Victory in the NFL is often determined by which team plays stronger, faster, smarter, and with more desire. However, sometimes the victory goes to the team that can reach into its bag of tricks and pull out that one special play to put them over the top. There are several types of these "gadget" plays or "trick" plays, and this node attempts to catalogue them. It is usually the offense that has the most opportunity to run a trick play, and for that reason, most of these plays are of the offensive kind.

This nodes assumes moderate knowledge of the rules and terminology of the NFL on the part of the reader. Most terms are hardlinked only the first time they appear.

Offense

Audible

An audible is not a "play" in that it is a specific set of planned motions. An audible is the act of the quarterback changing the play his team is going to run from the play he called in the huddle to a (presumably) more effective play by signaling to his teammates after the offense and defense have broken their huddles.

Advantages: The audible is a powerful tool in the hands of the right quarterback. A quarterback will call an audible if he thinks that the play he called in the huddle will fail against the defensive formation he is seeing, or if he thinks he can exploit a weakness in the defense with a particular play. One NFL quarterback in particular, Peyton Manning, usually calls multiple plays in the huddle, and signals to his teammates which play to run after they have lined up and he has read the defense.

Drawbacks: Signaling to ten teammates can be difficult if the team is playing in a hostile environment with tens of thousands of screaming fans making it almost impossible for anyone on the field to hear anything. The quarterback can resort to hand signals, but these are less effective than calling a play orally. Calling an audible carries several additional risks for the quarterback, as he may make an incorrect read of the defense (or the defense may try to fool him with a deceptive formation) and call a poor play. An audible also changes the play that the team's head coach or offensive coordinator called, and if the play backfires, the coach/coordinator will usually be angry.

Level of Trickeration: Low (the defense cannot be "tricked" too much by an audible as they didn't know what the play was going to be in the first place.)

Play Action

Play Action is a fake handoff by the quarterback to a running back. The quarterback keeps the ball and looks to throw it downfield to a receiver.

Advantages: The longer the defense believes that the play will be a running play, the less likely that they will be in position to defend against a pass. Anyone on the defense may be fooled by play action, but the most common effect is that the linebackers freeze for a moment as they determine who actually has the ball. Occasionally, the quarterback will end up passing the ball to the running back to whom he faked the handoff. This pass can be especially effective if the defense ignored the running back after seeing that he didn't have the ball.

Drawbacks: Since the quarterback has to try to make the deception believable, he cannot look downfield to throw as quickly as he would on a simple pass play. He also loses a potential blocker in the running back who pretends to run with the ball.

Level of Trickeration: Low

End Around

On an End Around, a wide receiver will come across the field in motion prior to the snap. On or just before the snap, and while he's still several yards away from the quarterback, he will start to run diagonally backwards on a path behind the quarterback. When the ball is snapped, the quarterback will turn and run back a few yards before handing the ball off to the wide receiver (he may fake an inside handoff to a running back first.)

Advantages: The ball is handed off quickly to a player running at full speed who is trying to get outside, away from the middle of the field and most of the defense. If he can get to the outside before the defense, he can run for a big gain.

Drawbacks: The receiver who takes the ball to the outside will likely have few blockers in front of him to stop any defenders. If the defense sees the play coming quickly enough, they can stop it well before the receiver even reaches the line of scrimmage.

Level of Trickeration: Moderate

Reverse

A Reverse is similar to an end around, except that the quarterback hands the ball off to a running back first, and the running back takes off in one direction sideways before handing off to a receiver who is running in the opposite direction.

Advantages: This play can be more successful than an end around, because the handoff to the running back does more to convince the defense that the play is going in the direction he is running with the ball before the handoff to the receiver. This can cause more defenders to be out of position to defend against the receiver's run.

Drawbacks: This play is riskier than an end around, because it usually takes longer to develop. If defenders penetrate into the offensive backfield, they can stop the play before the receiver has a chance to get to the outside. Also, the additional handoff increases the chances of a fumble.

