In American football
a lateral pass
, officially referred to as a backward pass
, and an "onside pass" in Canadian football
; is a sideways or rearward throwing of the football. The pass cannot itself advance the ball, though of course the receiver can advance after catching it. This is distinguished from a forward pass
, which moves the ball in the direction of the opponent's end line. The rules allow forward passes to be thrown only by the offensive team during a scrimmage down before team possession has changed from in or behind the neutral zone.
There are no restrictions on the use of backward passes: any player may throw a backward pass from any position on the field, and any player may receive such a pass. If a backward pass is completed, and the receiver has not crossed the line of scrimmage, the receiver may in turn throw a forward pass, though only one forward pass is allowed per down. Moreover, any number of backward passes may be thrown on a single play, and after a turnover, the team recovering the ball may throw backward passes freely in an attempt to advance the ball, but cannot attempt any forward passes.
Unlike a forward pass, if a backward pass hits the ground or an official, play continues. Like a fumble
, a backward pass that has hit the ground may be recovered by either side. In NFL rules a backward pass other than the snap, if muffed by a receiver before it first touches the ground the ball becomes dead if an opponent recovers it after it touches the ground .
"forward lateral" is used to describe an attempted "lateral" (backward pass) that actually goes forward.
A variant, the hook and lateral, where a forward pass is immediately passed backward to a second receiver to fool the defense, is used on occasion.
In college football, the backward pass is used more extensively than in professional football, more in the same manner as is done in the two different sports of rugby union and rugby league.
Famous plays in history
The lateral pass rule has given rise to some of the most memorable and incredible plays in professional football history. Both collegiate and NFL football have certain examples of football lore which involve laterals. One famous college play involving the backward passes is simply known as The Play
. In the 1982 Big Game
and University of California, Berkeley
(also known as California or Cal), with four seconds left and trailing by one point, Cal ran the ball back on a kickoff
all the way for the game-winning touchdown using five backward passes, eventually running through the Stanford Band
who had already taken the field (assuming that the game was already over).
A well-known NFL lateral pass occurred during the Music City Miracle play at the end of the 2000 playoff game between the Tennessee Titans and the Buffalo Bills.
Another well known backward pass in the NFL was the River City Relay in a game between the New Orleans Saints and the Jacksonville Jaguars. With time winding down the Saints threw backward passes and brought it all the way down the field for a touchdown, but kicker John Carney missed the potentially game-tying extra point for the Saints, so the Saints lost 20–19.
In a Division III college football game on October 27 2007, Trinity University was trailing by two points with two seconds left in a game against conference rival Millsaps College. Starting from their own 40-yard line, Trinity called a play for a short pass across the middle. The receiver pitched the ball backward, with a sequence of additional backward passes as players were in danger of being tackled. The "Mississippi Miracle" ultimately included 15 backward passes as it covered 60 yards for the winning touchdown. The video of the play is available from the ESPN website.