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Useful Notes / American Football Penalties

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The following is an explanation of various penalties in American Football. The list is primarily NFL-oriented; college, high school, and Canadian penalties are noted as such as appropriate. If one of these infractions is seen by an official, he will throw a yellow flag (orange in Canada) and, if the penalty calls for it, blow his whistle to signal the play dead. If he is not the referee (the one wearing the white hat), he will then tell the referee what he saw and which team and/or player caused the infraction, which the referee will then announce to the audience. On rare occasions, an official will also throw his hat; this almost always happens during altercations on the field or other situations that lead to multiple penalties, and when that official has already thrown his flag.

The coach of the team that did not cause the penalty has the option to decline the penalty, which means that the play will stand as called, and the loss of yardage or downs will not occur. There are moments when declining a penalty will benefit the team. Moving to 4th down, rather than the penalty forcing them to repeat 3rd down, is one such example. Another common example is any time a "live-ball" defensive foul occurs and the offense gains more yards than the penalty would give them, or scores.

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If the offense and defense both commit a penalty on the same play, the penalties may negate each other (called offsetting) depending on their nature and when they were committed in the course of the play. If this occurs, the penalties are announced then declared to offset.

Penalties are announced in an A-B-C-D format where:

  • A is a qualifier such as "Dead ball foul:", "After the play was over:", "Personal foul:", etc. Only done when necessary.
  • B is the penalty committed.
  • C is the number of the player who committed the penalty and whether he's on offense, defense, or the kicking or receiving team as appropriate.
  • D is the result of the penalty and any other information relevant to the call, such as the resulting down, whether penalties offset, etc.


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    Offensive / Special teams 

  • False start: Before the snap, an offensive player who is set in position moves in a way that simulates the start of play. Called "procedure" in Canada.
Penalty: 5 yards
Signal: Referee circles fists/forearms around each other at chest level.

  • Illegal forward pass: The offense either: throws a forward pass while past the line of scrimmage or after a change or possession; or a second forward pass is thrown during the same play.
Penalty: 5 yards from spot of foul + loss of down; safety if it's called in the end zone
Signal: Referee makes up-and-down motion with open hand behind back. (Canada: Referee places one arm on chest, with elbow out to the side and palm open and facing down, and then moves arm away from chest.)

  • Illegal motion: An offensive player is moving forward at the snap. (Note that in the Canadian game, all backfield players may be in motion at the snap in any direction, as long as they are on their side of the ball at the snap.)
Penalty: 5 yards
Signal: Referee holds right hand flat at chest level and extends arm out to the side.

  • Illegal kickoff: On a kickoff, the ball goes out of bounds before it crosses into the end zone.
Penalty: The receiving team can take the ball at the spot where it went out of bounds or 25 yards from the spot of the kickoff.
Signal: Same as for false start. (Canada: Same as false start/procedure, plus a swinging motion of one leg to simulate a kick.)

  • Illegal touching of a forward pass: An ineligible receiver (offensive lineman) is the first player to touch a forward pass.
Penalty: 5 yards + loss of down
Signal: Referee touches shoulders with both hands.

  • Illegal touching of a free kick: A player on the kicking team either touches the ball after the kick and before it travels 10 yards, or is the first to touch the ball after going out of bounds. Onside kicks are where the former is most likely to occur.
Penalty: 5 yards; if touch occurs inside receiving team's 5 yd. line, it's a touchback
Signal: Same as for forward pass.

  • Ineligible receiver downfield: An ineligible receiver crosses the line of scrimmage before the quarterback either makes a forward pass beyond the line of scrimmage or the ball is touched behind the line, such as a screen pass.
Penalty: 5 yards
Signal: Referee places right hand flat on the top of his head. (Canada: Referee extends both arms horizontally at shoulder level.)

  • Intentional grounding: The quarterback intentionally throws an incomplete pass while in the pocket (between the offensive tackles). Spiking the ball to stop the clock doesn't count, as long as it's the very first thing the quarterback does after receiving the snap.
Penalty: 10 yards or the spot of the foul (whichever is further from the line of scrimmage) + loss of down. Safety if called in the end zone.
Signal: Referee makes a sweeping motion with both hands from right shoulder down toward left knee.

  • Kick catch interference: On a punt, a offensive player interferes with a defensive player who has signaled for a fair catch or the ball before it reaches the receiver. A related penalty comes if an offensive player hits or tackles the receiver after the fair catch signal has been made.
Penalty: 15 yards from the spot of the foul; tackling the receiver can lead to an ejection.
Signal: Referee makes pushing motion with both hands.

