What Is The Intentional Grounding Rule?

Brad Smith
Brad Smith

Despite football’s popularity, there are a bunch of rules that confuse newbies. A prime example happens to be the intentional grounding penalty. Then there’s the fact that the laws of intentional grounding differ based on whether the game is being played at the national or college level.

If you’ve been trying to wrap your head around intentional grounding, you’ve come to the right place. As a football coach, part of the job description involves breaking down complex rules to a level everyone can understand – not just players and die-hard fans.

That’s exactly what this article it’s all about. From the actual definition to why the rule exists in the first place – I’ve covered it all.

Intentional Grounding - The Definition

According to the NFL, the intentional grounding foul occurs when a passer throws a forward pass (without a realistic chance of completion) while facing an impending loss of yardage due to pressure from the defense.

If you’re wondering what the term without a realistic chance of completion means, that’s simple. A pass thrown towards (and lands nearby) an eligible receiver has a realistic chance of completion.

So basically, when the quarterback (QB) is situated where the two tackles begin (aka inside the pocket area) and throws the ball where no wide receiver can possibly get to it – the intentional grounding rule is evoked.

The QB is only allowed to throw the ball (to avoid being tackled behind the line of scrimmage) when he’s outside the tackle box and if the ball goes beyond the line of scrimmage. Or if the QB takes a hit while he’s preparing to throw the ball.

Why Does The Intentional Grounding Penalty Exist?

Even though football rules can seem arbitrary sometimes – there’s always a genuine reason behind them. And the intentional grounding rule is no different. Think about how difficult it would be for the defense to get a sack or a turnover if the quarterback had the freedom to throw a pass to any part of the football field – without any restrictions.

Without the intentional grounding imposing limitations on the quarterback’s movement, he could potentially access unlimited extended plays. Every time the quarterback faced pressure from the defense, he could simply buy some time with the throw and get away with it, as the defense clamored for the ball.

The NFL also states that the intentional grounding rule exists to protect the quarterback, possibly because the QB is somewhat vulnerable while scrambling and cannot see any attacks from the rear. As such, if the quarterback wants an ‘out,’ all he has to do is throw the ball past the line of scrimmage.

Intentional Grounding NFL vs. Intentional Grounding NCAA

Before getting started on the difference(s) between the NFL and the NCAA intentional grounding rule, let’s take a moment to discuss the penalty for the rule according to the NFL.

As per the NFL rulebook, the penalty for intentional grounding is as follows:

  • Loss of down and 10 yards from the previous spot; or 
  • Loss of down at the place of the foul; or  
  • A safety if the passer is in his end zone when the ball is thrown.

To be honest, there’s not that big of a difference between the definition of each new intentional grounding of the NFL and the NCAA. The actual difference lies in how intentional grounding is penalized.

In the NFL, the penalty for intentional grounding is almost always a loss of down and 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. In college football, the penalty extends to the next play occurring at the spot of the foul along with a loss of down.

In college football, if the intentional grounding occurs near the line of scrimmage, the resulting loss of down makes it trickier to move the chains (the chain connects the signal poles indicating how far the offense needs to go to get the first down).

On the other hand, the NFL rule combines a loss of down for the offense and a 10-yard loss – which makes it extremely difficult for the offense to get a first down after the penalty.

Why Is Spiking Not The Same As Intentional Grounding?

It’s impossible to overlook a spike when talking about intentional grounding. More often than not, football fans are left feeling super confused as two why spiking isn’t treated the same – considering it’s an incomplete pass.

A spike occurs when the quarterback intentionally throws the ball at the ground right after the snap. The play stops the clock at the expense of a down without any gain in yards. So why does offense bother with the spike at all?

The offense utilizes a spike play when it wishes to save timeouts or has no timeouts left to get some breathing room to plan its next play without losing precious game clock time.

Even though spiking the ball is pretty evident to the defense (thanks to the quarterback’s arm motions), and they know their opponents are trying to stop the clock, they still tend to relax their guard at times – which leaves them vulnerable.

That’s because sometimes the QB can fake spiking a ball and then opt to run a regular play. The chaos resulting from the play allows the offense to gain yards when the QB throws the ball to a well-placed receiver.

What constitutes spiking the ball according to NFL rules? Well, the first requirement is that the clock cannot be stopped while the QB attempts the spike. The second condition is that the QB has to be at the center when taking the snap and that he must immediately throw the ball to the ground.

If the quarterback spikes the ball when the clock is running, delays spiking the ball after the snap, or spikes the ball in a shotgun formation, intentional grounding may be reviewed.

What's The Difference Between Intentional Grounding and Throwing The Ball Away?

All of the QB’s throws are picked by tight ends or wide receivers in the perfect world. But in the real world – things go wrong all the time. For example, the quarterback’s attempt to pass the ball can result in many situations like – an incomplete pass, intentional grounding, or throwing the ball away.

We know, but when the quarterback attempts to throw the ball, and it goes out of bounds, hits the ground, or is missed by the player – it’s called an incomplete pass. Once this happens, the game clock stops, and the next down begins at the same place. In short, an incomplete pass wastes a down.

If the QB can’t intentionally ground the ball or afford an incomplete pass, what can he do when faced with a lot of pressure from the defense?

He has two options, and one of them is to throw the ball away – which ironically enough looks a lot like an incomplete pass. When the QB throws the ball away, he throws it out of bounds once he’s outside the pocket (right or left along the line of scrimmage).

This allows the quarterback to avert the disaster of a hazardous throw that a defender can intercept.

Bonus - Football Terms You Should Remember

As I was writing this article, one thought kept bugging me constantly – what if someone who’s not very familiar with football terms reads this piece? I’ve used quite a bit of football jargon here – because avoiding it is impossible at times.

But, to ensure everyone (and I mean everyone) understands the concept of intentional grounding, I’ve devised a quick little glossary you can refer to to get the gist of things.

Down: A period of action during which each team has to move the ball 10 yards. The offense will typically get four downs before returning the ball to the defense via a punt.

Interception: When a defensive player gets a hold of a pass.

Line of scrimmage: The place on the field where the ball is spotted and where the next play begins.

Pocket: The area just a little behind the center, where the QB stands.

Sack: What happens when the QB gets tackled behind the line of scrimmage.

Scrambling: When the quarterback is running to avoid getting sacked.

Snap: When the center passes the football from between his legs to the player behind him. The action that kicks off a football play.

4th & 10

Hopefully, anybody reading this understands what intentional grounding is and how it’s related to situations like an incomplete pass or throwing the ball away. But even if you’re still a bit iffy – that’s okay.

At times, it helps to visualize football situations to understand the concepts. That’s why I recommend watching clips of different football plays on sites like YouTube as you read this. Trust me, it’ll make a world of difference.

Until next time – see you at the games!

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Brad Smith
Brad Smith
Brad Smith has been coaching high school Football for 6 years in Florida. He and his wife have 3 beautiful children who he hopes will become the first Jaguars to win a Superbowl. Other than Football, Brad loves American litterature, parenting, gardening, and home remodeling.