Intentional grounding is likely the rule that requires the most judgment. Any rule that requires an official to determine “intent” is prone to inconsistent enforcement. The varying calls made at the prep level are fueled by the differences in philosophy between NCAA and NFHS rulemakers.
The chief difference between the codes is that in an NCAA game, the passer can intentionally throw the ball away once he has been outside the tackle box (7-3-2h Exc.). Intentional grounding is a foul because when a dropback passer is under duress and likely to be sacked, he should not be allowed to legally dump the ball off and negate a good defensive play. However, the thought behind the NCAA exception is when a passer has scrambled outside the tackle box, there is much less likelihood he will be tackled for a loss; hence the defense is less likely to be deprived of a sack. The rule allows the passer to simply end the down. Some would also add there is a safety element — the exception tends to avoid a hit on the quarterback.
Although intentional grounding is primarily a referee responsibility, other crew members are expected to assist in making the call. All officials must know the rule and be able to recognize when a pass is thrown into an area not occupied by an eligible offensive receiver. It is essential that crew members have a common understanding of what “in the area” means. The rules do not specify any distance and for good reason — a pass thrown 30 feet beyond a receiver is less likely to be judged a foul than a pass thrown 30 feet wide. Also, a pass thrown 10 feet wide of a receiver is less likely to be judged as a “throw-away” than a pass thrown 10 feet into the team area. Whether or not a receiver is looking to catch the pass should be a factor as well.
The rule specifies “an area not occupied by an eligible offensive receiver.” That’s to make a distinction with defensive players, who are all eligible. Thus, a pass thrown only near a defensive player does not excuse intentional grounding. Of course, if the pass is intercepted, a penalty for intentional grounding would be declined unless it was fourth down and the penalty with loss of down would yield better field position.
Likewise, illegal touching does not excuse intentional grounding unless the pass is caught. That would result in a completed pass so it would not be a pass “intentionally thrown incomplete.” If the pass is touched by an ineligible receiver and falls incomplete, the referee could judge the passer mistakenly thought the receiver he threw to was eligible and thus not a foul for grounding but could be a foul for illegal touching.
Where the ball meets the ground is of no consequence unless the referee judges the passer was under duress. Although that term does not appear in any rulebook, it is the embodiment of the motivation to conserve yardage and is indisputably a critical component of the foul. Duress is a judgment call and solely is within the domain of the referee. There can be a foul for intentional grounding to conserve time without duress, but not to conserve yardage — the intent to save yardage is simply not there unless a sack of the passer is likely.
Intent can also be discerned to an extent by the flight path of the ball. Clinicians will sometimes look for “air under the ball.” That translates to the ball traveling parallel for part of its trajectory. That’s an indicator the passer may have been truly intending to complete the pass. “No air” means the ball went straight to the ground and that’s a tip off for a foul.
Judging the passer’s intent becomes more complex when the passer is contacted as or before he releases the ball. Clearly if the passer is contacted as he’s throwing, he should not be held responsible for where the ball goes. There have been plays in which the passer was so severely manhandled the ball has ended up hitting the ground behind the spot of the pass. Those are incomplete forward passes by rule because the arm was moving forward on contact (NFHS 2-31-2 Note; NCAA 2-19-2b).
When the passer makes a conscious decision to release the ball as he is being manipulated by a defender, he should be held accountable for where the pass goes. In other words, such a pass must be an honest effort to throw to an eligible teammate and the contact is not a mitigating circumstance.
Another result of physical contact on a passer can be the stopping of his forward progress. A quarterback holding the ball is a runner and there is no reason to treat him differently than any other runner. There are occasions when the play has ended by rule before the ball is released. There is no “in the grasp” rule; however, forward progress cannot be ignored. If a quarterback is moving forward or is stationary and is grabbed by a defender and thrown backward, the quarterback’s forward progress is stopped and the down has ended. Any subsequent release of the ball, either a pass or fumble, is meaningless. If the passer is contacted and subsequently is moving forward, his forward progress is not stopped and any pass must be judged to be legal or illegal and any other loss of the ball is a fumble.
In the end, the rule is written so the referee will have to judge whether the pass was intentionally thrown incomplete or whether the passer was simply unable to throw the ball near a receiver. The “making it look good” concept can be used to justify a no call. That is when the referee is convinced the quarterback intended to intentionally throw an incomplete pass to avoid a sack, but he got the ball close enough to an eligible receiver to plead his case.