Football Trick Plays

Trick Play Guide for Football

Trick Football Plays are great momentum changers in a football game. These plays use deception and misdirection instead of force. Trick plays are occasionally set up in the early parts of a game by a similar, more conventional play which looks similar to the trick play.

When the time is right at a key moment, the offense tries the trick play to confuse the defense momentarily and gain an advantage. There are trick plays on special teams, also, such as the Music City Miracle

Sometimes, an underdog uses them to gain an advantage, getting an extra score or an extra possession when they don’t think they can defeat their opponent straight up. Sometimes, a superior team uses a trick play to break the will of a determined underdog. And sometimes, the trick play is the difference-maker in a closely contested game. Trick plays in football are sometimes referred to as gadget plays.

Statue of Liberty Play

Trick Football Plays - Football TricksThe Statue of Liberty Play remains a favorite trick play to this day. It was used with dramatic effect by Idaho State against the Oklahoma Sooners in a 2006 bowl game.

The Statue of Liberty requires the quarterback to make a short drop-back and feign he is going to throw the ball by bringing the ball over his head in a cocked, throwing position. Instead of throwing the ball, he fakes a throw, then hands the ball to his running back with the other hand.

Meanwhile, the running back moves directly behind the quarterback, acting as if he’s going to stay in to block. He takes the ball and runs with it, hopefully with most defenders fooled by what looks like a passing play.

Trick Plays Football - Statue of Liberty


The fumblerooski requires the quarterback to "fumble" the ball to the ground immediately after receiving the snap from the center. The quarterback and his running backs run in one direction, away from the ball. Meanwhile, one of the offensive guards (traditionally the right guard) scoops up the ball and runs the other direction.

Because many of the defenders cannot see the ball in the split second after it has been snapped, the play is designed to look like a running play right, when it is a running play left. This play works entirely on deception, since an offensive guard is unlikely to be a fast or agile runner.

The Nebraska Cornhuskers used this play to score against the Miami Hurricanes in the 1984 NCAA National Championship Game.

Hook & Ladder

The Hook and Ladder is also known as the Hook & Lateral, which leads me to believe this latter name was the original name of the play. The Hook and Ladder involves two receivers: one running a curl pattern and the other running a delayed fly pattern.

The receiver running the curl pattern pulls up 7-10 yards downfield (usually) and catches the ball. His job is to lure any nearby defenders to him, since they believe he is going to run with the ball after the catch. The other receiver runs his delayed fly pattern (that is, a deep pattern), hoping to pass his fellow receiver a split second after that receiver has caught the ball.

Then the ball-carrying receiver pitches the ball to his teammate as that teammate runs past him. Having drawn the defensive backs to the one receiver, this should create a long play or touchdown.

The most famous Hook & Ladder play might be the Epic in Miami. This was a AFC Divisional Championship Game between the Miami Dolphins and San Diego Chargers in 1982. The Chargers got down 24-0 early in the game, but roared back to a 24-24 tie by halftime. One of the plays which got them back into the game was a Hook & Lateral for a touchdown.

End Around

Football Trick Plays - End Around PassThe End Around requires a split end to run behind the line of scrimmage. The quarterback hands this supposed receiver the ball as a handoff. Though this play takes some time to develop, the element of surprise and an over-pursuing defense creates the chance for one of the team’s speediest players to get into open field and make a big play.

The receiver will sometimes throw the ball on an End-Around Pass, which is what the above picture depicts.

Due to the increasing speed and athleticism of NFL linebackers, the End Around play is used less today than before. NFL Defense are so fast and can cover so much ground that the speedy receiver is often caught behind the line of scrimmage, and then exposed to punishing tackles by linebackers who are used to tackling running backs.

This play worked for big plays twenty years ago, though longtime video games players will remember that it never worked on TecmoBowl.


