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In football, the tackle-eligible play is a forward-pass play in which coaches will attempt to create mismatches against a defense by inserting an offensive tackle (who is not normally allowed more than five yards down field on a forward-pass play), into an offensive formation as an eligible receiver, usually as a tight end or as a fullback. This is done by changing the formation of the offensive line, via positioning two linemen (including the "catching tackle") on one side of the center and four linemen on the other. This is normally only run inside the five-yard line.
Under almost all versions of gridiron football, offensive linemen cannot receive or touch forward passes, nor can they advance downfield in passing situations. To identify which receivers are eligible and which are not, football rules stipulate that ineligible receivers must wear a number between 50 and 79. This, however, can be circumvented in most leagues, most commonly by informing the referee of any player with a number in the ineligible range who lines up as an eligible receiver.
The official NFL rules stipulate that an offensive player wearing uniform number 50-79 or 90-99 may not line up as an eligible receiver, with a violation being penalized as an illegal substitution. However, the rules provide an exception where such a player may become eligible if he declares his intent to the referee prior to the play. The referee then announces that the ineligible number "x" is reporting as an eligible receiver. This announcement is made using the referee's microphone so that spectators and the opposing team can hear. The eligibility is in effect for only one play; the report to the referee must be repeated before every play in which the offense plans to make the player eligible.
The tackle-eligible play typically goes unnoticed, but for one prominent exception: when the player reporting as an eligible receiver catches a forward pass (usually for a very short touchdown).
The name most commonly associated with the tackle-eligible play is Mike Vrabel, a linebacker who recorded 11 receptions for 11 touchdowns in his career—including one each in Super Bowl XXXVIII and Super Bowl XXXIX—as a member of the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs.
Cincinnati Bengals' Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive tackle, Anthony Muñoz caught 7 passes for 18 yards and 4 touchdowns in his prolific 13-year career. Buffalo Bills' offensive tackle, Mitch Frerotte made a name for himself in 1992 by scoring 3 times in one season (twice on tackle-eligible plays), the best single season ever for an offensive lineman.
A widely noted use of a tackle-eligible play came in The Monday Night Miracle when New York Jets lineman Jumbo Elliott caught a 3 yard touchdown pass to cap a 23 point comeback against the Miami Dolphins.
NCAA rules are less permissive than NFL rules and require that the five interior linemen, numbered 50-79, never line up as eligible receivers. Thus, an offensive tackle can never become a tackle eligible. However, a defensive lineman can line up as a tight end if his number is not between 50 and 79 (defensive players have no positional numbering restrictions in the NCAA).
A similar play is allowed from a kicking formation, where the requirement that all five linemen wear 50-79 is waived. During a fake field goal or punt, a team may line up with extra tight ends and receivers making it not immediately obvious to the defense which players are eligible and which are not. (However, this exemption can only be taken when it is obvious that a kick may be attempted, for instance on fourth down, in the closing seconds of a half, or similar situations. It cannot be used on every down at the college level.)
High school football
Tackle-eligibles are effectively illegal at the high school level; the rules of that level do not even allow declaration. The scrimmage kick formation was once exempt from all numbering requirements, but after the A-11 offense employed the formation as a base offense, the rules were modified in February 2009. No player wearing between 50 or 79 is eligible to receive a pass, and all ineligible receivers (except a long snapper) must wear between 50 and 79 in all cases.