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What is Intentional Grounding?

By Leo J
Updated May 23, 2024
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Intentional grounding is a rule infraction in American football that is called under certain circumstances when the quarterback throws an incomplete pass on purpose. The specific circumstances under which intentional grounding is called and the penalty for doing so vary according to the rules being used. In the National Football League (NFL), for example, the penalty usually is the ball being placed 10 yards (9.14 m) behind the previous line of scrimmage and a loss of down. The penalty in college football usually is a loss of down and the ball being placed at the spot of the foul. In high school football, the penalty usually is the ball being placed 5 yards (4.57 m) behind the spot of the foul and a loss of down.

Under some circumstances, the penalty for this infraction can be more severe. In the NFL, if the quarterback is more than 10 yards (9.14 m) behind the line of scrimmage when he intentionally grounds the ball, the penalty is a loss of down and the ball being placed at the spot of the foul, rather than a mere 10-yard (9.14-m) penalty. Under the rules used at most levels of football, if the quarterback is in the offensive team's end zone when the pass is thrown, it is a two-point safety for the other team.

Spiking the Ball is Allowed

There are specific circumstances under which it is legal for the quarterback to throw an incomplete pass on purpose. The most obvious is when the quarterback "spikes" the ball — throws it directly into the ground — to stop the game clock. This typically must be done immediately after a quarterback receives a direct, hand-to-hand snap from the center. If the quarterback did not receive a hand-to-hand snap, such as in what is called the shotgun formation; if the quarterback fumbles the snap; if the quarterback delays before spiking the ball; or if the pass hits another player before hitting the ground, the spike is illegal, and intentional grounding should be called.

Other Exceptions to the Rule

The other situations in which intentionally throwing an incomplete pass is allowed depend on the rules being used. In the NFL, for example, if the quarterback is in the area behind the line of scrimmage and between the offensive tackles, and if he is not in danger of being tackled by a defensive player, he is allowed to throw the ball away. Also, if the quarterback runs to either side of the field outside the offensive tackles, he also is permitted to throw the ball away, as long as the pass lands near or past the line of scrimmage. This exception does not exist in high school football, however — no matter where the quarterback is, the pass must be thrown near an eligible receiver, or it is intentional grounding.

In most cases, if there is an eligible receiver near where the ball lands, it is not intentional grounding. In high school football, however, the receiver also must have a reasonable chance to catch the ball. If not, then the officials must determine whether the quarterback threw an uncatchable pass on purpose or simply threw an inaccurate pass. For example, if the quarterback is not under pressure from the defense and throws a very short pass that hits the ground well before it gets close to the intended receiver, the officials might call it intentional grounding. On the contrary, if the game is being played in a heavy rain and the quarterback is running while throwing — two circumstances that likely would affect the quarterback's ability to grip the ball and throw accurately — an inaccurate short pass might not be called intentional grounding.

When the quarterback's pass is significantly affected by the defense, this penalty typically is not called. If the quarterback's arm is hit while the ball is being thrown, for example, the pass might not go where it is intended to go, so it would be difficult for the officials to know whether the quarterback threw an incomplete pass on purpose. If the ball is tipped or deflected by a defensive player, intentional grounding is not called.

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Discussion Comments
By anon310497 — On Dec 23, 2012

Why is it OK to intentionally ground outside the box but not inside the box?

By anon232046 — On Nov 28, 2011

I'm no expert on football rules, but it seems to me that spiking the ball to stop the clock is more of a planned tactic than intentional grounding. The quarterback probably knows the clock is running and he must stop it ASAP. Intentional grounding often seems to happen after a play starts to go wrong. In other words, the quarterback has every intention of completing a forward pass to an eligible receiver, but then realizes it's not going to happen so he throws the ball away. Spiking doesn't require an eligible receiver, just clear ground.

I'd also say that intentional grounding is a call made by the officials while watching the play in progress. Was there an eligible receiver anywhere near the ball, for example. A bad pass is not the same as intentional grounding, so the officials have to decide if the quarterback deliberately ditched the ball in order to avoid a sack or did he make an honest effort to make a legitimate pass after the original play broke up.

By anon230918 — On Nov 21, 2011

Why is spiking the ball to stop the clock not considered intentional grounding?

By discographer — On Feb 04, 2011

@blbucklin-- I'm not sure about who gets awarded the points but I know that the penalty is a loss of down.

Are high school rules different than the NFL rules on intentional grounding? What about college rules? I think that high school rules are a bit more strict than the NFL on calling intentional grounding and spiking, correct?

By SteamLouis — On Feb 04, 2011

@burcidi--If the quarterback, after receiving the ball from the center, took a single step backward and immediately spiked the ball, it is not considered an intentional grounding. You see, this is an acceptable way for the player to stop the clock and it gives the offensive time to start another play.

It's not very easy to carry out such a spike though. If, for example, the offense is not set or if the spiked ball hits a player, it won't be considered a spike and will be given a penalty.

By burcidi — On Feb 01, 2011

I was watching a game the other day and the quarterback threw the ball down suddenly (I think its called spiking) but it was not called out as intentional grounding. My friends and I just couldn't understand it. Can someone explain why is spiking the ball not intentional grounding?

By blbucklin — On Oct 18, 2007

In a high school football game if the quarterback is called for intentional grounding in the end zone to avoid a sack, who is credited with the safety? The player sacking the QB or are the points awarded to the team?

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