In several forms of football a forward pass is when the ball is thrown in the direction of the opponent's end line.
In American and Canadian football, a forward pass — usually called simply a pass — consists of one offensive player throwing the football towards another downfield in the direction of the opponent's end line. This is permitted only once during a scrimmage down by the offensive team before team possession has changed, provided the pass is thrown from in or behind the neutral zone. An illegal forward pass incurs a 5 yard penalty and the loss of a down.
If an eligible receiver on the passing team legally catches the ball it is a complete pass and the receiver may attempt to advance the ball. If an opposing player legally catches the ball (all defensive players are eligible receivers) it is an interception. That player's team immediately gains possession of the ball and he may attempt to advance the ball toward his opponent's goal. If no player is able to legally catch the ball it is an incomplete pass and the ball becomes dead the moment it touches the ground. It will then be returned to the original line of scrimmage for the next down. If any player interferes with an eligible receiver's ability to catch the ball it is pass interference which is a foul.
The moment that a forward pass begins is important to the game. The pass begins the moment the passer's arm begins to move forward. If the passer drops the ball before this moment it is a fumble and therefore a loose ball. In this case anybody can gain possession of the ball before or after it touches the ground. In Canadian football, if the passer drops the ball while his arm is moving forward it is an incomplete pass (unless someone catches the ball before it hits the ground in which case it is a completed pass or an interception). Under American football's tuck rule, if the quarterback is attempting to bring the ball back to his body after starting a passing motion, a lost ball may be considered an incomplete pass even if the quarterback's arm is moving backward at the time.
The quarterback generally either starts a few paces behind the line of scrimmage or drops back a few paces as the ball is snapped. This places him (or her) in an area called the "pocket" which is a protective region formed by the offensive blockers up front and between the tackles on each side. A quarterback who runs out of this pocket is said to be scrambling. Under NFL and NCAA rules, once the quarterback moves out of the pocket, and there is no good option for a forward pass, the ball may be legally thrown away to prevent a sack. NFHS (High School) rules do not allow for a passer to intentionally throw an incomplete forward pass to save loss of yardage or conserve time, except for a spike to conserve time after a hand to hand snap. If he throws the ball away while still in the pocket then a foul called "grounding" is assessed.
If a forward pass is caught near a sideline or endline it is only a complete pass (or an interception) if a receiver catches the ball in bounds. For a pass to be ruled in bounds, the receiver's feet must be in contact with the in bounds portion of the playing field, or, if the ball is caught in the air, either one or two feet must touch the ground within the field boundaries, after the ball is caught. In the NFL the receiver must touch the ground with both feet, but in most other codes—CFL, NCAA and high school—one foot in bounds is enough.
Common to all gridiron codes is the notion of control - a receiver must demonstrate control of the ball in order to be ruled in possession of it, while still in bounds, as defined by his code. If the receiver catches the ball but the official determines that he was still "bobbling" it prior to the end of the play, then the pass will be ruled incomplete.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill used the forward pass in an 1895 game against the University of Georgia. However, the play was still illegal at the time. Bob Quincy stakes Carolina's claim in his 1973 book They Made the Bell Tower Chime:
John Heisman, namesake of the Heisman Trophy, wrote 30 years later that, indeed, the Tar Heels had given birth to the forward pass against the Bulldogs (UGA). It was conceived to break a scoreless deadlock and give UNC a 6–0 win. The Carolinians were in a punting situation and a Georgia rush seemed destined to block the ball. The punter, with an impromptu dash to his right, tossed the ball and it was caught by George Stephens, who ran 70 yards for a touchdown.
In a 1905 experimental game, Gregorian reports, Washburn and what would become Wichita State used the pass before new rules allowing the play were approved in early 1906. 1905 had been a bloody year on the gridiron; the Chicago Tribune reported 18 players had been killed and 159 seriously injured that season. There were moves to abolish the game. But President Theodore Roosevelt personally intervened and demanded that the rules of the game be reformed. In a meeting of more than 60 schools in late 1905, the commitment was made to make the game safer. This meeting was the first step in the establishment of what would become the NCAA.
"Cochems said that the poor Iowa showing resulted from its use of the old style play and its failure to effectively use the forward pass", Nelson writes. "Iowa did attempt two basketball-style forward passes."
"During the 1906 season [Robinson] threw a sixty-seven yard pass ... and ... Schneider tossed a sixty-five yarder. Considering the size, shape and weight of the ball, these were extraordinary passes."
Because St. Louis was geographically isolated from both the dominating teams and the major sports media (newspapers) of the era ... all centered in and focused on the East ... Cochems' groundbreaking offensive strategy was not picked up by the major teams. Pass-oriented offenses would not be adopted by the Eastern football powers until the next decade.
But that does not mean that other teams in the Midwest did not pick it up. Arthur Schabinger, quarterback for the College of Emporia was reported to regularly use the forward pass as early as 1910 under coach Homer Woodson Hargiss in a 17–0 victory over Washburn University. The "Presbies" used the forward pass to defeat Pittsburg State University that year by a score of 107–0.
According to National Football League history, it legalized the forward pass from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage on February 25, 1933. Before that rule change, a forward pass had to be made from 5 or more yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Forward passes were first permitted in Canadian football in 1929, but the tactic remained a minor part of the game for several years. Jack Jacobs of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers is recognized, not for inventing the forward pass, but for popularizing it in the Western Interprovincial Football Union, thus changing the Canadian game from a more run-dominated game to the passing game as seen today.
In the two codes of rugby (union and league) a forward pass is against the rules. If the referee deems it accidental (as it nearly always is), this results in a scrum to the opposing team; however, deliberate forward passes result in a penalty.
The team in possession must get behind the ball carrier or be ruled offside. Offside players will not be penalised as long as they remain inactive but if the ball is thrown to them then they become active and thus a scrum or penalty is awarded to the opposition. To minimise the chances of this happening and to support the ball carrier, team-mates try to stay behind the player with the ball.
A forward pass is defined in terms of whether the ball leaves the hand of the thrower in a forwards direction or not. Players may not even drop the ball forwards which would also result in a scrum.