In American football, a lateral pass or lateral, officially backward pass (onside pass in Canadian football), occurs when the ball carrier throws the football to any teammate behind him or directly next to him (i.e. on or behind a line running through the ball and parallel to the line of scrimmage). A lateral pass is distinguished from a forward pass, in which the ball is thrown forward, towards the opposition's end zone. In a lateral pass the ball is not advanced, but unlike a forward pass a lateral may be attempted from anywhere on the field by any player to any player at any time.
While a forward pass may only be thrown once per down by the team on offense from within or behind the neutral zone, there are no restrictions on the use of lateral passes; any player legally carrying the ball may throw a lateral pass from any position on the field at any time, any player may receive such a pass, and any number of lateral passes may be thrown on a single play. Additionally, a player receiving a lateral pass may throw a forward pass if he is still behind the neutral zone, subject to the forward pass rules.
Unlike a forward pass, if a backward pass hits the ground or an official, play continues and, as with a fumble, a backward pass that has hit the ground may be recovered and advanced by either team. A lateral may be underhand or overhand as long as the ball is not advanced in the pass.
The oxymoron "forward lateral" is used to describe an attempted "lateral" (backward pass) that actually goes forward.
A variant, the hook and lateral, where a forward pass is immediately passed backward to a second receiver to fool the defense, is used on occasion.
In college football, the backward pass is used more extensively than in professional football, more in the same manner as is done in the two different sports of rugby union and rugby league, where forward passes are illegal.
Famous plays in history
The lateral pass rule, or rather the lack of restrictions contained therein, has given rise to some of the most memorable and incredible plays in professional football history. Both collegiate and NFL football have certain examples of football lore which involve laterals.
One famous college play involving the backward passes is simply known as The Play. In the 1982 Big Game between Stanford and California, with four seconds left and trailing by one point, Cal ran the ball back on a kickoff all the way for the game-winning touchdown using five backward passes, eventually running through the Stanford Band, who had already taken the field (believing the game was over after Stanford players appeared to have tackled a Cal ball-carrier). The game remains controversial to this day because of Stanford's contention that the Cal player's knee was down before he passed the ball during the second lateral and that the fifth lateral was an illegal forward pass.
Full article ▸