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Football Illegal Forward Pass Penalty

Football Illegal Forward Pass Penalty

The forward pass is one of the most common plays in football. On average, about half of all plays in a football game involve a forward pass. Most of these passes are completed by the quarterback. However, there are specific rules about a forward pass. An illegal forward pass is one that is made either in front of the line of scrimmage or after another forward pass has already been completed. This penalty on the offense will negate any play that occurs after the pass if the penalty is accepted.

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Definition

A forward pass is any ball that moves forward in the air after leaving the passer’s hand or any ball that hits another player closer to the opposing goal line than from where it left the passer’s hand. There is a fine line between a forward pass and a backward pass, known as a lateral, but they are completely different things. An illegal forward pass is one of four things: 

  1. A forward pass released after the passer has crossed the line of scrimmage.
  2. A forward pass thrown after another forward pass has already been thrown.
  3. A forward pass thrown after the passer has crossed the line of scrimmage and returned behind it.
  4. A forward pass after the ball has changed possession.

Any of these types of forward passes are illegal and will be called back.  

Result

There are slight differences in the penalty for an illegal forward pass between the NFL, NCAA, and high school football. An illegal forward pass will always result in a five-yard penalty, and in some situations, a loss of down, depending on the level of play. The differences are explained below:

NFL

In the NFL, there are only certain situations where an illegal forward pass will result in a loss of a down. If a forward pass is made beyond the line of scrimmage, the result of the play is a loss of down and a five-yard penalty from the line of scrimmage. If a second forward pass is made, a five-yard penalty occurs from the spot of the pass. The same goes for a forward pass on a turnover. There is no loss of down, seeing as the ball changed hands, but a five-yard penalty is enacted from the location of the passer. If an interception occurs on an illegal forward pass, the defensive team may choose to decline the penalty, in which case the interception will stand. Otherwise, the previous play does not count.

NCAA

In college football games governed by the NCAA, the penalty for an illegal forward pass is slightly different from the NFL in some situations. In NCAA football, an illegal forward pass results in a five-yard penalty, plus a loss of down if possession had not changed during the play. This includes making a second forward pass, a pass from in front of the line of scrimmage, or a pass after crossing the line of scrimmage and returning back behind it. On the other hand, if a team loses possession or regains possession and then commits an illegal forward pass, it will only be a five-yard penalty from the spot of the pass. 

High School

In high school football, there is one main difference between the NCAA and NFL. Players are allowed to legally throw a forward pass after crossing the line of scrimmage if they fully establish themselves behind the line before making the pass. Other than this difference, the rules are identical to the NCAA; any illegal forward pass made without a change in possession results in a five-yard penalty plus a loss of down.

PenaltyNFLNCAAHigh SchoolCFL
Illegal Forward Pass Penalty5-yard penalty5-yard penalty5-yard penalty10-yard penalty

Penalty Signal

football penalty signal illegal forward pass

The signal for an illegal forward pass is one hand behind the back while signaling towards the offending team. It is almost always the offense that the official will be pointing to, except on the occasions where a change of possession occurs. Though all that is required is to hold the hand behind the back, usually the official will put their elbow out at a 45-degree angle or wave their arm behind their back to ensure that both teams and the crowd see the penalty signal.

Examples

  • The quarterback scrambles out of the pocket and runs to their right, where they throw the ball right after crossing the line of scrimmage.
  • The quarterback throws a screen pass to the wide receiver, who then throws the ball deep to another wide receiver.
  • During a kickoff, a team needs to score. They try to lateral as much as possible but they end up throwing the ball forward instead of backward.

Similar Penalties To Illegal Forward Pass

FAQ

What happens if an illegal forward pass is intercepted?

If an illegal forward pass is intercepted, it is up to the non-penalized team to decide whether they want to decline the penalty and keep the ball or accept the penalty and force the opposing team back five yards. The team who intercepted the ball will typically elect to decline the penalty and keep the ball, unless the penalty occurred on a fourth down and accepting the penalty would provide better field position.

Can you throw two forward passes behind the line of scrimmage?

At all levels of football, it is against the rules to throw two forward passes, even if they both occurred behind the line of scrimmage. If a team throws two forward passes behind the line of scrimmage, their team will, in most leagues, be assessed a five-yard penalty. The CFL is the one exception to this rule, with a loss of 10 yards for an illegal forward pass.

What is the penalty for an illegal forward pass in the NFL?

The penalty for an illegal forward pass in the NFL is a loss of five yards, and if the pass is made beyond the line of scrimmage, a loss of down. If an offense makes two forward passes in the same play, makes a forward pass after a change of possession, or returns behind the line of scrimmage to make a pass after crossing it, they will be charged a five-yard penalty from the spot of the pass. If a player fully crosses the neutral zone and makes a forward pass, the penalty will be a loss of down and five-yard penalty from the line of scrimmage.

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