You’re celebrating with your friends as your favorite team scores a touchdown.
And in the blink of an eye……. it’s wiped away.
The officials tossed a yellow flag for illegal touching on the offense, and the touchdown vaporized.
Perhaps you are a football fan who recognizes the term “illegal touching” but struggles to understand it.
In this article, I will explore what constitutes illegal touching of the football and the penalties associated with the infraction.
- Illegal touching of the football on a forward pass occurs when ineligible receivers are the first players to touch the football on a passing play.
- Ineligible receivers are offensive linemen (unless reported otherwise) or typically eligible receivers, such as tight ends, running backs, and wide receivers, who step out of bounds while running a passing route.
- As long as the contact is legal, an eligible receiver pushed out of bounds by his defender becomes an ineligible receiver and may not be the first player to touch the football.
What is Illegal Touching?
Illegal touching of the football on a forward pass occurs when ineligible receivers are the first players to touch the football on a passing play.
On any given offensive play, there are eligible receivers and ineligible receivers.
With rare exceptions, offensive linemen are considered ineligible receivers and cannot receive a pass from the quarterback (more on this later).
Tight ends, running backs, and wide receivers are deemed eligible receivers and are permitted to catch a pass from the quarterback.
However, if an eligible receiver, e.g., a tight end, running back, or wide receiver, steps out of bounds while running a passing route, said receiver is now an ineligible receiver.
Were this now-ineligible receiver the first player to touch the football, he would be flagged for “illegal touching.”?
Simply put: a receiver who runs out of bounds (either by his own volition or by being legally forced out) during a passing play is deemed an ineligible receiver and may not be the first player to touch the football. 
What is the Penalty for Illegal Touching?
The penalty for this form of illegal touching is loss of down at the previous spot. 
The rule states that:
“first touches or is caught by an eligible offensive receiver who has gone out of bounds, either of his own volition or by being legally forced out of bounds, and has re-established himself inbounds.”Official Playing Rules of the National Football League, 2022
However, once another player touches the football, the receiver may touch it without penalty.
“If a player touches the ball after having been out of bounds, but prior to re-establishing himself inbounds with both feet or any part of his body other than his hands, the pass is incomplete, and there is no penalty for illegal touching.”Official Playing Rules of the National Football League, 2022
What is the Purpose of the Rule?
This rule is in place to prevent a receiver from exiting the field of play to elude the defender covering him, only to reenter the field of play to catch a pass.
Even if a defender pushes a receiver out of bounds, the rule still applies.
Of course, if a receiver is illegally forced out of bounds, illegal contact, holding, or pass interference penalties on the defense may result. 
Illegal Touching of Forward Pass by Offensive Lineman
Illegal touching of a forward pass may also occur when a pass is intentionally touched or caught by an ineligible offensive lineman without first being touched by a defensive player. 
In this example of the illegal touching of the football on a forward pass, the receiver of the pass (offensive lineman) began and completed the play as an ineligible receiver.
This is in contrast to the wide receiver mentioned in the previous example, who began the play as an eligible receiver but became an ineligible receiver upon stepping out of bounds.
All offensive linemen are considered ineligible to catch a pass unless a lineman reports to the referees that he is playing that role before the play starts. Then, the referee will inform the other team and the spectators.
Barring the aforementioned exception, if the quarterback throws a pass and an offensive lineman is the first player to touch the ball, he will be penalized for an illegal touching penalty.
What is the Penalty for Illegal Touching by Offensive Linemen?
This foul dictates a loss of five yards but does not carry the loss-of-down penalty.
The touching also must be deliberate to be illegal in this category.
The below video provides a perfect example of illegal touching by an offensive lineman. Notice the quarterback’s pass is deliberately touched by #75 on offense before ricocheting into the hands of a receiver. 
This is illegal touching by the lineman because he is the first player to touch the football, and the touching was deliberate (he put his hands up in an attempt to catch the ball!):
Football is a complex game with complex rules.
I hope that this article makes you a more intelligent football fan.