Level of Trickeration: Moderate

Double Reverse

A Double Reverse is extremely rare. It unfolds just like a reverse, except that the receiver hands the ball off to yet another receiver running in the opposite direction. In other words, the play winds up going in the same direction as the running back ran when he first got the ball.

Advantages: This play can cause even more confusion for a defense than a reverse, leading to more opportunities for the offense. Otherwise, the advantages are the same as a reverse.

Drawbacks: A double reverse is even riskier than a reverse, as the play takes even longer to develop and there is yet another handoff.

Level of Trickeration: High

Quarterback Option

A Quarterback Option (sometimes just call an option) is a play that primarily involves the quarterback and a running back. On the snap, the quarterback takes the ball and runs parallel to and behind the line of scrimmage. A running back runs parallel to the line of the quarterback, a few yards behind him. The play is called the "option" because the quarterback has the option of keeping the ball himself and running with it, or lateralling it to the running back.

Advantages: The option is a powerful weapon for a smart, athletic quarterback. He can force the defense to focus on him and lateral the ball just before the defenders arrive, letting the running back gain the yards. The quarterback can also gain yards himself if the defense leaves a gap.

Drawbacks: The quarterback has to be able to make a quick decision on whether to lateral the ball or not. If he is indecisive, he may make a poor toss and lose the ball. The running back may also drop the ball if it is lateralled to him (if he does, the ball is live and the defense may recover it.) The option also exposes the quarterback to hard hits from defenders.

Level of Trickeration: Moderate

Halfback/Wide Receiver Option

The Halfback Option/Wide Receiver Option play sounds like the quarterback option, but is actually quite different. The essence of the play is that the quarterback gives the ball to a running back or wide receiver who runs parallel to and behind the line of scrimmage. He then looks to throw the ball downfield to a receiver, but the "option" is that he may choose to run the ball if he feels that throwing it would be a mistake. The quarterback may hand the ball off to the running back or receiver, or he may lateral it to him. If the quarterback started the play in the shotgun, he is allowed to catch forward passes, and may run out on a pass route after giving the ball to the running back or receiver.

Advantages: If run properly, this play can embarrass a defense. The offense tries to make the play look like a running play for as long as possible to trick the defensive backs into running upfield to make a tackle. Meanwhile, a wide receiver sneaks down the field behind them to catch the pass.

Drawbacks: If the defense catches on to the play, it can result in disaster for the offense. The defense can tell that a play like this is being run if 1) the player who received the ball from the quarterback stays behind the line of scrimmage instead of trying to advance and 2) the offensive line does not go past the line of scrimmage (offensive linemen may not cross the line of scrimmage on a pass play until the pass has been touched.) A smart defender will see these signs and realize what is happening. The other major drawback is that a player besides the quarterback is throwing the ball, and may not throw it very well, or, in the excitement of the moment, decide to throw the pass even if the defense has it covered.

Level of Trickeration: Extreme

Flea Flicker

The oddly-named Flea Flicker is a relatively simple play, but can fool the defense quite easily. On a Flea Flicker, the quarterback hands the ball off to a running back. He runs forward for a few steps without crossing the line of scrimmage, turns, and laterals the ball back to the quarterback, who then looks to throw the ball deep down the field to a receiver.

Advantages: The advantages of this play are similar to those of the halfback/wide receiver option. The goal for the offense is to get the defense to think that the play is a running play and ignore the receiver streaking down the field.

Drawbacks: This play is less risky than the halfback/wide receiver option, but the defense can detect the play from the same signs as in the HB/WR Option (ball carrier doesn't cross the line of scrimmage, offensive line doesn't cross the line of scrimmage.) At least it is the quarterback who throws the pass on this one.

Level of Trickeration: High

Statue of Liberty Play

The cleverly-named Statue of Liberty Play is different from the Flea Flicker and the HB/WR Option, in that it disguises a running play as a passing play, instead of a passing play as a running play. The quarterback takes the snap and drops back as if he is going to pass. He pulls his arm back as if to throw, but instead of him throwing the ball, a teammate runs behind him, takes the ball out of his hand, and runs with it.

