This is the first part of a four part series on Trick Plays. Part 2 will discuss some of the more basic trick plays, Part 3 will get into some of the more exotic, and Part 4 will discuss some gadget formations to use to cause fits for the defense. Check back to see the other parts soon over the next couple of weeks.

“Trick” Plays can sometimes have a negative connotation when discussed as a part of an offensive game plan. Opposing defensive coordinators sometimes believe that if you are running trick plays against them, they already have you beat. We view trick plays very differently in our offense.

Gadget plays can be used in a variety of ways to create an advantage for your team against the defense. We will go into many of those ideas in this post. These include:

  • Situational Advantage
  • Big Plays / Momentum Changers
  • Even Playing Field / Constraint Plays
  • Desperation Time
These are just some of the advantages that trick plays can give to an offense. One of the biggest ones that I did not mention, is that your players love to practice them and they can become some of your best executed plays. When we install trick plays, the energy level in our practice increases immediately. The players learn these plays faster than the rest of the offense that we install, and they have supreme confidence that they will work everytime we call them in the game.
Gain a Situational Advantage

When to call a trick play is an important part of using these plays effectively. There is no right or wrong time to call these plays, but there are certain situations where you may gain the most from a trick play. We will discuss some of those times here.

First Play of the Game / Early in Your Openers

Bill Walsh said that if you have a trick play that you plan on running, to run it BEFORE the other team can run one. The thought process is that the other team is a lot less likely to run a trick play after they have seen a successful one from their opponent.

Another thought is to take advantage of the initial excitement of the defense. Before the game, teams and players go through extreme lengths to get themselves fired up for the game. By the time the game starts, the defense is excited to get started and attack the offense. It is a great time to run a trick play. The trick play will be in the back of their mind the whole First Half and may cause them to be less aggressive.

3rd & 1 or 4th & 1

3rd & 1 is my personal favorite time to call a trick play. We will go for it on 4th Down more than a lot of teams will, so we treat 3rd Down as 2nd Down quite a bit. Most defenses are geared up to stop the 1-yard run and to get off the field. Use their compacted nature and aggressiveness against the run against them.

If you have more courage than I do, calling a trick plan on 4th & 1 is even better than 3rd &1. The defense is at it’s maximum aggressiveness to sell out and stop the run. Obviously there is the issue if you do not get it, you will get second guessed, but combining the 4th & 1 situation with some of the other factors (momentum, talent level), it might just be the best call for your team.

Red Zone

The compacted nature of the Red Zone can cause fits for some offenses. Defenses usually become more aggressive and coordinators like to play Man-to-Man and blitz more. Use these tendencies against them and create an advantage with one of your trick plays.

Big Plays / Momentum Changers

Big Plays and Momentum are two of the most important factors in winning or losing a football game. We have all been involved in games where we can look back and determine the exact play that changed the momentum and outcome of the game. A lot of offensive coaches like to take a shot after their defense gets a turnover. They feel like they have the momentum and want to capitalize on that situation.

Consider this situation…You are trailing 14-0 with about 10 minutes left in the 4th Quarter. Your offense has been stopped by the defense all day. Your defense causes a turnover that gives you the ball at the Plus 40. You run a successful trick play and score a TD. You are now down 14-7 with your entire team and all your fans pumped up for the rest of the game.

If your offense has been slowed down all day and you are looking for something that can create a spark, a trick play might be the call that gets your offense going.

Even the Playing Field / Constraint Plays

We play in a conference where we are usually out manned by our opposition. We use trick plays to keep the defense honest and to give our players that small advantage that is the difference between loss of yards and a big game. We run the spread and throw a lot of quick screens. Our WR’s take pride in their blocking, but sometimes they are asked to block LB’s and bigger Safeties. By using our Double Passes and our Screen & Go, we put apprehension in the minds of the defenders. Even if the plays are not successful, that Safety cannot fly up to attack the Bubble as quickly when there was a WR that ran by him a few plays prior.

These plays also serve as Constraint Plays. Chris Brown at does the best job of explaining Constraint Plays ( in an offense. Essentially, they are plays you use to make your best plays more effective. If you run toss a lot, you have to run something like Toss Reverse in order to keep the LB’s from flying out to the toss every time they see the Toss action.

Desperation Mode

This is my least favorite time to use trick plays. If you are chasing points at the end of the game and the clock is running out, many times you will hear the opposing coaches telling their players to “watch the tricks!”. Calling trick plays during these times loses one of the most important advantages they have, the element of surprise. Toss Pass is extremely easy to cover if you know it is coming, but if it is a situation where the offense would call Toss, then it becomes much more effective.

Now, despite saying all that, three of the most famous trick plays were run in Desperation Mode by the Boise State Broncos in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma. After the game, Boise head coach Chris Petersen said that his team had practiced all three plays the entire season and had the confidence, ability and courage to pull them all off on the biggest of stages.

Obviously, there are other times and situations that trick plays could be used effectively. The whole theme of what we are trying to get at is that they should be looked at as a part of your offense and can be effectively called at any time of the game.

In Part 2 of this series, we will discuss the details on some of the more basic types of trick plays.


Football Trick Play Videos