Read CHAPTER V of The Forward Pass in Football, free online book, by Elmer Berry, on


The forward pass has now been a part of offensive football for fifteen years. In spite of that fact few teams have developed anything like a consistently successful ground gaining forward pass attack. Apparently many regard the forward pass simply as a valuable threat, something for occasional use, something to take a chance with, something the possibility of which makes the real game still workable. To a large degree this has been the attitude of the larger colleges. In general they have frowned on the forward pass; opposed it, sneered at it, called it basketball and done what they could to retard its adoption. It has taken away from them the advantage of numbers, weight and power, made the game one of brains, speed and strategy even if you please like baseball, luck, rendered the outcome of their practice games with smaller colleges uncertain. Why should they have hastened its development? Rather it has been the smaller colleges that have found in the forward pass their opportunity, which have developed its possibilities until now the larger ones as well are turning to it as the final means of winning their big game.

It is doubtless fair to say that the early development of the forward pass was largely due to two teams, Springfield College of the Y. M. C. A. and the Carlisle Indians. Their game in 1912 at Springfield is said by competent experts to have been probably the greatest exhibition of open football ever staged. It is doubtful if two such finished exponents of the open game have ever met before or since. To Coach J. H. McCurdy of the Springfield team goes the honor, in the writer’s judgment, of the early recognition and development of the strategy of the forward pass, for in this respect at least, Springfield excelled even the wonderful Indian teams produced by Glen Warner. No one team can longer claim a leadership in this or any other department of the game, but it is fair to say that the Springfield team has continuously demonstrated an unusual aptitude for the forward pass and a high degree of leadership at least among the Eastern teams.

It is not strange, in view of the fact that the great leaders of football have not taken more kindly to the forward pass, that its underlying principles have not been more thoroughly worked out and organized. It is the chief purpose of this work to state if possible some of these principles and fundamentals to the end that the open game of football, always in the past and still to some extent opposed by certain groups, may be better understood, more successfully coached and more firmly and thoroughly established.


The first fundamental of a successful forward passing game is that the forward pass should be used as a regular ground gaining play and not simply, as so many teams seem still to do, as a sort of last desperate chance. With many teams the attack may be summarized practically in this manner: first and second down, runs; third down, forward pass; fourth down, kick. And then they wonder that the forward pass doesn’t succeed and stigmatize it as a dangerous, treacherous and unsuccessful play! Rather a team must have the confidence to use it often on first and second downs, and even on special, occasions on a fourth down. Not only that, but it must be used frequently, persistently and continuously. Nothing more disturbs the morale of defense than a series of forward passes, some of which succeed even though a considerable proportion of them are incompleted. There is always the danger that one may succeed and get away! What proportion of the running plays are successful in the modern game? No statistics exist. If the forward pass were tried anything like as persistently as the running game, unquestionably its percentage of success would greatly increase.

On this basis the pass should be used for short as well as long gains. A running play that gains two and a half to three yards is regarded as successful. Why should not the pass be used in the same way? Passes that give little or no gain in themselves, but put the receiver in position for open field running, and at least a few yards gain, disorganize the defense, eventually make the long passes successful, spread the defense so bucking becomes possible, and contribute generally to making the forward pass a regular ground gaining play a part of the regular attack.


The early successes of the forward pass were secured almost solely upon the principle of putting the passer a distance of fifteen yards back, then letting the opposing line come charging through absolutely without resistance. Practically the whole offensive team was sent down to receive (apparently) the pass, thus confusing the defense as to who was eligible and furnishing interference as soon as the pass was completed. By actual experiment it was found that a distance of thirteen to fifteen yards was necessary. Although lines are more wary and experienced today than formerly, this single piece of strategy is still very valuable. Many teams are failing with their passes simply because their passer is not more than seven to ten yards back. The greater distance gives a short but vital length of time for receivers to get free and for the passer to pick out the open man. It also gives a longer time for running sideward and forward, helping to confuse the defense as to whether a run or pass is really intended. Add to this the fact that with the greater distance back little or no protection need be given the passer, it becomes clear that though many plays can and will be built with the passer up close and running back only the necessary legal distance, a big distance back is an important fundamental.

