Last night after having seen the Super Bowl I ended up watching Top Ten Trick Plays in NFL on youtube. Some of the tricks that are mentioned in there made it clear that I was not fully informed on the rules of the game, particularly regarding the passing aspect.

So here are the questions:

  • What's the rule concerning forward pass? From what I know, there can be only one forward pass per play. Is this correct?

  • What's the difference between "lateral" and "reverse" plays? Aren't they both based on passing the ball backwards in a "rugby-like" fashion?

  • Can whichever player be the passer? or do they have to go up to the referees and declare themselves eligible, like it is for receivers?

  • I'm sure in college football I've seen at least one trick play where a punter or kicker made a forward pass, as he was a Quarterback when he played in high school. Its a trick you can only play once so you have to choose an important play to try it on. Feb 5, 2013 at 15:11
  • 2
    Just a suggestion, I feel like this question should be split up into 3. There is going to be A LOT of info for this answer. If split up, the answers would be a lot more clearer.
    – Zack
    Feb 5, 2013 at 16:42

3 Answers 3


1: Per the NFL Rule Book, Rule 8, Section 1, Article 1:

Definition. It is a forward pass if:

(a) the ball initially moves forward (to a point nearer the opponent’s goal line) after leaving the passer’s hand(s); or

(b) the ball first strikes the ground, a player, an official, or anything else at a point that is nearer the opponent’s goal line than the point at which the ball leaves the passer’s hand(s).

Then in Article 2 (emphasis mine):

The offensive team may make one forward pass from behind the line during each down.

It goes on to note in Item 1 that it is illegal if it is

[a] second forward pass thrown from behind the line of scrimmage.

So for your first question, the ball must be moving closer to the opponent's goal line than where it started in order to be a forward pass. Only one may be attempted each play.

2: Laterals are considered to be backward passes. Rule 8, Section 7, Article 1:

Backward Pass. A runner may throw a backward pass at any time (3-22-4). Players of either team may advance after catching a backward pass, or recovering a backward pass after it touches the ground.

Reverses are not related specifically to forward or backward passes. Rather, they are "common trick play[s]... that involves one or more abrupt changes in the lateral flow of a rushing play" (Source). More often than not these will start with a hand off, not a pass.

So backward passes are by definition a pass between players that does not advance forward; reverses are a type of trick play.

3: Every reference in the rule book about the who an eligible passer is says either "the passer" or "the runner." Specifically, Rule 3, Section 27, Article 2, Supplemental Note 2 states:

The statement, a player may advance, means that he may become a runner, make a legal kick (9-1-1), make a backward pass (8-7-1), or during a play from scrimmage, an offensive player may throw a forward pass (8-1-1) from behind his scrimmage line, provided it is the first such pass during the down and the ball had not been beyond the line of scrimmage previously.

In Article 1:

The Runner is the offensive player who is in possession of a live ball (3-2-1), i.e., holding the ball or carrying it in any direction.

Any player who is deemed a runner is eligible to pass. This includes most offensive players except for the offensive line (i.e.: center, guards and tackles). Players would have to report in as eligible receivers in order to be considered eligible to pass. For example, if an offensive tackle report in as eligible, he could technically pass the ball (although this seems like an awful idea).

Also note that if a ball is fumbled behind the line of scrimmage, an offensive lineman could pick up the ball and commit a forward pass. But again, this seems like a terrible idea.

Response to comment:

This is where it technically gets a little fuzzy, since the phrase "hand off" rarely appears directly in the rules outside of citing examples. It does say in Rule 3, Section 27, Article 2

A Running Play is a play during which there is a runner and which is not followed by a kick or forward pass from behind the scrimmage line. There may be more than one such play during the same down.

So a hand off counts as a running play, but so does a backward pass. However, the rules explicitly state that a hand off cannot be forward if the ball is beyond the line of scrimmage (8.7.4.a):

No player may hand the ball forward except to an eligible receiver who is behind the line of scrimmage.

So once the ball passes the line of scrimmage, the ball can only be handed or passed backward, never forward. But behind the line of scrimmage, the hand off can be forward or back and it is not considered a forward pass. This is why a muffed hand off results in a fumble rather than an incomplete pass. Additionally, a muffed backward pass is considered a fumble as per Rule 8, Section 7.

  • just to clarify, a hand-off does not count as a pass? and thus it could be forward or backward?
    – posdef
    Feb 5, 2013 at 19:07
  • Tried my best to answer your question. The rule book is sort of like the rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland; the further you dig, the more you have to sort out. In a technical sense, the snap is a backwards pass, but can only be snapped to an eligible receiver. Digging through the rules to figure out what's what can sometimes take far too much time.
    – SocioMatt
    Feb 5, 2013 at 19:30
  • I appreciate it. I hope it didn't come across as if I didn't. Rulebooks are like that, it's a wonder that the refs can keep all that in mind, and judge the game accordingly, often under pressure.
    – posdef
    Feb 7, 2013 at 7:07
  • I should have added a smiley face to show I was lighthearted about it. Since this is about asking questions to get answers, I always just assume people are curious when they ask follow-ups, not unappreciative. I often think about the rule book for Magic: The Gathering when I dig through the NFL rule book; it gives me some perspective on complexity of rules since that game has so many layers of rules knowledge.
    – SocioMatt
    Feb 7, 2013 at 13:00
  • @posdef - if a toss to a back is forward, it is a pass...often called a "shovel pass". If the back drops the toss, it is incomplete rather than a fumble. A handoff is not considered a pass, so if it drops, forward or back it is a fumble.
    – Oldcat
    Aug 30, 2014 at 0:42
  1. Yes, only one forward pass per play is permitted. Also, the ball must not have gone past the line of scrimmage at any point; in other words, it is illegal for a player to take the ball past the line, then lateral it backwards to another player who then throws a forward pass.

  2. Yes, pitches and laterals (and even hand-offs, as long as they are either behind the line of scrimmage or not handed forward) are identical by the rules.

  3. Any player who is eligible to touch the ball may pass it. This means that offensive lineman can only pass the ball if they pick it up after a defensive player touches it behind the line of scrimmage, but every other player on the offense (including punters, kickers, and holders) can legally attempt a forward pass providing the conditions in (1) are met.

Source: NFL Rulebook, rules 3 and 11.

  • An important point to make is that a pitch, lateral or hand-off, because it isn't a "forward pass", cannot be ruled incomplete if it hits the turf uncaught; basically if the ball leaves the quarterback's hands and hits the ground in line with or behind the spot on the field from which he threw the ball, it's ruled a fumble except in a case where the QB is hit while throwing.
    – KeithS
    Feb 27, 2013 at 20:01

The accepted answer is only correct for the NFL and college. Most high school rules and almost all pee-wee football rules allow for a second forward pass as long as the first pass is behind the line of scrimmage and the player receiving the pass stays behind the line of scrimmage until they (or another player the ball is handed to) make the second pass.

  • lateral and reverse have nothing to do with each other. Lateral is the act of throwing the ball behind you to another player. Reverse is a play that moves one way and then changes directions after giving the ball to a player moving in the opposite direction.

  • Anyone can pass the ball forward as long as they abide by the basic passing rules. Leagues may have special rules not allowing ineligible players throw the ball but that is not a fundamental rule of football.

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