Football: Backward Pass (aka Lateral)

A reader (DC) recently suggested that The DA Blog address the topic of laterals, more accurately called “backward passes”.  Specifically, DC inquired about the Oakland Raiders stunning win over Kansas City, during which an Oakland defender batted down a pass, which officials ruled a backward pass, causing Kansas City not only to lose that down but also nine yards.

This result indicates that some passes are not incomplete and the play dead when the ball touches the ground with no loss of yardage (as in a garden-variety incomplete forward pass); a backward pass creates a “live ball” situation wherein the play actually continues.

The most famous example of disputed backward passes occurred in 1982 during “The Play”, where Stanford’s John Elway engineered what appeared to be the game-winning drive to put Stanford ahead of Cal in the closing seconds of the game–right before this happened:

A couple of those backward passes were arguably illegal forward passes.  Can you spot them and, more importantly, what do the rules say about backward passes?

The rules distinguish between forward passes and backward passes, both of which are legal. I shall cite the basic rules but allow you to apply them to specific situations–as they are quite varied and often controversial.  Frankly, the rules regarding backward passes are quite simple yet leave to the officials’ judgment what constitutes “forward” and “backward” passes.

NCAA Football 2013 And 2014 Rules And Interpretations Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1 (Page 77/216) states:

A ball carrier may hand or pass the ball backward at any time, except to throw the ball intentionally out of bounds to conserve time.

Section 2 discusses the nuances of backward passes, but the general rule is left fairly simply: A team may hand or pass the ball backward (generally) at any time innumerable times.

Section 3 (Page 78/216 and following) discusses the forward pass. Generally, a team may pass the ball forward once during a play.  Article 1 of this Section states:

Team A may make one forward pass during each scrimmage down before team possession changes, provided the pass is thrown from a point in or behind the neutral zone.

Section 3 discusses the nuances of the forward pass in exhausting detail.

National Football League Rule 8 also treats forward and backward passes and in only twelve pages.  Again, the basic rules are quite simple, although specific issues occur throughout those pages.

These rule links should assist you to break down issues related to forward and backward passes.

Here’s another play where the announcers are pretty excited:

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