One of the things that really makes me cringe as a UK NFL fan is when I find myself pronouncing words the American way. “Dee-fense” isn’t too bad but “routes” gets me every time. Likely you’re from the UK reading this and you read that with a pronunciation that rhymes with “boots”. I always catch myself pronouncing it the American way (rhyming with “outs”) and my toes curl up and I die a little inside. Anyway, however you want to pronounce it, it’s spelt “routes” and in American Football, it’s a term that is very much at the core of the passing game.
When I first started watching the NFL, the terms in the list below confused me. They were thrown in to commentary so frequently, I knew they had to be important. Hopefully, this basic introduction to routes, will clear any confusion you might have.
Each potential receiver on a play has learned a specific route that they will run – think of them like an imaginary treasure map drawn on the pitch that leads to a pot of receptions. Players rehearse these routes over and over so that the quarterback knows exactly where his receivers should be on any given play so that he can deliver the ball at the right place and time for a completion (or a frustrating over-throw if your quarterbacks name rhymes with “Too-Risky”…)
There are a basic set of routes that players will learn way back in high-school and they know by heart. This is referred to as the “route tree”.
In this example, each route is numbered, 1 to 9, but teams will have their own variations for naming. When you see the players in a huddle before a play, the quarterback is relaying instructions to his players and this will include specific routes for each receiver. The receiver needs to pay attention here to make sure that they pick out their own specific instruction. Otherwise, they could be the reason for a blown play and in line for a bollocking from the quarterback and the coaches.
The example above shows the receiver, X, on the left side of the field with the quarterback, QB, towards the centre as you would expect. The routes in the diagram are not necessarily to scale for yardage in comparison to the graphics’ markers, they are just a general guide to the direction of the route. In real terms, receivers will know exactly how many steps/yards each route needs to be.
- Flat Route – The “flat” is an area of the field either side of the line of scrimmage between the hash marks and the touchline. This is exactly where the route leads the receiver in to. The receiver makes a quick move out into the flat where he can hopefully pick up a quick pass. This will also be referred to as a “quick out“. You will frequently see running backs running in to this area from the backfield but it might look slightly different. If the path the running back takes is more curved up the field, you might actually be witnessing a Wheel or Swing route (see below).
- Slant Route – This requires a short, quick pass for a receiver that has run forward a few yards before angling their run inwards towards the centre of the field.
- Comeback Route – Fairly self explanatory this one, the receiver sprints downfield before turning sharply back on himself, angled towards the sideline.
- Curl Route – This is the opposite side of the tree to the Comeback, so after sprinting downfield, the receiver will turn sharply back but more angled towards the centre of the field. You will also hear these routes referred to as Hitch or Hook routes depending on how far the initial down field run is before turning back (a Hitch is shorter than the Hook).
- Out Route – The receiver runs forwards before making the cut outside towards the sideline parallel to the line of scrimmage.
- In Route – This is the opposite side of the tree to the Out route as you might expect. The receiver will release off of the line of scrimmage before he breaks in towards the centre of the field. You will often hear this referred to as a Dig route.
- Corner Route – Now we’re getting in to the Hollywood passes, those that really get you off your seat: the deep field routes! The Corner route is a deep sprint from the receiver before they angle their run outside towards the back corner of the end-zone.
- Post Route – The opposite side of the tree to the corner, does what you might expect, the player angles towards the goal posts instead of the corner of the end-zone. The Post is basically a slant that is performed much deeper down the field so the potential for a big yardage gain is greater, but so is the risk of incompletion. You might hear the term “skinny post” which is just a slightly more narrow version after the player cuts, think about a further imaginary line between routes 8 and 9 on the tree.
- Go Route – You want your fastest receiver running this one, burn off the opposition defenders and get open down field for your big-arm quarterback to hit them in-stride. Also known as a Fly route.
A few other common routes you’ll likely hear commentators mention:
- Wheel Route – The receiver runs out in to the flat before heading up field to receive the pass.
- Swing Route – Similar to the Wheel but the receiver will make the catch around the line of scrimmage, before heading up the field. This is a slightly safer option for the quarterback and you might hear it referred to as a Flare route.
- Screen Route – The receiver will make themselves available more or less at the line of scrimmage, usually after a screen of blockers has them covered.
- Drag Route – These are similar to an In route in that the receiver will run toward the middle of the field, but they will be running much closer to the line of scrimmage, behind the defensive line.
What Makes a Great Route-Runner?
You will hear commentators refer to certain players as “great route runners”. What this means is that the player can run the routes from the teams playbook consistently and with rapid speed and quick cuts, he’s always in the right place at the right time. I think consistency is the key factor here. Repetition, repetition, repetition – give your quarterback confidence in where you’ll be. If the receiver can consistently get off the line quickly and make all of his cuts whilst maintaining speed, then the defenders are going to have a bad day.
A great example of how the understanding between quarterback and receiver is so important is described brilliantly by one of my favourite YouTubers, The QB School, with JT O’Sullivan, an ex-NFL quarterback who superbly breaks down plays. In the video below he breaks down the key play in Super Bowl LIV. You can see the trust between Mahomes and Hill, Mahomes knows where Hill will be because he knows the route perfectly, timings and distances. Mahomes makes the long throw before Hill has even made his final cut. Brilliant to watch.