Defining the Forward Pass

2nd Quarter

1-10 CIN 14 (14:51) 14-A.Dalton pass incomplete short left.  Play is not reviewable.


You know, for a play that’s generated as much anger, frustration, and controversy among Seahawks fans as this one has, it sure doesn’t look like much on paper.  Here’s a shot of it prior to the snap (sorry, only broadcast footage was available for this one):


The play starts off with the Bengals stuck deep in their own territory thanks to a great special teams tackle by newly-signed Seattle LB Heath Farwell.  Farwell is an excellent pickup for the team; he’s had some injury problems, but when healthy he’s one of the best special teamers in the NFL.  He went to the Pro Bowl in 2009 for his special teams play with the Vikings, and judging by his performance in this game it looks like he’s back to his old self.

(To continue reading, please click on “Read More” below.)



Rookie QB Andy Dalton takes the snap, drops back and to his right, and fakes a handoff to RB Brian Leonard.  The play-action fake isn’t flashy, but Dalton does it just well enough to make DE Raheem Brock, who is rushing free off the edge, pause for a moment to relocate the ball.  Had Brock not done that, the play would have likely resulted in a sack somewhere around the 8 yard line and saved all of us a lot of grief, but I digress.


After the fake, Dalton drops back another step or two and turns to his left.  The play is a screen pass to WR AJ Green, but Seahawks CB Richard Sherman is all over it.  At this point, the left tackle, #77 Andrew Whitworth, might still be able to block Sherman out of the play, but he’s still a few yards away and every second that goes by gives the Seahawks a better chance to disrupt the play.  Dalton pumps once, then pauses, and everyone waits to see what he does next.

They don’t have to wait long.  It’s not entirely clear what Dalton meant to do here — he might have been trying another pump fake, hoping that would somehow remove Sherman from the equation, or perhaps he was going to force the pass to Green but changed his mind at the last second.  Either way, the end result is a pass that zips almost straight backwards to the 3 yard line, where it bounces up and off an official before being recovered by Dalton a yard shy of a safety.  I know there’s been some discussion about whether or not the official intentionally blocked the football from going into the endzone, but after watching this play a few times it really looks to me like the official tried to get out of the way.  There’s no sign of malicious intent, just a supremely unathletic man with terrible reflexes1.

So far, so good for the Seahawks.  The rookie QB makes a rookie mistake, the play is ruled a backward pass, which means it counts as a fumble, and the Bengals are staring down the barrel of a 2nd and 23 from the 1 yard line.  But then the officials huddle up to talk amongst themselves for a bit, and when they emerge the pass is suddenly no longer a backward pass, which means it’s an incomplete forward pass instead.  The head ref mumbles something about the tuck rule, the Bengals end up with a much more pleasant 2nd and 10 from their own 14, and Seattle fans begin to hurl things at their televisions. 

We’ll get to whether or not the ruling was correct in a moment, but I think a big part of the problem here is that the officials did an incredibly poor job of explaining the call to the audience, and the TV announcers weren’t much help either.  Really though, the NFL as a whole is awful when it comes to teaching the rules of the game to fans, and the tuck rule is a prime example.  Most any NFL fan would be able to tell you that the tuck rule played a big part in deciding the outcome of the AFC Championship game following the 2001 season.  More specifically, the ruling negated a key fumble recovery for the Raiders, and the Patriots went on to win the game and advance to the Super Bowl. 

But even after playing such a pivotal role in a championship game, the vast majority of those fans still couldn’t tell you exactly what the tuck rule actually is beyond some vague idea that it magically turns fumbles into incompletions.  And why would they?  Not everyone has the time, patience, or interest to root around in the bowels of the internet for a few hours just to uncover a rulebook that’s years out of date, let alone keep at it long enough to find a current edition.  The tuck rule is buried in Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, which defines the forward pass:

Article 2 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 hands; 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.

