Making Sense of the Intentional Grounding Rule in Football

College football quarterback rears back to throw the ball.

In today’s game of football, there is an emphasis on the vertical passing game. Many fans might be under the impression that the game is heavily favored towards the offense, but there are several costly penalties the offense can commit. One of them being “intentional grounding”.

What is intentional grounding?

Intentional grounding is a penalty called on the quarterback when they throw the ball to an area without an intended receiver. The penalty for intentional grounding is a loss of down and 10 yards. The rule is in place to prevent quarterbacks from throwing the ball away under pressure to avoid sacks.

Intentional grounding is one of the only penalties that has different language and interpretations at each level of football. The penalty can be pretty confusing but we’ll walk you through each facet of the rule.

NFL Intentional Grounding Rule

The intentional grounding rule in the NFL is defined as:

“A passer, facing an imminent loss of yardage because of pressure from the defense, throws a forward pass without a realistic chance of completion. A realistic chance of completion is defined as a pass that is thrown in the direction of and lands in the vicinity of an originally eligible receiver.”

The NFL also adds that the QB doesn’t have to meet these requirements if he is hit while he is in the process of throwing the ball.

NCAA Intentional Grounding Rule

Intentional grounding in college football is defined in similar terms as in the NFL. The major difference is the amount you’re penalized for intentional grounding.

In the NFL, the penalty for intentional grounding is 10 yards from the line of scrimmage and a loss of down. In college, it is always a loss of down with the next play occurring at the spot of the foul.

If intentional grounding is called near the line of scrimmage in college football, the penalty yardage will be minimal but the loss of down will make it much harder to move the chains.

The NFL rule guarantees a 10-yard loss and a loss of down for the offense, which makes it very difficult to pick up a first down after the penalty.

Why Is Intentional Grounding a Penalty?

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Intentional grounding is a penalty because of the unfair advantage an uncatchable and uncontested pass gives to the offense. If the QB could throw a pass to any part of the field without any rules, the defense would never get a sack or potentially cause a turnover.

With the QB now being one of the most athletic players on the field, he could have limitless potential for long plays without this rule.

Being able to scramble and buy time with his feet, the QB would be able to sit back and have no repercussions for a bad pass or taking too long to decide on a play.

Without the rule, the QB could sit in the pocket and throw the ball to an area without any intended receivers or defensive players.

Is Intentional Grounding a Sack?

Intentional grounding is not a sack, but the penalty yardage does simulate a sack. The penalty for intentional grounding does the best job of simulating what would happen if the penalty wasn’t assessed in the game of football.

The penalty yardage paired with the loss of down is the result that a sack would have on an offense.

If there wasn’t the loss of down and teams could replay the down, you would see (especially in the college game) more instances of QBs taking advantage of the penalty to not be sacked or potentially giving up a fumble from a sack.

Intentional Grounding vs Throwing Away

After reading the rules and guidelines for intentional grounding you might wonder how there is any way for the QB to avoid this penalty. To avoid intentional grounding the QB has to meet two requirements of a forward pass.

The first is to be outside of the tackle box when you throw the ball away. The tackle box is defined as the boundary from the left shoulder of the left tackle to the right shoulder of the right tackle.

This box is used by the officials to determine if there is intentional grounding. The second requirement to avoid the penalty is to throw the ball beyond the line of scrimmage.

Offenses have incorporated more movement from their QBs in their overall game plan to help make the throw away pass more of an option. You may watch a game and see the QB take the snap and instantly run toward the sideline during the play – this is known as a “bootleg”.

By having this motion the QB will be outside the pocket and able to throw the ball away with little time for the defense to react. This creates a low-risk pass play that can either gain decent yardage or result in a low chance for a turnover.

Intentional Grounding vs Spike

College football quarterback reading the defense before snapping the ball.

Reading this article you may wonder about a play that fits the criteria for intentional grounding but isn’t called. We’re referring to the “spike”.

Spikes are when a QB is lined up under center, takes a snap, and throws the ball at the ground intentionally to stop the clock.

There are rules associated with spiking the ball that the offense has to follow or intentional grounding will get called. The first rule is that the clock cannot be stopped. The play clock has to be rolling to legally spike the ball.

The second stipulation is that QBs have to be under center when taking the snap. Once the QB takes the snap he must immediately throw the ball at the ground.

If the QB spikes the ball while the clock is stopped, in a shotgun formation, or delays spiking the ball after the snap, intentional grounding will be assessed against the offense.

Intentional Grounding vs Illegal Forward Pass

The illegal forward pass and intentional grounding penalties seem like they would be the same thing, but they are two very different violations.

An illegal forward pass occurs when the QB crosses the line of scrimmage and throws the ball forward, or if there are two forward passes on an offensive play.

The penalty is slightly less severe than the one associated with intentional grounding, as it comes with a 5-yard penalty and a loss of down at both the NFL and college levels.

If any part of the QB is still on the line of scrimmage when the ball is thrown, an illegal forward pass won’t (shouldn’t) be called.

This is similar to the offsides rule in hockey, in which players aren’t offsides until they fully cross the blue line.

Intentional Grounding at The End of a Half

The penalty associated with intentional grounding changes in the last two minutes of each half. If the penalty is called inside the last two minutes there will be a loss of down, a spot foul (college), or the choice of spot foul or 10-yard penalty (NFL), and a 10-second runoff.

The 10-second runoff was put in place to simulate the time the offense would lose if a sack occurred. Without the runoff, the offense would be able to conserve something more important than field position or yardage… time!

If intentional grounding is called with less than 10 seconds on the clock the game is over. This further highlights the importance of smart QB play, as well as smart timeout usage.

Summary of Intentional Grounding

The intentional grounding rule was ahead of its time in 1914 and is a necessary part of the game over 100 years later. The QBs of today are generally pretty athletic and would be able to take advantage of defenses if there wasn’t a rule in place.  

If QBs had the option to throw away the ball anywhere they wanted while under pressure, we would rarely see any turnovers or sacks and defenses would have a limited impact on the game.

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Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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