Football Incomplete Pass

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.