As we near the end of October, I wanted to be sure to get some fake plays in for our “Tricks ARE Treats” series, so you get them all in one post: the fake punt, the fake field goal attempt, and the less common fake spike.
As you know, in most situations, it is wise for the offense to punt the ball to the other team when it is facing a fourth down. Unless the yardage needed for a first down is very short (maybe less than a yard), or the offense is very close to the end zone, it is no surprise when the punter comes onto the field on fourth down.
However, if an offense wants to be tricky, they will run a fake punt. In a typical fake punt, the punter takes the snap and instead of kicking the ball, looks for an open wide receiver and throws the ball. Another possibility is that the running back, who is standing near the punter to help protect him from the rushing defenders, takes the snap. That player then either runs with the ball himself or looks for an open receiver.
Why does this work? In a typical punt, it only takes a couple of seconds for the punter to kick the ball away. Once the punter kicks the ball, the defenders who were rushing the kicker fall back downfield to block for their player who will catch the punt. In a fake punt, the defense should relax a couple of seconds after the snap and prepare to backtrack down the field. This gives the punter or whoever has the ball time to make the play.
This is a very cool fake punt that took place a couple of years ago in the Hall of Fame Game, which takes place every year in the preseason:
Not only was that a fake punt, but the play included a fake reverse and a variation of a Statue of Liberty play! Too bad it was just a preseason game…
Fake Field Goal Attempt
Another option for the offense on fourth down is to attempt the field goal, if they are close enough to their opponent’s end zone. However, as with punting situations, there is always a chance that the offense will fake their field goal attempt. In a typical field goal attempt, one player (the “holder”) takes the snap, places the ball on the ground (standing on end), turns the ball so the laces face the end zone and the uprights, and holds the ball by his fingertip for the place kicker to kick it. Picture Lucy and Charlie Brown, but without Lucy jerking the ball away before Charlie Brown kicks it.
In a fake attempt, one of two things happens: (1) the holder, who is usually the team’s quarterback, takes the snap then stands up and runs with the ball himself or throws it to an open receiver; or (2) the punter takes the snap and runs with the ball or throws it to an open receiver. As you might imagine, the defense is usually even less prepared to cover the ball carrier than with a fake punt, because after the kick there is usually no further action so the defense relaxes that much more after the ball is snapped.
When time is running short at the end of the first half or the end of the game (so, within the last two minutes), the team that is behind must move as quickly as possible to score when it gets the ball. This is especially true if that team has no time outs left (remember, each team has three time outs per half). Teams develop and practice what is known as a “hurry-up” offense to prepare themselves for these situations. For example, to buy his team some time, the quarterback can take the snap and immediately throw the ball into the ground, which stops the game clock. This is called “spiking” the ball and is legal under the rules. In fact, it is expected to happen at least once when a team with no time outs left is trying to drive down the field.
Spikes are most typical after the offense has completed a long play down the field and the runner did not get out of bounds, which also stops the game clock. Much of the game clock is eaten by the time it takes the rest of the team to catch up to where the runner was tackled. Therefore, the quarterback will hurry his team to the line of scrimmage, take the snap and spike the ball. With the game clock stopped, the coaches now have time to decide what the next play will be.
This scenario is so common and so expected that the offense can really surprise the defense by executing a fake spike. In this trick play, the quarterback running a “hurry-up” offense pretends to spike the ball, but instead of throwing it to the ground, he keeps the ball in his hand while making the spiking motion. The defense believes that no play will be run and is not ready for the play that develops. The following is a rather famous fake spike executed by former Miami Dolphins QB Dan Marino against the New York Jets in 1994:
As you can see, instead of an exaggerated spike motion after the snap, Marino “sold” the fake spike by making the spiking signal to his teammates before the snap. It is typical for quarterbacks to do this when they plan to spike the ball so that his teammates know not to expect a play to be run. Here’s a more obvious example at the college level: