Forward Pass

In several forms of football a forward pass is a throwing of the ball in the direction that the offensive team is trying to move, towards the defensive team’s goal line. The forward pass is one of main differences between gridiron football (American football and Canadian football) in which the play is legal and widespread, and rugby football (union and league) from which the North American games evolved, in which the play is illegal.

In some football codes, such as association football (soccer), the kicked forward pass is used so ubiquitously that it is not thought of as a distinct kind of play at all. In these sports, the concept of offside is used to regulate who can be in front of the play or be nearest to the goal. However, this has not always been the case. Some earlier incarnations of football allowed unlimited forward passing, while others had strict offside rules similar to rugby.

The development of the forward pass in American football shows how the game has evolved from its rugby roots into the distinctive game it is today. Illegal and experimental forward passes had been attempted as early as 1876, but the first legal forward pass in American football took place in 1906, after a change in rules. Another change in rules occurred in 1951, which established that no center, tackle, or guard could receive a forward pass. Today, the only linemen who can receive a forward pass are the ends. Current rules regulate who may throw and who may receive a forward pass, and under what circumstances, as well as how the defensive team may try to prevent a pass from being completed. The primary pass thrower is the quarterback, and statistical analysis is used to determine a quarterback’s success rate at passing in various situations, as well as a team’s overall success at the ‘passing game.’

In American and Canadian football, a forward pass—usually referred to simply as a pass—consists of one offensive player throwing the football towards another downfield in the direction of the opponent’s goal line. This is permitted only once during a scrimmage down by the offensive team before team possession has changed, provided the pass is thrown from in or behind the neutral zone (the length of the football when it is spotted on the field prior to the snap). An illegal forward pass incurs a five-yard penalty and the loss of a down, although it may be legally intercepted by the defense and advanced.

If an eligible receiver on the passing team legally catches the ball it is a complete pass 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 dead the moment it touches the ground. It will then be returned to the original line of scrimmage for the next down. 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 loose ball. In this case anyone 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 an incomplete pass (unless someone catches the ball before it hits the ground in which case it is a completed pass or an interception).

The quarterback generally either starts a few paces behind the line of scrimmage or drops back a few paces as 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, and there is no good option for a forward pass, the ball may be legally thrown away to prevent a sack. If the passer throws the ball away while still in the pocket then a foul called ‘intentional grounding’ is assessed.

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 in bounds, the receiver’s feet must be in contact with the in bounds portion of the playing field, or, if the ball is caught in the air, either one or two feet must touch the ground within the field boundaries, after the ball is caught. In the NFL the receiver must touch the ground with both feet, but in most other codes—CFL, NCAA and high school—one foot in bounds is enough. Common to all gridiron 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 catches 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.

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 Yale–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.”

The University of North Carolina used the forward pass in an 1895 game against the University of Georgia. 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 George Stephens, who ran 70 yards for a touchdown.’

In a 1905 experimental game, 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. 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 abolish the game. But President Theodore Roosevelt personally intervened and demanded that the rules of 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 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 article 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.’ The forward pass was not allowed in Canadian football until 1929.

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 University team was coached by Eddie Cochems. Football authority and College Football Hall of Fame coach 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.’

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, Hall of Fame coach 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. Villanova’s game against the Carlisle Indians that year 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 spiral pass in 1906 is former Princeton All-American ‘Bosey’ Reiter. Reiter claimed to have invented the overhead spiral pass while playing professional football as a player-coach for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics of the original National Football League (1902). 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.

He recalled trying to imitate the motion of a baseball catcher throwing to second base. After practice and experimentation, he ‘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, his 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 ‘United Press’: ‘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. Princeton 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.’ The forward pass was a central feature of Cochems’ offensive scheme 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’ 31–0 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 ‘Post-Dispatch’ article as saying: ‘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.’

‘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 major 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 College of Emporia in 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 Washburn University and in a 107–0 destruction of Pittsburg State University. 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, Jesse Harper, the head coach at Notre Dame, also showed how the pass could be used by a smaller team to beat a bigger one, first utilizing it to defeat rival Army. After it was used against a major school on a national stage in this game, the forward pass rapidly gained popularity.

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 the predecessor of today’s NFL. 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 Professional Football Researchers Association 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.’

Specification of the size of the ball for the American game came in 1912, but it was still essentially a rugby ball (in both union and league rugby a forward pass is against the rules). 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.

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