RENTON — Legend has it that Hank Stram, coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, was watching game film one day in the mid-1960s when he noticed how quickly defenses were charging after running back Mike Garrett even before the handoff.
As the projector whirred, a thought crossed Stram’s mind — what would happen if his quarterback, Len Dawson, faked the handoff to Garrett, then waited a half-second or so and passed the ball, presumably to a receiver who would have gotten behind a defender already racing toward the line to stop Garrett’s run?
Dawson did as instructed, to immediate and great success, and in the process one of the staples of American football at all levels was born: the play-action pass (though who exactly coined the term “play-action” is more mysterious).
And these days, no team in the NFL is a bigger believer in the power of the play-action pass than the Seahawks.
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Through 14 games, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson has used play-action on 33.8 percent of all of his dropbacks — 149 of 441, according to the football analytics site Pro Football Focus. The NFL average is in the 20 to 25 percent range, dropping down to Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger at 11 percent.
Wilson, who has a passer rating of 105.0 for the season, is at 120.3 on play-action passes, according to Pro Football Focus, throwing for half of his 24 touchdowns on play-action and 1,237 of his 3,077 yards, averaging a whopping 10 yards per attempt (compared to 8.62 on all attempts).
It’s the second straight year Wilson has led all quarterbacks in the NFL in percentage of passes that are play-action, something that is no accident.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has often said the play-action pass will always be a staple of his offense, a decision he made after his first year at USC in 2001 when the Trojans had previously been more of a straight dropback passing team.
In 2002, in the senior year for Carson Palmer, USC adopted the zone running game — which the Seahawks also use — and as Carroll says “we then fit everything off of that. … All of the naked bootlegs and all of the play passes. We moved the quarterback, quickened up the rhythm of the style of throws, all to give the quarterback the best chance to be at his highest level. We’re no different than we were then.’’
The key, though, is to establish an effective running game to cause the defense to devote more defenders to the run, and entice defenders to creep closer to the line of scrimmage more often and more quickly in an attempt to stop the run.
“You have to have the run,” said Seahawks quarterback coach Carl Smith. “There are some teams that you are going ‘all right, we’ll just drop back and play the pass and break up on the run.’ The best play-action teams run the ball.’’
Seattle has done that the past two years. The Seahawks are second in the NFL at 141 yards per game rushing, which causes defenses to have to account for the possibility of the run on every play.
With the run — or at least the threat of the run — looming large in the mind of the defense, play-action passes become one of the most unstoppable weapons in football.
The traditional play-action pass sees the quarterback fake a handoff, then pull the ball away from the running back and stop, or drop back another step or two, and throw.
Seattle, though, also has a variety of other play-action passes that take advantage of Wilson’s ability to run, such as faking the handoff and then rolling out (one of the best examples this season was Wilson’s 60-yard pass to tight end Zach Miller in the New Orleans game, when he faked a handoff and then rolled to the right).
While the focus of play-action passes inevitably centers on those who have the ball, executing them successfully requires deception from just about every member of the offense.
Linemen, for instance, are tasked with bursting off the line in the same manner as they would on a running play in an attempt to fool the defensive front seven.
“We try to make the pass game look like the run game,” said offensive line coach Tom Cable. “So instead of setting back in a normal pass set, I would come off and hit you like it’s a run play. … you teach it the same as a run and try to make it look as close to a run as possible.”
Center Max Unger said pulling it off requires a bit of a balancing act.
“It’s a tough one because you are kind of caught between two theories,’’ he said. “You don’t want to sell out too hard and be downfield (which can result in a penalty for an ineligible receiver downfield).”
Receivers usually hesitate for a step or two, also appearing as if they are setting up for a run block, before breaking hard off the line — hopefully past a defensive back who is caught off guard.
“Quarterbacks are just looking for a split-second of hesitation (from DBs),” said Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin.
Quarterbacks have their role in trying to fool the defense into thinking they are actually handing off the ball.
When Wilson watches film, he checks to make sure his initial steps for running plays look the same as on play-action.
“You have to be critical of yourself and really watch your regular handoffs when you actually hand the ball off normally, watch your off hand, watch everything, watch your footwork, watch the timing of your feet,” he said. “The running back’s really got to sell, the offensive line really has to come off the football extremely well, come off low just like it would be on a run.”
Only it’s not.
|Play-action, by the numbers|
|Comparing Russell Wilson’s stats on play-action passes vs. non-play-action:|
|The Seahawks use play-action on a higher percentage of their dropbacks than any other team in the NFL. A look at where Russell Wilson ranks in key play-action passing categories:|
|Play-action category||Number||NFL rank|
|Percentage of total dropbacks||33.8||1st|
|Yards per pass attempt||10.0||4th|
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org.