Why are lateral passes so rare in the NFL?

I've seen quite a few situations in which it would seem advantageous.

For example in a 2v1, 2v2 setting when the ball carrier is about to be tackled, why not pass the football to another player who is wide open?

Is the risk of a fumble that high, even in a 3-10 yard pass? Or is it the risk of losing yards?

  • 1
    You probably want to watch some rugby and the number of times "simple" passes go astray - and that's from professionals who have to have lateral passes as a primary skill.
    – Philip Kendall
    Jan 1, 2015 at 14:39
  • 1
    @PhilipKendall - and the defense must only interrupt from the forward position. In football I can sit behind a player and wait for a lateral.
    – Coach-D
    Jan 8, 2015 at 16:21

5 Answers 5


Yes, I think the risk of turning the ball over would be fairly high. When one player is running with the ball, all of his teammates are probably trying to block for him. They may not be prepared to catch a lateral from him. There will also be defenders chasing him, and they may be in a position to intercept or knock away the lateral.

In addition, a player who wants to throw a lateral needs to turn his head around to see if any teammates are behind him who can catch the lateral. Then he needs to move the ball from his protective grasp into a position where he can throw it. This leaves the ball exposed, and since he's no longer paying attention to the defenders in front of him, they may be able to knock the ball loose if he doesn't throw the lateral in time.

There's also a risk of injury. When a player is running with the ball, he can see the defenders in front of him and can brace himself for a tackle. But if he turns his head around to see if he can lateral the ball, then he may get hit unexpectedly. This increases the chances of an injury.


Using this method often evolves into the read option play. This is more common in college football but has made its way into NFL playbooks on and off over the years. If used as part of a team's playbook, defensive coordinators on the opposing teams will prepare their team by developing plays where the have a "Spy" who plays man coverage on each potential ball carrier (A RB, a WR, and the QB). This most notable reason why this is not more prolific in the NFL is because you need multiple "options" who could be quality ball carriers. Many NFL teams employ a QB who is a strong "pocket passer" but does not have a strong suit in running the ball. Additionally, many NFL teams are reluctant to have their QB exposed to defensive hits for fear of injury. (see RGIII's first season in the league)


There are two types of passes in american footbal the forward pass and the backwards pass (laterals) Forward Passes: Only one forward pass per play is permitted and must be made prior to the ball crossing the line of scrimmage. A forward pass can be made without passing initial line of scrimmage. Gadet plays are used and must be executed properly to avoid penalty. EX. Player A passes to Player B who passes long downfield to Player C. A must throw pass before crossing LOS and B must catch behind spot of A's throw to legally throw to C.

Laterals must always be backwards and if ball touches ground it is considered a fumble and therefore either team can gain possession. Laterals are high-risk low-reward and rarely used outside of designed QB /HB option runs. Note: If player on Team A laterals and ball touches ground any player from Team B can advance ball for advantage but only the Team A player who made missed lateral can advance for advantage. .

  • This seems to be an explanation of the two types of pass in American Football, and doesn't actually answer the question at all.
    – Philip Kendall
    Jan 2, 2015 at 11:47
  • it answers by explaning a lateral is more a pitch and less a pass, and explains how the reward is not worth risk unless is last resort
    – Clown
    Jan 2, 2015 at 12:06
  • It asserts they are high risk, low reward. What data do you have to support this assertion?
    – Philip Kendall
    Jan 2, 2015 at 12:16
  • "Each lateral equated to an average gain of 0.92 EP per play". That sounds like they're a very good idea, not "high risk, low reward" (and yes, I do understand what EP means).
    – Philip Kendall
    Jan 2, 2015 at 12:54
  • What you quote is based on laterals made by defensive players following a turnover and does not include offensive plays in in statical breakdown. Also original question references "3-10 yard pass" which would require a forward pass (illegal forward pass) so describing passing types was answering question along with my "opinion" on risk/reward. Opinion since as no official lateral stats are kept to support my claim. But oartial data doea not equal fact making it as unreliable as opinion
    – Clown
    Jan 2, 2015 at 22:12

Laterals are more risky because of the nature of the rules. There's no incomplete lateral, the ball hits the ground it is a fumble. Pass interference rules don't apply, so the defender could hit the person trying to catch a lateral before the ball arrives. A player attempting a forward pass has more protection than someone attempting a lateral because they've declared themselves as a runner. You're no longer considered to be in a defenseless position.

In college, most triple option teams (those that lateral a lot) tend to lead the NCAA in rushing each season. 2014: Georgia Tech, Navy, Army, Airforce, Georgia Southern (converted to spread but runs the option) are all in the top 10 for team rushing.

I'm not sure the typical option play where it is fairly controlled who will be doing the lateraling (usually the QB) and under what circumstances (a targeted defender who is left unblocked) the ball is pitched/lateraled. Also, if you designate players to be behind the ball carrier, they're no longer blocking. It can be difficult to make the right choice and accurate lateral in a freelancing situation. I definitely wouldn't recommend it when running into the line because having so many defenders there, it is easier to disrupt the play from many angles.


I am not in much agreement with the answers you have gotten. I think there are three main issues with implementing laterals in the NFL.

  1. Most NFL players do not have the throwing/lateraling ability to do this. These are not NBA players. Some have trouble catching the ball let alone throwing it. Their strong suits are running and strength not hands skills. This could be improved greatly from practice as I have implemented plays with lateraling at the youth level - and after a while it does become natural. But now that the NFL has strict guidelines on practice you would never see this implemented as a weapon other than your trick play variety.

  2. From an offensive perspective the lateral puts the defense at an advantage. The person awaiting the lateral is not FULLY occupying a defender. Now ball carrier has their guy to beat and possibly another and at the very least has to make a decision. For this decision making process to happen fast it takes tons and tons of practice. I have coached every option imaginable from triple wing option to your run of the mill spread read option and the first few weeks of implementation are brutal.

  3. And then the biggest reason we won't see it much in the NFL - speed. The NFL players are just too fast. They cover too much space. Their speed vs. the speed at which the ball travels during a lateral is just too close. This goes along with why guys like Jay Cutler get paid a lot of money. He's not the smartest QB but GMs know the speed at which he throws the ball gives their offense an advantage in a very fast game.

  • NFL may have strict guidelines for team practice but individuals have an unlimited amount of time to practice a particular skill on their own or getting help from an external coach.
    – JeffO
    Jan 10, 2015 at 2:35

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