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Flea flicker (American football)

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Title: Flea flicker (American football)  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Eligible receiver, Conversion (gridiron football), 2008–09 NFL playoffs, Sweep (American football), Offensive philosophy (American football)
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Flea flicker (American football)

A play diagram depicting a version of a flea flicker type play from an I-formation, fullback offset weakside.

A flea flicker is an unorthodox play (often called a trick play) in American football designed to fool the defensive team into thinking that a play is a run instead of a pass. It can be considered an extreme variant of the play action pass and an extension of the halfback option play.

After the snap the quarterback hands off or laterals the football to a running back (or another player on his team), who then runs towards or parallel to the line of scrimmage. Before the running back crosses the line of scrimmage, he laterals the football back to the quarterback, who then looks for an eligible receiver down field to throw a pass to.

If the defensive players think it is just a normal running play, they will leave their defensive positions guarding against the pass to run upfield and cover the running back, leaving the quarterback free from any immediate pass rush, and leaving receivers potentially open to catch a pass.

The flea flicker is an extremely high-risk play and it often results in a big gain, a turnover, or a big loss. One problem is that it takes a significant amount of time for the play to develop. During that time, the defense might get past the offensive line to tackle the running back before he can make the pitch to the quarterback, or sack the quarterback before he can throw the ball. Then there is also the risk that the running back could fumble if he is hit as he pitches the ball. Because of these risks the play is rarely used in a game.


The creation of the play has been credited to former University of Illinois coach Bob Zuppke who wrote in a 1951 letter he introduced the play while coaching at Oak Park and River Forest High School in 1910. According to an article in Sports Illustrated, Zuppke intended the play to resemble "the quick flicking action of a dog getting rid of fleas." [1]

Notable examples

Some flea flicker plays have been used in many key National Football League games, including the Super Bowl, leading to dramatic results.

  • January 30, 1983: In Super Bowl XVII, the Washington Redskins used a flea flicker to try to fool the Miami Dolphins to no avail. Mindful of the ruse, Miami defensive back Lyle Blackwood intercepted the pass. However, Washington coach Joe Gibbs later pointed out the play was not a total loss, as Blackwood was downed on his own 1-yard line. Washington ended up forcing Miami to punt from deep in their own territory and got the ball back with great field position, setting up a touchdown drive.
  • November 18, 1985: Joe Theismann of the Washington Redskins infamously had his career come to an end on a nationally televised Monday Night Football game at the hands of New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. The play in question was a flea flicker attempt which failed to fool the Giants’ defense. Upon tackling Theismann, Taylor’s entire weight came crashing down on Theismann, severely breaking his leg.
  • January 3, 2009: During the NFC Wild Card, Kurt Warner successfully completed a flea flicker against the Atlanta Falcons with running back Edgerrin James and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Warner and the Arizona Cardinals were finding early success running the ball in the first quarter of the game, so Warner handed the ball off to James, who ran about 2 yards towards the line of scrimmage and then turned and pitched the football back 5 yards to Warner. The pitch was almost unseen as the safeties and linebackers had their views blocked by the defensive line which was collapsing on the running play. The play ended with a 50-yard throw (42 yards officially from the original line of scrimmage) to Fitzgerald, who jumped backwards in the air while in double-coverage to make the catch in the front left corner of the endzone for the touchdown, which helped the Cardinals to take an early 7–0 lead in the game, and ultimately win their first playoff game in 10 years, and their first home playoff game in over 60 years.
  • January 18, 2009: In the NFC Championship, Kurt Warner successfully completed a flea flicker play against the Philadelphia Eagles with running back J.J. Arrington and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Warner passed to Arrington, who passed back to him. Warner then completed a 62-yard throw to Fitzgerald to complete the touchdown, which helped the Cardinals to increase their lead 14–3 and finish 32–25.
  • December 4, 2011: In the first game after acquiring quarterback Kyle Orton off waivers, Kansas City Chiefs starter Tyler Palko was benched due to ineffectiveness in the beginning of the second quarter in favor of Orton. The first play run for Orton was a designed flea-flicker, but strong safety Major Wright of the Chicago Bears struck Orton as he threw, causing the pass to fall incomplete and injuring Orton's finger, causing him to miss the remainder of the game. The Chiefs ended up winning 10-3.
  • November 10, 2013: During the second quarter, the Seattle Seahawks had the ball at the Atlanta Falcons 43 yard-line. Seahawk QB Russell Wilson pitched the ball to running back Marshawn Lynch who then threw it backwards to Wilson. Then Wilson launched a strike into the waiting hands of receiver Jermaine Kearse who was falling away in the end zone for the touchdown. The Seahawks eventually beat the Falcons 33-10 and continued their path toward a Super Bowl championship.


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