Trick Plays More Common Than You Think

Reading reaction to AState’s game on Tuesday night, a lot of discussion is focused on the trick plays that the Red Wolves pulled out of the playbook. Blake Anderson’s “gambling” with those plays has created a bit of a stir.

Looking at the comments Facebook and Twitter and even here on the message board it is obvious that there are many who do not understand the basic theory of those plays. Especially users on one service (cough Facebook cough). Whether you call them trick plays, gadget plays or gimmick plays there is logic behind them.

Contrary to those who think the point of such plays is to “showboat”or “grandstand” or “draw attention” coaches normally have sound football reasons to install the plays that go beyond making a highlight reel or getting attention or letting the players have fun.

The truth is, these trick plays are far more common than fans often realize and they aren’t just in football. If you are watching the World Series you will probably see the baseball equivalent to the sorts of trick plays you only occasionally notice in a football game.

While there is no formal designation for such, I’m going to break these plays into three types and give them names because each type is called for different reasons.

1. Let’s call these the “trick” plays. The basic premise of this first group of plays is to gain advantage by surprise. The team does something unusual generally from a formation that makes you expect a certain play. The unexpected is what makes them work. The half opening onside kick or the pass out of punt formation like at Tennessee or at Louisiana Lafayette is designed to be a surprise. The play AState ran Tuesday night after trying to lull the Cajuns into thinking the Red Wolves would just run out the clock to end the first half was the “hide the midget play” we saw in the GoDaddy Bowl but the idea was to create an expectation of one thing while doing another.

Most games have more “trick” plays than the casual observer notices. If a team usually runs off-tackle right in a formation in that down and distance scenario but switches up for a play action pass to the left, the play falls within this category.

The baseball equivalent: The pitcher faces a batter with a count that usually means a fastball is coming and the pitcher throws a curve ball instead. A batter laying down a suicide squeeze falls into this category as well.

2. I’ll call this the “gimmick” play. While the trick relies on surprise by doing something different than the team normally does, the gimmick is a reaction to something the opponent does.

Usually a coach notices when a play develops a certain way the opponent consistently reacts in a specific way. To exploit that tendency a play is designed to get the opponent to react the predicted way and then take advantage.

The pass J.D.McKissic tried to throw to Tres Houston was almost certainly in this category. Presumably, the coaches had spotted that the Cajun defender covering a downfield receiver would freeze or break from coverage to help on a sweep leaving the downfield receiver with little to no coverage. The pass was just missed but the play was there. Many of you may remember when Gus Malzahn took the Red Wolves to FIU. AState was conceding any pressure on the punter to set up a return and the punter would hold the ball a long time allowing the gunners to get downfield. Eventually they did that and as everyone dropped back the FIU punter waited then took off running for a big gain.

These plays also show up more often than fans notice. If coaches spot such a tendency they will alter a play in practice to try to take advantage of that tendency.

The baseball equivalent: If the second baseman is leaving early to cover the bag regularly, a manager will want to exploit that gap created in the infield and call for the hit and run.

3. Then we have what I’ll call the “gadget”. This is an extremely common approach. A team lines up and based on what is seen, either pre-snap or post-snap, will determine what the play is.

Take the swinging gate placekick or AState’s pre-punt formation. In both plays the team lines up in an unconventional formation and one player is responsible for seeing how the opponent lines up. If they are not lined up to cover the right people a play is run from the formation. If the right people are covered, you switch to the conventional formation and punt or placekick. The Cajuns did not cover the right people Tuesday night, so Rocky Hayes took the snap and ran for a first down.

More common are the post-snap reads. What the quarterback sees after the snap will determine whether the quarterback hands off or keeps the ball. On a pass play the read can determine whether you throw a deep pass or quickly dump to the running back.

The baseball equivalent: The defense shifts to deny a batter’s strength. If the batter is unable to adjust to the shift he has likely turned himself into an easy out.

Rather trying to show off or showboat or grandstand or attract attention, these plays are just normal football (and baseball) trying to gain an advantage over an opponent. Fans just rarely notice these plays are happening except when they feature something notably unusual such as someone other than the quarterback throwing the ball, or from an unusual formation or in an unusual situation.

As was noted in the last article, the unusual situation is sometimes unusual because tradition has created an impression of what is the “safest”play rather than because of what is statistically the best choice.