Football Catching Rules

football catching rules

Catching is an essential skill found in any football game. This seemingly simple task has become a hotbed for controversy in the recent history of the game and has more complicated rules than one might expect. So what exactly is a catch? What determines whether or not a catch is successful? Get ready to learn about the rules of catching in football.

Eligible Receivers

Not any player can make a catch on the football field. In order to ensure the tactical structure of the game, the ball is only supposed to be thrown to certain offensive players. Eligible receivers are the only ones who are allowed to receive a pass.

Any offensive player catching the ball must be an eligible receiver. This means the player must have legally lined up on the end of the offensive line or one yard behind the line of scrimmage.

Jersey Numbers

Football Jersey Numbers List

Being an eligible receiver also means the player in question must be wearing a correct jersey number. Jersey numbers are used to identify players quickly because they are assigned by position. Per Rule 8, Section 1, Article 6, Paragraph (b) of the official NFL Rulebook, an ineligible receiver includes offensive players wearing any number from 50–79, unless they have notified the referee of their eligibility status prior to the start of the play. The jersey number for eligible receivers falls between 1-49 and 80-89, unless the referees have been notified otherwise.

Illegal Touching

A receiver may also be labeled “ineligible” if they have gone out of bounds prior to receiving a pass. This is commonly known as “illegal touching,” and results in a loss-of-down penalty. This does not apply if the player is pushed out of bounds illegally prior to receiving the pass. If a pass is tipped by a defensive player, any player is eligible to catch it.

The Process of a Catch

Understanding who is allowed to catch the ball is fairly simple and doesn’t come into play very often, but the act of catching a pass can be much more complex.

To successfully make a catch (or interception), the receiver must do the following:

  • Secure the ball in their hands or arms
  • Keep both feet in-bounds (only one foot is needed in college football)
  • Make a “football move”, a movement that is common to the game, such as a tuck or extension of the ball, or evasion of an opponent.

The player also must control the ball throughout the entire process of the catch, including when falling to the ground. If the ball comes loose or falls out at any point during this process, it is ruled an incomplete pass.

This last part of the rule has been the most divisive in recent years, because players often fall to the ground while trying to maintain “control” of the ball. According to the current NFL Rulebook, movement of the ball does not necessarily result in loss of control (Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3). The vagueness of this wording means that differences of opinion certainly arise and can vary between different referees and fans.

Simultaneous Catch

If both a defensive and offensive player catch a pass at the exact same time, the catch is awarded to the offensive player. This rule does not apply to a pass that has been caught by one player before another gains joint control.

Pass Interference

Any eligible player (offensive or defensive) who is well-positioned to catch the ball has a right to do so without contact from an opposing player. This illegal contact is known as pass interference, and a penalty may be called against the offensive or defensive player (although defensive pass interference is much more common).

Offensive pass interference leads to a 10-yard penalty from the previous spot of the ball. Defensive pass interference results in the offense getting the ball at the spot of the foul in the NFL, but it only results in a 15-yard penalty in college football.


Who can catch the ball in football?

In football, the ball can be caught by anyone deemed to be an eligible receiver. Such eligible receivers include offensive players who have legally lined up on the end of the line or one yard behind the line of scrimmage. They must also wear certain numbers on their jersey (1-49 and 80-89) or notify the referee before the play starts that they are an eligible receiver.

What is a catch in football?

A catch in football is the act of receiving and handling a ball that has been thrown. A catch in football is also known as a reception. Catching the ball is one of two ways to advance the ball upfield along with running the ball.

Are there different catching rules for the NFL versus the NCAA?

The most significant difference in catching rules between the NFL and NCAA is that a player in college football only needs to have one foot in-bounds for the catch to count. In the NFL, players must establish both feet in-bounds for a reception to count. Another difference is that pass interference is penalized much harsher in the NFL and receives a change of possession instead of the 15 yard lossage seen in the NCAA.