A flea flicker is an unorthodox play, often called a "trick play", in American football which is designed to fool the defensive team into thinking that a play is a run instead of a pass. It can be considered an extreme variant of the play action pass and an extension of the halfback option play.
After the snap, the quarterback hands off or laterals the ball to a running back or another player on the team, who then runs towards or parallel to the line of scrimmage. Before the running back crosses the line of scrimmage, they lateral the ball back to the quarterback, who looks to pass to an eligible receiver.
The play is designed to draw the defense into defending against a run and away from defending a pass, leaving the quarterback free from any immediate pass rush, and leaving receivers potentially open to catch a pass as their covering defenders may have moved off the pass looking to tackle a ball carrier. The elaborate back-and-forth with the ball also gives time for receivers to get downfield, opening up an opportunity for a long completion.
Like most other types of trick plays, the play is very risky. Despite the potential for a very big play when running a flea flicker, the play takes a long time to develop, meaning it often ends in disaster when run against a strong pass rush.
Illinois coach Bob Zuppke is credited with the play's invention: the flea flicker made its debut in Illinois' 1925 game against Penn as a fake field goal with Earl Britton, Red Grange, and Chuck Kassel.
On the play, Britton lined up as a kicker, with Grange as holder. After the snap, Britton threw the ball to Kassel, who then lateraled to Grange; Grange proceeded to score a touchdown on a 20-yard run.
The rise of the spread offense in recent years has led to the rise of the reverse flea flicker. Also known as the double reverse flea flicker, it’s an extension of both the conventional flea flicker and a reverse play. The play starts with the quarterback handing the ball off to another player, usually a running back, who then laterals the ball to a receiver. The receiver then laterals the ball again back to the quarterback, who looks to throw downfield.
The throwback flea flicker, also known as the double pass flea flicker, is similar to the original flea flicker, but draws the defense to the outside rather than to the inside. The play typically begins with the quarterback pitching the ball to a running back, who runs outside as if the play were a sweep. However, as the ball carrier draws the defense to the outside, he turns and throws a backward pass to the quarterback, often leaving him free of any pass rush when he tries to throw downfield.