Intentional Grounding In Football Explained

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: January 26, 2024

It’s common to watch a football game on Friday, Saturday, or even Sunday and see the referee call intentional grounding. What is intentional grounding, and why is it important in football?

Intentional grounding in football is when the quarterback throws the football to an area of the field without receivers, while still in the pocket. The result is a 10 yard penalty for the offense and a loss of down.

This article will show you all the scenarios that a referee may call an intentional grounding penalty.

Intentional Grounding Penalty In Football

The intentional grounding rule was put into place to protect the quarterback when throwing a forward pass.

Now that the game of football is a much more finesse game, quarterbacks are throwing 30-40 times a game. This high volume of passing means the quarterback is more susceptible to getting hit.

To protect the quarterback, league officials created a rule that allowed quarterbacks to throw the ball away (this means throwing the ball out of bounds) if no receivers are open. This means the quarterback wouldn’t have to get hit and could safely end the play without any negative results.

However, quarterbacks can’t just throw the ball away whenever and wherever they want, there are a set of rules to which the quarterback must adhere when throwing the ball away.

Intentional grounding occurs when the quarterback throws the football either out of bounds or to an area with no receivers, while still in the pocket. It can also be called if the quarterback rolls out, tries to throw it out of bounds, and it doesn’t reach the line of scrimmage.

The intentional grounding rule is complicated. We’ve broken it down into three parts that the referees are looking for when throwing a flag for intentional grounding.

The Football Must Be Thrown Outside Of The Pocket

The first rule when throwing the ball away is that the quarterback must be outside the pocket or tackle box. The pocket is an imaginary line determined by the referees that form from left offensive tackle to right offensive tackle.

Intentional Grounding Pocket In Football
The Red Box Above Demonstrates The Pocket

If the quarterback decides to throw the ball away, they must physically be outside of the pocket. The referee ultimately has the final say if the quarterback was out of the pocket or not.

Once the quarterback leaves the pocket, he is free to throw the ball out of bounds if he feels the need to.

The Ball Must Be Thrown Beyond The Line Of Scrimmage

The next rule to avoid intentional grounding is the quarterback must throw the ball beyond the line of scrimmage. As they move out of the pocket, this means the quarterback needs to throw the ball out of bounds and beyond the line of scrimmage.

Too often do quarterbacks feel pressure from a defensive lineman, start running out of the pocket, and flip the ball out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage.

The side judge will determine if the football crossed the line of scrimmage or not. If the side judge determines the ball did not cross the line of scrimmage, they will deem it intentional grounding.

If the quarterback intentionally throws the ball out of bounds, without leaving the pocket and the ball doesn’t reach the line of scrimmage with no receivers in the area, it will be called for an intentional grounding penalty.

A Receiver Must Be In The Area

The last rule for intentional grounding is a receiver must be in the area of the throw if the throw does not go out of bounds.

For example, if the quarterback is rolling out of the pocket and cannot throw the ball out of bounds, they need to ensure that a receiver is in the area.

The referee may call intentional grounding if the ball doesn’t go out of bounds and there are no receivers in the area.

It’s key for the quarterback to be out of the pocket and throw the ball out of bounds and past the line of scrimmage to avoid intentional grounding.

To avoid intentional grounding, the quarterback must throw a forward pass directly to an eligible receiver, or out of bounds.

The one rule that is an exception is if the team is trying to stop the game clock. It’s common to see a quarterback spike the football down toward the ground when they need to stop the clock. This will help to avoid penalties.

However, if the quarterback delays spiking the ball, the referee can call it intentional grounding.

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Referee Sign For Intentional Grounding

The referees will typically meet before they throw a flag for intentional grounding. This is to discuss all the rules above unless the penalty is clear and obvious.

Intentional Grounding Referee Signal In Football

When the referees decide it’s intentional grounding, the referee will move his hands diagonally to signal intentional grounding.

You may see the second sign when both hands go behind his head at the same time. This is to signal that there is a loss of down on the play.

The result of intentional grounding is a ten yard penalty and a loss of down.

See a complete list of referee signals here.

Intentional Grounding Vs. Throwing Away

The difference between intentional grounding and throwing the ball away is determined by two things:

  • Is the quarterback in the pocket?
  • Does the ball reach the line of scrimmage?

Quarterbacks can throw the ball away as long as they are outside of the pocket and throw the ball past the line of scrimmage.

If the quarterback throws the ball away from the pocket and there are no receivers near, it will be intentional grounding.

Additionally, if the QB throws the ball away and it doesn’t reach the line of scrimmage, it will be intentional grounding.

How To Avoid Intentional Grounding

We recommend practicing throwing the ball away in practice. Too often, younger quarterbacks will panic in a game and not know when to throw the football away.

Work on rolling out of the pocket and throwing the ball into the stands or on the track. This will give the quarterback enough confidence to throw the ball where they are not typically comfortable throwing it.

These types of drills will help your quarterbacks avoid intentional grounding during the chaos of the football game.

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Why spend hours on Google and YouTube trying to learn football yourself? We’ve created a simple guide to help make you the smartest person in the room.

Keep Learning

Intentional grounding penalties can really hurt an offense. If they get one, the realistic chance of getting a first down is rare. The penalty for intentional grounding is a 10 yard loss and a loss of down.

On penalties, typically the offense will replay the down. So if the foul occurred on second down, they would replay second down. However when intentional grounding penalties occur, the offense will not replay the down, they will go to the next down.

If you liked learning about rules and the game of football, we recommend you check out our Ultimate Football Guide. It has everything you need to improve your football IQ.

Now that you’ve learned about the rules of football, we recommend you check out our ultimate guide to learning football.

About the author 

Chris Haddad

Chris Haddad is the founder of vIQtory Sports & high school coach for over 12+ years. He has been featured as an authority on Hudl, Bleacher Report and countless other football-centric platforms. Chris continues to study and provide valuable content for those looking to learn more about the game of football.

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