Trick plays make for some of the most defining moments in football.
For coaches, they can be nerve-racking. If the play works, they’re a hero. If it fails, they’re a scapegoat. Whatever happens, it will probably have a big impact on the outcome of the game. But there’s nothing sweeter than a gadget play going exactly as planned on the biggest stage.
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Coaches who call offensive plays tend to pull out all the stops in the Super Bowl. There are dozens of examples through the years of teams attempting trick plays in football’s biggest game. Some worked to perfection; others, not so much.
Here’s a look back at some of the greatest successful trick plays in Super Bowl history, listed in order of oldest to most recent:
Best trick plays in Super Bowl history
Super Bowl 12: Robert Newhouse’s TD pass to Golden Richards
In 1978, the Cowboys were playing in their third Super Bowl in franchise history. They were facing the Broncos, who were making their debut in the championship game.
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With his team leading 20-10 in the fourth quarter, legendary Cowboys head coach Tom Landry rolled the dice. Quarterback Roger Staubach pitched left to fullback Robert Newhouse, who lofted a pass to a streaking Golden Richards. The touchdown put the game to bed in the Cowboys’ eventual 27-10 victory. Dallas earned its second Lombardi trophy in franchise history.
The first of four non-quarterback touchdown passes in #SuperBowl history:#Cowboys fullback Robert Newhouse arcs a 29-yard fourth quarter touchdown pass to Golden Richards to finish off the Broncos in Super Bowl XII.
45 years ago today pic.twitter.com/kTiBsl9ay9
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 16, 2023
Super Bowl 14: Lawrence McCutcheon’s TD pass to Ron Smith
Two years after Newhouse’s touchdown toss, the Rams were taking on the Steelers in the Super Bowl.
Facing a 17-13 deficit in the third quarter, head coach Ray Malavasi took a page out of the Cowboys’ playbook. On a play similar to Newhouse’s pass, quarterback Vince Ferragamo handed to halfback Lawrence McCutcheon, who threw downfield into the waiting arms of Ron Smith for a 24-yard go-ahead touchdown. The play is one of just four touchdown passes by a non-quarterback in Super Bowl history (you’ll see the other two later in this article).
Unfortunately for the Rams, they couldn’t hang on to the lead and they ended up losing 31-19.
#Rams halfback Lawrence McCutcheon throws a 24-yard touchdown pass to Ron Smith in the third quarter of Super Bowl XIV, January 1980.
It is the second of only four touchdown passes thrown by a non-quarterback in #SuperBowl history. pic.twitter.com/Pc7jstIIaR
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) February 10, 2022
Super Bowl 20: William ‘The Refrigerator’ Perry’s TD run
The greatest nickname in NFL history may well belong to William “The Refrigerator” Perry, a defensive tackle who played for the Bears from 1985-93. Perry was known for his outrageous size (6-2, 335 pounds) and strength, leading one of his college teammates at Clemson to quip he was “about as big as a refrigerator.”
In the 1986 Super Bowl, the Bears were dominating the Patriots in the third quarter when Chicago head coach Mike Ditka put Perry in at running back for a goal-line play. The rookie bulldozed his way into the end zone from a yard out, sending Patriots defenders flying. The Bears went on to win 46-10. The Fridge remains a legendary figure in NFL lore.
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Super Bowls 38 & 39: Mike Vrabel’s TD catches
The Patriots’ dynasty was in its early stages when New England took on the Panthers in Super Bowl 38. New England, led by rising star Tom Brady, was looking for a second Lombardi Trophy in three years.
With 2:51 left in the fourth quarter and the Patriots trailing 22-21, the Pats’ coaches called a trick play. Linebacker Mike Vrabel checked into the game as a tight end, and the big man got open near the goal line to haul in the go-ahead touchdown pass. The Patriots went on to win 32-29 on a last-second Adam Vinatieri field goal.
The trick play worked so well, head coach Bill Belichick brought it back one year later against the Eagles in Super Bowl 39.
With the score tied 7-7 in the third quarter, Vrabel entered the game and ran what was essentially a flipped version of the route from the previous year. Despite being interfered with, he made a spectacular juggling catch to give the Patriots the lead in an eventual 24-21 win.
16 year anniversary of LB Mike Vrabel catching a 2 yard touchdown pass in Super Bowl 39. Some say it’s the greatest trick play in Patriots-Eagles Super Bowl history pic.twitter.com/dywJ7urhxU
— Charles (REO Speedwagon fan) 🍍 (@bgill97) February 7, 2021
Vrabel, who is now the head coach of the Titans, ended his playing career with 11 total touchdown catches. Not bad for a guy who played the vast majority of his snaps on defense.
