Last updated on October 28th, 2023 at 10:41 am
Intentional grounding is a foul in American football when a quarterback or passer under pressure from the defense throws a forward pass outside of the range of a running back or another eligible receiver. The ball can go out of bounds, past the end of the end zone, or far from any receivers to qualify as intentional grounding. However, it does come down to the official to call the penalty.
Why would a Passer Attempt Intentional Grounding?
There are two key reasons why a quarterback may throw the ball knowing that it’s not near eligible receivers.
The first reason a quarterback would throw a ball in this way is to try and avoid a sack or tackle. If a quarterback isn’t holding the ball, it’s illegal for the defense to hit them. Throwing the ball quickly is a way to avoid a sack. Receiving a sack can result in a loss of yards for the offense. Worse, if a quarterback is hit and drops or loses control of the ball, a sack can cause a fumble, which the defense can return for a touchdown.
If a quarterback is scrambling, they can throw the ball away without incurring a penalty. They may throw a ball out of bounds to either stop the clock, avoid a hit, or get a new down after a blitz. The most critical part of intentional grounding that makes it a penalty is the quarterback is still in the tackle box and is under pressure. A penalty also won’t be called if the passer throws the ball at or past the line of scrimmage near a receiver or offensive player (even if they can’t catch the ball.)
When is Intentional Grounding Not Called in a Game?
The NFL rulebook stipulates that three key scenarios result in the intentional grounding penalty not being called. These are generally when the passer is out of pocket, when they’re trying to stop the clock, and physical contact during the play. Here are more details on each scenario.
- Quarterback flushed from the pocket: If the quarterback moves away from the pocket, he is permitted to attempt to make a pass. After leaving the pocket, the quarterback will often make a less-accurate throw that may end up out of bounds or far from any eligible receivers. In this case, the incomplete pass will be exempt from the intentional grounding rule.
- Tackle or Physical Contact: If a defensive player hits the passer in a way that causes a wild or incomplete pass, the pass would be exempt from an intentional grounding penalty.
- Stopping the game clock: If the quarterback throws the ball in a way to stop the clock, they won’t be subject to an intentional grounding infraction, like spiking the ball. The quarterback must be under center behind the offensive tackles and can’t delay throwing the ball into the ground. If there is any delay (for example, if the passer steps back into the pocket or waits to evaluate the play), they will be subject to an intentional grounding penalty, even if they’re not under pressure.
What is the Penalty for Intentional Grounding?
If a play is intentional grounding and a pass is thrown is without a realistic chance of completion, there are a few different ways an official can penalize the offensive team. These include both losses of down and a potential loss of yardage.
Almost all intentional grounding penalties will result in a loss of down. If the ball lands somewhere where there is a natural loss of yardage (such as a poorly thrown ball), then the play will continue during the next down at the spot of the foul. If there were no loss of yardage during the play, the intentional grounding penalty would cause a 10-yard loss.
This scenario is different from the penalty in college football. In the NCAA, the penalty for intentional grounding is a 10-yard loss from the spot of the foul.
Finally, if a quarterback throws an illegal forward pass in their own end zone, the play will cause a safety. Here, the team on defense receives 2 points, and the offensive team must put the ball back in play with a kick or punt from their 20-yard line. The kicker can either punt or place-kick the ball into play, and either team can recover it to start the next offensive drive.
Conclusion about Intentional Grounding in Football
The NFL rule for intentional grounding states that a quarterback under pressure for an imminent loss of yardage cannot throw the ball where an eligible receiver cannot realistically catch it. There are several reasons why a quarterback may intentionally throw the ball away in the National Football League. Some reasons include stopping the clock, avoiding the sack, and risking a non-intentional grounding call by an official.
Greg Kristan, owner of The Stadium Reviews, LLC and TM Blast, LLC, brings his extensive experience visiting over half of the MLB ballparks, along with numerous MLS, NHL, NBA, and NFL venues, to provide in-depth coverage on the bag policy, food options, and parking. He has also been interviewed about his experiences on several sports podcasts.