What is a Backward Pass?
In football, a backward pass (sometimes called a lateral or lateral pass) is exactly what it sounds like, it's a pass that goes backward! The backward pass is performed in many ways, such as a toss, a pitch, and simply a pass.
The special thing about a backward pass is that there are no limits on how many times it can occur during a play, unlike a forward pass which may only occur once per play. A player can pitch the ball backward, then that player with the ball can pitch it backward, then the next player can throw it backward to another player, and so on until either the ball is called dead when it goes out of bounds or the player carrying the ball is tackled.
Why Go Backward?
There are a few purposes for a backward pass. The main purpose is to keep the ball alive at the end of the game. There aren't very many lateral passes that occur during a standard game, but often times when a team needs a touchdown to tie or win the game with very little time left, a lateral pass may be the savior.
Imagine this: the clock is stopped with one second left on the game clock and your team is on your own 15-yard line. You're down by three, so you need a field goal to tie or a touchdown to win. It's impossible to get close enough to your goal posts to kick a game-tying field goal unless your kicker is about to shatter the longest kick record, so your only chance is to go for a touchdown. If you pass the pass and it's completed but the ballcarrier is about to be tackled, you can pass the ball back to a teammate to keep the ball alive, as well as a chance at winning the game.
NFL and CFL Rules
Any player that carries the ball can legally perform a lateral pass, though it is most often performed by the Quarterback who often pitches the ball backward to a running back. If a backward pass is not caught and touches the ground, the ball remains live and any player on either team can recover the ball. If the ball is recovered by the opposing team, the play is credited as a fumble.
A pass that is directly sideways from the passer is considered a backward pass. A backward pass that goes out of bounds is ruled the same as when a fumble goes out of bounds; the ball is returned to the spot of the fumble. A pass that goes slightly forward, even if intended to be a backward pass, is a forward pass. If the ball touches the ground on a forward pass, it is ruled a dead ball. The snap is also considered to be a backward pass and can be recovered by either team if the player receiving the snap does not catch it, though a muffed snap is not ruled a fumble.
The backward pass rules between the professional leagues and the NCAA are relatively the same with one major difference. The statistician who records the stats is allowed to determine who is more at fault in the case of a fumble during a backward pass, the passer or the player receiving the ball. In the professional leagues, the passer is most often credited with a fumble if the receiving player doesn't gain possession of the ball, but in the NCAA, the stat keeper can dictate who is credited with a fumble based on personal judgment.