Football Incomplete Pass

Incomplete passes are some of the most frustrating aspects of the game of football, both for players and fans alike. Everyone wants to see their team or teammates catching the ball and marching down the field to score points, but oftentimes, players miss a catch, or they do not control the ball enough for it to count as a catch. So what is an incomplete pass? How do you determine whether a pass is incomplete? What’s the difference between an incomplete pass and a fumble? Below, we will go over all the details.

What is an Incomplete Pass in Football?

An incomplete pass in football is a pass that hits the ground, goes out of bounds, is not caught by a receiver, or cannot be controlled by the receiver. When a pass is ruled incomplete, the ball is dead, and the next down will be played. Spiking the ball is an incomplete pass.

What Makes a Pass Incomplete?

For a pass to be complete, the receiver must have both feet in bounds, secure the ball in their hands before it hits the ground, and make a football move while in possession of the ball. If any of these requirements are not met, the pass is ruled incomplete.

Fumble vs. Incomplete Pass

For a play to be ruled an incomplete pass rather than a fumble, a receiver must not have established control of the ball and made a football move before the ball was knocked away. If a player has established control by bringing the ball to their body and making a football move, the loss of possession will be ruled a fumble. However, if the ball is knocked away before control is secured, it will be ruled an incomplete pass. These rules apply to all types of passes, including backward and lateral passes.

Incomplete Pass Referee Signal

If an incomplete pass occurs, and it becomes necessary for the referee to communicate the nature of the pass (such as if it was unclear or being reviewed), the referee will make the same hand signal as for a declined penalty, the end of a play, or a missed field goal attempt. The signal involves the referee crossing their arms over each other with the hands flat and then uncrossing them outwards horizontally.


There have been many situations throughout NFL history where passes have been ruled incomplete or complete, much to the dismay of an opposing team. In 2014, Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant hauled in a crucial catch toward the end of a playoff game versus the Green Bay Packers; however, it was ruled incomplete by the referees due to the ball moving after Bryant hit the ground, and began the ongoing discussion of what is considered a catch. After a few years, the NFL would rule that Dez did actually catch the ball, changing the rulebook to state that movement of the ball does not guarantee a lack of control by the player. The goal of the updated rules is to clearly define what a catch is so that there is less ambiguity in a referee’s decision-making.


What is an incomplete pass in football?

An incomplete pass in football is a passing attempt that is unable to be legally caught inbounds by the receiver. For a pass to be completed, the receiver must have full possession of the ball, have two feet inbounds, make a football move, and survive the ground. If any of these conditions are not met, the pass is ruled incomplete.

Can the defense recover an incomplete pass in football?

Once a pass is declared incomplete and the ball is dead, the defense cannot recover the ball. If an incomplete pass hits the ground, it immediately becomes unrecoverable by either team. However, an interception counts as an incompletion in football, so technically interceptions are recoveries of incomplete passes. Typically, the only balls that are recovered by the defense are on fumbles and interceptions.