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I do not know a lot about American Football, but I enjoy watching games from time to time. The other day I saw a penalty given for a player catching a pass but being an ineligible receiver. I had not heard of that rule before, so I looked up the details. I now know the rules around this, and it helps to explain the reasons behind the formations better (I never understood why wide receivers would often line up a bit behind the LOS, now I know).

However, I can't see what the fuss is all about. Why is this rule required? How would offensive plays differ if there was no restriction? Is there some cheesey exploit that this rule prevents?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 7 down vote accepted

According to my research, the rule changes below were in response to rule reform when deaths and injuries were high and to "open up the game." When restrictive rules were lifted, the forward pass became effective and more strategy was employed.

The eligible receiver rule is evidence of the evolution and modernization of the passing game.


Relevant Rule Changes

In 1906, the forward pass was legalized. In 1910, a new rule was legalized, "seven men on the line of scrimmage, no pushing or pulling, no interlocking interference (arms linked or hands on belts and uniforms)." This rule was introduced to prevent collision injuries. In 1912, "restrictive" rules were lifted (a forward pass may travel more than 20 yards, for example).(1) In 1918, eligible receivers were allowed to catch passes anywhere on the field. Previously, passes were only allowed to certain areas of the field.(2)

The NFL began to develop their own rules by discontinuing the use of the collegiate playbook on February 25, 1933.(3) One rule change was that a forward pass can take place anywhere behind the line of scrimmage (before, a forward pass was only legal if thrown at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage).(4)

In 1951, a new rule was legalized, "no tackle, guard, or center would be eligible to catch a forward pass."(4)


Original Response

American football would become downright sloppy without this rule. If anyone could catch the ball, who would block? Why would the offense and defense come up with multiple plays/schemes if it's a free for all? It would take away from the strategy of the game.

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According to the NFL rulebook page for the forward pass:

A forward pass may be touched or caught by any eligible receiver. All members of the defensive team are eligible. Eligible receivers on the offensive team are players on either end of line (other than center, guard, or tackle) or players at least one yard behind the line at the snap. A T-formation quarterback is not eligible to receive a forward pass during a play from scrimmage.

There are several reasons for the ineligible receiver rules. In my opinion, here are some possible reasons:

  • Defensive parity: The offense already has many advantages over the defense - knowing where the play is going, rules to prevent injuries to offensive players, etc. Defining a set number of offensive players that are allowed to receive the ball gives the defense a chance to successfully defend against a potential pass play by allowing defenders to identify potential receivers. Normally ineligible players are required to notify the referee that they're eligible - thus allowing the defense a chance to defend against these players and preventing the implementation of "unfair" trick plays
  • Player safety: Ineligible receivers are not allowed to progress beyond the neutral zone when a forward pass is thrown (unless the pass is behind the line of scrimmage) - this prevents offensive linemen from heading downfield at full speed before the ball is thrown. This prevents defensive players in coverage, such as linebackers and defensive backs, from being unexpectedly hit downfield by a blocker before the pass play has developed. Further, this page notes that eligible receivers also receive some protection against being blocked below the waist:

    • 1974: Eligible receivers who take a position more than two yards from the tackle, whether on or behind the line, may not be blocked below the waist at or behind the line of scrimmage
    • 2007: A block below the waist against an eligible receiver while the quarterback is in the pocket is a 15-yard penalty instead of a 5-yard penalty (an illegal cut block).
  • Strategy: As @edmastermind29 notes, constraints on the passing game force coaches to become more creative, allowing for clever plays and tactics to be developed.

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One thing not mentioned; if there weren't eligible receivers, then if the pocket broke down, all the QB would have to do is throw the ball at the center's feet and he'd never get sacked. Under current rules that's intentional grounding, because a legal forward pass must be made to a spot with an eligible reciever in the area (and cross the line of scrimmage).

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+1, very good point! –  JW8 Aug 11 '12 at 0:08
    
I wish I could find the origin of intentional grounding... –  edmastermind29 Aug 14 '12 at 14:45
    
AFAICT it's been a rule since the forward pass was added back in 1906, predating the NFL and contemporary to the formation of the NCAA. Its last change was in 1993 to allow a quarterback to throw the ball away from outside the pocket. –  KeithS Aug 14 '12 at 15:17
    
@KeithS Interesting. AFAYCT, is that the case with the eligible reciever rule also? –  edmastermind29 Aug 15 '12 at 13:17
1  
Well, your own post would lead me to say "no"; the first mention I can find of a player specifically being ineligible is the 1951 rule regarding the center, guards or tackles. But, there are mentions of players being "eligible", which leads me to think that the eligibility rule was developed in parallel with the "seven men on the LOS" rule which is contemporary with the forward pass legalization. They knew as we do that if you can just throw the ball to anyone, the offense gains way too much of an advantage. –  KeithS Aug 15 '12 at 14:42

There would be some confusion of calls around the line of scrimmage. KeithS has a good point on intentional grounding. Also, an offensive lineman could be behind the LOS but potentially block a defender on the other side. If the defensive lineman jumps while a forward pass is thrown and the lineman continues to block, would that be considered pass interference? Tough call. Because once a forward pass crosses the LOS, both the offense and the defense have a right to the ball without contact being made by an opponent until the ball is touched.

There is a version called 6-Man football (Played primarily in Texas high schools and a few other states) where all players are elligible for a forward pass. There are a lot of other rules to open up this game and makes it pretty exciting.

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On the offensive side, there are two basic types of players: 1) linemen, who line up on the line of scrimmage and protect their teammates, and 2) ball handlers.

The five linemen consists of the "center" (in the middle of the line) who "hikes" the ball to his quarterback, two "guards" on either side, and two "tackles," who are "wide" protectors. These five linemen are not eligible to receive passes.

The six ball handlers include the quarterback, who receives the ball from the center, a big full back, who can run with the ball up the middle, a fast half back who can run with the ball to the sides, and three pass receivers, posted at the end of the line "outside" the tackles. Any of these men can receive a forward pass, and are "eligible receivers." That is, depending on the situation, the quarterback may send his halfback and fullback forward to try to catch passes instead of run with the ball.

On the defense side, there are typically four linemen (opposing five offensive linemen), and four men in the back, or "secondary, opposing the three pass receivers. Between these lines are the so-called "line backers," who are floaters that can either reinforce the lineman, if the offense is running with the ball, or the secondary, of the offense is using a pass play.

Basically, the idea was to prevent too many offensive players from doing too many different things, thereby making it too hard for the defense to counter them.

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