On this annual day of practical jokes and chicanery, April Fools’ Day, we’re going to take a fun look back at when NFL teams made a fool of their opponents, using their imaginations to wangle diabolical plays of deception that will be remembered for as long as the game of football is played.
Our countdown of the greatest trick plays in league history includes a wild and wacky assortment of fakes, high jinks and funny business, most of which you’d think would have no business of actually succeeding on a professional football field.
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Here are the NFL’s greatest-ever trick plays:
20. Tom Brady runs Statue of Liberty play
Date: Jan. 12, 2008
Game: 2007 AFC divisional playoff, New England Patriots vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Patriots moved to 17-0 during the 2007 season with a divisional playoff win over the visiting Jaguars. Midway through the third quarter, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady broke a 14-14 deadlock by pulling off a Statue of Liberty play, hitting receiver Wes Welker for a 6-yard touchdown strike. The Patriots went on to win, 31-20.
19. Chargers run the ‘Bumerooski’
Date: Dec. 10, 2006
Game: Week 14, San Diego Chargers vs. Denver Broncos
Old-fashioned shenanigans still exist in professional football. In 2006, the Chargers turned back the clock to a play made famous by former Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips — the “Bumerooski” — which was a version of the “Fumblerooski,” a play run in the 1984 Orange Bowl by the Nebraska Cornhuskers. In this instance, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers took the center snap and placed the ball between the legs of romping-stomping fullback Lorenzo Neal, who rumbled into the end zone.
18. The Annexation of Puerto Rico
Date: Dec. 18, 2011
Game: Week 15, Carolina Panthers vs. Houston Texans
“Little Giants” is a fun football movie released in 1994 that starred Rick Moranis and Ed O’Neill as youth coaches going head-to-head in an epic clash to win the hearts and souls of Urbania, Ohio. The winning play in the said small town clash was the “Annexation of Puerto Rico.” In 2011, the Panthers brought pee-wee football inspired tomfoolery to the NFL. Quarterback Cam Newton took the snap from center, placed the ball between the legs of fullback Richie Brockel, who ran untouched into the end zone while much of the Texans defense chased after Newton, running back DeAngelo Williams and Steve Smith, who each ran in the opposite direction. The score put the Panthers up 21-0 in a 28-13 win.
17. Doug Flutie’s drop kick extra point
Date: Jan. 1, 2006
Game: Week 17, New England Patriots vs. Miami Dolphins
In the 43-year-old Flutie’s final game, the backup quarterback pulled off the first successful drop kick in an NFL game since Scooter McLean did so in the 1941 NFL Championship Game for the Chicago Bears against the New York Giants. Since then, kickers have attempted drop-kick kickoffs (though the move has since been banned by the league), but none have attempted a drop kick that could result in points.
16. Randy Moss’ behind-the-back lateral
Date: Oct. 19, 2003
Game: Week 7, Minnesota Vikings vs. Denver Broncos
With time running out in the first half, Daunte Culpepper chucked a long pass that was caught by Randy Moss. While being brought down by a couple Broncos defensive backs, Moss tossed a no-look pass to running back Moe Williams, who grabbed the ball and scored a touchdown to put the Vikings up 14-7 at halftime in a 28-20 win.
15. Bills’ run wild fake field goal for TD
Date: Sept. 7, 2008
Game: Week 1, Buffalo Bills vs. Seattle Seahawks
Baseball has the “hidden ball trick.” Somehow, in a season-opening win over the Seahawks, the Bills pulled off the “hidden lineman trick.” In the midst of a substitution for a field goal attempt, Bills defensive lineman Ryan Denney lingered with intent along the sidelines and away from what was assumed to be the primary game action. Instead, holder Brian Moorman took the snap and lobbed an easy touchdown to a wide-open Denney.
14. Dolphins pull off crazy TD play
Date: Dec. 1, 2019
Game: Week 13, Miami Dolphins vs. Philadelphia Eagles
The Dolphins pulled off an upset of the Eagles thanks in part to the rarely ever seen punter-to-kicker touchdown. On a fourth-and-goal play from the 1-yard line, Miami lined up in a wild formation that had a lone center snapping the ball to punter Matt Haack. Haack scrambled to the left and then chucked the ball to kicker Jason Sanders, who was left wide open in the end zone. “Mountaineer Shot” earned NFL play of the year honors for the 2019 season.
