The NCAA and NFL’s Weird Line of Scrimmage/Forward Pass Rule

By: Brian Mangan

I was watching a replay of the Auburn-Alabama finale from the other night when I saw Auburn’s game-tying touchdown.  Impressive play.  However, my first thought (which you will see in the image below) was: “was the Auburn QB across the line of scrimmage when he threw the ball?”  My second thought was: “wait a second, what the hell is the actual rule?”


The quarterback is clearly in front of the line when he released the ball, and the ball is clearly in front of the line of scrimmage when it was released: so what’s the story here?  Wasn’t this ball clearly thrown from in front of the line of scrimmage?  The answer is yes, but this kind of action is not prohibited by the rules.

The rules in the NFL are notoriously unclear (perhaps that is why so many of them are lawyers) so I decided to take a look at the rulebook to see what the actual rule is.

According to the NFL website, under the definition of the “forward pass” and illegal forward pass, we read as follows:

(a) A forward pass thrown when the passer is beyond the line of scrimmage.

Note: It is a forward pass from beyond the line of scrimmage if the passer’s entire body and the ball are beyond the line of scrimmage when the ball is released, whether the passer is airborne or touching the ground. The penalty for a forward pass thrown from beyond the line is enforced from the spot where the ball is released.

The NCAA Rule is similar:

ARTICLE 2. A forward pass is illegal if: a. It is thrown by a Team A player whose entire body is beyond the neutral zone when he releases the ball.

In both cases, the passer’s entire body must be beyond the line of scrimmage (NFL) or neutral zone (NCAA). Nothing too ground-breaking here tonight, but it did come as a surprise to me that the rule was so liberal.

Knowing this, it’s actually a little surprising that quarterbacks are not more liberal with the line of scrimmage — all a QB (or a RB on an option) would have to do is keep one pinkie toe behind the line in order to legally throw the ball.  In fact, with this rule, you could technically get “sacked” for a gain.

So the next time you hear an announcer say that it matters where the ball is when it is thrown, or that it’s illegal because the quarterback has merely stepped over the line – you’ll know that they are wrong.

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Brian Mangan is an attorney and Giants fan living in New York City who has always been fascinated by the vagueness of the NFL rules.  He also doesn’t have a college football team that he roots for and is jealous of his friends who do.  

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Footnote:  This is not the first time the author has looked into a vague NFL (or in this case NCAA football) rule.  For those interested in the above topic, here’s another:

As a lawyer, this didn’t really satisfy me. Is the rule that the coach can’t challenge within two minutes of the end of a half? Or can he not challenge plays that BEGIN after the two minute warning? What about a play – like in this case – that begins before the two minute warning, but where the part of the play you want to challenge is AFTER 2:00 has passed? My understanding was always that if the play began before the two minute warning, it was on the coach to challenge the play. That’s a nice, bright-line rule.