Why you should care
Because the flea-flicker can be a game-changer.
It was arguably the play that got the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl in 2018. In the NFC championship game against the Minnesota Vikings last January, Philadelphia held a daunting 24-7 lead at halftime. Then the Eagles went in for the kill.
On the first drive of the second half, Eagles coach Doug Pederson called a flea-flicker for the first time that season — and quarterback Nick Foles, running back Corey Clement and wide receiver Torrey Smith pulled it off perfectly for the 41-yard touchdown.
The flea-flicker isn’t a commonly run play in the NFL, making it something of a spectacle whenever it does make an appearance. So, what exactly does it entail?
Flea-flicker: An American football play wherein the quarterback laterals the ball to another player, usually a halfback, who then laterals it back to the quarterback, who attempts to pass it downfield.
The flea-flicker is one of the NFL’s most enduring trick plays, and undoubtedly one of its best-named. All credit goes to former University of Illinois head football coach Robert Zuppke, who claimed to have invented the play while coaching at Oak Park High in 1910.
According to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of the term was in 1927, when Zuppke was coaching at Illinois. As former University of Illinois archivist Maynard Brichford writes of Zuppke in Bob Zuppke: The Life and Football Legacy of the Illinois Coach, “Many sports writers credited him with inventing the spiral pass from center, the multiple passes of his flea-flicker play and the screen pass.” Zuppke’s 1927 Illini team was known for its “trick razzle-dazzle plays” like the flea-flicker, Brichford notes.
As for the play’s evocative name? Exactly what it suggests. In their 1967 book Football Lingo, Zander Hollander and Paul Zimmerman — better known as “Dr. Z” — wrote that Zuppke was inspired by the quick movement a dog makes as it tries to shake off fleas.
The play call is rare, with just five instances so far in 2018 and 40 in the past five years, according to Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders. And for good reason: It’s incredibly risky. When it goes right, it will often lead to a big gain, because the defense will have been successfully fooled into covering a running play. That leaves the receivers running downfield wide open — and the quarterback free from pressure. But when a flea-flicker goes wrong, it can result in fumbling the football and, even worse, a turnover. When players do get the chance to attempt it, it makes them a little giddy.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever run a flea-flicker,” Foles said in a postgame press conference after his successful attempt. “It was my first time, so I just tried not to smile.”
“You definitely perk up a bit after getting the call in — and see it with everyone when you call the play,” says former NFL quarterback–turned–Pro Football Focus analyst Zac Robinson. “Nothing extra is said; you try to almost play it cool. You get up to the line, and as soon as you see the defensive look you were hoping for, you know it’s on.”
Something must have been in the water on Championship Sunday 2018, as two other teams in addition to the Eagles trotted out flea-flickers in their game plans. The Jacksonville Jaguars, feeling good about their 20-10 lead on the New England Patriots in the fourth quarter, completed a 20-yard pass off a flea-flicker. As they mounted a comeback near the end of the game, though, the Patriots pulled out a flea-flicker of their own as they eventually dismantled the Jaguars 24-20. Given how much is at stake, it’s unusual to see a risky trick play like the flea-flicker in the postseason.
So the next time your team’s quarterback takes a snap, watch carefully. He just might be preparing to engage in a bit of 100-year-old trickery.