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Terminology... Pass, Forward Pass, Complete, Uncomplete, Incomplete, and Incompletion
This is article #5 in a series covering the origins of football’s terminology. All are available under the Terminology tab above. My book, Hut! Hut! Hike! describes the emergence of more than 400 football terms.
Pass and Forward Pass
Passes were common in football before 1906 and the legalization of the forward pass. As a descendant of rugby, a pass occurred whenever a player handed or tossed the ball to a teammate. For example, the first football rules passed in 1876 included Rule 26:
Throwing back. It is lawful for any player who has the ball to throw it backward toward his own goal, or to pass it back to any player of his side who is at the time behind him, in accordance with the rules of on side.
Tossing the ball to a teammate positioned behind the passer ensured the ball went to an onside player (one closer to their goal than the passer). While some passes went forward, doing so was illegal, leading to the loss of possession when called.
Seeking to open up the game and give offenses more options to move the ball, the
rule-makers of 1906 allowed tossing the ball to a teammate positioned forward of the passes (closer to the opponent’s goal than the passer). Though heavily restricted, the forward pass was revolutionary by virtue of it violating one of rugby’s fundamental rules, the onside rule.
Complete, Uncomplete, Incomplete, and Incompletion
Following the legalization of the forward pass in 1906, reporters, and presumably coaches and players, did not have ready terms for passes that were caught or not. Caught passes were simply described as passes that worked or passed that netted or gained yardage. Passes that were not caught were described as hitting or falling to the ground, or failing to make the gain. Football needed a few new words.
The 1907 rules committee make progress all those lines by describing passes that were caught as being completed; those that were not were uncompleted.
With the rules mentioning uncompleted passes, one or two reporters used the term in 1907; others chose to call them incomplete passes. However, most stuck to the lengthier descriptions used in 1906. Things remained that way for another decade before complete and incomplete passes became the typical descriptions of the outcome of a forward pass.
A variation of the incomplete pass, the incompletion, appears once or twice early on and only became widely used in the 1930s.
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