The Flea Flicker

The flea flicker is one of the most perplexing plays in football. In its most common variation, the play begins as a simple halfback lead (or draw) before the halfback tosses it back to the quarterback, who then throws it downfield to a (hopefully) open wide receiver. In this form, it’s really not that tricky at all. Defenses are usually not fooled, causing a great deal of anxiety for fans of the offensive team when the quarterback forces it downfield into double coverage. Yet every now and then (20% of the time?, 25%?) the play inexplicably results in a completion. When it does, fans of both the offense and defense generally shake their hands in disbelief that it actually worked. The play should never work.

A quick Google search reveals that the flea flicker has lingered in playbooks for at least fifty years – a staggering amount of time for a trick play. The Fumblerooski had a five-year heyday in the 1980s and was on its way out even before the NCAA banned it in 1992. The fake spike worked once for Dan Marino in 1994 before failing for other quarterbacks 783 consecutive times after that (581 of those by Brett Favre). Entire gimmick offenses come and go. The run and shoot had a ten year run before going extinct (I’m told SMU still runs it; I can’t confirm this even though I watched them play today). The wing-T, wishbone, and power-I triple option all came and went. NFL teams have already rendered the Wildcat fairly useless, just three years after the Dolphins first started using it. The zone read option is currently run by virtually every college football team, but that too will die out eventually. That’s what tends to happen with any given gimmick play or offense – teams figure out how to stop it and everyone moves on. But the flea flicker endures, more or less unchanged.

The earliest usage of the flea flicker I could find was in Super Bowl III in 1969. Here’s the play: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pb9uS7OKECU. Notice something unusual about that play? It was INTERCEPTED. Now it’s getting a bit surreal. Here we have a trick play used in a big game in front of a national TV audience for the first time and it fails miserably. Not only that, but it indirectly led to the biggest upset in NFL history. At this point in the game, it was shortly before halftime with the 18-point underdog Jets leading 7-0. If the Colts drive down and score to tie the game at 7 before halftime, the Jets upset probably doesn’t happen.

Even in 1969, I assume that the average Colts fan reaction to that play was somewhere between “Are you shitting me?” and “I can’t believe this is happening. Why does God hate Baltimore so much?” Imagine telling that Colts fan that forty-two years later not only do teams still run that exactly same play, but that it would actually work sometimes? No way would that Colts fan believe you. Sure, you’d have to acknowledge that when the Raiders try to do it, they look stupid: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJNd_x1h6xs, but other teams use the play to win PLAYOFF games: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0jPMqDbTME&feature=related.

Now all this history is interesting, but the real issue most fans have with the flea flicker is that it’s a terrible trick play. Hilarious failures aside, the play should never work. Never. For the play to work, the defense has to break down at least two times, and usually three times:

1. The cornerback or safety has to bite on the run “fake.” I put fake in quotation marks because rarely does the play even look like a run. The throwback pass to the quarterback at least shows some effort to trick the defense. On the other hand, the hand-off/throwback move generally consists of the halfback taking two steps toward the line and pitching it back to the quarterback, who stands ready to receive the ball without bothering to sell the fake. This is the part of the play that most fans have issue with: how can anyone fall for such a poor fake? I’m not sure, but there’s usually two more chances for the defender to atone for his mistake.

2. Let’s say the safety bites on the fake. I feel like most of these guys passed fourth grade English, so I assume they’re aware of “context clues.” Context clues are those events you look for you to help you determine the situation. Here are the clues that, fairly or unfairly, a safety should process on this play:

a.) That receiver is really fast.

b.) He started sprinting when the ball was snapped.

c.) He didn’t stop sprinting when the running back took the ball.

d.) He usually stops on runs to either stand around (Randy Moss) or block someone (most other receivers)

If these four conditions are met, someone should probably put a body on said receiver and let those linebackers take care of the run up the middle. Is it that easy? Of course not, but it sure seems that way to the fans and coaches who sigh when the receiver finds himself wide open after the terrible fake.

3.) The obvious response to the second situation is that it’s too late to catch the receiver with 4.4 speed who just blew past you. Luckily, unless the quarterback on the other team is named Drew Brees or Tom Brady, the defender has a third chance to break up the play. As a general rule, every single flea flicker is underthrown. Every single one. And no wonder: by the time the quarterback receives the snap, hands-off to the running back, and catches the pitchback, that receiver is pretty far downfield. Unless you happen to be able to throw the ball to a receiver in stride from sixty yards away like me, Drew, or Tom, that defender should be able to break the pass up.

Three chances the defender has to break the flea flicker up and he must fail all three for the play to succeed. Not what I’d call a recipe for a trick play that would endure forty-plus years after its invention.

****************

Of course this post is related to today’s Pinstripe Bowl between Kansas State and Syracuse. If it didn’t, you’d have just wasted five minutes reading some idiot ramble on about the flea flicker.

Here’s the situation: Down 7-0 late in the first quarter and unable to get much offense going, Syracuse calls for a flea flicker. It works* and the Syracuse receiver catches the ball in stride for a 52-yard touchdown catch. Here’s the play: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUYI878-rn0

* Good thing it worked, otherwise this would have been a much shorter post.

Syracuse scores to awaken their stagnant offense and tie up the game 7-7 en route to a 36-34 victory.* Now here’s the thing that really inspired this post. Not only did the flea flicker work perfectly, but BOTH receivers that went deep on the play were wide open. Kansas State had not one, but two, defenders failed on each of the two opportunities (I’ll be generous, since it was a beautifully thrown ball, although the flailing arm defense looked ridiculous) to stop the “trick play” that has been in every team’s playbook for fifty years.** I’m not a Kansas State fan, but since I picked them to win, I went through the stages of grief in a similar fashion. My first reaction was the “I can’t believe that just worked” sigh. My second was the “How do you let that happen?” anger towards both the coaches and players. Now I’m just bitter and probably will remain so until Nebraska wins tonight.

* Is there a more uplifting play for an offense or a more demoralizing play for a defense? Aside from special team plays, I’d argue no. The defender knows that he just looked like an idiot on TV and will be on the SportsCenter Top Ten that night receiving the football equivalent of the dunk facial. On the other side, no play gives the offense confidence like a flea flicker. The quarterback’s gotta be thinking: “I can’t believe that terrible play worked. I wonder what else will work? This defense is now my bitch.”  In this instance, that play set the tone for the game. I predicted Syracuse’s offense would struggle to score despite Kansas State’s suspect defense. The game began innocently enough – Syracuse failed to score on their first two drives. Then the flea flicker happens. Syracuse scores on five of their next seven drives to put up their highest point output against an FBS opponent since September of the 2009 season.

** I don’t have the video, but late in the fourth quarter Kansas State pulled a flea flicker of their own. Of course that too worked, because neither one of those teams had anything resembling a smart defense. This one was drastically underthrown by the KSU quarterback, so I’m double-counting step 3 to give the Syracuse defense four misses on that play. And kudos to KSU for pulling that one out of the bag so late in the game – not like you’d want to use it early in the game to gain any momentum or anything. Well done.

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