In several forms of football
is when the ball is thrown in the
direction of the opponent's end line.
American and Canadian Football
An American football quarterback in
the "pocket" and preparing to pass.
and Canadian football
, a forward
—usually called simply a
—consists of one offensive player throwing the
football towards another downfield in the direction of the
opponent's end line. This is permitted only once during a scrimmage down
by the offensive team before
team possession has changed, provided the pass is thrown from in or
behind the neutral
. An illegal forward pass incurs a 5 yard penalty and the
loss of a down.
If an eligible receiver
passing team legally catches the ball it is a complete pass and the
receiver may attempt to advance the ball. If an opposing player
legally catches the ball (all defensive players are eligible
receivers) it is an interception
. That player's team
immediately gains possession of the ball and he may attempt to
advance the ball toward his opponent's goal. If no player is able
to legally catch the ball it is an incomplete pass
and the ball becomes
the moment it
touches the ground. It will then be returned to the original line
of scrimmage for the next down
any player interferes with an eligible receiver's ability to catch
the ball it is pass interference
which is a foul.
The person passing the ball must be a member of the offensive team
, and the recipient of the
forward pass must be an eligible
and must touch the passed ball before any ineligible
The moment that a forward pass begins is important to the game. The
pass begins the moment the passer's arm begins to move forward. If
the passer drops the ball before this moment it is a fumble
and therefore a loose ball
. In this case
anybody can gain possession of the ball before or after it touches
the ground. In Canadian football, if the passer drops the ball
while his arm is moving forward it is an incomplete pass (unless
someone catches the ball before it hits the ground in which case it
is a completed pass or an interception). Under American football's
, if the quarterback is
attempting to bring the ball back to his body after starting a
passing motion, a lost ball may be considered an incomplete pass
even if the quarterback's arm is moving backward at the time.
The quarterback generally either starts a few paces behind the line
of scrimmage or drops back a few paces as the ball is snapped. This
places him in an area called the "pocket" which is a protective
region formed by the offensive blockers up front and between the
tackles on each side. A quarterback who runs out of this pocket is
said to be scrambling. Under NFL and NCAA rules, once the
quarterback moves out of the pocket, and there is no good option
for a forward pass, the ball may be legally thrown away to prevent
a sack. NFHS (High School) rules do not allow for a passer to
intentionally throw an incomplete forward pass to save loss of
yardage or conserve time, except for a spike to conserve time after
a hand to hand snap. If he throws the ball away while still in the
pocket then a foul called "grounding" is assessed.
If a forward pass is caught near a sideline or endline it is only a
complete pass (or an interception) if a receiver catches the ball
. For a pass to be ruled in bounds, the
receiver's feet must be in contact with the in bounds portion of
the playing field, or, if the ball is caught in the air, either one
or two feet must touch the ground within the field boundaries,
after the ball is caught. In the NFL
receiver must touch the ground with both feet, but in most other
school—one foot in bounds is enough.
Common to all gridiron
the notion of control—a receiver must demonstrate control of the
ball in order to be ruled in possession
of it, while still
in bounds, as defined by his code. If the receiver catches the ball
but the official determines that he was still "bobbling" it prior
to the end of the play, then the pass will be ruled
Early illegal & experimental passes
The forward pass had been attempted at least 30 years before the
play was actually made legal. Vahe Gregorian researched the history
of the play for an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
September 4, 2006, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the first
legal pass. Gregorian observed that passes “had been
carried out successfully but illegally several times, including the
1876 Yale–Princeton game in which Yale’s Walter
Camp threw forward to teammate Oliver Thompson as he was being
Princeton’s protest, one account said, went for
naught when the referee ‘tossed a coin to make his decision and
allowed the touchdown to stand’ ”.
The University of
North Carolina at Chapel Hill
used the forward pass in an 1895
game against the University of
. However, the play was still illegal at the time.
stakes Carolina's claim in his
1973 book They Made the Bell Tower Chime
John Heisman, namesake of
the Heisman Trophy, wrote 30 years
later that, indeed, the Tar Heels had given birth to the forward
pass against the Bulldogs (UGA). It was conceived to break a
scoreless deadlock and give UNC a 6–0 win. The Carolinians were in
a punting situation and a Georgia rush seemed destined to block the
ball. The punter, with an impromptu dash to his right, tossed the
ball and it was caught by George Stephens, who ran 70 yards for a
In a 1905
experimental game, Washburn and what would become Wichita
State used the pass before new rules allowing the play
were approved in early 1906.
Rules changed in 1906 to allow the forward pass
1905 had been a bloody year on the gridiron; the Chicago Tribune
reported 18 players had
been killed and 159 seriously injured that season. There were moves
to abolish the game. But President Theodore Roosevelt
and demanded that the rules of the game be reformed. In a meeting
of more than 60 schools in late 1905, the commitment was made to
make the game safer. This meeting was the first step toward the
establishment of what would become the NCAA
followed by several sessions to work out "the new rules."
