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Terminology... Lateral and Handoff
This is article #6 in a series covering the origins of football’s terminology. All are available under the Terminology tab above. My book, Hut! Hut! Hike! describes the emergence of more than 400 football terms.
In football’s early years, all situations where one player handed or tossed the ball to a teammate were considered passes. Forward passes were those aimed at a teammate closer to the opponent’s goal line than the passer.
Frank Hinkey was football’s first four-time All-America while playing for Yale from 1891 to 1894. Like many alums of his time, Hinkey returned to Yale for a week or two in subsequent seasons to assist the team captain, who had primary responsibility for the team. However, times changed, and coaching became professionalized, leading the captain of Yale’s 1914 team to hire Hinkey as the head coach.
Looking to innovate and make Yale’s offense more explosive, Hinkey spent time in Canada consulting with Canadian Rugby teams, who played a form of football blending elements of American football and rugby.
While Yale was known for power football, Hinkey installed plays with multiple players sweeping wide. When the ball carrier was about to be tackled, he passed the ball to a teammate running behind or parallel with him, and these passes became known as laterals. Interestingly, while the technique came from Canada, the term was not an import but homegrown. Over time, laterals became the generic term for all backward passes, while “forward” dropped from forward pass, so we now use “pass” to describe a forward pass.
Despite the innovative laterals, Yale did not perform well under Hinkey, and the captain of the 1915 Yale team fired Hinkey toward the end of the 1915 season. (Read the story here.)
You might have expected handoff to have always been part of football, it took seventy years to arrive on the scene. The absence of the term reminds us that the backfield often received the ball by a direct snap from the center or via passes (or tosses) from the quarterback. As the 1890s image below shows, the direct handoff was part of football from early on.
Before 1941, “handoff” appeared only a handful of times in the football literature and, when used, reflected its rugby meaning, where handoff was a synonym for stiff arm or straight arm.
Its appearance in the early 1940s likely stemmed from a rule change and the emergence of two new offenses. The rule change came in 1941 backs were first allowed to hand the ball forward to a teammate provided the exchange was hand-to-hand and occurred behind the line of scrimmage. Allowing forward handoffs appears to have heightened the distinction between handing and passing the ball to a teammate.
The second influence came from the emergence of the Modern T and Split T offenses. Both placed the quarterback under center, who, after taking the snap, often gave or faked a handoff on a halfback dive. The Split T quarterback followed the dive fake with football's first option wide, further emphasizing the distinction between handoffs and passes or tosses.
Despite the new offenses debuting before WWII, however, college and pro rosters faced challenges during the war, so teams retained existing offensive systems for the duration. Post-war, the availability of veterans and the move to two-platoon football allowed teams to install the new offenses that used handoffs or, at least, the new vocabulary.
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