This at once brings out the importance of the spiral pass back from center, and the ability to make, when desired, a long forward pass of from fifty to sixty yards. Unless the snapper-back can make a consistent, accurate, speedy pass to a distance of fifteen or more yards and can accurately lead his passer, no advantage is gained by this distance back. Many teams have failed to put their passer the necessary distance back because, though they did not recognize the real difficulty, their center was not adequately getting the ball back to him. Consequently the passer was instinctively creeping up closer and closer, being hurried in his passes and often failing. The spiral pass back from center is an absolutely fundamental requisite for a successful forward passing game.

The ability also to make long passes is fundamental. With the secondary defense playing ten yards back and possibly covering twenty yards more, with the passer fifteen yards behind his own offensive line, the pass going outward at an angle must often travel fifty-five yards to clear the secondary defense. Although such long passes need not often be used, the knowledge that the offense possesses the ability to make them is necessary to keep the secondary defense back so that short, sharp passes may succeed for the disconcerting gains of the regular ground gaining attack.


The ideal forward pass formation is one from which a kick, pass or run is possible. As the play starts it should be difficult to diagnose whether a run or pass is intended. In fact, as a team becomes finished in its performance it may often switch in its intention, running out a play on the call of the passer that was intended for a pass, because the defense laid back and waited; and conversely, though not so often, a pass may be made to an open man on the call of the passer, though the signal called for a run. This represents high art in team work but it can be developed. Much depends upon the alertness and head work of the passer in this connection. Such changing of plan should not be allowed in the early season, but it may be encouraged later as the team becomes unified and comes to know itself. Such a combination, operating with basketball intuition, becomes exceedingly difficult to stop.

If in addition to this a kick is occasionally worked on something besides the fourth down, the game becomes a real test of wits.

Naturally not every forward pass will be “pulled” from an ideal formation. Many splendid forward pass plays can be built up from ordinary close running, bucking formations.


An occasional forward pass play is developed where only a single eligible man is open to receive the pass. Such a play depends for success upon its speed of execution, its unexpectedness and its similarity to other regularly used running plays. A few such plays should of course be included in the team’s attack, but they are the exception and when successful are so because of that fact. They the more strongly emphasize the fact that as a general principle a regular forward pass play should aim to get as many eligible men as possible open to receive the pass. These men should be so spread that they cannot all be covered by the defense. The passer then selects an open man or the best open man to whom to pass.

This method puts great responsibility upon the passer. It fits in with the idea of putting him well back and giving him as much time as possible to make his choice. It requires a passer of special mental type, and one of considerable basketball ability who can dodge and get his pass off accurately even when apparently covered. The ease of choice can be much facilitated by having an order for each play in which the passer is to look for possibilities. The first choice should always be the signal called. That play should always be made if it is at all possible; in early season and during practice it should be executed whether possible or not. But as the passer develops ability he should be allowed when the pass signalled is covered to select second, third and even fourth choices, and the order of looking for the choices should be so arranged that a quick sweep of the field in front of him will give the passer his open men.

Not all coaches agree to the principle outlined above. Many have had difficulty in finding passers who could make the choice required. They have felt, therefore, that plays had to be designed to special men, calling these men to special zones, one time one place, next time another place, and then the play made as quickly as possible to this special man. If the defense was confused and the man got loose, the play succeeded (barring mechanical failure); if he did not it failed. This represents a purely mechanical method. It harks back to the “old” game where everything was as mechanical as possible and there was little need of brain power and little occasion to make quick decisions. The quarter made the decisions; the player did what he was told to do. The new open game is not played that way; it opens up a world of choice and possibility to the player. Therein lies its greatly increased mental value.

The big reason that many coaches have failed with the “choice” method of passing is that their plays have not been so designed as to give their passer the necessary time for making a choice. They have allowed the defense to “hurry” the passer. Some of the methods of preventing this have already been indicated. Occasionally it may happen that a team possesses a passer of great ability who cannot work the “choice” method. For such a player “mechanical” plays must be built. But the probabilities are that many men would develop this ability if they were given practice and the opportunity.


