In Football, what is a Bootleg?

Michael Pollick

In the sport of football, deception and misdirection are just as important as passing, running or kicking. The team in possession of the ball, or the offense, must find ways to trick the defensive players, or the defense, into blocking the wrong offensive players. One such offensive play is called a bootleg, or sometimes a naked bootleg. A bootleg play involves the quarterback faking a hand-off to a running back, then moving in the opposite direction for a pass or a run of his own.

A running back will be used as a decoy on a bootleg.
A running back will be used as a decoy on a bootleg.

In layman's terms, the quarterback sets up a running play, which usually means a strong but fast player called a running back will be handed the ball. Defensive players often recognize a running play, so they will target their blocking to stop the best running back from advancing with the ball. During a bootleg play, however, the quarterback only pretends to hand off to the running back, and the running back draws the defense's attention away from the real ball carrier, the quarterback.

In a bootleg, a quarterback fakes a hand-off and then passes or runs with the ball.
In a bootleg, a quarterback fakes a hand-off and then passes or runs with the ball.

While the bulk of the defensive players block the running back, the quarterback and a few offensive blockers called linemen run in the opposite direction. With the defense tied up on one side of the field, the quarterback is free to throw a pass to a wide receiver or to run the ball himself. The only defenders may be secondary players called safeties who watch for deceptive plays such as a bootleg. Others may cover specific wide receivers in case of a passing play. If the quarterback goes in the opposite direction without the coverage of linemen, it is called a naked bootleg.

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The success of a bootleg play often rests on the acting skills of the quarterback and running back. The hand-off must appear genuine for the defensive linebackers to focus on the running play. The running back must appear to protect the non-existent ball and pull attention away from the quarterback. Many professional and top ranked college football teams have running backs who are very well-known for their strength and ability to gain yardage on the ground. The bootleg play takes advantage of this reputation, since defensive backs tend to target the most dangerous players.

The bootleg play is just one of a number of trick plays available to the offense during a game. There are also draw plays, in which the quarterback pulls back as if to pass and draws the defense away from the receivers downfield. There is also a play called the flea flicker, in which the quarterback hands off the ball to another player in the backfield, who can then pass the ball unexpectedly to an eligible receiver downfield. A kicker setting up for a field goal attempt may also be part of a trick play, especially if the placeholder is also a back-up quarterback.

An American football player.
An American football player.

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Discussion Comments


Actually, we thought that the term 'bootleg' came from the activities of the old bootleggers of the 1920's. That is, the old bootleggers tried to trick the law by hiding their illegal booze from the authorities, just as the quarterback tries to trick the defense by hiding the ball from them.


I think the name of the play is meant to explain the shape of the move the quarterback makes which sort of resembles a boot.

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