Has your team ever lost to an underdog running a new offense? Have you seen a team you don’t respect beat a more traditional team by running an unorthodox attack? Did a trick play sucker your defense? When one of these things happened, did you dismiss the offense or the play as a gimmick? You probably have; I have.
Calling an offense or a play a gimmick is an enduring way to insult the team that ran the offense. The pejorative term carries the implication the defenders weren’t so much beaten as they were tricked. Coupled with that bit of cognitive dissonance is the further proposition that if the two teams played again, the trick wouldn’t work. It was only fortuitous circumstances that allowed the play to work, and the score end up as it did. The offense wasn’t really better; it was just a gimmick.
A gimmick play or, in less loaded language, a gadget play takes advantage of a defense’s lack of sound fundamentals. The defense is too quick to run to the ball, or they don’t maintain proper pursuit angles. They fail to ensure a player has the ball before chasing after him, or make any of a thousand other mistakes leaving themselves vulnerable. Then the vulnerability is exploited.
Gimmick plays aren’t a special group of plays which exist outside the confines of respectable football. They exist on a continuum with every other play which relies on deception to create an advantage. Most all plays exist on this plane. On the least gimmick-y end of the spectrum is a simple fake: a quarterback pretending to still have the ball after handing it off. A bit more deception is used when the quarterback fakes the handoff before setting up for a play action pass. Continuing along there are plays like the flea flicker where the quarterback completes the handoff, then gets the ball back from the running back and throws the ball down field.
Each play involves some more deception than the one before it, and where the line is drawn between a simple fake on one play, and the entire play being labeled nothing more than a gimmick has as much to do with the deception as with how often the deception is employed. The more unexpected, the more uncommon, the more unusual the play, the more likely it is to be labeled a trick play or a gimmick.
After being beaten by a play involving deception, yelling that the play was nothing more than a gimmick is often the last resort of a beaten team or fan. The level of disdain and insult is typically increased when the gimmick label is applied to an entire offense. Implicit in this insult are the same predictions about the long term viability of the offense and the lack of respect one has for it.
Gimmick offenses get so named by fans when a coach is running something different and winning with it. No one takes the time to call an ineffective offense a gimmick; they just call it bad. When a new or different offense is employed, and especially when its success breeds confusion or frustration, you have the recipe for a gimmick label.
Recall Urban Meyer’s introduction as coach at Florida. He was coming from Utah with his spread offense. His gimmicky offense couldn’t possibly work in the SEC. The lateral speed of the linebackers would prevent such an unsound scheme from succeeding, the traditionalists scoffed. Two national titles suggest that prediction wasn’t sound.
It’s not just the new offense or the innovators who are accused of running weak, gimmick based systems. Anyone who isn’t running an offense similar to everyone else’s will be labeled a gimmick. Paul Johnson’s triple option at Georgia Tech isn’t new, but it gets called a gimmick. He gets the label because he is different, and he is successful.
Gimmicks exist, and they don’t. They are trotted out once a season or incessantly. They are that one play or that whole offense. They are dirty, un-gentlemanly, and, but for some luck, ineffective. You team runs gimmicks; my team is just good at deception.