Advantages: If the wide receivers have all run deep routes, then chances are that the player who runs with the ball will be able to gain many yards before being tackled, because many defenders will be deep downfield as well.

Drawbacks: The player taking the ball from the quarterback may drop it, as this type of handoff is highly unusual. Also, if the defense penetrates the backfield quickly, they may tackle the quarterback before he can make the handoff, or harass him enough that he or his teammates drop the ball.

Level of Trickeration: High

Fumblerooski

The Fumblerooski play is designed to fool the defense and get the ball into the hands of an offensive lineman. The quarterback takes the snap and places the ball on the ground for an offensive lineman to pick up and run with.

Advantages: If the defense sees the ball and thinks the quarterback has fumbled, they may go after it and fail to hold their positions, opening things up for the lineman who picks up the ball. Even if this does not happen, the play can cause confusion in the defense simply because they do not expect to see an offensive lineman running with the ball. Another benefit for the offense is that offensive linemen, though usually slow, are massive and difficult to tackle.

Drawbacks: There is always risk in a play that leaves the ball on the ground for a moment. The lineman who takes the ball may not make it very far before being tackled.

Level of Trickeration: High

Hook-and-Lateral

The hook-and-lateral play is a complicated and desperate play, requiring precise timing between the quarterback and two receivers. The quarterback drops back to pass, and throws the ball downfield to a receiver who ran a "hook" route (he reaches a point on the field, stops, and turns to receive the pass.) Just after catching the ball, he laterals it backwards to another receiver who is running behind him.

Advantages: A properly executed hook-and-lateral play can catch a defense completely off-guard. Once the pass is caught, the defenders will converge on the receiver, but if the second receiver can take the lateral in stride, he can be long gone before the defense can react. The hook-and-lateral is most often seen with just seconds to go in a half, when the offense is desperate to score with a long play.

Drawbacks: The hook-and-lateral takes almost exact timing to work right. If the pass is early or late, or the lateral is dropped, the play will not work. If the lateral is dropped, the defense will probably recover it.

Level of Trickeration: Extreme

Tackle Eligible

The Tackle Eligible play is most often used around the opposition's goal line. Normally, offensive tackles are ineligible to catch forward passes. However, if they line up on the end of the offensive line and report to the referee prior to the play that they are eligible receivers, they may catch passes. The tackle eligible play is simply a tackle catching a touchdown as an eligible receiver.

Advantages: Defenses do not expect such a big player to run downfield and catch passes, and usually concentrate on the players who usually make the catches.

Drawbacks: Offensive tackles seldom catch passes, and are more likely to drop the ball if it in fact comes their way. If a defender bothers to cover them, they will probably not be open for the pass. In addition, whenever a tackle reports to the referee as an eligible receiver, the referee will announce it over the stadium's PA system (though having a tackle as an eligible receiver often enough may make the defense ignore his announcements.)

Level of Trickeration: High

Quick Kick

A Quick Kick is a punt by the quarterback on a down other than fourth. He usually lines up 7 or 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and upon taking the snap, punts the ball away.

Advantages: The defense probably will not see the kick coming, and have no one downfield to return it. The offense will usually only run this deep in their own territory (inside their own 3-yard line or so), and usually only on 3rd and long. A normal punt from a team's own end zone is risky, especially if the defense tries to block it. A quick kick largely alleviates this pressure.

Drawbacks: Naturally, the offense is giving up possession by punting. The quarterback may also produce a poor punt, as he is not often called upon to kick the football. There is also a specific rule that prevents roughing the kicker from being called on a quick kick (normally a serious penalty.)

Level of Trickeration: High

Quarterback Draw

A Quarterback Draw is usually run close to the opposition's goal line on a likely passing down (usually 3rd down). The quarterback takes the snap and drops back as if he is going to throw, while his offensive line pass blocks and his receivers run down the field. After dropping back a few steps, though, the quarterback begins to run forward, looking for a hole in the defensive line.

