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Watching Football? What Exactly is “Play Action?”

Watch any football game, and you’ll hear the term “play action” more than anything else, except perhaps the word “scamper.” I’m all for free speech, but can we all agree on just one exception? The word “scamper” should be banned from use by any football commentator. Thank you.

So, back to the topic at hand, what is “play action?” It sounds like it could accurately describe any football play. “Playing” and “action” happen every time the ball is snapped, right?

OK, if this is one of those terms you heard so often, for so many years, you’re embarrassed to ask its meaning, never fear. We’re going to cover it here, and you can pretend you knew it all along—we won’t tell.

Pigskin Yin and Yang

To fully understand the utility of the “play action” pass, it’s good to know its polar opposite—the draw play.

The draw is a running play that appears to be a pass play. The receivers take off downfield to draw defensive backs into deeper pass coverage. The linemen go into pass protection mode but, at the same time, encourage the defensive line to the outside. “Sir, would you kindly rush the passer from the outside rather than through the center of the line?” The quarterback drops back as if to pass. Last but not least, the running back hangs out in the backfield as if to block pass rushers, giving the quarterback more time to find a receiver and complete a pass.

If all goes to plan, there’s now a gap in the center of the line, usually the “A-gap” between the center and guard, and the defenders ideally cleared out, the quarterback hands off to the running back, who has some space for a big gain. A variation on the play, the quarterback draw, has the QB fake the pass, then tuck the ball and run himself.

Play Action: Football Fakery

A “play action” play is the other half of the opposing pair of play designs in the repertoire of strategies designed to fake out the defense. In short, it’s a play designed to look like a run but really is a slow(er)-developing pass play.

The neat thing, if you watch a perfectly executed “play action” play, is the calibrated symphony of cooperation by the entire offense to sell the scam. Linemen blast forward as if to clear a path for the sans-ball runner—before falling back to provide pass protection for the quarterback. Receivers come off the line, blocking linebackers and secondary defenders—before breaking loose to run a pass route. The quarterback fakes a handoff to the running back, who steamrolls through the line, taking whatever punishment is awaiting, even though he doesn’t have the ball. And last but not least, the quarterback, after faking that handoff, casually looks for an open receiver. In a perfect scenario, one or more receivers are open downfield as pass defenders have relaxed coverage to defend a run.

With the defense now committed to defending a run, the quarterback completes a big pass, wins the game and humbly accepts eternal glory.

Warfare is Deception

As military strategist Sun Tzu said in The Art of War, “All warfare is based on deception. Therefore, when capable, feign incapacity; when active, inactivity. When near, make it appear that you are far away; when far away, that you are to lure him; feign disorder and strike him. When he concentrates, prepare against him; where he is strong, avoid him.”

Works for football, too.

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