The Reverse Play begins as an End Around, but it requires a second handoff, which quickly reverses the play in the other direction. Once again, this play requires the defense to over-pursue and get out of position. Specifically, the opposite side defensive end is supposed to keep "containment". If the end breaks off containment and chases a ball carrier laterally down the line, then the reverse can get around him and the second ball-carrier can bust a long run.

Once again, the Reverse takes a long time to develop. This flaw means the reverse doesn’t work as often in the NFL these days, though it works beautifully in lower levels of football, where the differences in speed between offense and defense and the chances of an assignment breakdown are greater.

Flea Flicker

The Flea Flicker remains one of the favorite trick plays in football. The Flea Flicker is made to look like a run, when actually it is a deep pass. The quarterback hands the ball off to his halfback, who runs towards the line. Meanwhile, the quarterback drops back into his pocket. When the running back gets near the line, he turns around and tosses the ball to the quarterback again. Hopefully, linebackers and safeties have come to the line to play the run and the receiver is in deep single coverage, or may be behind his defender altogether.

Like a more traditional play-action play, team’s which use this often are running teams, as the defense must respect the run. The New England Patriots used the flea flicker to great effect in several big games last season. This might seem odd, since the Pats were known as a passing team instead of a running team, but they were also the #8 rushing offense in the NFL last year.

Reverse Flea Flicker

The Reverse Flea Flicker combines the standard reverse with aspects of the flea flicker. Instead of the quarterback handing off to the running back as he runs towards the line, the running back takes the ball on a sweep. The back hands the ball to a wide receiver on an end around, who then pitches to the quarterback. The quarterback then executes the passing part of the flea flicker.

Pick Play

The pick play works on the same concept as the pick play in basketball. As one player is trailed by his defender through one portion of the playing field, another player positions himself to block or impede the movement of that defender. If the play works correctly, the one receiver will be wide open for the quarterback.

The pick play is illegal in football and a penalty is called if the offense is not subtle about their intentions. Offensive coordinators will often call double-crossing patterns, which deliberately place two receivers on the same path, to instigate a pick play.

Double Pass

This takes advantage of the Forward Pass Rule. If an overhand pass is not a "forward pass", it is considered a pass, but a lateral. This means that the offense retains its right to pass the ball. The double pass usually has the quarterback throw the ball outside to a wide receiver, who has stepped back several steps from the line of scrimmage to set up the lateral situation. Then the receiver throws the ball downfield to a second receiver, who should be open due to the trickery.

A variation of this play has the quarterback skipping the ball to the wide receiver. Because the backwards pass is considered a lateral, even if the ball touches the ground, it is considered a live ball. This increases the deception, because defenders are likely to see the skipping ball as an incomplete pass.

Halfback Pass

Trick Plays Football - Halfback Pass PortisThe halfback takes a pitch from the quarterback and sweeps either left or right (usually right, if he’s right-handed). When the back gets out on the corner of the defense, though, he pulls the ball back to throw it downfield. With safeties and corners rushing up to tackle the runner, hopefully the receiver is wide open.

The halfback pass worked in at least one Super Bowl, as Robert Newhouse of the Dallas Cowboys threw a touchdown pass to Golden Richards on this play against the Orange Crush Denver Broncos defense in Super Bowl XII. This is a common trick play, with many examples to cite.

Direct Snap

This is a snap directly to a halfback in the backfield. This play requires the offense to line up in a shotgun formation, with the QB pretending he is in a passing situation. Instead, the center snaps the ball to the running back, who can then run against a defense which is spread out in anticipation of a pass.

This past season, Darren McFadden took several direct snaps at the University of Arkansas, though in some cases he tried to throw the ball.

Fake Field Goal

Trick Football Plays - Fake Field GoalThe Fake Field Goal requires the field goal unit to line up like it is going for the 3 points, but instead either run with the ball or (more likely) throw to an open receiver.

Sometimes the field goal kicker is involved, while sometimes the holder of the snap is involved. This second option has the advantage that, often, the holder is also a backup quarterback.

Fake Punt

Similar to the Fake Field Goal, the punter pretends he is going to punt the ball, but instead either takes off running with the all or throws the ball to an eligable receiver downfield. The fake punt relies on surprise, since most NFL punters are slow and poor throwers by NFL standards. In the 1980’s, when Dallas Cowboys quarterback, Danny White, was also the team punter, the Cowboys used this play on numerous occasions.

Another option is the direct snap to the up-back, whose main job is to block any defender who makes it through the line. The up-back is often a full-back or tight-end, so this person can presumably run with the ball better than a punter.

Onside Kick

The onside kick is used by a kicking team to retain possession of the ball. A kickoff must go at least ten yards, or a player on the receiving team must touch the ball before it has traveled those ten yards. otherwise, the kick is not legal.

The kicking team typically lines up most of its players to one side of the kicker during an onside kick. This allows several to go after the ball, while other tries to block or screen the opponents from the ball.

The kicker tries to kick the ball at the top instead of bottom, getting it to turn over as it rolls along the ground. This not only gives players time to run ten yards to get the ball, but in some cases the ball will flip up on the third or fourth bounce, giving the kicker’s teammates a chance to catch the ball.

The onside kick is often used by desperate teams at the end of games. It can also be used by a kicking team anytime during a game. In these cases, the kicking team is using deception, because it is natural instinct for the receiving players to run downfield to set up a blocking scheme for the kick returner. In this case, all (but one) kicking team players may not line up to one side of the kicker, aiding in the deception.

Fake Spike

Football Trick Plays - Fake Spike The Fake Spike is where the quarterback pretends he’s going to spike the ball and stop the clock, which is allowed in the NFL. Instead of spiking the ball, the quarterback throws the ball to a wide receiver, hopefully catching the cornerback off his guard.

The most famous incident of this happening was a game in the 1990’s where Dan Marino scored a late touchdown against the New York Jets. The Jets defense believed the Dolphins were going to spike the ball and stop the clock, regrouping for a last play or two. Marino was signaling to his teammates he was going to spike the ball. What the Jets didn’t know was that Marino had a signal to a wideout to really run his route. The play worked like a charm, and ended up being one of the final glory moments for Marino.

Fake Kneel Down

The Fake Kneel Down is similar to the Fake Spike, except it’s far more insidious. This only works when one team appears to be kneeling at the end of a half or a game, conceding the last few minutes of play. Instead, the quarterback feints at kneeling, then throws the ball to his receiver. To my knowledge, this play was an invention of the past twenty years.

The first time I remember the Fake Kneel Down was a showdown late in the 1987 NFL season between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles. This was the strike-shortened season of ’87, and Buddy Ryan believed Tom Landry had ran up the score against the Eagles in a "scab" game.

In a rematch after the real teams returned to play, the Eagles were leading the Cowboys late in the game. The Eagles had the ball near the Dallas goal line, a point where most teams kneel on the ball and take the win. Instead, Coach Ryan had Randall Cunningham pretend to kneel and then throw a touchdown for one last parting shot against the Cowboys. Once again, the play worked to perfection.

Hitch & Go

The hitch and go pattern is not necessarily a trick play, so much as it is a well-coordinated route and pump fake between the quarterback and his wide receiver. The wide receiver will run a slant rant and appear to be stopping to receive the ball. Meanwhile, the quarterback responds to this slant route by pump faking the ball, deceiving the cornerback about his intentions. Hopefully, the CB will "bite" on the fake, hoping to jump the route and get an interception.

Instead, the wide receiver takes off down the field. If the cornerback is running upfield for the interception and the receiver is running downfield, the receiver becomes wide open, allowing the quarterback to throw a deeper ball for longer yardage. As stated before, this is not necessarily a trick play, but an elaborate play, which typically takes an extra second or two to develop, exposing the quarterback to an increased risk of a sack.

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