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Football Forward Progress Rule

What is Forward Progress?

The NFL's Forward Progress Rule has been around since the early 1900s, but as the game continues to evolve it becomes more and more prominent in its effect on the game.

The rule today states the play is ruled dead once the runner or receiver's "Forward Progress" towards the opponent's end zone is halted by an opposing defender. This means that even if the player is driven back five yards by the defender, the play is ruled dead where the initial contact was made.

The rule was put into place for two specific reasons: to protect the fairness of the game and the safety of the players. Without the rule, even if a player were to get a first down, he could still be driven back far enough to overturn this gain. This would be unfair because all of the player's hard work could prove to be seemingly useless. As far as safety goes, the longer it takes for defenders to try to take down the sole ball carrier, the more opportunities players have to injure themselves or other players.

Birth of the Rule

American Football has evolved tremendously since the first game was played on November 6, 1869 . The game formerly played with leather helmets and a pigskin ball didn't even allow forward passes until Spalding's Official Foot BallGuide for 1906. In this guide, rules for the modern game were highlighted. Rule five, Section E is where the Forward Progress Rule is mentioned. The rule states that the referee is responsible for blowing the whistle and declaring the ball deadat the point where he feels that the runner's forward progress has been stopped. Although the rule has evolved to fit a more modern game, its core principles remain the same.

Gametime Examples

Ball Carrier

There are two scenarios in which the Forward Progress Rule is generally used. The first being the case of a ball carrier, as mentioned previously. When an offensive player is carrying the ball towards the opponent's end zone, he will be ruled down where the initial contact is made by the defender.

Often times if the runner's safety is not jeopardized, the referee will allow the play to continue a little longer, similar to the advantage rule in soccer. This gives the runner the opportunity to potentially break these tackles and continue his progress towards the opposing end zone. Regardless, even if he does not break these tackles, forward progress will still be granted.

Airborne Receiver

The second scenario is the case of an airborne receiver. If a receiver catches a pass past the first down marker, but is carried backward by a defender, he will be granted forward progress and the play will be ruled dead where the contact was made. This makes the game safer and more productive for a potentially defenseless receiver.


The downside of this rule is that it's purely a judgment call decided by the imperfect eyes of the referee. Because of this, the right call is not always made. Many games in the past have been blown by a poor ruling of forward progress.

It nearly happened in the 2018 Wild Card Round featuring the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tennessee Titans. During a pivotal moment of the game, quarterback Marcus Mariota was sacked by a Chief's linebacker. During this play, Mariota fumbled the ball and the defense recovered it. However, because of the Forward Progress Rule, the play was ruled dead due to Mariota's forward progress. Although the Chiefs still ended up winning the game, calls like this have the potential to be the deciding factor in close matches. It is clear that the rule is not perfect and we may see fine-tuning in the future. Its goal is to help the game to run a bit smoother and give order to a game that is loved by so many.

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