This is #27 in a series covering football's original 61 rules adopted by the Intercollegiate Football Association in 1876. We review one rule each Friday.
We kept last week’s review of Rule 26 short to avoid stepping on Rule 27’s toes. As you will recall, Rule 26 told us it was legal to toss the ball backward, including passing it to a teammate. Conversely, Rule 27 says knocking on or throwing a ball forward is illegal.
Rule 27: Knocking on, i.e., deliberately hitting the ball with the hand, and throwing it forward, i.e., throwing the ball in the direction of the (sic) opponents’ goal-line, are not lawful. If the ball be knocked on or thrown forward, the captain of the opposite side may (unless a fair catch has been made as provided by the next rule) require to have it brought back to the spot where it was knocked down or thrown forward and there put it down.
Some versions of folk football games did not allow players to carry the ball but were okay with them punching it, which they called knocking on. Rugby did not allow knocking on, so neither did the IFA. Throwing the ball forward (aka toward the opponent’s goal) was also illegal. In either case, the opposing team captain had the right to bring the ball back to the spot it was knocked on or thrown forward. Of course, if a member of the opposing team managed to fair catch a ball that was knocked on or thrown forward, his team possessed the ball at the spot. (The next rule, #28, defines the fair catch.)
The thinking behind the knocking rule remains in gridiron football today in its ban on fumbling the ball forward. However, the more fundamental violation of this rule is the core of the legal forward pass, which created a different evolutionary path from other football games. Rugby did not follow this path, neither did the Aussie rules game, and the hacky sack guys don’t allow the use of the hands either, so gridiron football stands alone in using the hands and legally tossing the ball forward.
Legalizing the forward pass was a fundamental break from football’s rugby origins, leading rule makers to severely limit the forward pass for almost forty years. At times, they restricted the location from which the ball could be thrown and how far they could throw it while severely penalizing incompletions. Even today, when forward passes are thrown, half the remaining offensive players are ineligible to receive the pass, a restriction that has no counterpart in other football games.
So, since legalizing the forward pass was a critical event in football’s history, it is worth acknowledging that overturning Rule 27 was at its core.
Click the appropriate link for previous stories in the series: Intro | #1 Drop Kick | #2 Place Kick | #3 Punt | #4 Goal Posts | #5 Goal | #6 Goal ≠ Punt | #7: Scoring | #8: Dead Ball | #9: Touchdown | #10: Tackle | #11: Scrimmage | #12: Ball Handling | #13 Dead Ball | #14: Scrimmage Ball Handling | #15 Run In | #16: Goal Line | #17: Boundary Lines | #18: Crying “Down” | #19: Maul In | #20 Maul in Pax | #21: Touch-in Goal | #22: Onside | #23 Offside | #24 Return to Onside | #25 Defensive Offside | #26 Throwing Back
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