Super Bowl 40: Antwaan Randle El TD pass to Hines Ward
Antwaan Randle El was a star quarterback at Indiana during his college playing days. He was the first player in NCAA Division I history to throw for 40 touchdowns and run for 40 touchdowns. But when he entered the NFL, he made the switch to wide receiver to maximize his playmaking skills.
Steelers head coach Bill Cowher and his staff didn’t forget about his QB days, though. Pittsburgh was leading Seattle 14-10 in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 40 and looking to put the game to bed. The coaches dug deep into their bag of tricks and pulled out a reverse handoff to Randle El, who threw a dime to Hines Ward for a 43-yard touchdown.
The Steelers went on to win 21-10 to secure their fifth Lombardi Trophy.
Never Forget! #SBXL #HereWeGo pic.twitter.com/4bC8kNNU9V
— Blitzburgh (@Blitz_Burgh) September 30, 2019
Super Bowl 44: Saints’ onside kick to start the second half
With New Orleans trailing Indianapolis 10-6 at halftime of Super Bowl 44, Saints head coach Sean Payton wanted to keep the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hands.
“The idea initially was that we were playing a really good Colts team, a really good Colts offense,” Payton told ESPN. “So how do we steal a possession?”
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The answer? A play Payton called “ambush.”
The Saints’ rookie kickoff specialist, Thomas Morstead, took the entire NFL world by surprise when he dribbled an onside kick toward the left sideline. It bounced out of the hands of Colts special-teamer Hank Baskett before being recovered by linebacker Jonathan Casillas.
New Orleans scored a touchdown on the ensuing possession to take the lead, and a late Tracy Porter pick-six sealed the victory for Payton and the Saints.
Sean Payton’s decision to go for an onside kick in Super Bowl XLIV changed the history of the @Saints forever. 🙌 (via @nflthrowback) pic.twitter.com/d0noXYnEuJ
— NFL (@NFL) January 26, 2022
Super Bowl 52: The ‘Philly Special’
The Eagles’ improbable run to a Super Bowl triumph with Nick Foles under center included one of the most famous trick plays in NFL history.
Their opponent, the Patriots, tried a trick play earlier in the game: receiver Danny Amendola threw a pass to Tom Brady, who had sneaked out of the backfield. The play worked exactly as intended, but Brady let the pass slip through his hands with nothing but open field in front of him.
Foles seemingly took notice as he watched the near miss from the sideline.
Facing a fourth and goal from the 1-yard line late in the first half, Foles went to the sideline to discuss it with head coach Doug Pederson.
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“You want Philly Philly?” the quarterback asked. After a brief pause to consider, Pederson replied, “Yeah, let’s do it.”
As the Eagles lined up, Foles approached the line of scrimmage and appeared to call an audible. But instead of backpedaling to take the shotgun snap, the ball was snapped directly to running back Corey Clement. Clement pitched it to tight end Trey Burton, who briefly played quarterback at Florida. Burton then threw to a wide-open Foles in the end zone.
Nick Foles turns 34 today!
In Super Bowl LII, he gave us one of the greatest plays in #NFL history: the Philly Special.
🎥: @Eagles | #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/QVlro0Owtj
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) January 20, 2023
The play, also dubbed “Philly Special,” helped the underdog Eagles pull off a 41-33 win and give the franchise its first Super Bowl title.
Super Bowl 54: Chiefs use synchronized spin to throw off 49ers
In 2020, Patrick Mahomes was chasing his first Lombardi Trophy and Kansas City’s first Super Bowl title in 50 years. Facing a fourth-and-goal inside the red zone, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy decided to get creative.
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As the players in the backfield approached the line of scrimmage, all four of them did a synchronized spin move to the right. The offensive line simultaneously stood up briefly before settling back into their stances. That small maneuver seemed to throw the 49ers’ defense off, allowing the Chiefs to pick up a first down and keep their drive alive.
“That play comes from — if I’m not mistaken — a 1949 Rose Bowl,” Bieniemy said after the game. “I probably shouldn’t be giving this away. The Rose Bowl, Michigan vs. USC. It’s just a play that we’ve been working and wondering when we can polish it off. It was fun to watch, and those guys did a great job of executing it. I mean, all that hard work and practicing that play for the entire season, it just worked and it paid off.”
They went on to score. Later, the Chiefs mounted a late fourth-quarter rally to secure Mahomes’ first and, for now, only Super Bowl title.