Note 1: When a Team A Player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his hand starts a forward pass.  If a Team B player contacts the passer or the ball after forward movement begins, and the ball leaves the passer’s hand, a forward pass is ruled, regardless of where the ball strikes the ground or a player.

Note 2: When a Team A player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his hand starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body.  Also, if the player has tucked the ball into his body and then loses possession, it is a fumble.

Note 3: If the player loses possession of the ball while attempting to recock his arm, it is a fumble.

Note 4: A fumble or muff going forward is disregarded as to its direction, unless the act is ruled intentional.  In such cases the fumble is a forward pass (8-1-1) and the muff is a bat (12-1-8).

In plain English, all the tuck rule does is clarify when the throwing motion officially ends if the ball is not actually thrown (like, for example, on a pump fake).  The forward pass begins when the hand holding the ball begins to move forward, and doesn’t end until the passer has finished the motion by fully bringing the ball back in toward himself.  If the ball leaves his hand at any time during that motion for whatever reason — a defender knocks it loose, the QB loses his grip, etc. — the loose ball counts as a forward pass, so if it hits the ground it cannot be recovered as a fumble2. 

On further review, it’s unclear to me whether Dalton had actually started tucking the ball back toward his body when it left his hand, so I’m not sure that the tuck portion of the rule actually comes in to play.  However, that doesn’t really matter because, tuck or no tuck, Dalton was clearly still in the middle of a passing motion when the ball left his hands.  So then, if the pass was a forward pass, it would be correct to rule it as an incompletion instead of a fumble after it hit the ground.  But was it a forward pass?

At first glance, the rules appear to have just two criteria for establishing whether a pass is forward:

1) Did the pass travel farther upfield after it left the passer’s hand? and

2) Did the pass collide with any person, place, or thing farther upfield after it left the passer’s hand? 

If the answer to either of those questions is yes, then by rule it’s a forward pass.  With regard to Dalton’s pass, the answer is no on both counts — the pass flies on an obvious backward trajectory from the moment it leaves Dalton’s hand, and the first thing it hits is the ground roughly four yards behind the passer.

However, there’s a third criteria for forward passes buried in the first sentences of both Notes 1 and 2 (thanks goes to muttley for pointing this one out in the comment thread after the game):

When a Team A player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his hand starts a forward pass.

In other words,

3) Did the passer’s hand move farther upfield as it went through the passing motion?

If the answer is yes, then the throw still counts as a forward pass even if it fails to meet the first two criteria.  However, from what I saw while reviewing the play, Dalton’s passing motion was completely sideways the whole time — if his hand moved upfield at all, you’d need a micrometer to measure it, and I’m pretty sure that NFL rules were never meant to be enforced to the nearest hundred-thousandth of an inch.  Now, if the officials had based their ruling on the field position of the receiver Dalton was targeting instead of the movement of his hand, I could understand that — I would vehemently disagree with it, but I could at least see where they were coming from.  However, if you look at that last film still, you’ll see that Green isn’t upfield, he’s standing more or less on the same yard line as Dalton, so that explanation doesn’t work, either.

So, assuming I’m reading all this correctly, Dalton’s pass on this play fails to meet all three criteria laid out in the 2011 Official Playing Rules and Casebook of the National Football League.  In other words, the officials blew the call, and I’d love to know if it will be highlighted on the training tape the NFL sends out to the officiating crews this week.  It might not, though — judging by the officiating in the other games I watched on Sunday, they won’t have nearly enough space on the tape to fit in all the calls that were blown in week 8.

But enough about the refs.  Time and health permitting, tomorrow I’ll take a look ahead at the game against the Cowboys.  I may be slow, but I get there in the end3.




1 “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” -Napoleon Bonaparte

2 Since I brought it up earlier, I don’t believe the tuck rule play in the Patriots-Raiders championship game was properly called, either.  From what I’ve seen on replays, it looks like Tom Brady had already completed his throwing motion by fully tucking the ball into his body and had re-set himself before he was sacked from behind and lost the ball.  The play should have been ruled a fumble, not an incompletion.

3 Usually.