Strange Football Terminology

On February 7, 2016, over 114 million viewers are expected to gather around television sets to watch Super Bowl 50. So to honor this American institution on such an important anniversary, this week’s blog honors the language of football with the stories behind some of the strangest football terms.

  1. Red Zone. The 20 yard line to the end zone is the mythical area known as the “red zone.” So why not the purple or green zone you ask? Because red is seen as a warning color for the defense. Once the offense reaches the “red zone,” they are in prime scoring position.
  2. Scrimmage. Scrimmage is a funny word. Why not just call it the line of play or the line of action? Scrimmage, like many football terms, comes from rugby and what is affectionately known as the “scrum”. Scrum is short for scrummage which sounds an awful lot like scrimmage.
  3. Nickel and dime packages. The nickel and dime formations were both unsurprisingly coined with money in mind. The nickel defense was created by Philadelphia Eagles defensive coach Jerry Williams in 1960 as a way to stop Chicago Bears tight end Mike Ditka. As you may have guessed, it contains five defensive backs. The dime adds a sixth defensive back to the equation.
  4. Halfback. The origin of this moniker dates back to the 1940’s when there were usually four men in a backfield and each was a threat to run or throw the ball. The halfbacks were named as such because of their location in the backfield. The fullback was farthest from the line of scrimmage, the quarterback was the closest and the halfbacks were in the middle.
  5. Gunner. A gunner is one of the most versatile weapons on a football team, and yet, also one of the most overlooked. The gunner is the special teams player that blazes down the field on a kickoff in an attempt to tackle the return man. The origin of this term is not too hard to figure out. The gunner runs in a straight line down the field as fast as he can as if shot out of a gun.
  6. Wildcat. Ever popular in college football and sometimes trendy in the NFL is the Wildcat formation. It calls for the quarterback to line up as a wide receiver and for the running back or wideout to take the snap from center.
  7. Flea Flicker. The origins of the flea flicker are truly unique. The creation of the play has been credited to former University of Illinois coach Bob Zuppke. In a 1951 letter, he wrote that he had introduced the play while coaching at Oak Park High in 1910. Zuppke stated that the phrase was meant to evoke “the quick flicking action of a dog getting rid of fleas.” A quarterback handing the ball off to a running back only to have it tossed back to him.
  8. Shotgun. Once the quarterback takes a few steps behind the line of scrimmage in anticipation of the snap, it is called the shotgun formation. The shotgun sprays the receivers all over the field.
  9. Icing the kicker. Perhaps icing the kicker dates back far beyond 2006, but that is when Mike Shanahan popularized its current incarnation. That is when rule changes allowed coaches to call timeouts from the sidelines. Shanahan used this to the Denver Broncos advantage when he successfully “iced” Oakland Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski.
  10. Hail Mary. The last second pass to try and escape the clutches of defeat or close out the first half of football. The Hail Mary. Why such a religious name for a football play? Unsurprisingly, the term started at Notre Dame when players Elmer Layden and Jim Crowley used it to describe a long, low percentage pass. Now, it is one of the most thrilling plays in football.


Leave a Reply