In the hook and lateral, the receivers—the tight end(s) and wide receiver(s)—begin the play running their normal passing routes. The running back might also go out for a pass, perhaps after making a block at the line of scrimmage. The quarterback then selects his predetermined target, usually the receiver running up one of the sideline, and throws the ball to that player. Instead of running with the ball, when the receiver catches the ball, he immediately pitches it back (laterals it) to a teammate (either another receiver or the running back). The new ball carrier then takes the ball down the field, hopefully for a touchdown or a big gain.
So, what’s the point? Once the first receiver catches the ball, the defense is keyed on him and all players in the area converge on him. Because they are committed to tackling that player, it is very difficult for them to change course and pursue the second ball carrier. As with all trick plays, of course, there is also the potential for disaster. The timing of the first receiver and the second ball carrier must be perfect, and the lateral must occur quickly after the catch. Otherwise, they risk fumbling the ball on the lateral, or having the lateral broken up by the defense. Remember our discussion of the lateral versus the forward pass?* Since a lateral is not considered a pass, if it is dropped, it is not an incompletion; it is a live ball that can be recovered by the other team.
Below is a clip of one of the more famous hook and laterals, executed by the Miami Dolphins against the San Diego Chargers in an AFC Divisional playoff game in January 1982. I apologize for the grainy video, but it is almost 30 years old (gotta love the hairdos):
Part of why this play worked is that the Miami QB, Don Strock, absolutely stared down his receiver, watching him as he ran his whole route. This usually spells disaster, as the players in the secondary of the defense can tell who the QB’s target is, and may be able to intercept the ball. At the very least, they will either prevent the player from catching the ball or will tackle him as soon as he catches it. However, because the target was so obvious in this play, the Chargers’ secondary was absolutely committed to tackling that receiver. Therefore, it was that much more difficult to pursue the running back, Tony Nathan, who took the ball to the end zone.
*Click here to see that post.