In American football, a quarterback kneel, also called taking a knee, genuflect offense, or victory formation occurs when the quarterback immediately kneels to the ground, ending the play on contact, after receiving the snap. It is primarily used to run the clock down, either at the end of the first half or the game itself, in order to preserve a lead or a win. Although it generally results in a loss of a yard and uses up a down, it minimizes the risk of a fumble, which would give the other team a chance at recovering the ball.
Especially when the outcome of the game has been well decided, defenses will often give little resistance to the play as a matter of sportsmanship as well as to reduce injury risk on what is a relatively simple play. The quarterback is generally not touched and the act of intentionally taking the knee results in the play being over in all variations of the sport.
The formation offers maximum protection against a fumble; should the center-quarterback exchange result in a fumble, a running back is lined up on either side of the quarterback, both to recover any fumble and protect the vulnerable kneeling player from being injured by defensive players who get through the line. Also, a player is lined up directly behind the quarterback, often much farther than a typical tailback would line up. This player's responsibility is to tackle any defensive player who may recover a fumble and attempt to advance it. Because of this essentially "defensive" responsibility, the tailback in this formation may actually be a free safety or other defensive player who is adept at making tackles in the open field.
Even though the play itself takes very little time, the rules of American football dictate that the game clock will continue to run until the next play (as with any play where the ball carrier is tackled in bounds). With the 40 second play clock in the NFL and NCAA, a team can run off over two minutes with three consecutive kneel downs.
The play is often known as Victory Formation as it is most often run by a winning team late in the game in order to preserve a victory. In the case of a close game, the winning team would be trying to avoid a turnover which might be the result of a more complex play; or in the case of a more lopsided contest, the play can be run as a matter of sportsmanship and to avoid further injury.
The quarterback kneel may also be used at the end of the first half by a team which feels they have little chance of scoring before halftime due to poor field position. Similarly, the play could also be run at the end of the second half of a tie game if a team is content with sending the game into overtime. The play could perhaps also be run at the end of the game by a losing team which is hopelessly behind and wishes to avoid further injury, but is unwilling to cut the game short as a forfeit.
In rare instances, a team will use the quarterback kneel to avoid running up the score in a lopsided contest, even though there may be significant time remaining on the clock.
This occurred in the 2011 edition of the Magnolia Bowl between LSU and Ole Miss. With five minutes remaining and LSU leading 52–3, Tigers coach Les Miles ordered third-string quarterback Zack Mettenberger to take a knee on first and goal from the Ole Miss 1-yard line, and to kneel on the next three plays. Miles felt another touchdown would further embarrass Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, who announced his resignation, effective at the end of the season, 12 days before the Rebels hosted No. 1 LSU. The Tigers had already secured the largest margin of victory in series history.
In Canadian football or arena football, which use slightly different rules, taking a knee with time left is not necessarily a viable strategy. In the CFL, a quarter must end with a play, and in Arena Football, teams must gain yardage in the final minute to keep the clock running.
Prior to the middle 1970s, teams leading in the final moments of games generally ran quarterback sneaks or dive plays to the fullbacks or other running backs to run time off the clock. Some coaches considered this strategy cowardly or even unsportsmanlike. However, the Miracle at the Meadowlands, on Nov. 19, 1978, in which defensive back Herman Edwards of the visiting Philadelphia Eagles recovered a botched snap between center Jim Clack and quarterback Joe Pisarcik of the New York Giants, provided a nationally-televised spur for change.
With the Giants leading 17-12, Edwards picked up the ball as Pisarcik attempted to hand it to Larry Csonka and took it 26 yards for what turned out to be the winning score in the Eagles' 19-17 victory. The play generated tremendous controversy, ridicule and criticism toward the Giants nationwide and specifically offensive coordinator Bob Gibson for failing to use the supposedly foolproof quarterback-kneeldown play.
