What happens when the quarterback attempts a pass?

In an ideal pass, the quarterback will throw the ball down the field and a wide receiver or tight end will catch it for a gain. The end!

Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Sometimes, things go awry... Here are some of the other situations that might happen when the QB attempts a pass.

This is an incomplete pass, because he drops the ball and goes out of bounds before he gets control of the football.

This is an incomplete pass, because he drops the ball and goes out of bounds before he gets control of the football.

What is an incomplete pass?  When the quarterback attempts to throw the ball but it hits the ground, goes out of bounds, or a player misses the catch, that's called an incomplete pass. Once a pass is ruled incomplete, then the game clock stops and the next down starts at the same place as the last possession. Basically, an incomplete pass burns a down.

This is intentional grounding, because the quarterback throws the ball out of bounds and there is no one on his team to which he could possibly be passing.

This is intentional grounding, because the quarterback throws the ball out of bounds and there is no one on his team to which he could possibly be passing.

What is intentional grounding?  Sometimes when the QB throws the ball and no one catches it, the refs will call the penalty of "intentional grounding."  Intentional grounding looks similar to an incomplete pass, but when the QB throws the football there are no receivers anywhere in the general vicinity. Most of the time, a QB will do this when he’s about to get sacked. Instead of going down and taking negative yards on the play, he’ll desperately try to throw to someone on his team, into the dirt, or out of bounds. If this penalty didn’t exist, the missed throw would just be an “incomplete pass,” and the next down would start at the same place. But with the penalty, the offense loses a down and has to start its next possession 10 yards back.  

The QB is throwing the ball away because he scrambles to the right before tossing the ball out of bounds.

The QB is throwing the ball away because he scrambles to the right before tossing the ball out of bounds.

What can the QB do if he can't intentionally ground the ball?  If a QB is facing a lot of pressure from the defense, then he has a couple of options to avoid getting sacked: (1) he can either slide onto the ground and the next down will start where he landed; or (2) he can throw the ball away. What is throwing the ball away?  Throwing the ball away looks a lot like an incomplete pass or intentional grounding because the QB is throwing the ball out of bounds, which can make it a little confusing. The big difference is that QB must run outside the pocket, aka to the left or right along the line of scrimmage, beyond the area where his offensive line defends him. Then he can throw the ball out of bounds, as long as he throws it beyond the line of scrimmage. Just like in an incomplete pass, the game clock stops and the next down starts at the same place as the last possession.

This is a fumble, because the ball got knocked out of the QB's hands while his arm was still moving backwards. Afterwards, everyone on both teams dive to try and get control of the ball.

This is a fumble, because the ball got knocked out of the QB's hands while his arm was still moving backwards. Afterwards, everyone on both teams dive to try and get control of the ball.

What is a fumble?  A fumble happens when any player, who has possession of the football, drops it or gets it knocked out of his hands. Then the ball is considered "live" meaning it is still in play. Both sides will dive for the ball and try and get possession of it. That's why you see those big pile ups of players scratching and clawing until the refs pull them away to see who came away with the football. If the other team gains possession that's called a turnover.

Usually a fumble will happen to a running back, receiver or tight end, but sometimes it can happen to a quarterback. If the QB is in the process of throwing the ball, but it gets knocked out of his hands as he's making a forward motion, that's considered an incomplete pass. But if the ball gets knocked out while the QB's arm is still moving in its backswing, then it's a fumble.

What is an interception?  If the QB throws the ball but a player from the defense catches it before it hits the ground that's called an interception.

Red Zone

What is the red zone?  When you hear people talking about the "red zone," that's usually a good time to start paying attention. The red zone is the area between the 20-yard line and the goal, so when a team makes it into the red zone it is really close to scoring.  

When a team has a high "red zone percentage" that means they are good at scoring touchdowns once they get to the red end zone.


Delay of Game

What is a delay of game penalty?  Every team on offense has a certain amount of time in between plays. If the team doesn't snap the ball before time runs out, it will be penalized 5 yards. 

How long do they have to snap the ball?  Usually, the clock runs continuously, so the time in between plays is 40 seconds from the end of the previous down. But in certain circumstances the clock will stop, like when there is a change of possession, penalty, time-out, or 2-minute warning. When the referees whistle the ball ready for play the clock will restart and the team on offense will have 25 seconds to snap the ball.