Advantages: The quarterback can often find room to run if he gets past the defensive line, as the players behind them are usually looking to stay with the receivers running downfield. The play is usually run close to the opposition's goal line to make the quarterback's job easier (he knows exactly how far he has to go and, if he makes it to the end zone untouched, he will not take a hit.)

Drawbacks: If a defensive lineman gets a hand on the quarterback, he can usually tackle him, or at least slow him down long enough for other defenders to stop him. The draw play leaves the quarterback open to taking a big hit, especially since he will usually try to reach the end zone instead of sliding to avoid a hit as he would closer to the middle of the field.

Level of Trickeration: Moderate

Direct Snap to the Running Back

A Direct Snap to the Running Back is exactly that-the running back taking the snap from center instead of the quarterback. This play is run from the shotgun formation.

Advantages: The direct snap lets the running back take off with the ball faster than normal, giving him a jump on the defense.

Drawbacks: The ballcarrier probably will not have a lead blocker in front of him because the play developed so quickly.

Level of Trickeration: Moderate

Fake Spike

The Fake Spike play is run by the quarterback in an effort to fool defensive backs near the end of a game. If time is running short, the offense is trying to move down the field to tie or win the game, and they have no timeouts to stop the clock (or do not want to use one), the quarterback is allowed to line his team up, take the snap, and spike the ball into the ground. This counts as an incomplete pass and stops the clock (though it costs the offense a down.) On the fake spike play, the quarterback acts as though he is going to spike the ball, but instead he fakes the spike and throws it downfield to a receiver.

Advantages: If the defense, and in particular, the defender who would be covering the intended receiver, relaxes, thinking that the quarterback is going to spike the ball, the receiver may get behind the defense and be open. The quarterback will probably not receive any pressure from the defense on the play.

Drawbacks: If the quarterback or receiver are tired from running to start the play as quickly as possible, they may not execute it well. In addition, if the defender on the receiver is not fooled, there will be a greater chance of an interception.

Level of Trickeration: High

 

Defense

Zone Blitz

A Zone Blitz involves a defensive lineman (usually a defensive tackle) and a defender not on the defensive line (usually a linebacker). On the snap, the defensive lineman will get up from his stance and drop back into pass coverage while another defender on the other side will rush towards the quarterback.

Advantages: The zone blitz allows the defense to keep the usual number of defenders in pass coverage, but overload (and hopefully overwhelm) one side of the offensive line. The quarterback may also see the oncoming rush but not the lineman dropping back into coverage, and think that the area that the lineman is occupying is actually open. The quarterback may then throw into that area, letting the lineman try for an interception.

Drawbacks: Defensive linemen do not defend passes as well as other defenders. Also, the defensive rush may be strong on one side, but it will be weak on the other, and the quarterback may find room to escape on that side.

Level of Trickeration: Moderate

Show Blitz

The defense may Show Blitz by bringing linebackers and defensive backs up to the line of scrimmage before the play. On the snap, one or more of them will drop back into pass coverage.

Advantages: The quarterback may panic when he thinks a blitz is coming and rush his pass. He may also audible into a play which would probably succeed against a blitz, but fail against a normal defense.

Drawbacks: The defenders showing blitz are not in the best position for them to cover passes at the snap.

Level of Trickeration: Low

Delayed Blitz

Defenders may perform a Delayed Blitz by waiting a few yards behind the line of scrimmage for a second or two after the snap, as if they are defending against a short pass, and then rushing towards the quarterback.

Advantages: The offensive linemen will likely be engaged in blocks from just after the snap and miss the delayed blitzer.

Drawbacks: The quarterback must hold on to the ball for several seconds to give the delayed blitzer time to reach him.

Level of Trickeration: Low

Spy

The defense may employ a Spy against a quarterback who often runs with the ball. The spy stays a couple of yards behind the line of scrimmage and simply mirrors the movements of the quarterback side to side, and attempts to stop him if he tries to run with the ball.

Advantages: The spy can force a mobile quarterback to stay put. The point is to force the quarterback to beat the defense by throwing the ball and not by running it.

