Up In The Air: The Many Aspects Of Thrown Balls In Football

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forward pass
A forward pass moves the ball towards the defending team’s goal line faster than running with the ball — if nothing goes wrong.¬†Copyright Image by Decoded Sports, all rights reserved.

In football, there are two ways the team on offense can advance the ball: They can run with it; They can throw it (and catch it).

Running with the ball is straight-forward. The most complicated thing that can happen is that one player can give the ball to another (called handing off). One player will run until he is tackled (At the professional level all the players are men, so I will use the masculine pronoun).

Throwing the ball is different: It can be thrown forward or backwards, and many different rules cover the throwing, catching, and defending against throwing the football.

Football: The Forward Pass

When a football player throws the football forward, that is towards the opponent’s goal, it is called a forward pass. Football circa 1900 had no such thing, and in the early years of passing it was considered a ‘sissy’ play. Today, about half the plays in professional football are forward passes.

A number of important special rules apply to forward passes. These involve where the ball can be thrown from, how many times it can be thrown, and how the potential receivers and the defense can legally act.

What Can Happen To A Forward Pass?

It’s been said that a forward pass can result in three things, and two of them are bad. This statement, disparaging of the forward pass, is meaningless unless you know the probabilities of each of the outcomes. In addition, a forward pass can sometimes gain a large chunk of yardage. Here’s what can happen:

  • The pass can be completed (caught by a member of the same team as the passer), and the receiver (the player who caught the ball) is allowed to advance it by running. This result is good, and happens about 63% of the time. The amount of goodness connected with a given completed pass involves how far the ball was thrown, and how far the receiver is able to run after catching it.
  • The ball can fall to the ground without being caught; this is called an incomplete pass. The ball is dead; the clock stops; the next play starts from the same spot as the previous one. This result is not good, but not terrible, and happens about 34% of the time.
  • The ball can be caught by a member of the defensive team. This is called an interception, and the defending team now has possession of the ball. The intercepting player can also run with the ball. This result is terrible, and happens about 3% of the time.

Where Does The Passer Have To Be?

The passer must be behind the line of scrimmage (That’s the line parallel to the yard-lines that passes through the ball at the start of the play). The ball can only be passed forward once on any play, even if the receiver is still behind the line of scrimmage. The forward pass does not apply to kickoffs, during which the ball cannot be passed forward.

Can The Ball Be Passed Backwards?

When the ball is thrown sideways or backwards (towards the throwing player’s own goal) it is called a lateral pass. There are actually no special rules governing laterals — whether caught or not, play continues. If the ball is caught, the receiving player can run with it; if not caught, it is¬†treated as a fumble and any player can recover the ball. There is no limit to the number of laterals on any given play, nor is there any restriction on where a lateral can be thrown from.

Special rules govern where and when a forward pass can be thrown in American football. Image by GavorfromHungary.
Special rules govern where and when a forward pass can be thrown in American football. Image by GavorfromHungary.

The Passer

Because the passer is in a vulnerable position when he is throwing the ball, he is accorded some special protection: Once he throws the ball, he cannot be hit. Officials are fairly strict in enforcing this rule, transgression of which is called roughing the passer and draws a 15 yard penalty.

There is no restriction on who can throw a forward pass, but normally there is one player (the quarterback) who specializes in doing so, and he throws 98% of a team’s passes.

Occasionally the quarterback will give – or lateral – the ball to another player who will appear to be going to run with the ball and that player will throw a forward pass. This is considered a trick play, though it is not very tricky.

Who Can Catch A Pass?

The offensive team is required to have seven men on the line of scrimmage (linemen) and four at least a yard behind the line of scrimmage (backs). Only backs or the players at the ends of the line can catch a pass.

Special Rules Govern Receivers And Defenders

A defender is allowed to block a receiver within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Beyond that, the defender cannot restrict the movement of the receiver. Transgression of this rule is called defensive holding if it occurs before the ball is thrown, and pass interference if it occurs after the ball is thrown. The penalty is: Five yards for the former; Ball placed at the spot of the foul for the latter. In either case, it is an automatic first down.

The defender has a right of freedom of movement just like the receiver, and occasionally a receiver will be called for offensive pass interference; the penalty is ten yards.

Normally the receiver is trying to get away from the defender so he can catch a pass, so offensive pass interference is relatively rare.

If defensive interference occurs in the end zone, the ball is placed at the one-yard line.

Normal Play Of The Game

In a high level college or professional football game, play is quite standardized. The quarterback either takes or is passed the ball from the center. The quarterback either gives it to a running back or passes to an end or back who then runs with the ball. The defensive players try to tackle the runner and/or prevent the potential receivers from catching the ball. In any case, the offensive team works to bring the ball closer to the defensive team’s goal, to score a touchdown.

© Copyright 2015 Jon Plotkin, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Sports
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