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No Foolin'

Trick plays are common in college football but are rarely seen in the NFL, where risk-averse coaches tend to worry about losing key players, games . . . and their jobs

October 04, 2011|Mike Bresnahan
  • Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck hauls in a pass along the sideline on a trick play during the first half of the game against UCLA on Saturday.
Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck hauls in a pass along the sideline on a… (Paul Sakuma / Associated…)

Bob Toledo practically roars when he hears the reason for the phone call.

Trick plays. Always one of his favorite topics.

"We have two or three a game here," said the former UCLA coach, now in his fifth year at Tulane. "Our fans can't get enough of them."

Toledo definitely takes it to the extreme, mixing in reverse passes and quarterback throwbacks practically as often as he sends out his punt team.

But for head coaches in the NFL, trick plays are considered dangerous, potential career-enders, monsters with long sharp teeth waiting to end a quarterback's season. Think Bill Belichick ever laughs when talking about trick plays?

Apparently, the "on any given Sunday" adage doesn't apply to gimmickry in the NFL.

"College football is completely different than pro football," ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said. "I don't even think you're talking about the same sport anymore."

Trick plays were traditionally considered necessary gambles for the underdog in a college game. Take a chance, try a halfback pass, and maybe luck will shine upon Central Hapless State.

Now they're standard fare for many of the top college teams, as UCLA has painfully learned this season.

Last Saturday, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck successfully grabbed with one hand a pass from receiver Drew Terrell in a quarterback throwback that beat the Bruins for 13 yards.

Last month, Texas quarterback Case McCoy moved to his left and flipped the ball on a reverse to a receiver, who then lobbed it to a tight end for an easy score from UCLA's five-yard line.

The pros, by comparison, are more predictable.

A fake handoff on a play-action pass is as exotic as some offenses get. Others consider a reverse a huge display of razzle-dazzle.

Why so safe?

"Job security," said Sammy Knight, an NFL safety for 12 years and now a graduate assistant coach at USC. He has noticed that pro coaches don't have as long a leash as college coaches.

"If a trick play doesn't work [in the NFL], that could be your job if you get the quarterback hurt and he's out for the season," Knight said. "That doesn't look too good on your resume."

Lack of time is another reason.

The Oakland Raiders' playbook is 700 pages, most of it dedicated to standard sets, page after page of bread-and-butter stuff that has to be perfected. A mere 20 minutes spent on gadget plays would take away from the importance of nailing the basics on offense.

Then there's the experience factor.

Pro defenders obviously aren't freshmen and sophomores. An NFL cornerback in his eighth season is considerably less likely to be fooled than an 18-year-old who's barely settled into his dorm room. "Players in the NFL are faster, they have quicker reactions and they don't bite [on fakes] as much," Knight said.

The pros also shy away from trick plays because of the specialization, and success, of their standard offensive sets. It's hard to imagine New England running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis ever throwing a football as long as Tom Brady is on the team.

College coaches, however, have reason to worry.

Every week, USC coaches try to warn the defense about goofy plays, showing players a "trick tape" of gimmicks the upcoming opponent has used in recent games.

College players are limited by NCAA rules to 20 hours a week of football-related activities during the season. Not so for the pros, who don't have the competing worry of getting good grades.

"They don't have study halls and they don't have classes and they don't have tutors," said USC assistant head coach Monte Kiffin, who spent 26 seasons as an NFL assistant. "They're out there watching tape [in the pros]. And coaches have them year-round."

Toledo was as imaginative as they came as UCLA's head coach from 1996 to 2002, throwing anything at an opponent, particularly during a school-record 20-game winning streak that ended in 1998.

The last time the Bruins played in the Rose Bowl game (1999), they set a record at the time with 538 yards and scored on Freddie Mitchell's 61-yard pass to Durell Price. That's a receiver throwing to a fullback.

"It was just like playing flag football," Mitchell would later say. It was almost too bad UCLA lost that game to Wisconsin, 38-31.

Toledo insists it doesn't take long to create on-field chaos. "I'll run a trick play once or twice a day in practice, eight times maximum in a week," he said. "People think we spend all day on it. We don't."

California Coach Jeff Tedford didn't waste any time dialing up a defense-wrecker. The first play he called as Cal's head coach was a double pass that went for a touchdown against Baylor.

Has there ever been a bigger play in a bigger upset than Ian Johnson scoring a two-point conversion on a Statue of Liberty handoff to push Boise State past Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl?

To Gruden, every play in college football is a tricky one, especially with all those no-huddle offenses that run the spread and line up in the shotgun formation.

He's still blown away by a trip to Oregon a couple of years ago to see the Ducks' high-volume offense.

"The ball-faking is so good you need to have four eyeballs to see what's going on," Gruden said.

There are plenty of tricks in college football, but USC's Kiffin seemed to have had enough of the notion.

"If you're a defensive coach," he said, "they shouldn't work."

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