Difference Between Fumble and Incomplete Pass

Football is a sport in which two teams compete to move the ball into the opposite team’s goal using any portion of their bodies save their hands and arms. Only the goalkeeper is allowed to touch the ball, and only within the strike zone that surrounds the goal.


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The squad that scores the most goals is the winner. Football is perhaps the most prominent sport in the world in terms of both participants and spectators. Here are two of the most important terms related to it.

Key Takeaways

  1. Fumble and incomplete pass are terms used in American football to describe how a team can lose possession of the ball during a play.
  2. A fumble occurs when a player loses possession of the ball before a play ends, and the opposing team recovers the ball or goes out of bounds.
  3. An incomplete pass occurs when a player throws the ball, but any player does not catch it, or it is caught but not within the boundaries of the field of play.

Fumble vs Incomplete Pass

A fumble occurs when a player who is in possession of the ball drops it or loses control of it, and the ball touches the ground or goes out of bounds.  An incomplete pass occurs when a player throws the ball but it is not caught by any player on either team, or if it is caught out of bounds or hits the ground before being caught. 

Fumble vs Incomplete Pass

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In football, a fumble occurs whenever the ball carrier loses control of the ball and is collected by a defensive player. A fumble can result in the ball being tossed out of the hands of the ball carrier. A fumbled ball is still alive, and any player on the field of action can retrieve it.

An incomplete pass occurs in American and Canadian football when a forward pass is played and it touches the field before any player from both the teams gains control of the ball.

For example, if the player at quarterback throws the ball to wide receivers and he is not able to catch it or tries but is not able to do so, the pass is incomplete.

Comparison Table

Parameter of ComparisonFumbleIncomplete Pass
MeaningA fumble is a ball that is dropped from the player carrying it.An incomplete pass is a pass that is dropped before someone has full possession of the ball.
PickupIt may be picked up and advanced by either team.It cannot be picked up and moved by either team.
Movement of ballLosing control of the ball.Ball left the hands in an intentional forward motion.
BallLive ballDead ball

What is a Fumble?

In football, a fumble occurs when an attacking player drops the ball or loses possession of it as a result of something done to him by a defensive player.

There are some technical details to understand about the rules governing fumbles, as there are with so many other aspects of football.

It is not a fumble if a quarterback is in the middle of passing the ball and his arm is progressing forward when he loses possession of the ball or recovers from a fake pass.

If a wide receiver catches the ball but does not make a “football move,” it is not considered a fumble. If there is a fumble, the ball is open for grabs by any player on the field as long as it stays in bounds.

Fumble recovery is tougher than it appears due to the unusual shape of a football. The safest way to restore a fumble is for the player attempting to recover it to ‘fall’ on the ball, allowing the player to capture a firm grip and reliably secure the ball close to the player’s body.

The less successful technique is to retrieve it while still standing, enabling the recovering player to forward the ball, offering the other team a larger chance to win the ball.

If the player holding the ball fumbles the ball into the end zone they are aiming to score in; the attacking team can retrieve it and still achieve a touchdown. If the ball goes out of boundaries, then the defense would get a touchback.

If the fumble occurs within their end zone, the attacking team can still restore it, but if it ends up going out of bounds in the end zone, the defending team will get safety.

What is an Incomplete Pass?

In football, an incomplete pass lands on the ground is tossed out of limits, is not received by a recipient, or the receiver loses hold of the ball. The ball is dead when a pass is deemed incomplete, and the next down is played.

An incomplete pass is when the ball is spiked. A receiver might not have moved two steps and made a football move before the ball was pushed away for a game to be judged an incomplete pass instead of a fumble.

Even if delivered as a conventional pass, a throw that goes beyond the quarterback, including a screen, is deemed a fumble rather than an incomplete pass if missed.

To begin, you must understand that an incomplete pass has no bearing on your field position. When an incomplete pass happens, simply begin the following play from the very same spot as the previous one.

It makes no difference where the quarterback tossed the ball from. It doesn’t matter where the game began.

The clock will also be stopped if the pass is incomplete. This is a crucial part of the play since it improves the effectiveness of passing plays in late-game scenarios.

Running plays could only halt the clock if the player holding the ball runs out of bounds. While a passing play can freeze the time by delivering an incomplete pass or running out the clock, a running play cannot.

Main Differences Between Fumble and Incomplete Pass

  1. A fumble is a ball that is dropped from the player carrying it while an incomplete pass is a pass that is dropped before someone has full possession of the ball.
  2. A fumble may be picked up and advanced by either team while an incomplete pass cannot be picked up and moved by either team.
  3. In a fumble control of the ball is lost while in an incomplete pass the ball leaves the hands in an intentional forward motion.
  4. After a fumble, it is a live ball while after an incomplete pass it is a dead ball.
  5. Fumble is unintentional while the incomplete pass is intentional.
Difference Between Fumble and Incomplete Pass
  1. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3494035
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc1318352/
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