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A backward pass can be ruled forward, but wasn’t for Packers

Week 2: Packers at Falcons (video)

On the opening drive of the second half, the Packers found themselves in a deep hole on the scoreboard that hinged on a judgement call that allowed a Falcons defensive touchdown to stand.

With an imminent sack, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers floated a pass towards the sideline. There was momentary confusion and no whistle, so Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant scooped up the loose ball and ran in for a score. The officials determined it was a backward pass, making it a free ball, and returned for a touchdown. Replay did not change the ruling, opting for “stands.”

The call does raise a few question marks, which then hampered the ability for replay to properly review the call.

When a quarterback is contacted in the act of passing, it is ruled a forward pass if the quarterback’s arm is moving forward, even if the flight of the ball goes backwards. This is a judgement call by the referee, but frequently the quarterback is given deference that it was intended to go forward, especially if it could go either way. In this case, Rodgers was clearly being contacted when he released the errant pass. One factor that can be a small part of the equation is that there was no player behind Rodgers, so why would there be an intent to throw backward pass to no one?

There was no eligible receiver anywhere near the flight of the pass, so if a forward pass was ruled, it would be intentional grounding. While this rule also has a judgement for a quarterback being contacted, there was no favorable trajectory for Rodgers if there wasn’t defensive contact. Therefore, it would be appropriate to not grant deference to the quarterback and rule intentional grounding.

Replay cannot rule on either of these judgement calls, it may only decide if the ball went forward or backwards/laterally. There is a bit of a hedge in there: if referee Walt Anderson had announced something like “there is no intentional grounding because it was a backwards pass,” and if replay ruled it was a forward pass, it allows the grounding call to be made by “reversing” the announcement. There was no such announcement, so a reversal would only be an incomplete pass — intentional grounding cannot be added on in replay.

The replay showed that the ball traveled laterally with no conclusive shot showing that the ball went forward from the point of Rodgers’ release to the spot where it touched the ground. Both points were between the same hash marks, so no reversal could be ruled.

It very hard to defend the call that this was a backward pass without granting the defensive-contact exception to the forward pass rule.  

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Ben Austro
Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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4 thoughts on “A backward pass can be ruled forward, but wasn’t for Packers

  1. You say that it is referee’s discretion to rule it a forward pass if the quarterback’s arm is moving forward, even if the flight of the ball goes backwards, but in the replay the quarterback’s arm was always moving laterally. The hit began during Rodgers’ wind-up and instead of his arm going forward, his arm and the ball went lateral. Obviously his intent was to throw the ball forward, but if the hit comes before the throwing arm reaches it’s apex and forces the QB’s arm to move laterally, should the referee still have to consider the QBs intent?

  2. So basically the referee decides whether the pass was intended to be forward or backward, not physics nor math. I think intent needs to be removed from the rules (except for USC) and officials should determine the outcome based on empirical evidence, not a hunch. Mark where the QB throws the ball and where it lands (or touches someone). Draw a straight line connecting these two points. If it moves toward the opponent’s end zone, then it is forward. Everything else is backward. It’s fairly simple, and can be done with just the R and DJ or LJ. Perhaps Hawkeye Technology can help with this?

  3. I’ve always understood this rule to be referring to contact that occurs after the QB has started the act of throwing a pass. For example, when a QB is moving his arm forward and THEN gets hit. In this instance, he was hit… and THEN he started moving his arm forward. Would that really be considered “contact while in the act of passing”? It seems more like “passing while in the act of being sacked.” Those seem materially different to me, but I can see the potential ambiguity here.

  4. For the ball to be a forward pass, the lead part of the ball only need to go a fraction forward. I would challenge you to argue lateral if you watch Rodgers release point at about the 20 1/3 line and the ball almost hitting the 21. Better yet, watch the thick “blue” line NBC used-the line that was at least a 1/4 yard wide – where the ball was released on the back of that line and hit in front of that line…

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