13. Rams’ trick punt play
Date: Oct. 19, 2014
Game: Week 7, St. Louis Rams vs. Seattle Seahawks
The Rams somehow pulled off this misdirection play on a punt return. While players on both the punt coverage and return teams swarmed to Tavon Austin, it was actually Stedman Bailey — stationed on the opposite side of the field — who gathered in Jon Ryan’s punt and then scampered 90 yards for a touchdown. It was a pivotal play in the game, giving the Rams a 21-3 lead in a 28-26 win.
12. River City Relay
Date: Dec. 21, 2003
Game: Week 16, New Orleans Saints vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
The NFL’s version of the Cal-Stanford play … although, in this one, the team that pulled off the last-second miracle didn’t win the game. The Saints were trailing the Jaguars 20-13 with the ball at their own 25-yard line and seven seconds remaining in the game. Quarterback Aaron Brooks connected with Donte Stallworth, who broke some tackles and lateraled the ball to Michael Lewis, who pitched the ball to Deuce McAllister, who lateraled the ball to Jerome Pathon, who went the remaining 24 yards for a touchdown. Unfortunately for the Saints, kicker John Carney missed the extra point (back when attempts were kicked from the 2-yard line) and there would be no overtime.
11. Giants pull off fake punt
Date: Jan. 20, 1991
Game: 1990 NFC Championship Game, New York Giants vs. San Francisco 49ers
The Giants pulled off an upset of the heavily favored two-time defending Super Bowl champion 49ers at Candlestick Park, but not without a little bit of trickery. In the fourth quarter, trailing 13-9 and having come off a three-and-out offensive possession, the Giants pulled off a fake punt, with the ball snapped directly to linebacker Gary Reasons, who ran through the 49ers for a 30-yard gain. The play set up a Matt Bahr’s fourth field goal of the game. The 49ers’ next possession resulted in a turnover, which the Giants converted into the winning score as time ran out.
10. Dolphins release the Wildcat
Date: Sept. 21, 2008
Game: Week 3, Miami Dolphins vs. New England Patriots
The Dolphins were 0-2 entering an early season showdown with a Patriots team that had gone unbeaten the previous regular season. Needing a spark, Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano unleashed an old-school single-wing offensive formation that completely bewildered the Patriots in a stunning 38-13 win at Gillette Stadium. In the process, the Dolphins started a Wildcat trend in the copycat NFL. On this day in Foxborough, Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown was the frontman of the Wildcat onslaught, accounting for five touchdowns, including one via the forward pass.
9. Miami Miracle
Date: Dec. 9, 2018
Game: Week 14, Miami Dolphins vs. New England Patriots
While the Patriots were working toward a sixth Super Bowl title, the Dolphins were just trying to stay in the playoff race. Miami was down 33-28 with 7 seconds remaining and with the ball at their own 31-yard line. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill connected with Kenny Stills, who tossed the ball to DeVante Parker, who lateraled to Kenyan Drake, who ran 52 yards for the game-winning score, outrunning Rob Gronkowski en route to the end zone. While the Dolphins won, 34-33, and improved to 7-6, the team lost its two remaining games and missed the playoffs.
8. Seahawks’ fake field goal
Date: Jan. 18, 2015
Game: 2014 NFC Championship Game, Seattle Seahawks vs. Green Bay Packers
The Packers had dominated the first half of the NFC title game at CenturyLink Field, but the Seahawks turned the tide late in the third quarter while trailing 16-0. Stephen Hauschka lined up for a field goal attempt, but punter Jon Ryan – who was the holder – took the snap, scrambled to the left and lobbed a touchdown pass to offensive tackle Garry Gilliam. The Seahawks wound up winning the game, 28-22, in overtime to advance to Super Bowl XLIX.
7. Antwaan Randle El’s game-breaking TD pass
Date: Feb. 5, 2006
Game: Super Bowl XL, Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Seattle Seahawks
Antwaan Randle El, the college quarterback-turned-NFL wide receiver, broke open a close game with the Seahawks with a 43-yard touchdown pass on a reverse to Hines Ward, who would be named game MVP. The play provided the final score in a 21-10 Steelers win to give Pittsburgh its fifth of six Super Bowl titles.
