I was watching an American Football game the other day (can't remember which, but it was a re-run of an older game) and there were two incidences:

  1. The ball is snapped to the QB, he performs a fake hand-off to the RB, and fires a short pass over the top to a receiver. He gets about half a yard before he his tackled by a defender, and from the tackle, the ball comes loose. The ruling on the field was that the pass was incomplete.

  2. Similar play. The ball is snapped to the QB, who trows a quick pass to a receiver, who is again tackled within a yard of receiving the ball, and the ball comes loose. However this time the ruling was that it was a fumble (which was recovered by the offensive team).

What is the reasoning behind the two different calls for such similar incidences?

  • possible duplicate of What is a "football move" in the NFL?
    – Philip Kendall
    Commented Jan 10, 2015 at 14:29
  • In particular, the answer to that suggested duplicate explains when a pass is considered complete.
    – Philip Kendall
    Commented Jan 10, 2015 at 14:30
  • 2
    @PhilipKendall It's close, but I'd say it is a slightly different question that has an almost identical answer.
    – Ben Miller
    Commented Jan 10, 2015 at 15:36
  • Both questions are about what makes a pass complete. Perhaps a little judicious editing is in order?
    – Philip Kendall
    Commented Jan 10, 2015 at 19:12
  • 1
    Should maybe be cited as related, but not identical question. The other question is more terminological, while this one is more rules.
    – neuronet
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 19:11

3 Answers 3


The difference between an "incompletion" and a "completion followed by a fumble" is in the rules for a completion.

A completion has to meet three criteria:

  1. The receiver needs to gain control of the ball.
  2. The receiver needs to have both feet or any other body part (except hands) on the ground inbounds.
  3. The receiver needs to maintain control of the ball long enough to make a "football move."

If any of these three criteria are not met, it is an incompletion. If all three are met, it is a completion, and if the ball is dropped, a fumble.

From the 2013 Official Playing Rules of the NFL, 8.1.3:


Article 3 Completed or Intercepted Pass. A player who makes a catch may advance the ball. A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) if a player, who is inbounds:

(a) secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and

(b) touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and

(c) maintains control of the ball long enough, after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, to enable him to perform any act common to the game (i.e., maintaining control long enough to pitch it, pass it, advance with it, or avoid or ward off an opponent, etc.).

Note 1: It is not necessary that he commit such an act, provided that he maintains control of the ball long enough to do so.

Note 2: If a player has control of the ball, a slight movement of the ball will not be considered a loss of possession. He must lose control of the ball in order to rule that there has been a loss of possession.


An incomplete pass cannot be fumbled, so technically speaking an incomplete pass never becomes a fumble. Rather, we have two scenarios:

  1. The pass was incomplete, in which case it is impossible to fumble it (to fumble you have to have possession).
  2. The pass was complete, in which case it is possible to fumble it.

The criteria for completion, or gaining possession of a passed ball, are nicely outlined in Ben Miller's answer. A fumble is simply defined as a loss of possession. From the NFL rules:

FUMBLE Article 4 A Fumble is any act, other than a pass or kick, which results in loss of player possession. The term Fumble always implies possession.

Emphasis added.


The accepted answer covers the rules. I will give you what referees look for.

  • The two feet on the ground are a given.
  • A football move means the player is attempting to do something. So if I jumped as high as I could caught the ball with hands over my helmet and then got rocked as I hit the ground. That is the most obvious example of an incomplete due to no football move.

So there are basically two points of emphasis on the short-term completion.

  1. Does the referee believe the player had intent to move and did the move start? This could be as little a player twitching in a direction to start a fake. This can be really hard to tell for receivers receiving a big hit.

  2. Did the player maintain absolute control the entire sequence? This is actually what is the difference between a complete and incomplete pass especially with replay in place. All it takes is a ball to squirm a little in the hands and boom, we need ANOTHER two feet on the ground and ANOTHER football move.

  • 1
    Well "football move" is really defined as the time to make a move, not the actual making of a move. You could stand there, doing nothing, but if it were long enough for you to do something, then that is enough. From the rules: "It is not necessary that he commit such an act, provided that he maintains control of the ball long enough to do so." (sports.stackexchange.com/questions/7392/…).
    – neuronet
    Commented Jan 14, 2015 at 3:57
  • @neuronet - that is fine to note that but that literally never happens. When discussing a close play this might be 1%.
    – Coach-D
    Commented Jan 14, 2015 at 4:31
  • Yes, I pointed out a corner case that is likely to happen never. :) It's a conceptual point....
    – neuronet
    Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 18:03

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