American and Canadian football
, a forward pass, usually referred to simply as a pass, consists of a player throwing the football towards the opponent's goal line. This is permitted only once during a
by the offensive team before team possession has changed, provided the pass is thrown from in or behind the
. An illegal forward pass can incur a yardage penalty and the loss of a down, although it may be legally intercepted by the opponents and advanced.
eligible receiver on the passing team legally catches the ball, the pass is completed 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
the moment it touches the ground. It will then be returned to the original line of scrimmage for the next
. If any player interferes with an eligible receiver's ability to catch the ball it is
pass interference which draws a penalty of varying degree (largely depending upon the particular league's rules).
The person passing the ball must be a member of the
offensive team, and the recipient of the forward pass must be an
eligible receiver and must touch the passed ball before any ineligible player.
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
. In this case anybody can gain possession of the ball before or after it touches the ground. If the passer drops the ball while his arm is moving forward it is a forward pass, regardless of where the ball lands or is first touched.
Matt Hasselbeck drops back to pass.
The quarterback generally either starts a few paces behind the line of scrimmage or drops back a few paces after the ball is snapped. This places him 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 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 "intentional grounding" is assessed. In
the passer must simply throw the ball across the line of scrimmage—whether he is inside or outside of the "pocket"—to avoid the foul of "intentionally grounding".
If a forward pass is caught near a sideline or endline it is a complete pass (or an interception) only if a receiver catches the ball in bounds. For a pass to be ruled complete in-bounds, depending on the rules either one or two feet must touch the ground within the field boundaries, after the ball is first grasped. In the
the receiver must touch the ground with both feet, but in most other codes—
NCAA and high school—one foot in bounds is enough.
Common to all
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 handles 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.
Early illegal and experimental passes
The forward pass had been attempted at least 30 years before the play was actually made legal. Passes "had been carried out successfully but illegally several times, including the 1876
Princeton game in which Yale's
Walter Camp threw forward to teammate Oliver Thompson as he was being tackled. Princeton's protest, one account said, went for naught when the referee 'tossed a coin to make his decision and allowed the touchdown to stand' ".
used the forward pass in an 1895 game against the
. 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
, who ran 70 yards for a touchdown.
Washburn University and Fairmount College (what would become
Wichita State) used the pass before new rules allowing the play were approved in early 1906.
 Credit for the first pass goes to Fairmount's Bill Davis, who completed a pass to Art Solter.
1906 rule change
A pass at the 1921 Georgia Tech-Auburn game.
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 outlaw the game, but United States 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 toward the establishment of what would become the
NCAA and was followed by several sessions to work out "the new rules."
The final meeting of the Rules Committee tasked with reshaping the game was held on April 6, 1906, at which time the forward pass officially became a legal play.
 The New York Times reported in September 1906 on the rationale for the changes: "The main efforts of the football reformers have been to 'open up the game'—that is to provide for the natural elimination of the so-called mass plays and bring about a game in which speed and real skill shall supersede so far as possible mere brute strength and force of weight."
 However, the Times also reflected widespread skepticism as to whether the forward pass could be effectively integrated into the game: "There has been no team that has proved that the forward pass is anything but a doubtful, dangerous play to be used only in the last extremity."
John Heisman was instrumental in the rules' acceptance. The forward pass was not allowed in Canadian football until 1929.
First legal pass
Most sources credit
St. Louis University's
Bradbury Robinson from
Bellevue, Ohio with throwing the first legal forward pass. On September 5, 1906, in a game against
Carroll College, Robinson's first attempt at a forward pass fell incomplete and resulted in a turnover under the 1906 rules.
 In the same game, Robinson later completed a 20-yard touchdown pass to
Jack Schneider. The 1906 St. Louis team, coached by
Eddie Cochems, was undefeated at 11–0 and featured the most potent offense in the country, outscoring their opponents 407–11. Football authority and
David M. Nelson wrote that "E. B. Cochems is to forward passing what the
Wright brothers are to aviation and
Thomas Edison is to the electric light."
While St. Louis University completed the first legal forward pass in the first half of September, this accomplishment was in part because most schools did not begin their football schedule until early October.
In 1952, football coaching legend
Amos Alonzo Stagg discounted accounts crediting any particular coach with being the innovator of the forward pass. Stagg noted that he had
Walter Eckersall working on pass plays and saw Pomeroy Sinnock of Illinois throw many passes in 1906. Stagg summed up his view as follows: "I have seen statements giving credit to certain people originating the forward pass. The fact is that all coaches were working on it. The first season, 1906, I personally had sixty-four different forward pass patterns."
 In 1954, Stagg disputed Cochems' claim to have invented the forward pass:
"Eddie Cochems, who coached at St. Louis University in 1906, also claimed to have invented the pass as we know it today ... It isn't so, because after the forward pass was legalized in 1906, most of the schools commenced experimenting with it and nearly all used."
