A tribute to… the fake punt

In the grand theatre that is American football, few tactics exemplify the art of deception quite like the fake punt. The sneaky trick play dates back to the early days of the National Football League and has shaped countless games, leaving an indelible mark on the sport’s landscape. In this, the second article in our series honouring the game’s rarer plays, we delve into the strategies behind the fake punt and relive some of the great examples from days gone by.

How it all began

While the rules of the sport do not explicitly mention the option to fake a punt attempt, teams have been doing so since the formative days of the league, when coaches and players began experimenting with unconventional ways to try to gain an edge on the field. At its core, the move is designed to deceive the opposing team by lining up in punt formation but executing an alternative play, such as a run or pass, that they aren’t set up to defend.

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The first documented instance of a fake punt in the NFL occurred on 6 November 1932, by the Chicago Bears against the Green Bay Packers at Wrigley Field. Trailing by a point late in the fourth quarter, the Bears needed a big play to turn the tide in their favour and decided to fake a punt. Their legendary quarterback, Bronko Nagurski, received the snap instead of punter Johnny Sisk, faked a punt attempt himself before running with the ball. Catching the Packers off guard, Nagurski secured a pivotal first down that ultimately led to the game-winning touchdown.

The options

That landmark play, almost a century ago, demonstrated the potential impact of having bare-faced deception in the playbook and set the stage for others to follow. As the fake punt gained traction across the league, it became clear that different categories of trickery, each with its own unique approach and execution, were available. These can be loosely classified as follows:

  • The run: In this classic variation, more often used in short yardage situations, the punter receives the snap and runs with the ball. This relies on blockers to help the (usually smaller, lighter) ball-carrier evade defenders.
  • The pass: This more daring approach sees the punter make a downfield throw, targeting an uncovered receiver for a potentially big gain.
  • The direct snap: Bypassing the punter altogether, this variation involves the ball being snapped directly to a running back or quarterback (as in Nagurski’s case), who then executes a predetermined running or passing play.
  • The reverse: Adding another layer of complexity, the reverse fake punt sees the punter hand the ball off to a player executing a reverse run or pass, exploiting the defense’s pursuit of the punter.

DEEP FAKE: During the Cleveland Browns’ game against the Saints in October 2010, punter Reggie Hodges took a snap, bolted through the line of scrimmage and ran it 68 yards to the Saints’ 10-yard line. It’s still the longest run by a punter in NFL history.

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Legendary moments of fake puntory

Through the years, fake punts have etched themselves into the annals of NFL history, captivating audiences with their audacity and execution. Even in the last decade or so, there have been some memorable examples of the passing variety and many illustrate the point that punters don’t have to be particularly good at throwing if the play is enough of a surprise. 

Eight years ago, in 2016, kicker Pat McAfee threw a 35-yard pass on a fake punt for the Indianapolis Colts against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Facing a 4th-and-6 from midfield, McAfee took the snap, crept a few steps to his right and threw a pass to tight end Erik Swoope, who was eventually brought down inside the 10.   

In Week 4 of the 2017 season, the Jacksonville Jaguars literally didn’t defend the New York Jets receiver and punter Lac Edwards just about made the pass on a huge 4th-and-21. Also in 2017, during a Monday night clash with divisional rivals the Minnesota Vikings, Bears punter Pat O’Donnell completed a 38-yard TD pass to Benny Cunningham, who beat two defenders in the open field to score. By his own admission, O’Donnell had never thrown a pass before – not in college or even little league – and while his slow, lofted pass won’t win prizes for style, it still went for seven points.

A year later, the Tennessee Titans notched an impressive 66-yard TD on a fake punt against the Houston Texans. With the game just five minutes old and still scoreless, the long snap bypassed the punter in favour of safety Kevin Byard, lurking in the backfield. He noticed that the gunner on his right, rookie safety Dane Cruikshank, was unguarded and that was all he needed. Cruikshank was so open, he could afford to slow down to catch the ball before speeding past punt returner Bruce Ellington for the score in just his second game as a pro.

Only last year, Ryan Wright of the Vikings suddenly got licence to throw a ball instead of punting – with mixed success. In Week 15, the Vikings tried some sneakiness against the Colts on a fourth down but it went south. Wright lined up, looking to all intents and purposes like he was about to boot the ball away, but instead threw a pass towards Jalen Nailor on the left sideline. Alas, it was an ugly effort that sailed over his intended target’s head, leading to a turnover on downs. However, the two did connect when Minnesota played the New Orleans Saints in London earlier in the season. Leading 16-14 late in the third quarter, they faced a 4th-and-2 from just inside their own half. Wright took the snap, immediately turned to his right and threw a 13-yard pass that just about had the legs to reach Nailor for his first-ever NFL catch.

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Turning our attention to run plays, this fake punt from December 2021 went 73 yards – but it wasn’t the punter running this time. After seemingly going three-and-out on their opening possession against the San Francisco 49ers, the Seattle Seahawks snapped the ball directly to running back Travis Homer. He raced 73 yards to the end zone to give Seattle a 7-0 lead. This is the longest run on fourth down in the past 25 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, and Homer was actually listed as questionable because of a calf injury so extra kudos to him!

WORTH A GO: Historically, fake punt passes on 4th-and-7 or shorter have at least a conversion rate of at least 50%.

Fakes that failed

As much as it’s fun to celebrate every successful fake punt, it’s counterbalanced by many a cautionary tale of failure and miscalculation. There are far too many to recount of failed fakes but here are just a couple.

