An A to Z of some of the Super Bowl’s more colorful slang and terminology.
Audible: A change in the offensive play called by the quarterback at the line of scrimmage. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning does this a lot and his audibles have been caught on TV mics in recent years.
Blitz: When the defensive linebackers charge at the quarterback soon after the ball is snapped. The New Orleans Saints blitz more than any other team. The term dates back to World War II, when German planes waged a Blitzkrieg (‘lightning war’) on London, and blitz became shorthand for any violent attack or offensive.
Bomb: A long forward pass
Bootleg: When the quarterback fakes a hand-off to a running back and runs with the ball hidden next to his hip. The term comes from the smugglers’ practice of concealing bottles of booze in their boots.
Bubble screen: involves a receiver taking a step forward, then darting toward the quarterback to receive the ball while the offensive linemen release to clear a path for the receiver. Created by Don Read when he was head coach of the Montana Grizzlies; Lou Holtz, head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, brought the bubble screen to prominence after calling Read and asking for the play.
Clipping: An illegal block in which a player hits an opponent from behind, typically at waist level or below.
Clothesline: A dirty tackle by a player who strikes the neck of an opponent with an outstretched arm.
Coffin corner: The corner of the playing field just in front of the end zone, usually from the 5-yard line to the goal line. A perfect coffin corner kick is one that goes out of bounds just before the orange pylons in the front part of the end zone.
Crackback: A block in which a player — usually a wide receiver — angles back sharply towards the middle of the field and blocks a defensive player from the side.
Dime defense: A defensive alignment that usually consists of six defensive backs (e.g. two safeties and four cornerbacks) and has either four down linemen and one linebacker, or three down linemen and two linebackers.
Flea Flicker: When a quarterback hands the ball off to a running back only to have it tossed back to him. Usually credited to former University of Illinois coach Bob Zuppke, who wrote that the phrase evoked the image of “the quick flicking action of a dog getting rid of fleas.”
Fumble: When a player in possession drops the ball or has it knocked away by a defensive opponent.
Hail Mary: A very long and usually unsuccessful pass thrown by the quarterback in a desperate attempt to score, usually towards the end of the game. The term became widespread after a 1975 interview in which Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach referred to his game-winning touchdown pass against the Minnesota Vikings as a ‘Hail Mary’. Hail Mary refers to the Roman Catholic prayer to the Virgin Mary. However, its use in football did not start with Staubach; it had been used in football for several decades beforehand.
Horse-collar tackle: When a defender tackles another player by grabbing the back collar or the back-inside of an opponent’s shoulder pads and pulling the ball carrier directly downward in order to pull his feet from underneath him. The technique is most closely associated with Pro Bowl safety Roy Williams.
Lambeau Leap: A popular tradition for players from the Green Bay Packers. After scoring a touchdown, a player jumps into the stands where he is greeted with a pat on his back by the fans.
Mike, Sam, Will: In a 4-3 defense, each linebacker is given a nickname based on where they play. The weak side inside linebacker is typically called the “Will”; the strong side or middle inside linebacker is called the “Mike”; “Sam” is for the strong outside linebacker. (Ben Zimmer explained in the Boston Globe back in 2012 how these names came about.)
Nickel defense (also known as a 4–2–5 or 3–3–5): A defensive alignment that uses five defensive backs, of whom the fifth is known as a nickel-back. The original and most common form of the nickel defense features four down linemen and two linebackers.
Pigskin: Another name for the football itself. However, the odd-shaped ball is actually made of cowhide today.
Pocket: The area of protection in the backfield provided by the offensive linemen for the quarterback when he drops back to pass the ball. A pocket collapse is when the quarterback’s protection breaks down and members of the defense infiltrate the pocket.
Punt: A drop kick performed by dropping the ball from the hands and then kicking the ball before it hits the ground..
Red dog: Another word for a defensive blitz (see above). Donald Nesbit “Red Dog” Ettinger is often credited with inventing the blitz move between 1948 and 1950.
Sack: When the quarterback is tackled behind the line of scrimmage before he can throw a forward pass.
Screen pass: A short pass to a receiver who is protected by a screen of blockers.
(Line of) scrimmage is marked at the beginning of each play, with the ball placed on the ground between the offensive and defensive lines. The word scrimmage, closely related to the word skirmish, refers to a confused struggle or fight.
Shotgun: This formation is used mainly for passing plays, although some teams use it as their base formation. Instead of the quarterback receiving the snap from center at the line of scrimmage, he stands farther behind the line of scrimmage, often five to seven yards back.
Shovel pass: When a quarterback palms the football and “shovels” the pass directly forward to the receiver, usually with a backhand, underhand or pushing motion.
Snap: When the offensive team’s center passes the ball backwards between his legs at the line of scrimmage, either to the quarterback or to be placed for the kicker.
Squib, or squib kick: A kickoff that travels only a short distance, often strategically by the kicking team and usually with the hope of preventing a long touchdown return. Bill Walsh credits Mike Squib (now a kicking consultant for the San Diego Chargers) for creating the squib kick. The word squib originally referred to a type of small firework; the associated British expression ‘damp squib’ means a situation or event that is much less impressive than expected.
Statue of Liberty: A trick play in which the quarterback fakes a throw, puts his non-throwing hand — which actually has the ball — behind him, and a running back takes the ball from behind the quarterback and runs forward. Famously used by Boise State in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma.
Super Bowl: Coined by Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt in 1966, the Super Bowl was named after the Super Ball, a bouncy ball that was one of the most popular toys in America in the mid-1960s.
Wildcat: A formation in which the ball is snapped not to the quarterback but directly to a player of another position lined up at the quarterback position.
Zebras: The referees, so called because their shirts have black and white stripes similar to those of the African animal.