I’ve been watching football for decades but I never played football. So, my ability to really know the rules is somewhat limited to whatever the announcers talk about. Today, I was listening to Eli Manning being interviewed on the Smartless podcast hosted by Jason Bateman. Actors interviewing a sports celebrity who has also acted. Interesting.
They started asking some pretty basic questions but sometimes you have to get down to the basics. Eli was asked about being an eligible receiver and, to be honest, I had never heard anyone mention that. In short, if you see something you think might be open to receive a pass, that guy might not be eligible to receive it based on preset receiver eligibility. It kind of blew my mind that I had never heard about such a major rule.
In American football, an eligible receiver is a player who is allowed to legally catch a forward pass. The rules determining who is eligible vary slightly between different leagues, but in general, the following players are eligible:
- Wide Receivers: Usually players who line up on the line of scrimmage but outside of the offensive tackles. They’re typically the primary targets for forward passes.
- Running Backs: Players who line up behind the line of scrimmage and often carry the ball on running plays. They can also be targeted on passing plays.
- Tight Ends: They can line up on the line of scrimmage, usually next to the offensive tackles, or slightly off the line. Like wide receivers, they’re often targeted for passes.
- Quarterback: Only if they receive the ball from a handoff or lateral before the pass is thrown.
In terms of jersey numbers (in the NFL and many other leagues):
- Eligible receivers typically wear numbers 1-49 and 80-89.
- Players wearing numbers 50-79 and 90-99 are generally ineligible unless they report to the referee as being in an eligible position for a specific play.
- Offensive linemen (center, guards, and tackles) are typically ineligible unless they report as eligible to the referee. If they do this, they typically must line up in a position where they would normally be eligible (e.g., as a tight end).
- An ineligible player cannot be the first to touch a forward pass unless it has first been touched by an opponent or an eligible receiver. If they do, it results in a penalty for illegal touching.
- There must be at least seven players on the line of scrimmage at the snap. Of those seven, only the outermost two players are eligible receivers. This means that if there are extra linemen or ineligible players on the line (outside of the normal five linemen), they take up an eligible position, even if they are not allowed to catch a pass.
- Any players behind the line of scrimmage are also eligible.
Different leagues and levels of play (e.g., NFL, NCAA, high school) may have variations on these rules, but the general principles remain consistent. Always refer to the specific rulebook for a league or association to get the precise details.