Illegal forward pass penalty explained

Though forward passes are allowed in football they must follow certain criteria in order to be legal. There are four ways in which a forward pass can be deemed illegal.

  • A forward pass cannot be thrown beyond the line of scrimmage.
  • A team may not throw two forward passes from behind the line of scrimmage.
  • A forward pass cannot be thrown when the ball has crossed the line of scrimmage and returned behind it.
  • A forward pass cannot be thrown after there is a change in possession

When an illegal forward pass is committed on an offensive play there will be a loss of five yards and a loss of down. When this penalty is committed after a change of possession there will be a loss of five yards.

See our guides to if you can catch your own pass in football, illegal formation penalties, or illegal shifts to learn more about offensive penalties in football.

Forward pass beyond the line of scrimmage

When a player throws a forward pass after passing the line of scrimmage they will be called for a penalty.

In order for this forward pass to be illegal, a player needs to have his entire body including the ball past the line of scrimmage when the ball is released.

If any body part or the ball itself is not past the line at the time of release then the pass will be deemed legal. This is true even if the passer is airborne at the time of the throw.

For this penalty, the offense will be assessed a loss of five yards and a loss of down.

Two forward passes

Under no circumstances will a team be allowed to throw two forward passes in a single play. Doing so will always result in an illegal forward pass penalty.

The only way two passes are legal in a single play is if one of the passes is a lateral pass.

For this penalty, the offense will lose five yards and lose a down.

Crossing the line and returning behind it

In order for a forward pass to be legal, the ball must not cross the line of scrimmage at any point. Once the ball crosses the line of scrimmage the defense assumes it to be a rushing play.

The quarterback cannot then cross back behind the line of scrimmage and throw a forward pass.

For this penalty, the offense will be assessed a loss of five yards and a loss of down.

After a change in possession

One more situation in which forwards passes are illegal comes after a change in possession. This refers to plays such as interceptions, fumbles, kick returns, and punt returns.

On these plays, there is no situation in which a forward pass is legal. Generally, when penalties are issued on this play it is due to a player accidentally throwing a lateral pass forwards.

When this penalty occurs the team with possession of the ball will be assessed a loss of five yards.

Other important information

When an illegal forward pass is thrown behind the line of scrimmage the eligibility of the receivers, pass interference, and intentional grounding rules will still apply.

This means these penalties may be called despite the forward pass not being legal.

If a forward pass is thrown when past the line of scrimmage or after a change in possession then eligibility, pass interference and intentional grounding rules do not apply.

This is because these are not situations in which a forward pass can be attempted.

Roughing the passer rules are going to apply on passes that are thrown behind the line of scrimmage even if they are illegal. If the pass is thrown beyond the line of scrimmage then unnecessary roughness may be called in its place.

Conclusion

I hope this guide to understanding illegal forward passes in football has answered all the questions you may have. If not feel free to reach out in the comments below.

If you are looking to learn more about the rules of football see our guide to delay of game or ineligible receiver downfield penalties.

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