It seems a very simple matter to say that the receiver should be called before the pass is made to him. It seems so simple that time is rarely spent in practicing it. It is assumed that it will be done, but in reality it is not done. The usual thing is for the passer to hurl the ball into the air and yell “ball.” Let any coach actually insist once on his passer calling his man before he passes to him and see what happens. And yet this is exactly the thing that will change the forward pass game from a happy-go-lucky chance into a mathematical probability. When the passer calls his man before he passes he knows what he is trying to do, the team knows, the receiver is given more time to get into position, he is then given a better chance to catch the pass and the rest of the team are given a chance to form interference. It is a small thing to count as heavily as it does, but it is one of the small things that make success.


Have it clearly worked out on every pass play where each eligible man is to go. This is equally true in fact for every man on the team, for every man on the team has something to do on a forward pass. It is just as important on a forward pass play that each eligible man know where, when and how he is to go as it is on running plays for the interference to know whom they are to take. This is where the mechanical part of the “choice” method of passing comes in. To a surprising degree this can be almost the same on all plays. It will of course vary somewhat with the style of defense met, but again surprisingly little.

The eligible man should seldom go directly to the spot where he will receive the pass if it comes to him. At the proper instant, which should be pretty definitely timed for everybody on each play, and always at the call of the passer, the receiver should turn and race to the spot where he knows the ball will be thrown. This spot should have been previously worked out so that the passer “leads” the receiver, the latter being in better position to catch the ball and on the dead run. This should also be so worked out and the preliminary run of the eligible man such, that the receiver will get the ball with his body between the ball and his covering opponent. Receiver and opponent should never be crashing together when struggling for a ball. It is not only dangerous but poor strategy.

In working out the above possibilities some eligible men may often be used simply as decoys going perhaps almost straight toward the defensive halves and forcing them to cover them, making other eligible men more surely available for the pass. In case the defensive halves, however, refuse to cover these decoys, they should immediately be given the pass. Between combinations of this sort and the problem of determining whether a pass or run is in process, the position of defensive half in modern football is one compared with which the “dizzy corner” in baseball is a bed of roses. The fact is that a team with anything like a mechanical perfection in the passing game, and any ability to select its men as above indicated, simply cannot be stopped in mid-field. The greatest single fault and the one thing that stops most teams, outside of mechanical failure, is the failure of eligible men to spread widely enough. Too often two or three eligible men go to the same zone or area and a pass to any one of the three can be covered by a single defensive player. Instinctively every man on the offense tries to be where he expects the ball to go. It must be drilled into the players that their “business” may be decidedly elsewhere.


Finally, plan definitely for interference after the pass is completed. This is particularly true for the shorter passes. Insist that every man is in every pass play. There is great temptation for linemen to “take a day off” when a long pass is called in which they are not likely to figure. But they should either be protecting the passer, making it possible for him to better choose his open man, or down with the eligible men in the shorter zones ready for immediate interference in case that pass should be elected. This should be definitely mapped out with each formation and the receiver should know where to find interference behind which he can dodge the instant he has received the pass.


The danger of interception, though much over-rated by many, should be carefully guarded. The interception of a long pass often means nothing worse than punting to the other team would have meant. Possession of the ball does not count for as much as in the old game. It should never mean worse if the danger of interception is properly guarded. Too often, however, it means a touchdown for the defense.

In the first place when the receiver has been called every other man on the offense should instantly become alive as a possible interferer or possible protector in case of interception. It is a preparedness, mental and physical, that is desired that in itself would probably prevent half of the touchdowns now made by interception. A pass doesn’t finish a play, it simply starts it and it may start it either way.

In the second place all line men and eligible men in the shorter zones, who perhaps can be of no assistance on the longer pass, should the instant they find the long pass in process act as if they expected it to be intercepted.

Finally the passer himself and his immediate protectors should, the instant the pass is off, cover for possible interception. They are the last and possibly by far the most important “safety” in case of interception.