What is the Definition of Bootleg in American Football?

The bootleg play in American football is a strategic maneuver involving misdirection and the skillful use of the quarterback’s abilities. Designed to confuse the defense and create opportunities for offensive gain, the bootleg play has become a staple in many football teams’ offensive arsenals. At its core, a bootleg play features the quarterback running with the ball toward either sideline while staying behind the line of scrimmage, often accompanied by a play-action or fake handoff to a running back moving in the opposite direction.

This well-executed play relies on the quarterback’s ability to both run and pass effectively, as well as the coordination of the offensive team as a whole. There are various types of bootleg plays and strategies, each designed to leverage specific advantages or exploit defensive weaknesses. Understanding the roles and execution of bootleg plays is essential for any team looking to incorporate this deceptive tactic into their game plan.

Key Takeaways

  • A bootleg play involves the quarterback running with the ball behind the line of scrimmage with misdirection elements.
  • Different types of bootleg plays cater to specific offensive strengths or target defensive vulnerabilities.
  • Successful execution of bootleg plays requires skillful quarterbacks and coordinated teamwork.

Bootleg Definition

A bootleg play in American football is a strategic misdirection play involving the quarterback. This play is executed by the quarterback running with the ball towards either sideline behind the line of scrimmage, creating confusion for the defense and potentially setting up a passing opportunity.

The bootleg play often incorporates play-action elements, such as a fake handoff to a running back moving in the opposite direction. This can further deceive the defense by making it appear as if the play is a running play towards a different area of the field. In this way, the bootleg is part play-action pass and part rollout by the quarterback.

To effectively execute a bootleg, teams usually require a versatile quarterback who can both throw and run well. This adds unpredictability to the offense and increases the chance of successful execution. Additionally, it is key for the offensive line to successfully sell the fake by creating a convincing running or passing pocket.

While the bootleg play can be highly effective when executed correctly, it may not be implemented until the team has mastered more basic offensive plays. This is due to the complexities of the misdirection and the need for well-timed execution by multiple players on the field. Ultimately, a well-executed bootleg play can serve as a powerful tool for the offense, keeping the defense guessing and creating opportunities for big gains or even a touchdown.

Roles in Bootleg Plays


In a bootleg play, the quarterback’s primary role is to execute a fake handoff to the running back, and then proceed to run behind the line of scrimmage in the opposite direction. A successful bootleg relies on the quarterback’s ability to sell the fake handoff convincingly, thus creating confusion for the opposing defense. Additionally, a versatile quarterback who can both run and throw effectively increases the chances of a successful bootleg play.

Running Back

The running back is crucial in setting up the deception in a bootleg play. As they approach the quarterback to receive the expected handoff, the running back must sell the fake by pretending to grab the ball and initiating a typical run. Their ability to convincingly execute their fake run is essential in drawing defensive focus away from the quarterback. After the fake handoff, the running back may continue to run their route or potentially become an option for the quarterback to throw a pass.

Wide Receivers

Wide receivers play an important role in bootleg plays not only as potential pass targets but also in providing support to the quarterback. As the play unfolds, some wide receivers may be responsible for:

  • Running routes to create separation from defenders and become an open target for the quarterback
  • Setting up blocks to assist the quarterback in creating a running lane

In both scenarios, the wide receivers contribute significantly to the effectiveness of a bootleg play by either becoming a viable option for a pass or directly aiding the quarterback’s run.

Bootleg Types

A bootleg in American football is a play where the quarterback runs the ball toward either sideline behind the line of scrimmage. It often involves misdirection, play-action, or fake handoffs to confuse the defense. There are several types of bootleg plays, which include Naked Bootleg, Rollout, and Play-Action Bootleg. Each type varies in execution and strategy.

Naked Bootleg

The Naked Bootleg is a risky and deceptive play that relies on the element of surprise. The quarterback fakes a handoff to a running back and then runs in the opposite direction without any blockers. This play can be very effective due to the defense focusing on the running back, giving the quarterback room to run and gain significant yardage. However, the lack of blockers means that the quarterback is left exposed and vulnerable to being tackled.


A rollout is a bootleg play where the quarterback fakes a handoff to the running back and then rolls out of the pocket to either his left or right. This play is designed to move the pocket, or the protected area where the quarterback throws, to create more space and time for the quarterback to make a decision. When executing a rollout, the offensive line shifts in the direction of the quarterback’s movement, providing extra protection and giving the quarterback the option to either run or pass from a more advantageous position.

Play-Action Bootleg

The Play-Action Bootleg is a combination of play-action pass and bootleg. It involves the quarterback faking a handoff to a running back and then rolling out behind the line of scrimmage. As the quarterback moves, they can choose to either run the ball themselves or throw a pass downfield. The play-action element helps to create confusion for the defense, as they must decide whether to focus on the possible run or the potential pass. This can lead to defenders being caught out of position and create large gains for the offense.

