In gridiron football, intentional grounding is a violation of the rules where "a passer...throws a forward pass without a realistic chance of completion." This typically happens when a quarterback about to be sacked passes the ball toward an area of the field with no eligible receiver. Without this rule, the quarterback could almost always avoid a sack by intentionally throwing an incomplete pass (which would stop the clock and return the ball to the line of scrimmage, avoiding any loss of yardage); instead, the penalty of intentional grounding effectively continues play as if the defense had succeeded in sacking the quarterback.
The rule against intentional grounding seems to date from 1914, two seasons after an incomplete pass ceased to result in a turnover, in the period of rule experimentation that followed legalization of the forward pass in 1906.
A ball carrier, in any location, commits intentional grounding when throwing a pass with no realistic chance of completion in order to avoid a sack; for instance, throwing the football down near himself. However, the rules explicitly allow the quarterback to spike the ball immediately after receiving it from the center to stop the clock without using a time out.
Intentional grounding is called only if all of the following components are present:
- Imminent pressure: The passer must face "imminent loss of yardage." There is no violation when the passer is not about to be tackled but the receiver simply fails to run the route the quarterback expects.
- Location: In the NFL and college, the quarterback must be inside the tackle box (or pocket), the area between the two offensive tackles on the line. If the quarterback scrambles to either side and is closer to the sideline than that side's tackle lined up, there is no penalty. The NFL added this element of the rule in 1993 in order to protect quarterbacks; high school football followed suit in 2022. However, intentional grounding can be called on a quarterback (or other offensive ballcarrier) outside the pocket if the pass fails to go beyond the line of scrimmage. In the CFL, the quarterback is not subject to an intentional grounding penalty regardless of his location, so long as the pass reaches the line of scrimmage.
- Target of the pass: The ball must be passed where there is no eligible receiver, such as well out of bounds. If a receiver is nearby but fails to catch the ball, or if a defender deflects the pass, there is no penalty. Conversely, if the pass is caught by an ineligible receiver, intentional grounding may still be called if there is no nearby eligible receiver (although a penalty of illegal touching would also be called, forcing the defense to decide which penalty to accept, if any).
After a flag is thrown, the officials may confer to decide whether all these components were present, and may "pick up the flag" upon finding there was no intentional grounding.
The penalty for intentional grounding has several components so that the offense gains no benefit from the violation:
- The offense is penalized 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, or (in the NFL only) the ball is placed at the spot of the pass if that is less advantageous.
- The offense loses the down rather than replaying the down, as is the case for most other penalties.
- If the quarterback threw the pass from his team's own end zone, the penalty results in a safety being scored by the defense.
- Like many offensive penalties, intentional grounding committed near the end of either half results in a ten-second runoff of the game clock, if the defense desires. This ensures that intentional grounding is not an effective means of clock management.
- Official Rules of the NFL, Rule 8-3-1.
- Berry, Elmer (1921). The Forward Pass in Football.
- Don Pierson (1993-07-23). "More Protection Awaits Qb Assets". Chicago Tribune.
- Beacom, Mike (3 August 2010). The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football. ISBN 9781101458785.
- Theismann, Joe; Tarcy, Brian (July 2001). The complete idiot's guide to football. ISBN 9781101221976.
- Jackson, Scoop (January 26, 2012). "The Pro Bowl's search for meaning". ESPN.com. Retrieved 25 January 2012.