With the ball at his 47-yard line and two minutes to play in the first half on Sunday night at Arizona, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning took the shotgun snap, dropped back one step and planted his back foot. To his right, second-year receiver Pierre Garçon had one-on-one coverage against speedy, ball-hawking cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Manning cocked his arm and sprang forward slightly. When Rodgers-Cromartie slowed his backpedal to break on the ball he thought was coming, Manning pulled his arm back, dropped two more steps and then released a rainbow down the sideline that Garçon caught in stride for a 53-yard touchdown.
It was classic Manning, showing one thing yet giving something else. It also was an example of the prevalence of the pump-fake in the NFL. There are no stats on the technique, but players and coaches suggest more quarterbacks than ever are using it effectively.
In Week 1 alone there were several games in which pump-fakes contributed to scores. The Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger twice froze Titans safety Chris Hope, once for a touchdown, and the Cowboys' Tony Romo abused Buccaneers safety Sabby Piscitelli several times, including on an 80-yard scoring strike to Patrick Crayton.
When executed properly, the pump-fake creates passing windows by freezing defensive backs or moving them from one spot to another, much as quarterbacks do with their eyes when they look one way to draw defenders, then throw back to the area that's been vacated. The pump-fake is employed mostly against zone coverage because cornerbacks are taught to eye the QB in those situations, but it also can be effective in manipulating deep safeties when the corners are in man coverage.
The pump-fake may look uncomplicated in the hands of Manning, Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, Brett Favre or Drew Brees. But it isn't. The higher up the competitive ladder—from high school to college to the pros—the greater the demand to make the fake as close to the real thing as possible. "It's something you have to work on, because it's not natural," says Rich Gannon, who excelled at the art with the Raiders from 1999 through 2004. "We'd watch tapes to make sure we had it right. You watch your throwing motion and ask, 'Was it believable?' It's got to look like the ball is coming out, or you're not going to fool anybody."
That's because defensive backs get detailed scouting reports on QBs who like to pump-fake, and supplement that info with film study to analyze a passer's footwork, stride length and hand placement on the ball. If any of those elements differ noticeably from the quarterback's normal release, the fake is a much tougher sell. As a general rule, astute DBs will rarely bite if the passer's front hand is on the ball when he begins his forward motion because, says Manning, "nobody throws the ball with two hands on it."
Not every quarterback can pull off a fake. For one, to perform it without losing the ball requires a powerful grip. "Guys like Mark [Sanchez, the Jets rookie] and Favre have such large hands that holding a football for them is like you or me holding a tennis ball," says Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. "They're much more aggressive with the pump-fake because they have great control. For some guys with smaller hands it's a nightmare."
For players such as Roethlisberger, the pump-fake comes about more by happenstance than design. The Steelers quarterback sometimes fakes a throw several times on the same play, partly because, at 6'6", 241, he's big enough to get off a pass even with defenders draped over him. For QBs who aren't supersized, poor pass protection is the quickest way to ruin the ruse because of the time it takes to pump, reset and then release.
It used to be that passers required years to get comfortable with the pump-fake, but that's changing as more colleges run spread or pro-style offenses in which the technique is used. Sanchez's pump-fake skill jumped off the screen when Schottenheimer was scouting him before the draft. On his first pass as a pro, in the preseason against the Rams, Sanchez looked left, pumped in that direction, then threw down the right sideline for a 48-yard completion. Detroit rookie Matthew Stafford also used the pump-fake several times on Sunday in the Lions' win over Washington.
But no Week 3 pump-fake was prettier than Manning's. After the Colts punched their way down the field with short completions for most of the first two quarters, during the two-minute warning Manning and Garçon kicked around what play to run out of the timeout. Garçon noted that Rodgers-Cromartie had been peeking in the backfield more and more. "Let me run by him," the wideout said.