In the week following the game, both the Eagles and Giants developed specific formations designed to protect the quarterback behind three players as he knelt on the ball. Previously, quarterbacks executing the kneeldown play simply ran a quarterback sneak from a tightly packed conventional offensive formation.
The 'victory formation' spread rapidly throughout football at nearly all levels, as coaches sought to adopt a procedure for downing the ball in the final seconds which would reduce the risk of turnovers to the absolute minimum possible. Within a season or so, it had become nearly universal.
In the 36 seasons since the original 'Miracle' incident, only one NFL quarterback has lost a fumble in a 'victory formation' situation, Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers, who lost a fumble against the Kansas City Chiefs on Oct. 31, 2011, attempting to set up a potential game-winning field goal. The Chiefs took a 23-20 overtime victory.
Although in most instances a losing team will concede defeat when the other team is in the victory formation and taking the quarterback kneel, there are instances where the trailing team will try to make a defensive play in an attempt to regain possession of the ball, particularly when the losing team is behind by a touchdown or less and there is enough time to make more than one play.
This had happened on the play preceding The Miracle at the Meadowlands. Due to the low percentage of turnovers caused, defenses generally do not attempt to disrupt the kneeldown as the Eagles did in 1978; a 'gentlemen's agreement' emerged in which defenders did not rush the offensive team with high intensity, as long as the offense made no attempt to advance the ball.
One prominent exception occurred to another Giants quarterback in 2012. An interception of a Tampa Bay Buccaneers pass with 30 seconds left had apparently secured a 25-point fourth-quarter comeback and 41–34 Giant victory. Eli Manning was knocked back by his own lineman as he took the snap, and fell down. Giants coach Tom Coughlin angrily confronted his Tampa Bay counterpart, Greg Schiano, at midfield once the game was over.
Aside from trying to attempt a defensive play, teams that are losing but behind by a touchdown or less in the final two minutes will sometimes use their time outs if the team does a quarterback kneel. As teams are allowed three time outs per half – the clock stops on a time out and restarts on the snap – they will try to preserve them for situations such as this, thereby forcing the winning team to run a play and gain a first down or, in the very least take time off the clock. If there is still enough time left on the clock and the winning team attempts another quarterback kneel, the defensive team's strategy may repeat itself until it either runs out of time outs, time runs out or (most desirably) the team forces a turnover.
The 2011 NFL Rules state in Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1(c): "An official shall declare the ball dead and the down ended … when a quarterback immediately drops to his knee (or simulates dropping to his knee) behind the line of scrimmage".
The 2011 and 2012 NCAA Rules state in Rule 4, Section 1, Article 3(o): "A live ball becomes dead and an official shall sound his whistle or declare it dead … When a ball carrier simulates placing his knee on the ground." The same rule is used by the British American Football Association.
The 2011 CFL Rules state in Rule 1, Section 4: "The ball is dead … When the quarterback, in possession of the ball, intentionally kneels on the ground during the last three minutes of a half". The Statistical Scoring Rules, Section 5(e) states: "When a quarterback voluntarily drops to one knee and concedes yards in an effort to run out the clock, the yards lost will be charged under Team Losses. NOTE – No quarterback sack will be given in this situation."
- Garafalo, Mike, "Coughlin to Schiano: 'You don't do that in this league'", USA Today, September 17, 2012. Accessed September 17, 2012. 
- National Football League (2011), Official Playing Rules and Casebook of the National Football League, p. 35, retrieved 12 May 2012
- National Collegiate Athletic Association (May 2011), 2011 and 2012 NCAA Football Rules and Interpretations, p. FR-56, retrieved 12 May 2012
- British American Football Association (2012), Football Rules and Interpretations, 2012-13 edition, retrieved 12 May 2012
- Canadian Football League (2011), The Official Playing Rules for the Canadian Football League, p. 14, retrieved 12 May 2012
- Canadian Football League (2011), The Official Playing Rules for the Canadian Football League, pp. 82, 88, retrieved 12 May 2012