Can an Ineligible Receiver Run the Ball?

Key Takeaways:

  • Ineligible receivers like offensive linemen can legally run the ball or catch backward passes.
  • They cannot go downfield on a forward pass play before the ball is thrown.
  • Ineligible receivers can score touchdowns when running or receiving backwards passes.
  • Knowing which players are eligible or ineligible to catch forward passes is crucial.
  • Running the ball with ineligible receivers requires creative play calling.

What are the rules for ineligible receivers in football?

In American football, not all players on offense are allowed to catch a forward pass. The specific rules regarding eligible and ineligible receivers vary slightly between different leagues like the NFL, college football, and high school football. However, some key regulations apply across all levels.

The center, guards, tackles, and any other offensive linemen are always considered ineligible receivers. This means they cannot legally catch a forward pass, even if they go downfield for a pass play. Generally, players wearing uniform numbers from 50-79 are deemed ineligible.

Backs and ends are eligible receivers and can catch forward passes. This includes wide receivers, tight ends, fullbacks, tailbacks, and quarterbacks. Eligible receivers must wear uniform numbers from 1-49 and 80-89.

Can ineligible receivers run the ball or take backward passes?

Yes, ineligible receivers are fully allowed to run the ball or catch a backwards pass, lateral, or flea flicker. The restrictions only apply to forward passes across the line of scrimmage. As long as a forward pass is not involved, ineligible players can handle the ball and advance it like any other player.

This means offensive linemen can legally receive handoffs, end-arounds, shovel passes behind the line of scrimmage, or backwards passes and run with the ball. Trick plays that involve backwards passes to tackles or centers are perfectly valid.

Ineligible receivers can also catch laterals or backwards passes behind or beyond the line of scrimmage and gain yardage on these types of plays as well. As long as the first initiating pass is backwards, an ineligible player may advance the ball.

What happens if an ineligible receiver goes downfield on a passing play?

If an ineligible receiver goes more than 3 yards downfield before a forward pass is thrown, this results in a penalty called “ineligible receiver downfield”. Essentially, ineligible players cannot cross the line of scrimmage before a forward pass.

The penalty is 5 yards and applied from the original line of scrimmage. This helps prevent ineligible players from gaining an unfair advantage by going downfield for a pass.

It’s worth noting that this restriction only applies on plays involving a forward pass attempt. Ineligible receivers can freely go downfield on running plays or plays with backwards passes, and face no penalty.

Can ineligible receivers score touchdowns?

Absolutely! Even though ineligible receivers cannot catch forward pass touchdowns, they can score touchdowns when running the ball or catching backwards passes.

There are many examples in football history of ineligible players scoring in creative ways. Offensive linemen commonly score on fumble recoveries in the end zone. But trick plays can also allow ineligible receivers to reach the end zone.

Some examples include:

  • Centers or guards scoring on quarterback sneaks from directly under center.
  • Laterals or backwards passes to tackles who then rumble downfield into the end zone.
  • Faking a field goal and snapping directly to an offensive lineman who runs it in.

As long as an ineligible receiver does not catch a forward pass to score, the touchdown is legal. The player’s number or position does not matter for scoring, only for catching forward passes.

Why are some players ineligible receivers?

The rules regarding eligible and ineligible receivers exist primarily to help defenses. By limiting who can catch forward passes, it prevents offenses from grossly exploiting speed or athletic mismatches.

For example, if a speedy receiver lined up at tackle, he could gain an huge advantage on slower defensive players. Similarly, offensive linemen going downfield could overwhelm smaller defensive backs when catching passes.

The eligible/ineligible receiver rules promote balance. Only backs and ends – not linemen – can typically exploit their pass catching abilities. Defenses know exactly which players to cover.

Ineligible receiver regulations also help prevent offensive linemen from blocking too far downfield on passing plays before the pass. This helps defenders read and react to plays.

How can teams creatively use ineligible receivers?