What is a touchback?  If the ball is kicked into the end zone during a kickoff or punt, you might see the kick/punt returner take a knee to signal for a touchback. Taking a knee is exactly what it sounds like, the player who catches the ball gets down into proposal position in the end zone. Once a touchback is called, no one can tackle the kick/punt returner and the offense will start its first down at its 25-yard line.

Why did they start this rule?  The kick/punt return is one of the most dangerous parts of the game. Defenders are running towards the kick/punt returner at full speed from far away, which can lead to serious injuries.  The idea is to make touchbacks more attractive to reduce these dangerous tackles. With the 25-yard incentive more kick/punt returners will make a calculated decision to take a knee instead of running out of the end zone to risk advancing fewer than 25 yards.

In the NFL, the trend has been to move the touchback line closer to the opposing end zone.  For example, during the 2016 season, the NFL is temporarily moving the touchback to the 25-yard line from the 20-yard line to test it out whether this reduces injuries.  

Critics say that the rule change won't make a big difference because kickers and punters will just get better at targeting their kicks. They will try to aim their kicks so that the footballs drop between the end zone and 25-yard line.  That way the kick/punt returner won't have the option of signaling for a touchback, because you can only take a knee if the ball is caught in the end zone.

Flea Flicker

What's a flea flicker?  A flea flicker is a trick play that takes advantage of football's forwards and backwards passing rules. In it, the quarterback will hand the ball to a running back, who will run forward just like he usually does. The defenders will follow the ball and try to tackle him. Before the defenders close in, the running back will stop and throw the ball backwards to the now open quarterback.  From there, the quarterback can make a forwards pass an open wide receiver or tight end as long as he is behind the line of scrimmage.

Check out this example:

Fair Catch

What is a fair catch?  A fair catch is a signal that the player catching the ball from a kickoff or punt uses to tell the other team and referees that the offense is choosing not to run the ball. He waves his arm over his head like in the image below. Once he's signaled for a fair catch, no defender is allowed to tackle him and the offense will start playing where the ball landed.  If a defender accidentally tackles him after he's signaled for a fair catch, it is a big 15-yard penalty, meaning the offense gets to start 15-yards closer to the goal line.

Why signal for a fair catch?  The kicker or punter is trying to kick the ball as far as possible down the field. He wants the ball to hang in the air as long as possible so his other teammates can run down the field and start defending against a big kick/punt return. While the kick/punt returner is waiting for the ball to drop, he gets a chance to scope out where the defenders are. If they are all closing in and there doesn't seem like a great opportunity for a run, he'll signal for a fair catch. That way he avoids getting tackled. Some of the biggest injuries can happen on kick returns because the defenders have been running at full speed from many yards away. They build up momentum and a big collision/tackle can have dangerous results.

Forward Pass

What is a forward pass?  A forward pass happens whenever the offense throws the football towards their opponent's endzone.  The player throwing the ball must be behind the line of scrimmage and he must be throwing towards an "eligible receiver" (basically, a fancy way of saying any player who is not an offensive lineman; eligible receivers also include all players on defense).  If the ball is tapped or touched by an eligible receiver, then the ball is live and can be touched by any player.

What's the difference between forward passes and backwards passes?  There can only be one forward pass per play, whereas there can be unlimited numbers of backwards or lateral passes. Sometimes, you will see an "illegal forward pass" called when the offense is trying to throw the ball laterally across the field, but accidentally throws it forward for a second time, like in the play below. If this happens, there is a 5-yard penalty.  The down is reset, and replayed again.

Face Mask Penalty

What's a face mask penalty?  A face mask penalty is exactly what it sounds like. It happens when a player grabs and twists or pulls down on another player's face mask, while making a tackle like in the image below.  It results in a pretty severe 15-yard penalty, because it is so dangerous.

Before 2008, the NFL used to give out another type of less severe 5-yard penalty, if a player accidentally grabbed and released another player's face mask. Now, incidental grabbing of the face mask is not penalized, because the NFL wants to encourage players to quickly release in the event of an accidental face mask grab.

face mask


What is coverage?  Coverage is the defense's basic scheme or formation to try and defend against a pass.  There are two basic types of coverage with some variations:

What is man-to-man coverage?

Man-to-man coverage means that each defensive back or linebacker is assigned to guard one offensive player.  This type of coverage is best for very quick defensive players, especially fast and athletic cornerbacks that can keep up with wide receivers. 



What is zone coverage?

Zone coverage means that each defensive player has been assigned to defend a particular area of the field instead of a particular player. In this coverage, the defenders have a head start, so they don't need to be quite so fast to keep toe-to-toe with wide receivers on their routes. Instead, they will keep their eyes on the quarterback and see if they can anticipate and stop passes from materializing.

