Commentary

Play-action prowess gives Brady, Manning decided edge

For a quarterback to truly excel at play-action, he and his teammates must embrace the art for what it is -- the ultimate collaborative effort, writes Greg Garber.

Originally Published: January 11, 2008
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Peyton ManningPhil Carter/US PresswireThe Colts' Peyton Manning is a master at the play-action pass. "He makes it look like a run for a real long time, and then sets up faster than anybody I've ever seen. ... In my opinion, Peyton's the best right now," ex-NFL quarterback Steve DeBerg said.
Handsome and athletic, the Colts' Peyton Manning and the Patriots' Tom Brady lead the league in commercials and magazine covers. They are the best two quarterbacks in the NFL and play for, arguably, the best two teams. They also happen to share another, less savory trait: They are both, in a manner of speaking, terrific liars.

Listen to Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young:

"Both of them are pretty good at getting that ball in and letting people believe that the running back's got the ball. It's kind of lost its art form. There are very few, in my mind, that are really good at it."

Magic Men

Back in the 1960s when Sam Wyche played quarterback at Furman, the play-action pass was called the "Belly" series.

"You'd put the ball right in the belly of the back, and you would either give it to him or pull it back," Wyche explained.

He is better known for introducing the no-huddle as a standard offense when he was head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, but Wyche is also an authority on the play-action pass. Here are a few of his favorite quarterbacks who mastered that rare art form:

Joe Montana: "I was lucky to learn from Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, too. I thought Joe was an outstanding ball-handler. [He would] give the illusion that something's about to happen -- it's happened so many times over in the study of film -- that the players have to react to it."

Boomer Esiason: "I remember Boomer used to really emphasize -- 'This is a run-action play.' What he was saying quickly to the linemen is 'I need a little extra time now, because this one is going to go down the field. We've got to give that receiver time to run.' Boomer was a little bit unusual because he was left-handed, so a lot of those fakes were coming at the side they weren't used to seeing."

Steve DeBerg: "He could literally make the ball disappear. In fact, sometimes in practice the ball would be stuffed under his shirt with a I-don't-know-where-it-is kind of look on his face. It's a lot like prestidigitation, magic, sleight of hand."

Peyton Manning: "Clearly, of all the guys I haven't coached, Peyton Manning would be among the best. When you break it down, what Peyton does is a thing of beauty. When you're sitting in the stands, you don't watch the guards and tackles play. They watch the ball, then suddenly the ball disappeared and then it pops up again. That's performance. That's entertainment."

-- Greg Garber

Young is talking about the play-action pass and, in the category of the rich get richer, Manning and Brady are among the league's most clever practitioners. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, nearly one in five NFL passes is typically a play-action pass. It's an under-the-radar play, but it is worth noting that there were a handful of critical play-actions in the first weekend of playoff games.

Perhaps the most pivotal touchdown of Wild Card Weekend came off a play-action fake. With San Diego trailing Tennessee 6-3, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers appeared to hand off to LaDainian Tomlinson. But, pulling the ball back, Rivers threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Vincent Jackson. The Chargers, of course, went on to win.

On two of the four most critical passes during the Giants' 8-minute, 37-second, fourth-quarter drive, quarterback Eli Manning play-faked to rookie running back Ahmad Bradshaw. The Giants ran 15 plays, culminating in Manning's 4-yard scoring pass to Amani Toomer, to take an insurmountable 24-7 lead.

It's a simple premise but very difficult to execute cleanly because there are so many moving parts.

The quarterback, with the help of his 10 co-conspirators, must convince the defense that a run play is developing by appearing to hand the ball to the back. Then, when the defense reacts -- creating critical time and space -- the ball materializes in the quarterback's hand. When run properly, the pass rush has been neutralized, the linebackers and safeties lured a few steps closer to the line of scrimmage and the receivers have more room to maneuver.

Manning and Brady are already the best in the business at throwing the ball, but their ability to consistently create the illusion of a run gives them an even greater advantage.

It's almost not fair.

"Honestly, I watched a lot of Peyton Manning after my first year," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He's probably the best. I try to extend the ball like I saw Peyton do a lot, and I think it sells it a little bit more."

Said Young: "Tom Brady is very good. He cares about getting it in the guy's belly, pulling it back out and letting the hand fly. It's a little piece of that puzzle that he enjoys."

All teams have different versions of the play-action pass, but clearly, teams that run the ball well are going to have an easier time fooling the defense. It helps to run play-action in down-and-distance circumstances when a run would be more plausible. Green Bay's Brett Favre wonders why teams don't use it more.

"I think at times we, including myself, have lost sight of it," Favre said. "People say, 'Well, you have to run the ball if you're going to have good play-action.' I think if you're a good magician, you can pull it off."

Deception. Illusion. Misdirection. That's what the play-action is all about.

"I think any time teams want to come and try to take away the run or put themselves in a position to make you throw the football, that allows you an advantage," said Dallas quarterback Tony Romo.

