To handoff or not to handoff? That is the question.
The play-action pass, or "play-pass" as famous 49ers head coach Bill Walsh called it, is one of the best plays in all of football because of it is the symbol of team effort.
A collective effort must be made by the offensive line, which attempts to sell the defensive linemen in front of them on the run. This is done by executing their assignments as if it were an actual run call. The running back must take the necessary steps and surround his belly with his two arms as if he's truly securing the ball to fool the linebackers. The quarterback, the position deemed the most important position of them all in today's game, must execute several key techniques that sell the defensive back(s) in order for the pass-catcher to run in behind them.
Play-action passing requires several techniques that a quarterback must execute, and for starts, I look to the "mesh point" with a running example of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who is one of the league's best, if not the best, at executing a play-action pass.
The act of a handoff in layman terms—the mesh point taking place—is when the quarterback must sell it as if an actual exchanging of the ball is occurring. The way this is done is by watching the ball be placed in and then out of the belly of the running back. He must watch the ball all the way through to make it seem like a run play is being executed, as witnessed in the image of Brady eyeballing the ball-carrier.
Once the eyes are fixated on the ball-carrier, the quarterback must take the next step in the process of executing the fake by sinking his shoulders. Brady does an excellent job of this, and the reason this is asked of the quarterback is because to help cause indecision among the defenders at the second and third level who are reading their keys.
The key responsibilities of a linebacker, for example, can be to read through a specific blocker, such as a guard to the ball-carrier. If the ball-carrier looks as if he's receiving the ball from the quarterback, who is dipping his shoulders, it causes conflict for the reader.
Further, a defensive back at the third-and-deep level of the defense is also sometimes taught to read the quarterbacks shoulder to identify when he's delivering or intending to throw the ball.
If the route of the receiver to the defensive back's side is short, the defensive back could look to break on the ball by anticipating it and hopefully creating a turnover. However, if that key move is unclear, it causes further indecision and potential for the receiver's short route to turn into a deep one.
Moreover, once the quarterback has done this, he is expected to pull the ball out from the ball-carrier and snap his head around to identify his first read. Typically, a play-action pass will feature three main pass targets, starting with the quarterback fixating his eyes deep to the middle to finally identify a short, outlet receiver.
Brady does an exceptional job of this and is able to often take advantage of the defense because of how quickly he identifies his first target.
Once Brady clears through the play fake, he operates as if it is a passing play, and the first thing he looks to do is balance himself by standing tall in the pocket and starts going through his reads. He must stand tall within the pocket to see over the defense and scan the field.
These are the basic techniques of the play-action fake that must be executed by the quarterback to contribute to a collective effort of the execution of the play. Whether a team has a running game or not, the play-action play can still be effective if properly executed, especially in situational football.
Situations such as 3rd-and-short, for example, can particularly be a good time to call this because the defense is unable to key in on what the offense will do—run or pass—thus keeping them honest and having to respect both possibilities, consequently giving the offense the upper hand.