Bubble Screen

What's a bubble screen? A bubble screen is a quick play, where a wide receiver lines up to the far right or left along the line of scrimmage.  Once the ball is snapped, the defense moves in to rush the quarterback, but the quarterback quickly passes to the wide receiver. Hopefully, he will be left with an open path to advance up the field, like in the image below.

What is a bubble screen?


What is a blitz?  In the simplest terms, a blitz is a play where the defense sends an extra player or players to rush the quarterback. 

What do you mean by extra?  This is when things can get a little bit complicated. In every standard defensive formation, there are players that are trying to rush the quarterback in every play.  A "blitz" occurs when the play sends extra players to rush the quarterback.  For example, in the 3-4 defensive formation below, there are 3 linemen and 4 linebackers. In this formation, all the defensive linemen and at least 1 linebacker are always trying to get to the quarterback, so a "blitz" only occurs when 5 players (i.e., an extra linebacker) rushes the quarterback.

What's a zone blitz?  A zone blitz occurs when a defense tries to trick the offense by switching up the roles of some of the defensive linemen.  Instead of rushing the quarterback every time, one of the defensive lineman might fall back to defend against passes. This might confuse the offensive lineman who is supposed to be blocking him and allow one or more linebackers through to rush the quarterback.

What is a blitz

Backwards Pass / Lateral

What is a backwards pass?  Backwards passes are not thrown forward--they are thrown backwards (hence, the name) or laterally. Unlike forward passes, there are no limits to the number of backwards passes in a play, so you can throw the ball backwards or laterally from player to player anywhere on the field.  For an example, check out the video below of a crazy 8-lateral kickoff return for a touchdown that allowed Miami to beat Duke back in 2015.

The major risk of throwing a backwards pass is that if the ball touches the ground it is still "live" and is considered a fumble, so any player can recover the ball.

Can you mix backwards passes with a forward pass in a play?  Yes, but the rules for forward passes still apply. That means you are still only allowed 1 forward pass per play, and the player throwing the forward pass must be behind the team's line of scrimmage.


What is an audible?  Usually, the quarterback will call an offensive play in the huddle.  But when he gets to the line of scrimmage, he might decide to change the play because of the way the defense is lined up--this is called an audible. 

For example, if the defense has a bunch of players lined up "in the box" (the space directly opposite the offensive linemen), this means that they are planning to defend against a running play.  Then the quarterback might want to call an audible for a pass play because there will be fewer defenders on the field focused on protecting against throws.

Former QB Peyton Manning was really well known for calling brilliant audibles. He had amazing recall of defensive formations that he had seen from watching tape for years.  If he recognized the defensive play at the line of scrimmage, he might yell to his teammates to change the play, i.e., an audible.  His adjustments would take advantage of the weaknesses in the defense's play call.

Play calls in football can have pretty amusing names. Check out this example, where Manning called an audible for a play nicknamed: "Bags Montana Fat Man."

Pro Bowl

What is the Pro Bowl, again?  The Pro Bowl is the NFL’s all star game, where players are voted in by the players themselves, the coaches, and football fans—each getting 1/3 of the vote.  Past Football Hall of Famers serve as the coaches of the teams and they pick the teams, high-school-gym style a few days before the match up. 

OK, it’s the best players in the league, shouldn’t I have heard of this before?  Meh, not necessarily.  The NFL Pro Bowl is actually has way less viewership than a regular NFL game.  This is because the game takes place right after the playoffs and right before the Super Bowl.  This means that players that are going to play in the Super Bowl will opt out, and replacements are picked.  The players that actually end up going take it super easy on each other, because no one wants to get injured in a meaningless game.  The NFL also tries to make it safer for the players by making all sorts of different rules for the game that make it more boring to watch—like “no blitzes” and “yes, intentional grounding.” 

All in all, it’s kind of a snooze, but a big honor to be voted in for the players.

College Football Playoffs

What are the College Football Playoffs?  The College Football Playoffs were started in 2014. The top four teams in the country are selected and ranked by a 13-member committee.  They face off in two semi-final games: one where the #1 seed will play the #4 team and a second where the #2 team will play the #3 team.  The winner of each game will face off in the College Football Championship Game to crown the national champ!