Stagg asserted that, as far back as 1894, before the rules committee even considered the forward pass, one of his players used to throw the ball "like a baseball pitcher."
On the other hand,
Gus Dorais told the
United Press that "Eddie Cochems of the St. Louis University team of 1906–07–08 deserves the full credit."
 Writing in
Collier's more than 20 years earlier, Dorais' Notre Dame teammate
Knute Rockne acknowledged Cochems as the early leader in the use of the pass, observing, "One would have thought that so effective a play would have been instantly copied and become the vogue. The East, however, had not learned much or cared much about Midwest and Western football. Indeed, the East scarcely realized that football existed beyond the Alleghanies ..."
In his history of the game, historian David Nelson concluded that the first forward passes were thrown on Christmas Day 1905 in a match between two small colleges in Kansas: "Although Cochems was the premier passing coach during the first year of the rule, the first forward passes were thrown at the end of the 1905 season in a game between Fairmount and Washburn colleges in Kansas."
 According to Nelson, Washburn completed three passes, and Fairmount completed two.
Once the 1906 season got underway, many programs began experimenting with the forward pass. On September 26, 1906, Villanova's game against the Carlisle Indians was billed as "the first real game of football under the new rules."
 In the first play from scrimmage after the opening kicks, Villanova completed a pass that "succeeded in gaining ten yards."
 Following the Villanova-Carlisle game, The New York Times described the new passing game this way:
"The passing was more of the character of that familiar in basket ball than that which has hitherto characterized football. Apparently it is the intention of football coaches to try repeatedly these frequent long and risky passes. Well executed they are undoubtedly highly spectacular, but the risk of dropping the ball is so great as to make the practice extremely hazardous and its desirability doubtful."
Another coach sometimes credited with popularizing the overhead
pass in 1906 is former
"Bosey" Reiter. Reiter claimed to have invented the overhead spiral pass while playing professional football as a player-coach for
Philadelphia Athletics of the original
 While playing for the Athletics, Reiter was a teammate of Hawley Pierce, a former star for the
Carlisle Indian School. Pierce, a
Native American, taught Reiter to throw an underhand spiral pass, but Reiter had short arms and was unable to throw for distance from an underhand delivery. Accordingly, Reiter began working on an overhand spiral pass.
 Reiter recalled trying to imitate the motion of a baseball catcher throwing to second base. After practice and experimentation, Reiter "discovered he could get greater distance and accuracy throwing that way."
 In 1906, Reiter was the head coach at
Wesleyan University. In the opening game of the 1906 season against
Yale, Reiter's quarterback Sammy Moore completed a forward pass to Irvin van Tassell for a thirty-yard gain. The New York Times called it "the prettiest play of the day", as Wesleyan's quarterback "deftly passed the ball past the whole Yale team to his mate Van Tassel."
 Van Tassel later described the historic play to the
"I was the right halfback, and on this formation played one yard back of our right tackle. The quarterback, Sam Moore, took the ball from center and faded eight or 10 yards back of our line. Our two ends angled down the field toward the sidelines as a decoy, and I slipped through the strong side of our line straight down the center and past the secondary defense. The pass worked perfectly. However, the quarterback coming up fast nailed me as I caught it. This brought the ball well into Yale territory, about the 20-yard line."
The football season opened for most schools during the first week of October, and the impact of the forward pass was immediate:
- On October 3, 1906, the
Des Moines Daily News reported "probably the first use" of the "long forward pass" in the
23–4 win over
Kirksville Normal School.
- On October 4, 1906,
opened its season with a 22–0 win over
Stevens. Press accounts indicate that Princeton put the forward pass to good use, as "old-time football gave way to the new game."
- On October 4, 1906, the
Susquehanna University 40–0, as "the forward pass was used for a number of good gains."
- On October 4, 1906,
Bowdoin 10–0 "in a hard-fought contest that was featured by a newfangled and daring forward pass that Crimson worked in the closing minutes of play."
- On October 4, 1906,
, scoring the game's only touchdown on a forward pass by Waters.
Some publications credit
Paul Veeder with the "first forward pass in a major game." Veeder threw a 20 to 30-yard completion in leading Yale past
Harvard 6–0 before 32,000 fans in
New Haven on November 24, 1906.
 However, that Yale/Harvard game was played three weeks after St. Louis completed 45 and 48-yard passes against
before a crowd of 7,000 at
New style of play
The forward pass was a central feature of Cochems' offensive scheme in 1906 as his St. Louis University team compiled an undefeated 11–0 season in which they outscored opponents by a combined score 407 to 11. The highlight of the campaign was St. Louis' 39–0 win over
Iowa. Cochems' team reportedly completed eight passes in ten attempts for four touchdowns. "The average flight distance of the passes was twenty yards." Nelson continues, "the last play demonstrated the dramatic effect that the forward pass was having on football. St. Louis was on Iowa's thirty-five-yard line with a few seconds to play. Timekeeper Walter McCormack walked onto the field to end the game when the ball was thrown twenty-five yards and caught on the dead run for a touchdown."
