Football Forward Pass Rules

Football Forward Pass Rules

What is a Forward Pass?

A forward pass in football is a play where the offensive team throws the ball from behind the line of scrimmage. To count as a forward pass, the ball must be advanced to a spot further down the field from where it was originally thrown.

NFL Forward Pass Rules

These are the most important forward pass rules in the NFL rulebook:

  • A forward pass can only be thrown once per down. If one forward pass is completed to an eligible receiver on a down, they must continue with the ball or use a backward pass from there. If the receiver attempts another forward pass on that down, it results in a penalty flag.
  • If a player brings the football over the line of scrimmage at any point, they may not complete a forward pass. This includes a play where a player makes a backward pass past the line of scrimmage, then attempts a forward pass, which is still an illegal pass.
  • A forward pass is incomplete if it goes out of bounds or hits the ground.
  • Forward passes may only be thrown to eligible receivers. (Linemen are not eligible unless declared prior to the play.)
  • A forward pass is complete (or successfully intercepted) if the receiver gains control of the ball with both hands and touches the ground with both feet while inbounds.
  • An intentionally fumbled ball that goes forward counts as a forward pass. (One that goes backward is a batted ball foul.)
  • Forward passes behind the line of scrimmage, second forward passes, and forward passes after possession changes all result in a five-yard penalty.
  • If a receiver goes out of bounds, they must re-establish their position inbounds before making a catch.
  • Any eligible receiver or defensive player may touch, tip, or catch the ball while it is in flight.

Forward Pass Penalties

There are a variety of penalties that can be called on a forward passing play. Penalties can be called on both the offensive and defensive teams. Here are the most common passing penalties:

  • Offensive Pass Interference: This penalty occurs if the offensive player receiving the football makes contact with the defensive player before the ball arrives. It is often called if it gives the offensive player an unfair advantage to catch a forward pass.
  • Defensive Pass interference: This penalty occurs if the defensive player contacts the offensive player before the ball arrives in the air.
  • Defensive Holding: This penalty occurs on a passing play when the defensive player holds onto the offensive player and limits their ability to move.

Forward Pass Plays

The most common type of forward passes are plays where the quarterback attempts to throw to one of the eligible receivers on the field. There are a number of variations of these common forward pass plays, most of which vary based upon the player who is receiving the ball. Oftentimes, a quarterback will throw to the wide receiver, and in these cases, forward passes are often deeper, and are aimed farther down the field. However, quarterbacks may also throw the ball to a tight end or even a running back. In these cases, the forward pass will often be shorter, and designed for quick gains that may lead to a first down and further down cycles.

There are also plays in which a player who isn’t the quarterback may throw a pass, but these are rare. They are often intended to confuse the defense and open up unexpected receiving lanes that can lead to major plays or even touchdowns. It is important for the offense to remember, however, that there can only be one forward pass per play, so in the case of a trick play, the person who passes the ball forward cannot pass to the quarterback for him to then throw the ball forward again.

Forward Pass Terms to Know

These are terms you might hear when a player attempts a forward pass or is going to attempt a forward pass:

  • Completion: A completion occurs when an eligible receiver on the offensive team successfully catches a pass.
  • Incompletion: An incompletion occurs when a pass thrown to an eligible receiver is not caught. This results in the end of the current down.
  • Interception: An interception occurs when a forward pass by the offensive team is caught by a member of the defensive team. This results in a change of possession.
  • Passing Pocket: The pocket is the area surrounding the quarterback when he drops back to attempt a forward pass. It is created by the offensive linemen as protection.
  • Eligible Receiver: Only an eligible receiver can legally catch a forward pass for the offensive team. An eligible receiver is any player located in the backfield or the two players on the end of the line of scrimmage.


How many forward passes are allowed during a play?

In American football, only one forward pass is allowed during a play. Multiple lateral or backward passes may be thrown, but this is rarely done. The single forward pass is a distinguishing feature of gridiron football and has been part of the rules since the early days of the sport. Passers are also required to stay behind the line of scrimmage when throwing a pass, and they may only throw a pass to eligible receivers.

Who can throw a forward pass in football?

Technically, according to the rules of the NFL, any offensive player can throw a forward pass, provided that the pass is the only forward pass on the play. Typically, only quarterbacks and, occasionally, running backs perform forward passes. However, some other players, such as tight ends, can also technically perform a forward pass.