What did they do before the playoffs?  A National Football Champion has been awarded since 1869, but there have been many different systems for selecting the champ. Before the current Playoffs, the Bowl Championship Series (“BCS”) was the system from 1998-2013.  Under the BCS, teams were ranked based on a combination of polling by coaches and a computer algorithm.  Then 10 teams were selected to play in 5 bowl games.  There was a lot of criticism of this system, because these weren’t necessarily the top 10 teams.  Instead, there were complex rules requiring one team from each of the six biggest conferences, which often left out teams with undefeated records.

Trivia Queen: Who has won the most championships?  Princeton with 28 … but all of them were before 1950.

Baylor Football Scandal

What is the Baylor Football Scandal?  In 2016, Baylor made big waves in the college football world, when they terminated their head coach Art Briles.  They also demoted Kenneth Starr (yes, that Kenneth Starr) from school President to Chancellor.

Back up.  What’s going on?  In the fall of 2015, Baylor hired a law firm to review their treatment of sexual assault allegations against Baylor football players. They discovered that Baylor officials knew about several assaults, sexual assaults, and domestic violence allegations involving football players, but most of the players didn’t receive discipline or miss playing time.  In fact, some football personnel met with the victims of alleged assaults and didn’t report any misconduct to school administrators.

Some crooked cops. In one case from 2011, Waco police even helped to keep an assault involving 3 football players out of the media.  The police pulled the case from the computer system and instead kept the report in a locked office.

But football fans just want their football.  Coach Briles was with Baylor for 8 years and turned the program around from being a perennial bottom-dweller to dominating the Big 12 conference.  In the 105 years before Briles became coach, they had only one 10-win season, after he joined they had four.  In short, this firing is a big deal, because football fans are usually willing to plug their ears and scream “LALALA”as long as the team is winning.

Consequences on the field.  Following the news, top recruits have decommitted from Baylor.

Rooney Rule

What’s the Rooney Rule?  The Rooney Rule requires each team to interview one minority candidate every time there is a head coaching or senior operations position open.  It was started in 2003 and named after Dan Rooney the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who was a big supporter of diversity within the NFL.

Why did they start it?  There were a couple of high profile firings of black head coaches in 2002 and a pretty incriminating study that showed that black coaches were more likely to be fired and less likely to be hired even with higher winning percentages.  Not good.  Since the rule has been instituted, the number of black coaches has increased and companies like Pinterest and Facebook have started similar policies.

Why isn’t it working?  Most head coaches are promoted or hired from offensive/defensive coordinator positions and minorities are not getting those gigs. In fact, of the NFL’s current 85 offensive coordinators and quarterbacks coaches only 5 are minorities.  On top of that, critics say that teams are just checking the ‘Rooney Rule box’ by interviewing one or two minority candidates without giving them a serious chance.

Does any team get a good diversity score?  The Carolina Panthers, N.Y. Jets, and Pittsburgh Steelers are the only coaching staffs with at least 50% minorities. 

Now women!  The NFL held its 1st Women’s Summit in 2016 and Commissioner Roger Goodell announced that they are going to start a Rooney Rule for women.  This year the NFL hired its first female referee and first full time female assistant coach.  Baby steps…  Hopefully, we’ll see some bigger representation by women soon.  Maybe Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will get her dream job of serving as NFL Commissioner?  


What is CTE?  CTE is a degenerative brain disease that comes from repeated brain trauma. It can cause all sorts of scary side effects like memory loss, aggression, depression, and suicide. It’s been discovered in boxers, soccer players, and –you guessed it – football players

Why’s it in the headlines again?  Recently, former Baltimore Ravens OT Eugene Monroe released a statement saying that he’s retiring from football after playing only 7 seasons; he is only 29 years old. In his statement, he specifically called out CTE as the major reason he’s giving up the sport he loves. And he’s not the only one. Just this year, former Detroit Lions WR Calvin “Megatron” Johnson and Seattle Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch made headlines when they both called it quits at the age of 30.  

Who will play football?  With all the health risks, there is a fear that middle and upper class parents will stop sending their kids to football practice. Even famous football icons like Mike Ditka and Drew Brees have said that they wouldn’t let their kids play the game. Instead, only people from lower socio-economic classes will risk playing football for the possibility of a big payout.

Is there a way to fix this? Not yet, but there are a few ideas. This season, the Ivy League football teams are going to start protecting their big brains by eliminating tackling from their practices. Others think that we shouldn’t allow kids to play tackle football until they reach high school and their bodies are more developed. In the meantime, most people agree that the NFL needs to do more research on CTE. But they still have a long way to go, considering they only just admitted that there is a connection between playing football and CTE at all.