Bootleg Strategy and Execution

A bootleg play in American football is a misdirection tactic designed for the quarterback. The main objective is to confuse the defense by having the quarterback run toward either sideline behind the line of scrimmage after receiving the snap. This play can be accompanied by a play-action pass or a fake handoff to a running back going the opposite direction, further enhancing the deception.

To execute a successful bootleg, a team needs a versatile quarterback who can both throw and run well. The offensive line will block in one direction, simulating a run play to that side. Meanwhile, the quarterback fakes the handoff or play-action pass and runs in the opposite direction behind the line of scrimmage.

Bootleg plays are particularly effective against aggressive defenses that tend to over-pursue the play in the direction of the initial fake. By rolling out to the opposite side, the quarterback creates an opportunity for a pass downfield or a run if the defense fails to adjust quickly.

In an ideal bootleg execution, the defense will be drawn toward the fake play, giving the quarterback enough time and space to survey the field and make a pass to an open receiver. If no open receivers are available, the quarterback can use their athletic ability to gain yardage on the ground.

It’s important to note that bootleg plays should be used sparingly and strategically within an offensive game plan. Overuse of the bootleg can lead to defenses anticipating the play, negating its deceptive advantages. Mixing up the use of bootlegs with other plays helps keep the defense guessing and maintains the play’s effectiveness.

In summary, bootleg plays serve as a strategic weapon in an offensive playbook, using deception and misdirection to create opportunities for gaining yardage. The success of the play depends on the quarterback’s ability to sell the fake and make quick decisions based on the defense’s reaction.

Advantages and Disadvantages


  • Misdirection: A bootleg play uses misdirection to keep defenses off balance. By faking a handoff or taking a snap in the opposite direction, the defense may commit to stopping the wrong play, leaving the quarterback free to make a pass or run.
  • Surprise factor: Most passes in football come from the pocket, making the bootleg a less expected play. The element of surprise can provide the offense an advantage, especially if the opposing defense has not prepared for such a play.
  • Increased time and space: The quarterback moving away from the center of the field can provide additional time and space to make a play, as defenses need to adjust to the unexpected movement.
  • Versatility: This play works better with a versatile quarterback who can both run and pass effectively. A dual-threat quarterback makes the defense unsure whether it’s a passing or running play, increasing the chances of success.


  • Riskier play: The bootleg play can be risky, as it requires the quarterback to move away from their typical pocket protection. If the defense reads the play correctly, the quarterback could be at a higher risk of getting tackled or intercepted.
  • Limited options: Although the bootleg can create time and space, it may limit the available passing options. The quarterback will likely have fewer receivers to target, as some may be assigned to block or act as fake handoff targets.
  • Dependency on QB abilities: The effectiveness of bootlegs largely depends on the quarterback’s agility and ability to execute these plays. If the quarterback is not adept at running or selling fakes, the play’s potential impact will be diminished.
  • Predictability: While the element of surprise can be advantageous, overusing bootleg plays can make the offense predictable. Defenses will eventually adapt to the tactic, diminishing its effectiveness in future games.

Famous Bootleg Plays in American Football History

One memorable bootleg play was by John Elway of the Denver Broncos in the 1986 AFC Championship Game against the Cleveland Browns. Elway, known for both his passing and running abilities, used the bootleg in a critical situation. With the game tied and only a few minutes remaining, Elway faked a handoff and rolled out, sprinting fifteen yards to set up the game-winning field goal.

Another famous bootleg play occurred in 2012 when Robert Griffin III (RG3) was at the helm for the Washington Redskins. In a game against the Minnesota Vikings, RG3 executed a spectacular bootleg, carrying the football for a 76-yard touchdown. This play demonstrated the quarterback’s impressive speed and agility, leaving the Vikings defense in the dust.

In the 2017 NFL season, the Philadelphia Eagles, led by quarterback Carson Wentz, relied heavily on misdirection and bootlegs, which played a significant role in their Super Bowl LII victory. One standout play was Wentz’s bootleg touchdown pass to wide receiver Alshon Jeffery against the Chicago Bears. The play showcased Wentz’s incredible ability to fool defenders with his fakes and pinpoint accuracy on the run.

Lastly, Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans illustrated the effectiveness of a well-executed bootleg in a game against the New England Patriots in 2018. Watson faked a handoff to the running back, rolled out to the right, and connected with wide receiver Bruce Ellington for a precise 29-yard touchdown pass.

These famous bootleg plays not only demonstrate the versatility and skill of the quarterbacks involved but also showcase the strategic use of misdirection, fakes, and rollouts to catch defenses off guard.