While offensive linemen cannot catch forward passes, creative coaches can still scheme ways for ineligible receivers to contribute via running or backwards passes:

  • Tackle-eligible plays: The offense can designate a tackle or other ineligible player as eligible for one play. This communicates to the defense to cover that player.
  • Laterals/backwards passes: Give handoffs or pitches to linemen who then throw backwards to receivers downfield.
  • Wildcat formation: Direct snap to a running back or receiver, using o-linemen as lead blockers.
  • Faking field goals: The holder takes the snap and gives a handoff or backwards pass to an offensive lineman instead of the kicker.
  • Faking punts: The upback takes a direct snap and runs the ball or passes backwards to another ineligible player.
  • Using linemen as lead blockers: Bring extra linemen in tight formations to pave the way on power runs.

Creative coaches take advantage of these types of plays on key situations to catch defenses off guard and enable big gains.

Can you trick the defense about eligible receivers?

Teams will sometimes try to disguise who is eligible by lining up players in unexpected positions or putting eligible players at ineligible numbers.

However, there are rules against this to prevent outright deception. Before each play, the referee will announce the jersey numbers of ineligible receivers based on who is lined up at ineligible positions, like covered up on the line of scrimmage.

Offenses must play by the rules and properly notify referees of any eligible/ineligible status that is not obvious from the formation or numbers. While some trickery is allowed, teams cannot flat out confuse defenders about who is eligible.

What is the best way to learn player eligibility?

For both offenses and defenses, the best way to learn which players are eligible or ineligible is simply by playing and practicing regularly. Repetition helps cement knowledge of which positions and numbers are permitted to catch forward passes versus run routes.

Defenses should focus first on learning which offensive players are normally eligible, like receivers, backs, and tight ends. Similarly, offenses should know that linemen are always ineligible without exceptions.

Coaches will also constantly communicate about eligibility when installing plays during practices and walkthroughs. Experience translating formations and personnel into eligible/ineligible status is key.

For young players, don’t be afraid to ask teammates or coaches when uncertain about eligibility on a given play. Taking the time to correctly identify eligible receivers is a vital part of executing both offensive and defensive schemes.

Can ineligible receivers trick the defense if uncovered?

In some formations, ineligible receivers may not initially be covered up by other players, such as when receivers spread out. This can potentially allow them to seem eligible and run downfield for a pass.

However, there are counterbalancing rules to prevent deception. The referee will still announce the ineligible numbers before the snap. And if ineligible players proceed downfield, they risk an illegal formation penalty.

Defenses must also be aware and recognize if any ineligible players are split out. Communicating about eligibility remains vital even on spread formations to avoid confusion. Proper defensive adjustments will counter any attempt of the offense to disguise ineligible players.

So while uncovered ineligible receivers introduce some challenges, savvy teams can apply the rules correctly. With good fundamentals, deception attempts can be prevented through awareness and communication.

What are some famous trick plays involving ineligible receivers?

Some of the most famous and creative trick plays in football have involved ingenious use of ineligible receivers:

  • The Fridge – William Perry, a 330+ lb defensive lineman came in to score a rushing TD for the 1985 Chicago Bears.
  • Philly Special – The Philadelphia Eagles pulled off this trick play for a TD in Super Bowl 52, with a backwards pass to the left tackle who then passed to the quarterback.
  • Music City Miracle – The Tennessee Titans beat Buffalo in 2000 after pulling off a dramatic backwards pass and lateral play, including to lineman Frank Wycheck who threw the final lateral.
  • The Mountaineer – West Virginia fullback Owen Schmitt ran for a touchdown after hiding amongst the offensive linemen and taking the direct snap.

These gadget plays all exploited the rules around eligible receivers to surprise defenses and create big moments. They demonstrate the potential when creative minds make use of the flexibility that ineligible receivers have to run and pass backwards.

In Summary

While offensive linemen cannot receive forward passes, they are fully allowed to run the ball, catch backwards passes and laterals, and score touchdowns. Ineligible receivers provide coaches the chance to design imaginative plays and catch defenses off guard.

Knowing the tactical dimensions around eligible and ineligible receivers is vital for both offenses and defenses. With proper preparation and fundamentals, teams can apply these rules correctly and use ineligible receivers productively within the rules of the game.


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