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In several forms of football a forward pass 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.
In American and Canadian football, a forward pass—usually called simply a pass—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 zone. An illegal forward pass incurs a 5 yard penalty and the loss of a down.

If an eligible receiver on the 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 dead the moment it touches the ground. It will then be returned to the original line of scrimmage for the next down. If 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 receiver and must touch the passed ball before any ineligible player.

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 tuck rule, 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 in bounds. 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 the receiver must touch the ground with both feet, but in most other codes—CFL, NCAA and high school—one foot in bounds is enough.

Common to all gridiron codes is 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 incomplete.


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 on 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 YalemarkerPrincetonmarker game in which Yale’s Walter Camp threw forward to teammate Oliver Thompson as he was being tackled. 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 Georgia. However, the play was still illegal at the time. Bob Quincy 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 touchdown.

In a 1905 experimental game, Washburnmarker and what would become Wichita Statemarker 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 personally intervened 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 and was 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 also reflected 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

Most sources credit St. Louis University'smarker 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 Carroll College marker. Football authority and College Football Hall of Famemarker coach David M. Nelson 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 National 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-style ball for a 20-yard touchdown pass to 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 football.
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 doubtful."

The football season opened for most schools during the first week of October, and the impact of the forward pass was immediate:
  • On October 3, 1906, the Des Moines Daily News reported "probably the first use" of the "long forward pass" in the University of Missouri'smarker 23-4 win over Kirksville Normal Schoolmarker.
  • 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 Tassel."
  • 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 game."
  • On October 4, 1906, the Carlisle Indians beat Susquehanna University 40-0, as "the forward pass was used for a number of good gains."
  • 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 play."
  • On October 4, 1906, Williams College defeated the Massachusetts Agricultural College, scoring the game's only touchdown on a forward pass by Waters.

Some publications credit Yalemarker 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 Havenmarker 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 Parkmarker in what the St. Louis newspapers considered one of the most important events of the sports year. SLU completed 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 Iowamarker. Coach Nelson, who served as the Secretary-Editor of the NCAA's Football 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 touchdown."

The 1906 Iowa game was refereed by one of the top football officials in the country, West Pointmarker's Lt. 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 forward passes."

"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 passes."

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 Kansasmarker, 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 Universitymarker and in a 107-0 destruction of Pittsburg State Universitymarker.

Adoption by Notre Dame expands popularity

Knute Rockne and Gus Dorais worked on the pass while lifeguarding on a Lake Eriemarker beach at Cedar Pointmarker in Sandusky, Ohiomarker, during the summer of 1913. That year, Jesse Harper, Notre Dame head coach, 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, Ohio Tigers, one of pro football's first franchises. Citing the Professional 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 Massillonmarker against a team from West Virginia. Since the 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. Jack Jacobs of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers is recognized, not for inventing the forward pass, but for popularizing it in the Western Interprovincial Football Union, thus changing the Canadian game from a more run-dominated game to the passing game as seen today.

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 spiral punting.

Rugby football

In the two codes of rugby (union and league) 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. 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 scrum.

See also


Additional sources

  • Boyles, Bob & Guido, Paul, 50 Years of College Football, 2007

External links

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