The halfback option play is an unorthodox play in American and Canadian football. It resembles a normal running play, but the running back has the option to throw a pass to a wide receiver or tight end before crossing the line of scrimmage.
The key to the play is fooling the defensive players, primarily the defensive backs. If the defensive backs think it is just a normal running play, they will first immediately run upfield to try to tackle the running back, leaving the wide receivers wide open to catch a pass. Of course, if the defensive backs are not fooled, the running back carrying the ball does have the option to run instead of risking an incomplete pass or an interception.
The running play that halfback options usually resemble is a sweep play. Sometimes the quarterback will run out of the backfield and become a receiving option for the running back. This can be effective because the quarterback usually does very little after handing off or pitching the ball to the running back on most plays, and the defense might not be expecting him to be used as an active receiver. In the National Football League, if the quarterback starts the play under center, then he is ineligible as a receiver; the quarterback must start from the shotgun to receive a pass. (However, in other leagues, the person under the snapper is an eligible receiver, and this restriction does not apply.)
The halfback option play usually has limited success and is not commonly used, especially in the NFL. One reason is that defensive backs are usually instructed to stay in coverage until the running back with the ball crosses the line of scrimmage, to prevent a successful halfback option play. Another reason is that the passing ability of most running backs is usually poor in relation to the passing ability of a quarterback. Thus, passes from the halfback are often poorly thrown, resulting in incompletions or interceptions. However, certain teams and players do successfully run the option one to a few times a season; used sparingly it can be effective to make a gamebreaking play. Only once in modern professional football history has a halfback thrown more than one touchdown in a game: utility player Gene Mingo of the Denver Broncos threw two touchdowns as a halfback in an American Football League game against the Buffalo Bills in 1961.
There have been many notable cases where the halfback option pass has been used with great success.
- Perhaps the first use of the play occurred under Homer Woodson Hargiss at the College of Emporia in 1910.
- The Los Angeles Rams successfully used a halfback option in Super Bowl XIV, with quarterback Vince Ferragamo handing the ball off to running back Lawrence McCutcheon who then passed it to wide receiver Ron Smith for a 24-yard touchdown.
- In Super Bowl XXII, Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway caught a 23-yard pass from halfback Steve Sewell on the halfback option play, becoming the first quarterback ever to catch a pass in the Super Bowl.
- In Super Bowl XL, Steelers wide receiver and former Indiana University quarterback Antwaan Randle El threw a 43 yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward, after taking the hand-off from tailback Willie Parker. He is the only wide receiver to throw a touchdown pass in Super Bowl history. The catch rounded-off a Super Bowl MVP performance for Hines Ward.
- As of the end of the 2007 season, San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson has successfully thrown seven touchdowns on option passes in eleven attempts.
- In college football, the Arkansas Razorbacks used halfback option passes with great success in 2006, using running back Darren McFadden in the role.
- During the 2008 NFL season, the halfback option play became particularly popular with the advent of the "wildcat" formation. In week 3 of that season, the play was used no less than nine times across the league, four times by Miami Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown, twice by McFadden, and once by Baltimore Ravens running back Willis McGahee.
- A halfback option pass was one of the many trick plays successfully used by Boise State in its win over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
- Fictionally, the 1998 film The Waterboy prominently featured the halfback option as the game-winning play, with Bobby Boucher, in position as halfback, completing a Hail Mary pass to quarterback Guy Grenouille.