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Back-shoulder pass. Is this the ultimate passing play?

Some say it is impossible to defend

Cleveland Browns v Miami Dolphins Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

There are some situations in American Football that you can depend upon each and every week.

The back-shoulder pass is one of them. Simply put, it works every week in the NFL for either a first down or a touchdown. The premise is that this one play creates havoc for every defensive back in the league. Plus, it is a high-risk armament for quarterbacks who are able to drop passes into tight spaces.

In the early 1960s, the alley-oop was almost indefensible. It required a receiver who had the uncanny ability to leap higher than normal human beings. The quarterback then would lob a high-aching pass to a spot that only his jumper could catch. QB Y.A. Tittle perfected this play to WR R.C. Owens, a former basketball player. No defender could bat down the pass which was usually run inside the opponent’s 20-yard line and caught in the end zone. The sport of basketball later turned this play into something spectacular.

Easiest completion in the playbook

What exactly is a back-shoulder pass?

To begin with, the play relies on quick reactions, the athleticism of the receiver, and a precision throw by the quarterback. Without these factors, it does not work.

The back-shoulder begins as a fade route which then becomes a fade stop. The quarterback throws a bullet pass at the receiver’s back outside shoulder usually close to the sideline which the defender has zero chance of getting a hand on the toss.

It all begins in the huddle because the play is not actually called. It is something the quarterback must read and becomes an adjustment between the QB and receiver although another play has been called.

First off, the QB looks for man coverage as he is walking up to the line of scrimmage. He looks over the cornerback as his receiver gets into his stance.

The clue to throw or not to throw comes from the cornerback himself. If the defender turns his head away from the quarterback to defend the fade route over the top, then the play is on. Next, the receiver barely eyes the quarterback as confirmation. This tells the quarterback they are on the same page.

What is on the defender’s mind is not to get beat deep. Since high school, cornerbacks have this pulsated into their minds.

The receiver begins the fade route in a full gallop as if to take the play deep. The cornerback is now solely focused on the receiver’s hands and eyes to determine when the ball is in the air. His back is to the quarterback.

Then as the receiver quickly stops, the ball is already in the air to a spot slightly behind the receiver who opens his body and then twists to the sideline where only he can catch it or it falls incomplete. If completed in the end zone, it is six points. If anywhere else on the playing field, the defensive back’s momentum carries him downfield which then leaves space for a big gain.

The key is the pass itself. If thrown accurately, it is impossible to defend. But making the throw is easier said than done and must be practiced repeatedly for it to succeed. The ball has to be on the money with the correct timing.

The entire process must be quick and on point. Repetitions between receivers and the quarterback must be run over and over and then repeated again. And again.

But it doesn’t always begin as a successful play. If the cornerback remains even, the quarterback is less likely to throw it. This is the best clue for the signalcaller to not throw the pass because a good defender has the opportunity to jump the play and perhaps intercept the ball. The receiver’s subtle look back at the QB is also key so that the defender doesn’t get clued in that the pass is about to be thrown.

Called in the playing field

When the back-shoulder pass is thrown into the end zone when a team is close, the play happens very quickly and is either a scoring play or an incompletion.

But what about when the play is utilized on the playing field?

Man or press coverage is what is determined first. The defender respects the receiver’s speed and his ability to go deep. This vulnerability is part of the disguise. Creating space is one of the keys to success. He must get some cushion and act like he is running a go route while keeping his head forward at all times.

The back-shoulder works very well for teams that throw deep often. Whether they have success with completions on the long pass or not, the defender’s mind is always in the deep ball mode especially if an offense has success with a speedier receiver who can consistently outrun a cornerback.

That can be the set-up. As the cornerback is convinced of an impending deep ball, suddenly the receiver comes to an abrupt stop and turns slightly out towards the sideline. The cornerback’s plan is no longer an issue.

The pass is already in the air to a spot that neither the receiver nor the defender is even close to.

When a defensive back’s back is turned, he virtually has zero chance of defending it. And even if the defender makes a decent recovery, one of the receiver’s hands is open — either the infield hand or the backfield hand.

Origins of the back-shoulder pass

The back-shoulder pass is designed to use the defender’s speed and his head position against him. The back shoulder offsets a defensive back’s forward motion. This was invented in 1984 by QB Bob Gagliano of the Denver Gold of the United States Football League.

His offensive coordinator June Jones was in film study and noticed the pass. He asked Gagliano why he threw that pass to which he explained that the cornerback had been playing the deep ball almost every play, and this exploited that trait.

Jones then developed the mechanics of the play and decided that the end zone was only one aspect of the play and could actually be used anywhere on the playing field.

When Jones was hired as the QB coach with the Houston Oilers in 1987, he developed the play even further where his new quarterback Warren Moon perfected it.

Five-step drop, the receiver runs 17 steps and turns. The ball comes high and away.

Some say it is impossible to defend.