The 1906 Iowa game was refereed by one of the top football officials in the country,
West Point's Lt.
Horatio B. "Stuffy" Hackett.
 He had officiated games involving the top Eastern powers that year. Hackett, who would become a member of the football rules committee in December 1907
 and officiated games into the 1930s,
 was quoted the next day in Ed Wray's
 Globe-Democrat article: "It was the most perfect exhibition ... of the new rules ... that I have seen all season and much better than that of Yale and Harvard. St. Louis' style of pass differs entirely from that in use in the east. ... The St. Louis university players shoot the ball hard and accurately to the man who is to receive it ... The fast throw by St. Louis enables the receiving player to dodge the opposing players, and it struck me as being all but perfect."
Hackett is the only known expert witness to the passing offenses of both Cochems' 1906 squads and that of Stagg, who dismissed any special role for the St. Louis coach in the development of the pass. Hackett was an official in games involving both teams. As Wray recalled almost 40 years later: "Hackett told this writer that in no other game that he handled had he seen the forward pass as used by St. Louis U. nor such bewildering variations of it."
"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."
In 1907, after the first season of the forward pass, one football writer noted that, "with the single exception of Cochems, football teachers were groping in the dark."
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
Kansas, was reported to have regularly used the forward pass in 1910. Coach
H. W. "Bill" Hargiss' "Presbies" are said to have featured the play in a 17–0 victory over
 and in a 107–0 destruction of
Pittsburg State University.
Pop Warner at
Frank Mount Pleasant, one of the first regular
pass quarterbacks in football.
Rockne running away from Army after a pass from Dorais, 1913.
Knute Rockne and
Gus Dorais worked on the pass while lifeguarding on a
Lake Erie beach at
Cedar Point in
Sandusky, Ohio, during the summer of 1913.
 That year,
head coach, also showed how the pass could be used by a smaller team to beat a bigger one, first utilizing it to defeat rival
. After it was used against a major school on a national stage in this game, the forward pass rapidly gained popularity.
Notre Dame teams had
George Gipp, an ideal handler of the forward pass,
 who threw for 1,789 yards.
John Mohardt led the
to a 10-1 record with 781 rushing yards, 995 passing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns, and nine passing touchdowns.
Grantland Rice wrote that "Mohardt could throw the ball to within a foot or two of any given space" and noted that the 1921 team was the first at Notre Dame "to build its attack around a forward passing game, rather than use a forward passing game as a mere aid to the running game."
 Mohardt had both
Eddie Anderson and
Roger Kiley at
to receive his passes.
Increase in popularity
Pudge Wyman and
Bert Baston of Minnesota were "one of the greatest forward-passing combinations in the history of the gridiron."
1921 Rose Bowl,
Brick Muller completed a touchdown against
which went 53 yards in the air, a feat previously thought impossible.
In a 1925, 62–13 victory over
Andy Oberlander had 477 yards in total offense, including six touchdown passes,
 a Dartmouth record which still stands. He was responsible for some 500 yards of total offense.
 Cornell coach
Gil Dobie responded "We won the game 13–0, passing is not football."
Fielding H. Yost's favorite and featured the passing tandem of
Benny Friedman and
Dan McGugin coached
Vanderbilt and was one of the first emphasize the forward pass.
1907 team beat
double pass play
Grantland Rice cited as his biggest thrill in his years of watching sports.
1927 team was piloted by
Bill Spears, who threw for over a thousand yards. According to one writer, Vanderbilt produced "almost certainly the legit top Heisman candidate in Spears, if there had been a
Heisman Trophy to award in 1927."
 McGugin disciple and former quarterback
Ray Morrison brought the pass to the southwest when he coached
Gerald Mann at
First pass in a professional game
The first forward pass in a professional football game may have been thrown in an
Ohio League game played on October 25, 1906. The Ohio League, which traced its history to the 1890s, was a direct predecessor of today's
. According to Robert W. Peterson in his book Pigskin The Early Years of Pro Football, the "passer was
George W. (Peggy) Parratt, probably the best quarterback of the era", who played for the
Massillon, Ohio Tigers, one of pro football's first franchises.
 Citing the
as his source, Peterson writes that "Parratt completed a short pass to end Dan Riley (real name,
Dan Policowski)" in a game played at
Massillon against a team from West Virginia. Since the Tigers "ran up a 61 to 0 score on the hapless Mountain Staters, the pass played no important part in the result."
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
in the early 1950s, thus changing the Canadian game from a more run-dominated game to the passing game as seen today.
Change in ball shape
Changes in ball shape over time.
Specification of the size of the
for the American game came in 1912, but it was still essentially a
. Increased use of the forward pass encouraged adoption of a narrower ball, starting with changes in the 1920s which enhanced rifled throwing and also spiral punting.
 This had the consequence of all but eliminating the
drop kick from the American game.