"Honestly, if the [defender] can't see the ball, he doesn't know where to go."

Tom BradyButler II/US PresswireTom Brady's ability to consistently create the illusion of a run gives him a great advantage.

The play unfolds …

Here, through the eyes of some of the league's best players, past and present, is what happens on a play-action pass:

Steve Young, Hall of Fame quarterback: "First thing is to have a running back that threatens people in the pre-snap. In other words, I want linebackers saying, 'I've got to watch this running back, because if he gets the football, I'm in trouble.'"

Play-Action Rankings

Although Manning is the consensus choice as the NFL's best play-action quarterback among the dozens interviewed for this story, statistics suggest that at least this year Brady has the edge. The Patriots' signal-caller has the league's highest passer rating on play-action plays (147.7), while Manning is tied for seventh, at 104.5. Twelve of Brady's league-record 50 touchdown passes came on play-action, another league-leading total.

  Comp Pct Passer Rating TDs
Brady 2nd (68.4) 1st (147.7) 1st (12)
Manning 10th (63.7) 7th (104.5) tie - 7th (7)
Elias Sports Bureau
Steve DeBerg, 18-year NFL quarterback: "Some running backs don't want to act like they have the ball and get hit again, so it takes a special back to carry out the fake. Actually, the ultimate fake for a running back is that he gets tackled."

Matt Birk, Vikings center: "You identify the defense, get everybody going the same way, everybody on the same page, so every defender is accounted for. At the snap of the ball, you want to make sure it, as we say, smells like, feels like, tastes like run."

Bob Griese, Hall of Fame quarterback: "You turn your back to the line of scrimmage, turn your back to the coverage, so then when you come back around now you can't see, because everybody is standing up and you don't know where they went."

DeBerg: "It's interesting that a lot of quarterbacks don't like play-action. I didn't like it when I first started playing because I didn't like taking my eyes off the defense. In my opinion, it's the best pass protection you can have."

Donald Driver, Packers wide receiver: "We push off the ball hard enough to make the guys say, 'Oh, I think it's going to be a run,' because you're going to put your hands on him and block him (the defender)."

DeBerg: "The longer you can fake the run, whether it's a lineman, a quarterback and a running back, then it has more of an effect of making the defense get distorted, which gives the offense the advantage."

Tony Romo, Cowboys quarterback: "You're selling the play, you're giving good head movement and your shoulders, and you're trying to get the linebackers and safeties to bite a little bit."

Brian Dawkins, Eagles safety: "When the ball is snapped and the line's all low, and it's looking like a run -- everything is looking like a run, but if your eyes are not on the tight end or the receivers and they're releasing up the field, it's going to get you every time."

DeBerg: "In my mind I was trying to imagine that I was trying to make the ball disappear right in front of the defense's eyes. That's really kind of magic."

Attention to detail

DeBerg mastered the arcane art of the play-action pass and that skill helped him stay in the NFL for 18 seasons -- until the age of 45.

"It completely elevated and extended my game," DeBerg said. "It's attention to detail and it takes more effort to do it. Some quarterbacks just aren't willing to do the effort, but I believe it is very important.

"I would look at film from the 1940s and they'd do these things where you thought four different guys had the ball. It almost was like the Harlem Gobetrotters. They're doing stuff behind their back, between their legs. And then it became more and more of a passing game and the ball-handling skills became kind of a lost art."

Dick Vermeil coached both the Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Rams to the Super Bowl, thanks largely to his expertise on offense. He studied the play-action pass for years and came to the conclusion that his team's yards-per-completion and completion percentage were always "much better" with play-action.

Highest Play-Action Passer
Rating (Min. 50 Attempts)

Name Rating
1. Tom Brady 147.7
2. Jeff Garcia 132.4
3. Matt Schaub 117.4
4. Donovan McNabb 113.6
5. Matt Hasselbeck 111.6
7 (T). Peyton Manning 104.5
Elias Sports Bureau

"The real strong play-action [is] when everybody blocks the run full bore, then you start getting safeties coming up, especially when the tight end is down blocking and the guard is pulling and [the safety's] reading run all the way," Vermeil said.

"I like that kind of play-action, I really do."

Watch for it this weekend.

You may see Brady walk up under center on the Jacksonville goal line to operate the Patriots' short-yardage jumbo package, which features linebacker Junior Seau (at fullback) and Mike Vrabel (tight end). Brady likes to fake a handoff up the middle and, when the linebackers and safeties bite, feather a pass out to Vrabel, who has caught 11 touchdown passes, including two this season and two in Super Bowls.

Manning likes to fake the handoff to Joseph Addai, then throw it down the field to Reggie Wayne or Dallas Clark.

"If you think it's a run for a while against Peyton Manning, he's really going to hurt you," DeBerg said.

"He makes it look like a run for a real long time, and then sets up faster than anybody I've ever seen. He has a quick release and is accurate. In my opinion, Peyton's the best right now."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.