The final meeting of the Rules Committee tasked with reshaping the
game was held on April 6, 1906, at which time the forward pass
officially became a legal play. The New York Times
reported in September 1906 on the rationale for the changes: "The
main efforts of the football reformers has been to 'open up the
game' -- that is to provide for the natural elimination of the
so-called mass plays and bring about a game in which speed and real
skill shall supersede so far as possible mere brute strength and
force of weight." However the Times
widespread skepticism as to whether the forward pass could be
effectively integrated into the game: "There has been no team that
has proved that the forward pass is anything but a doubtful,
dangerous play to be used only in the last extremity."
First legal pass
sources credit St. Louis University's Bradbury Robinson
with throwing the first legal forward pass. Under the direction of
St. Louis University coach Eddie
Cochems, Robinson completed a pass to Jack Schneider in a September 5, 1906 game at
College . Football authority and College Football
Hall of Fame coach David
wrote that "E.
B. Cochems is to forward passing what the Wright brothers
are to aviation and Thomas Edison
is to the electric light.".
Coach Nelson was the first permanent Secretary-Editor of the
Collegiate Athletic Association
Football Rules Committee, a
position he held for 29 years. In this role, he edited the official
college football rulebook and provided interpretations on how the
playing rules were to be applied to game situations.
In that historic 1906 game, after an earlier Robinson-to-Schneider
attempt fell incomplete (which resulted in a turnover
to Carroll under the rules at
that time), Cochems called for his team to again execute the play
he called the "air attack".
Robinson threw the fat, rugby
ball for a 20-yard touchdown
Schneider. The play stunned the fans and the Carroll players. St.
Louis went on to win, 22-0.
While St. Louis University completed the first forward pass, this
accomplishment was in part due to the fact that most schools did
not begin their football schedule until early October. Once the
1906 season got underway, many programs began experimenting with
the forward pass.
On September 26, 1906, Villanova's game against the Carlisle
Indians was billed as "the first real game of football under the
new rules." In the first play from scrimmage after the opening
kicks, Villanova completed a ten-yard pass that "succeeded in
gaining ten yards." Following the Villanova-Carlisle game, The
New York Times
described the new passing game this way:
"The passing was more of the character of that familiar
in basket ball than that which has hitherto characterized
Apparently it is the intention of football coaches to
try repeatedly these frequent long and risky passes.
Well executed they are undoubtedly highly spectacular,
but the risk of dropping the ball is so great as to make the
practice extremely hazardous and its desirability
The football season opened for most schools during the first week
of October, and the impact of the forward pass was immediate:
publications credit Yale All-American
Paul Veeder with the "first forward pass
in a major game." Veeder threw a 20 to 30-yard completion in
leading Yale past Harvard 6-0 before
32,000 fans in New
Haven on November 24, 1906. However, that
Yale/Harvard game was played three weeks after Cochems' "air
attack" dismantled Kansas 34-2
before a crowd of 7,000 at Sportsman's Park in what the St. Louis newspapers considered one of
the most important events of the sports year.
October 3, 1906, the Des
Moines Daily News reported "probably the first use" of the
"long forward pass" in the University of Missouri's 23-4 win over Kirksville Normal School.
- On October 3, 1906, in the opening game of the Ivy League
season, Wesleyan quarterback Moore completed a forward pass against
Yale for a thirty-yard gain. The New York Times called it
"the prettiest play of the day," as Wesleyan's quarterback "deftly
passed the ball past the whole Yale team to his mate Van
- On October 4, 1906, Princeton opened its season with a 22-0 win
over Stevens. Press accounts indicate that Princeton put the
forward pass to good use, as "old-time football gave way to the new
- On October 4, 1906, the Carlisle Indians beat Susquehanna
University 40-0, as "the forward pass was used for a number of good
- On October 4, 1906, Harvard defeated Bowdoin 10-0 "in a
hard-fought contest that was featured by a newfangled and daring
forward pass that Crimson worked in the closing minutes of
- On October 4, 1906, Williams College defeated the Massachusetts
Agricultural College, scoring the game's only touchdown on a
forward pass by Waters.
45 and 48-yard passes against the Jayhawks.
First passing offense
Referee Hackett's analysis of St.
Louis' passing game against Iowa, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
written by Ed Wray, November 30, 1906
The forward pass was a central feature of Cochems' revolutionary
offensive scheme. In that first season under the "new rules", his
"Blue and White" completed a perfect 11–0 season in which they
outscored opponents 407–11. The highlight of the campaign was St. Louis'
shocking 31–0 thrashing of Iowa.
