too, the objective is to trick the defense into believing that no downfield play will be run. A famous example occurred in 1994, when Dan Marino’s Dolphins were playing the Jets. From the account of Pat Kirwan, former Jets defensive coach and executive,[1]
With little time left, Marino had driven the Dolphins near our goal line and lined up as if he were going to spike the ball to stop the clock. But instead, he faked the spike, and as our defense let up for a split second, Marino threw the winning touchdown.
Peyton Manning is also a frequent user of the fake spike, and "sold it" so well in a 2001 game against New Orleans that the referee Jeff Triplette blew the whistle to stop the play, costing the Colts a probable touchdown [2].

Famous trick plays

All of these games have separate Wikipedia articles for more information.

  • Though not technically trick plays because they were improvised rather than designed, The Play, the River City Relay, and The Mississippi Miracle are famous examples of plays involving multiple downfield backward passes that led to last-second touchdowns.

See also




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