By: Referee / George Demetriou – June,
Passes can be thrown from a spot near the goalline or the sideline. If the pass is legal (not grounding), it doesn’t matter whether the passer was in the end zone or the field of play. Near the sideline, a common issue is whether the passer was inbounds when he released the ball, especially when he is rolling out at full speed.
When it comes to catching a forward pass near a boundary line, there are many more variables. When the receiver is near a sideline, the questions are whether the play has been completed inbounds and had the player previously gone out of bounds. Receptions near the goalline may involve determining if a touchdown was scored, if the pass was intercepted, whether a safety or touchback occurred, or does the momentum exception apply.
Passes at the sideline. To complete a catch, the receiver must contact the ground inbounds with the ball in his possession prior to touching out of bounds unless he is caught and carried out of bounds by a defender so that his forward progress is stopped in the field of play. If the receiver is simply knocked out of bounds (regardless of direction), the pass is incomplete. When in question, the pass is incomplete (NFHS 2-4-1; NCAA 2-4-3a, AR 7-3-6 III).
Eligible pass receivers must stay inbounds. If an originally eligible receiver is blocked out of bounds, he must return at the first opportunity in NFHS (9-6-1) or immediately in NCAA (7-3-4 Exc.). In a practical sense those words mean the same thing. In those cases, it’s as if the receiver never went out at all. Players are not allowed to take advantage of being blocked out of bounds by “hiding” and then returning inbounds later to catch the pass.
However, if a receiver steps out of bounds, either inadvertently or deliberately, he loses his eligibility in NCAA and may not touch the forward pass inbounds before an official or a team B player touches the pass. If he does so, it is a foul for illegal touching, whether or not the touching is intentional. The penalty results in loss of the down at the previous spot (although it is a foul that could offset an opponent’s foul). Note that such a player does not commit a foul unless he touches a legal forward pass after he has established himself inbounds by touching the ground inbounds without simultaneously being out of bounds (2-27-15).
Under NFHS rules, a player who goes out of bounds without being blocked out may not return to the field of play (9-6-1). If he comes back before a change of possession, it is a foul for illegal participation and the 15-yard penalty is enforced under the all-but-one principle.
If a receiver touches a pass while he is out of bounds, it is simply an incomplete pass. A player is out of bounds when any part of his body touches anything other than another player or a game official on or outside a boundary line. In NCAA play, if such a player becomes airborne, he remains out of bounds until he touches the ground inbounds without simultaneously being out of bounds. However, under NFHS rules, if a player is not touching out of bounds, he is inbounds (NFHS 2-29-1; NCAA 2-27-15).
Play 1: A1 runs along the sideline and, after inadvertently stepping on the sideline, jumps. While in the air he (a) controls the ball and lands inbounds, or (b) bats the ball to A2, who catches the ball. A1 then lands out of bounds. Ruling 1: In NFHS, in (a) and (b), the pass is complete, but A1 is guilty of illegal participation in (a) because he returned inbounds. Under NCAA rules, the pass is incomplete in both (a) and (b) because the ball was touched by an out-of-bounds player.
Passes near the goalline. Possession of a live ball in the opponent’s end zone is a touchdown (NFHS 8-2-1; NCAA 8-2-1). When an airborne player gains control of a pass in the end zone (or anywhere else on the field), the ball is not immediately dead because the process of completing the catch is not finished.
An airborne player is a player not in contact with the ground because he leaps, jumps, dives, launches, etc., in other than normal running action. If he is airborne when he secures the ball, he must also return to the ground inbounds with any part of his body while maintaining possession of the ball. Any such player who strikes a pylon on his way to the ground has touched out of bounds and the pass is incomplete (NFHS 2-28-1; NCAA 4-2-1b).
When an airborne player over the end zone is contacted by a defender and comes to the ground in the field of play, the catch is completed. However, at that point the codes differ. In NFHS, the ball is dead when he completes the catch by touching the ground; thus, a touchdown is scored. Under NCAA rules, the ball is dead only if the player is down by rule as a result of the contact. If the receiver lands on his feet or is otherwise not down by rule when he returns to the ground, the catch is still completed when he touches the ground, but the ball does not become dead. If he regains his balance and attempts to advance, the play continues (5-1-3). Consequently, the play may or may not result in a touchdown.
Play 2: Fourth and goal on team B’s 10 yard line. A1 throws forward to A2, who jumps straight up. A2 gets a firm grip on the ball about one yard deep in team B’s end zone. A2 is airborne when shoved by B3 and lands on his feet at team B’s one yard line. After A2 regains his balance, he runs and is downed at team B’s five yard line. Ruling 2: In NFHS, that’s a touchdown. A2’s forward progress is in the end zone and the ball is dead when he comes to the ground (2.15.1). In NCAA, there is no score. It’s team A’s ball where the play ends: team B’s five yardline (AR 5-1-3 II).
If the ball becomes dead in team B’s end zone in possession of team B, it is a safety or a touchback depending upon which team supplied the force (NFHS) or impetus (NCAA) that put the ball into the end zone. Here is an illustrative play.
Play 3: A1’s pass is intercepted by B2 (a) in team B’s end zone, or (b) at team B’s two yardline. In either case, B2 retreats (no momentum) near the end line and is tackled there. Ruling 3: In (a), it is a touchback. The force that caused the ball to go into the end zone was the pass. In (b), it is a safety as the force or impetus belongs to B2, who voluntarily carried the ball into the end zone.
George Demetriou has been a football official since 1968. He lives in Colorado Springs, Colo.