Coach Nelson, who served as the
Secretary-Editor of the NCAA's
Rules Committee for 29 years, reports that "eight passes were
completed in ten attempts for four touchdowns" in the Iowa game.
"The average flight distance of the passes was twenty yards."
Nelson continues, "the last play demonstrated the dramatic effect
that the forward pass was having on football. St. Louis was on
Iowa's thirty-five-yard line with a few seconds to play. Timekeeper
Walter McCormack walked onto the field to end the game when the
ball was thrown twenty-five yards and caught on the dead run for a
Iowa game was refereed by one of the top football officials in the
H. B. "Stuffy" Hackett. He had
officiated games involving the top Eastern powers that year.
Hackett, who would become a member of the football rules committee
in December 1907 and officiated games into the 1930s, was quoted
the next day in Ed Wray's Post-Dispatch
article: "It was
the most perfect exhibition ... of the new rules ... that I have
seen all season and much better than that of Yale and Harvard. St.
Louis' style of pass differs entirely from that in use in the east.
... The St. Louis university players shoot the ball hard and
accurately to the man who is to receive it ... The fast throw by
St. Louis enables the receiving player to dodge the opposing
players, and it struck me as being all but perfect."
"Cochems said that the poor Iowa showing resulted from its use of
the old style play and its failure to effectively use the forward
pass", Nelson writes. "Iowa did attempt two basketball-style
"During the 1906 season [Robinson] threw a sixty-seven yard pass
... and ... Schneider tossed a sixty-five yarder. Considering the
size, shape and weight of the ball, these were extraordinary
In 1907, after the first season of the forward pass, one football
writer noted that, "with the single exception of Cochems, football
teachers were groping in the dark."
Because St. Louis was geographically isolated from both the
dominating teams and the major sports media (newspapers) of the era
... all centered in and focused on the East ... Cochems'
groundbreaking offensive strategy was not picked up by the major
teams. Pass-oriented offenses would not be adopted by the Eastern
football powers until the next decade.
But that does not mean that other teams in the Midwest did not pick
it up. Arthur
Schabinger, quarterback for the College of Emporia in Kansas, was
reported to have regularly used the forward pass in 1910.
Coach H. W. "Bill"
Hargiss' "Presbies" are said to have featured the play in a
17–0 victory over Washburn University and in a 107-0 destruction of Pittsburg
Adoption by Notre Dame expands popularity
Knute Rockne and Gus
Dorais worked on the pass while lifeguarding on a Lake Erie beach at Cedar Point in Sandusky,
Ohio, during the summer of 1913.
, Notre Dame
also showed how the pass could be used by a smaller team to beat a
bigger one, first utilizing it to defeat rival Army
. After it was used against
a major school on a national stage in this game, the forward pass
rapidly gained popularity.
First pass in a professional game
The first forward pass in a professional football game may have
been thrown in an Ohio League
game played on
October 25, 1906. The Ohio League, which traced its history to the
1890s, was the predecessor of today's NFL
According to Robert W. Peterson in his book Pigskin The Early
Years of Pro Football
, the "passer was George W. Parratt
, probably the best quarterback of the
era", who played for the Massillon,
, one of pro football's first franchises.
Football Researchers Association as his source, Peterson writes
that "Parratt completed a short pass to end Dan Riley (Dan
Policowski)" in a game played at Massillon against a team from West Virginia.
Tigers "ran up a 61 to 0 score on the hapless Mountain Staters, the
pass played no important part in the result."
According to National Football League history, it legalized the
forward pass from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage on February
25, 1933. Before that rule change, a forward pass had to be made
from 5 or more yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Forward passes were first permitted in Canadian football in 1929,
but the tactic remained a minor part of the game for several years.
of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers
not for inventing the forward pass, but for popularizing it in the
Interprovincial Football Union
, thus changing the Canadian game
from a more run-dominated game to the passing game as seen
Change in ball shape
Specification of the size of the ball for the American game came in
1912, but it was still essentially a rugby ball. Increased use of
the forward pass encouraged adoption of a narrower ball, starting
with changes in the 1920s which enhanced rifled throwing and also
In the two codes of rugby (union
) a forward pass
is against the rules. If the referee deems it accidental (as it
nearly always is), this results in a scrum
to the opposing team; however,
deliberate forward passes result in a penalty
The team in possession must get behind the ball carrier or be ruled
. Offside players will not be
penalised as long as they remain inactive but if the ball is thrown
to them then they become active and thus a scrum or penalty is
awarded to the opposition. To minimize the chances of this
happening and to support the ball carrier, teammates try to stay
behind the player with the ball.
A forward pass is defined in terms of whether the ball leaves the
hand of the thrower in a forwards direction or not. Players may not
even drop the ball forwards which would also result in a
- Boyles, Bob & Guido, Paul, 50 Years of College