In the 2020 season, the NFC East (nicknamed the ‘NFC Least’ at the time due to the ineptitude of all four teams) was won, almost by default, by a Washington team with a 7-9 record. Summing up the division that year, the 6-10 Cowboys managed this epic fail on a reverse against the then-Redskins, barely making it back to the line of scrimmage, deep in their own territory. Mike McCarthy, hang your head in shame for calling this one.

And only this season, we saw the Buffalo Bills tried to pull a fast one on their AFC rivals, the Kansas City Chiefs, but again failed to convert. Down 27-24 early in the fourth quarter, Bills HC Sean McDermott decided to get aggressive on a 4th-and-5 on their own 30 yard-line, obviously hoping that the field position would suggest conservatism rather than recklessness to his opposite number, Andy Reid. Damar Hamlin took the direct snap from the long snapper, and the offensive line shifted to the left to clear a path. However, the KC defense stopped Hamlin after a gain of two.

The king of fakes: Johnny Hekker

Several names have become synonymous with the art of the fake punt. Back in 1960, when some players still had multiple roles – as both quarterback and punter, for example – the Eagles’ Norm Van Brocklin was second in passer rating and fifth in punting average as he led Philadelphia to an NFL championship. Meanwhile, Dallas’ Danny White threw for three scores and averaged 44.5 yards a punt against the Rams in a 1980 playoff game. 

But in the modern era, no one can hold a candle to Johnny Hekker. The former LA Ram punter was named first-team All-Pro four times and holds the single-season record for net punting average. In 2016, he had the greatest punting season in NFL history, landing 51 punts inside the opposing 20-yard line with just one touchback. But as good as he is at punting, he’s in a league of his own at ‘not punting’.

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Most teams run fake punts once in a blue moon. In 2019, the Ringer stated that combined, the 31 teams other than the Rams attempt about five fake-punt passes a season and convert three. Hekker alone has averaged 2.4 passes per season since 2012, has yet to go a year without at least attempting a pass and has only had one season (2013) without a completion.

In Hekker’s rookie season (2012), all three of his throws went to wide-open players. His first came from inside his own end zone, when the Niners clearly weren’t expecting a pass and failed to defend a Rams’ gunner. His second came in the same game, on what might have been the first run-pass option called for a punter and his third came on a fake field goal attempt (more on them later), during which the Rams pretended to sub wide receiver Danny Amendola out of the game. Instead, he hugged the sideline without a defender anywhere near him, leaving Hekker with a throw that, well, any punter could have made.

“Deep down inside, all punters want to throw,” Rams special teams coach John Fassel said of Hekker, “and he’d much rather throw than punt.” Hekker himself admits, “I’ve got a good release… for a punter.” And the secret to his success? Hekker led his high school team to the Washingston state championship game as a QB.

Hekker has now played 10 NFL seasons – nine with the St Louis/Los Angeles Rams and one with the Carolina Panthers, and is now 15-of-24 (62.5%) for 193 yards – with a long of 28 – with 1 TD and 1 INT as a passer. (He also completed a pass on a two-point conversion but that doesn’t count towards his official statistics.) The guy is undoubtedly the league’s fakiest punter.

Dan, Dan, the diaper man

Switching from the field to the sidelines, current Detroit head coach Dan Campbell is definitely not afraid to call a high-risk, high-reward play. He even stated that Detroit fans should “wear a diaper” because he likes to take risks, specifically on fourth downs. Just last season, in the third quarter against the Packers in November 2023, the Lions attempted a fake punt on a 4th-and-4 from their own 23-yard line. From the moment the ball was snapped, the play never stood a chance. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin was stopped for no gain and the Packers scored three plays later, going on to win 29-22. To his credit, Campbell held his hands up. “Yeah, look. That’s a bad call on me,” he said postgame. “I shouldn’t have done that to those guys. That’s a bad call.” 

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But that failure was the exception. Under Campbell, the Lions have converted eight of their 10 fake punt attempts, a stunningly high success rate. Props should also go to special teams coordinator Dave Fipp, who echoes Campbell’s gung-ho style and has helped to turn the Lions’ special teams into one of the league’s best units. In 2021, the Lions converted three of four fake punt attempts, with CJ Moore running for 28 yards on a direct snap against the Rams and punter Jack Fox completing two throws. Last season, Fox completed another pass, Moore ran for two more first downs and Reeves-Maybin rumbled for 3 yards on a 4th-and-2 from his own 17-yard line. Like with Hekker, the element of surprise is long gone with Campbell’s reputation for ballsy play-calling but nonetheless, he still seems to succeed more often than not.

Don’t forget the fake field goal

Before we finish, we must talk about fake field goals. Again, there are a number of different permutations. Usually the holder (often the punter or backup quarterback) will take the snap but rather than place the ball on the ground to be kicked, he’ll throw a pass or run with it.

Less frequently, the kicker, takes a direct snap and serves as the passer or rusher. Former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri received a direct snap and threw a touchdown pass to Troy Brown during a game in 2004 and the Seahawks used this play in the 2014 NFC Championship game against the Packers. The box score would have revealed the weirdest touchdown pass description (holder/punter Jon Ryan to eligible offensive lineman Garry Gilliam) as Seattle recovered from a 16-point deficit on their way to Super Bowl XLIX.

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A legacy of innovation and intrigue

Reflecting on the history and evolution of fake kicks, one thing is clear: it’s not just a tactical manoeuvre. Indeed, it’s a testament to the creativity, daring and strategic brilliance of the players and coaches that have shaped the evolution of the game. The fake punt and field goal continue to illicit a knowing nod or even a hysterical squeal, given their potential for glory or disaster. But as the league continues to evolve, you can only imagine the new twists and turns that will define deception and trickery in years to come…

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