Drawbacks: The spy does not do much else for the defense, and is one less player in the pass rush or pass coverage.

Level of Trickeration: Low

 

Special Teams

Special Teams (or The Kicking Game) have their own bag of tricks, both when kicking and receiving.

Onside Kick

A kickoff may be recovered by either team once it has either 1) travelled 10 yards past the yard line from which it was kicked or 2) been touched by the receiving team. An Onside Kick is a deliberate attempt by the kicking team to retain possession of the ball by bouncing a kick along the ground (to make it bounce wildly and make it difficult for the receiving team to catch) and charging forward in an attempt to recover it legally. The receiving team will expect the onside kick late in a game when the kicking team needs to score points to tie or win, but will (usually) not expect it at other times.

Advantages: A successful onside kick will result in the kicking team retaining possession of the ball. If the receiving team is not expecting the onside kick, the kicking team's chances of recovering it are high.

Drawbacks: A failed onside kick gives the receiving team the ball with excellent field position.

Level of Trickeration: Extreme (for unexpected kicks) or Low (for expected kicks)

Squib Kick

A Squib Kick is a low, line drive kickoff that travels about 20-30 yards downfield before it hits the ground.

Advantages: The squib kick is intended to prevent a long return by the receiving team at the end of a half. The idea is that the bouncing ball will be difficult for the receiving team to pick up, or that one of the receiving team's slower players will get the ball and be easy to tackle.

Drawbacks: If the receiving team gets its hands on the ball quickly, they may wind up with good field position, and the play will only have taken a few seconds off the clock.

Level of Trickeration: Low

Throwback Return/Handoff Return

A Throwback Return or Handoff Return is a type of return of a kickoff or punt. The player who fields the kick will run diagonally forward or sideways in one direction before either 1) handing the ball off to a teammate who is running in the opposite direction or 2) throwing the ball back across the field to a teammate.

Advantages: The throwback/handoff return is intended to get the ball going in the opposite direction that the defense is going, giving the player who winds up with the ball room to run.

Drawbacks: A handoff on a return risks a fumble. A throwback on a return risks a fumble even more. A handoff or throwback also slows down the return, and if the defense detects the play quickly, it can be stopped easily.

Level of Trickeration: High

Starburst

A Starburst is a type of kickoff return in which one player fields the kickoff, and runs into a brief huddle of several teammates. The huddle quickly breaks, and several players pretend to be carrying the ball.

Advantages: A well-run starburst can completely confuse the kicking team, as they will have no idea who is carrying the ball for a few seconds.

Drawbacks: A starburst slows down the kick return drastically, and if the defense finds the ball quickly, they can stop the return easily.

Level of Trickeration: Extreme

Fake Punt

A Fake Punt is an attempt by the kicking team to gain a first down by running a play from a punting formation instead of actually punting the ball. Fake punts can be run in several ways. The most common ways are either snapping the ball to a player close to the line of scrimmage and letting him run or pass it, or snapping the ball to the punter and letting him run or pass it.

Advantages: The receiving team will usually not expect a fake punt, especially if they are concentrating on returning the punt. The fake punt can cause extreme confusion in the receiving team, and may result in a long gain.

Drawbacks: A failed fake punt will give the defense the ball in good field position. The fake punt also usually requires players who don't usually handle the ball to run with it or throw it.

Level of Trickeration: High

Fake Field Goal

A Fake Field Goal is similar to a fake punt, but is performed in obvious field goal situations. The kicking team tries to gain a first down/score a touchdown instead of kicking a field goal. Fake field goals usually involve the holder taking the snap and throwing to a receiver downfield, though the holder may get up and run with the ball himself or even lateral it to the kicker, who may then run with it or pass it. The snap may also go to the kicker directly.

Advantages: The defense may be so intent on blocking the kick that they may be unprepared to defend against the fake.

Drawbacks: A failed fake field goal will result in the kicking team losing the ball. They also will not have received their usual opportunity to kick the field goal. As in a fake punt, a fake kick usually requires players who don't usually handle the ball to run with it or throw it.

Level of Trickeration: High

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