Game Dayr is a reader-supported blog. We may earn a small commission on purchases made through our links. Learn more.

What Is a Forward Pass in Football? (Definition & Rules)

What is a forward pass? In football, a forward pass is an act of passing the ball and is usually done by an offensive player. The moment the ball leaves the hand of the passer, it is already considered as a forward pass. Except if it was mishandled and the ball’s direction goes backward, it would be considered a “battled ball.”

It is in the rulebook that an offensive team may try to make a forward pass once during each down. The passer, which is most likely to be the quarterback, must position behind the line. If he crosses through the line of scrimmage, he is not allowed to make a forward pass.

Key Takeaways

  • A forward pass in football is a football play where an offensive player throws the ball from behind the line of scrimmage.
  • There are several rules that regulate an eligible forward pass to keep in mind, as stated in the NFL rule book.

What Will Happen After A Forward Pass Is Made?

What will happen after a forward pass is made? Well, if an eligible receiver catches a forward pass, then the pass will be completed, and that’s when he may try to advance the ball to the end zone and make a touchdown. If an opponent is the one who catches the ball, it is an “interception.” By then, he may try to run through the field and score a touchdown as well. 

If no one was able to catch the ball, it would be an “incomplete pass,” which means the ball will be dead as soon as it touches the ground. If an illegal receiver catches the ball, it will be a “loss of a down” for the team, and a change of possession will most likely happen. 

NFL Rules For A Forward Pass

The primary passer of a forward pass is the quarterback. The act of passing begins by the moment the quarterback’s arm starts to move forward. If he drops the ball before moving his arm, it is a fumble and is considered a loose ball. After that, anyone can take possession of the ball. However, if the passer drops the ball while his arm is moving forward, it will be considered as a forward pass—take note that wherever the ball lands do not matter by then. 

The quarterback will try to make a pass from behind the line of scrimmage. This area is called the “pocket.” It is a place formed by the offensive unit to give him enough time to pass the ball to an eligible receiver. 

In professional and college-level competition, the quarterback may throw away the ball to avoid being tackled. In high school football, that is not allowed. If a quarterback throws away the ball without a chance of completion, he will be penalized for an “intentional grounding.” It is also in the rulebook of the NCAA that the receiver’s feet must be in bounds before catching a forward pass. After that, the player must take full control of it. If the referee sees that he is “bobbling”, it will be ruled as an incomplete pass.

Legal Forward pass

  • The offense can only throw one forward pass per play/down.
  • A player may attempt a lateral or a backward pass – the ball is not moving forward towards the goal/endzone.
  • Only eligible receivers can receive a forward pass (linemen are not eligible without declaration prior to the game).
  • A successful forward pass (or intercepted forward pass) happens when receivers receive the ball with both hands and feet on the grounds while inbounds.

Illegal Forward pass

  • A forward pass is not permissible whether in play possession or loose once it crosses the line of scrimmage even if the ball returns behind the line of scrimmage before the pass is thrown.
  • A forward pass is not permissible when the passer is beyond the line of scrimmage, a second forward pass is thrown from behind the line of scrimmage, or a forward pass is thrown after there’s been a change in possession.


  • Forward pass beyond the line of scrimmage, a second forward pass, and a forward pass after the change in possession all result in a five-yard penalty.
  • The penalty could also result in a 10-second runoff.

History of Forward Pass

Even before the forward pass was legalized in 1906, several forward passes were already made. An example of this was during the game between Yale and Princeton in 1876. A Yale Player threw a forward pass to his teammate as he was being tackled. However, the play was still illegal at that time. 

In 1905, it was reported that 18 players were killed and 159 were injured because of the physicality of the game. That leads to former US President Theodore Roosevelt to reform the rules of the game. On April 6, 1906, with the goal of reshaping the game, the forward pass officially became a legal play in football. 

The First Legal Forward Pass

Five months later, the first legal forward pass was made. Bradbury Robinson of the St. Louis University threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Jack Schneider.[1] His team during that season went into an astonishing 11-0 record. They took advantage of using the forward pass. With that, they were featured as the strongest offensive team in the United States. 

With teams trying to adopt a “Passing-oriented Offense”, the game ball was modified starting 1912. The ball became narrower. This is to enhance the grip and the passing to be more efficient. 

On February 25, 1933, the NFL changed the rules in making a forward pass. It may be done anywhere behind the line of scrimmage instead of making it 5 yards or more behind the line. This rule is still being applied up till now. 

The Difference Of A Forward Pass And A Backward Pass

There’s a huge difference between a forward pass and a backward pass in football. Unlike the forward pass, a backward pass can be done several times.

The position of the player in the field doesn’t matter as well. He may throw a backward pass without restrictions. Also, if a backward pass hits the ground, the play will continue and both teams may take the ball and advance to their own end zone. A ball that was passed in a sideway direction is considered a backward pass.

This kind of passing strategy is widely used. Players need to have good teamwork to be able to execute a backward pass. With that, they could make it to their own zone and score a goal for themselves.  

Final Words

Each football game is different.

It is for the team to plan and strategize on what fits their team. Take note that in offense, they only have one chance to make a forward pass. Teams have to make sure to be able to maximize each opportunity. Using a combination of passing and running plays will definitely help your team to set off a victory. Which do you think is more advantageous? A passing game or a running game? Share your thoughts.


1. “Jack Schneider – Wikipedia.” Accessed 7 Aug. 2020.

Read These Next