6. Dan Marino’s fake spike TD
Date: Nov. 27, 1994
Game: Week 13, Miami Dolphins vs. New York Jets
With his team down 24-21 with eight seconds left and the ball at the Jets’ 8-yard line, Dan Marino – with the Jets’ defense anticipating a spike to stop the clock – caught cornerback Aaron Glenn off guard and hit receiver Mark Ingram for the go-ahead score. The Jets, who were 6-5 entering the game, went on a 4-32 skid that went through the end of the 1996 season. Nearly two decades later, Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford ran a fake spike play for a winning touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys.
5. Dolphins’ hook and lateral
Date: Jan. 2, 1982
Game: 1981 AFC divisional playoff game, Miami Dolphins vs. San Diego Chargers
In the “Epic in Miami,” the San Diego Chargers held a 24-10 lead with six seconds remaining in the first half. With the ball at the Chargers’ 40-yard line, Miami Dolphins quarterback Don Strock threw a pass to Duriel Harris, who lateraled the ball to Tony Nathan, catching the Chargers defense by surprise. Nathan sprinted untouched for a touchdown to set the score at 24-17 entering the half. Of course, the Chargers would win in overtime in one of the greatest games in league history.
4. Holy Roller
Date: Sept. 10, 1978
Game: Week 2, Oakland Raiders vs. San Diego Chargers
“Nothing is real in the world anymore!” The absolutely insane final play in the Raiders’ 21-20 win over their AFC West nemesis was the impetus for an NFL rule change that restricted advancing fumbles after the two-minute warning or on fourth downs. With his team down 20-14 with 10 seconds remaining, Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler dropped back to pass, fumbled the ball forward. Raiders and Chargers players took turns botching the recovery, and the ball ended up in the end zone, where Raiders tight end Dave Casper landed on the ball for the game-winning score. One of the greatest Raiders moments of all time also spawned one of the most memorable play calls in NFL history.
3. Music City Miracle
Date: Jan. 8, 2000
Game: 1999 AFC wild-card game, Tennessee Titans vs. Buffalo Bills
A field goal by kicker Steve Christie gave the Bills a 16-15 lead with 16 seconds remaining. On the ensuing kickoff, the Titans called for a return play named “Home Run Throwback.” Christie did a pooch kick that was fielded by Lorenzo Neal, who handed the ball off to Frank Wycheck, who threw across the field to Kevin Dyson, who sprinted down the sideline for the winning score. The Titans prevailed, 22-16, and, galvanized by the epic victory, advanced to Super Bowl XXXIV.
2. Philly Special
Date: Feb. 4, 2018
Game: Super Bowl LII, Philadelphia Eagles vs. New England Patriots
Facing fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, the Eagles got gutsy. Quarterback Nick Foles asked Eagles head coach Doug Pederson, “You want Philly Philly?” “Yeah, let’s do it,” Pederson responded. What resulted was the most memorable play in the Eagles’ Super Bowl win. On the play — which was called “Philly Special” — Foles motioned out of the backfield, the snap went to running back Corey Clement, who tossed the ball to tight end Trey Burton on a reverse. Burton hit a wide-open Foles for a touchdown that put Philadelphia up 22-12 heading into halftime. The Eagles went on to win, 41-33, for the team’s first championship since 1960. In the 2018 season opener, the Eagles did it again, this time running “Philly Philly” against the Atlanta Falcons.
1. Saints ‘Ambush’ Colts
Date: Feb. 7, 2010
Game: Super Bowl XLIV, New Orleans Saints vs. Indianapolis Colts
It was called “Ambush.” Saints head coach Sean Payton, looking to get his team an additional offensive possession against the Peyton Manning-led Colts, called for his team to do an onside kick to start the second half of the Super Bowl. The Saints were down 10-6 at the time, having trimming the Colts’ lead to four on a field goal by Garrett Hartley right before the end of the first half. Thomas Morstead’s onside kick bounced off of the Colts’ Hank Baskett and was recovered by Saints defensive back Chris Reis. The play worked brilliantly for New Orleans, which took advantage of the gamble and scored a touchdown on the extra possession. The Saints went on to win, 31-17, for the first – and still only — championship in team history.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jim Reineking on Twitter @jimreineking.
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