Best of Game Play Thursday : Forward Progress

I’ll be taking a few weeks off from posting new content to gear up for the upcoming season (!!!), but since there’s a whole bunch of content that kind of whizzed by this past year, I’ll be reposting some of the best and brightest until we resume again in time for preseason in early August. If you need to get in touch in the meantime, please don’t hesitate to contact me!

So you’re rooting for a team. Let’s say, the Packers. (Total coincidence.) And they’re playing the Bears. It’s 3rd and 5 at the Bears 35 yard line, Bears on offense. They need to get to the 40 yard line (3rd and 5 = 5 yards) to get a first down.

Cutler throws a pass out to Marshall, who catches it at the 40 yard line but gets tackled mid-catch and brought back to the 35 yard line.

So what just happened? Is it a first down? Or was there no yardage gained on the play?

If you guessed first down, you are right! If you think that’s weird and goes against everything you know about football, you are also right! That’s why today, we’re going to talk about our friend Forward Progress.

*Now, let’s pause for a mini rant. I just Google searched “forward progress” to come up with the actual rule/definition…and nearly an hour later, I just found it by manually going to the 100+ page NFL rulebook and finding it myself. Why this didn’t occur to me initially is a subject we can tackle at a later date…but seriously?! This is case in point why I created this website. Because it’s entirely impossible to find solid basics quickly…or, you know, at all. Moving on.

Here’s what the NFL rulebook has to say:

forward progress

And here’s what that means:

1. When being spotted on the field, the football is placed lengthwise (with the tips pointing toward the end zone).

2. If a player, while catching a ball, is pushed backwards by a defender, the ball will be declared dead. This means that it’s no longer “live” or in play at the spot where the player was pushed backwards.  Instead, “forward progress” is awarded, which means that the ball will be spotted wherever the player established control, not where he was pushed backwards.

And here’s the even easier version:

Guys who tackle are no joke. So at the risk of anyone who goes up for a ball never gaining actual yardage because of getting pushed back by defenders while they’re still in the air, forward progress comes into play to speak on behalf of inertia. Forward progress is the advocate for where the ball would have been spotted had it not been for a tractor trailer of humanity coming full steam ahead.

You may also have seen this rule come into play on running plays, when a running backcharges ahead and then is pushed back several yards when a swarm of defenders descends upon him and forces him back. The ball will be spotted at the furthest point forward in which the running back had control of the ball and forward momentum.

There are also other variations of the rule, which seem to surface whenever refs feel like spotting the ball in a place where it did not actually land. But basically, if you have control of the ball and you are moving/attempting to move forward, you’re going to be awarded the spot that is most advantageous to your progress, even if you were pushed several yards back by defenders. That’s why you’ll see players stretch the ball out as far as they can, tuck it back in to their bodies, and still be awarded the spot farthest away in the name of forward progress.

This rule just seems weird to me, based on the fact that this is football, not golf. It’s a contact sport. So it’s odd that there are rules in place that negate the effects of said contact. The rules for player safety make sense. I think those are completely reasonable and necessary. But forward progress isn’t about safety, it’s about giving advantageous placement of the ball to the ball carrier, which just seems contradictory to the competitive nature of the game, in my opinion.

What do you guys think? First and foremost – does the rule make sense? And if so, do you like it?

Originally posted here on January 17, 2013

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