  • Snap infraction: The center moves the ball in any snap-like motion without releasing it.
Penalty: 5 yards

    Defensive 

  • Encroachment: A defensive player crosses the neutral zone and contacts an offensive player before the snap.
Penalty: 5 yards
Signal: Referee touches open hands to hips in "standing akimbo" pose.

  • Illegal contact: A defensive player makes significant contact with a receiver who is more than five yards past the line of scrimmage. The quarterback has to have the ball and be in the pocket for this to be called; otherwise it's usually called as pass interference.
Penalty: 5 yards + first down

  • Leaping: A defensive player one yard or more in front of the line of scrimmage runs and jumps to try to block a field goal or point-after kick and lands on another player.
Penalty: 15 yards + first down

  • Leverage: A defensive player stands on or jumps off of another player to try to block a kick.
Penalty: 15 yards + first down

  • Neutral zone infraction: A defensive player moves into the neutral zone and causes a false start.
Penalty: 5 yards

  • Roughing the passer: A defensive player hits the quarterback after the ball has either been passed or handed off. There are three main ways this happens: The defender takes two or more steps to hit the quarterback, hits above the shoulders, or leads the hit with his head.
Penalty: 15 yards added to yardage at end of play + first down
Signal: Sweeping downward motion with one hand.

  • Roughing the kicker: A defensive player tackles the kicker after the ball has left his foot and before it is touched by another player. The hit must be a tackle or some other contact violent enough to potentially cause injury. Similar contact with the holder on a place kick can also draw this penalty.
Penalty: 15 yards + first down
Signal: Kicking motion with right leg.

  • Roughing the snapper: A defensive player tackles the center on a punt or field goal before he can assume a defensive posture after the snap.
Penalty: 15 yards + first down

  • Running into the kicker: A defensive player makes incidental contact with the kicker after the ball has left his foot and before it is touched by another player.
Penalty: 5 yards

    Either offensive or defensive 

  • Block in the back: A non-ball carrying player is blocked from behind and above the waist.
Penalty: 10 yards (offense and defense)

  • Block below the waist: An illegal block below the waist; can come from any direction. Usually a defensive penalty although the offense can commit this in certain situations.
Penalty: 15 yards (offense), 15 yards + first down (defense)
Signal: Referee makes chopping motion onto one thigh. (Canada: Same signal as for personal foul, as this is considered a subset of unnecessary roughness.)

  • Chop block: A player who is already being blocked is hit below the waist by another player.
Penalty: 15 yards (offense), 15 yards + first down (defense)
Signal: Same as block below the waist, but with both hands. (Canada: Referee raises both hands, with palms open and facing each other, to shoulder level on one side, and then makes chopping motion toward the opposite hip.)

  • Clipping: The same as a block in the back, only the contact is below the waist.
Penalty: 15 yards (offense), 15 yards + first down (defense)
Signal: Referee makes chopping motion against back of one calf.

  • Delay of game: This happens in three ways:
    • Offense: The ball is not snapped before the play clock expires.
    • Defense: The offense is prevented from snapping/spiking in a timely fashion, or the defense doesn't unpile in a timely fashion after the play ends.
    • Special teams: A kick receiver tries to run after signaling for a fair catch.
Penalty: 5 yards, and the game clock does not start until the snap
Signal: Referee places one forearm on top of the other at chest level.

  • Delay of game (Canada): A different foul from the American version; north of the border, it can happen in two ways:
    • Defence: The offense is prevented from snapping/spiking in a timely fashion.
    • Special teams: On kickoffs, the kicking team fails to put the ball in play in a timely fashion.
Penalty: 10 yards

  • Equipment violation: A player either doesn't have all of his safety equipment, his chin strap isn't properly fastened, or there's some sort of clothing rules violation.
Penalty: The player's team is charged a time out (college); 5 yards (high school)

  • Face mask: Grabbing a player's face mask enough to turn his head and/or pull him down. This used to be called for both incidental contact (such as grabbing and then immediately letting go) and deliberate contact (grabbing and pulling/twisting the helmet). Now, the latter is all that's called in the NFL and college.
Penalty: 15 yards (offense), 15 yards + first down (defense); 15 yards for deliberate contact, 5 for incidental (high school)
Signal: Referee makes downward pulling motion with right fist in front of his face.

  • Helmet-to-helmet collision: Two players violently meet helmet-first. This generally happens when the tackling player leads with his head and the receiver/runner lowers his own to meet the tackle.
Penalty: 15 yards (offense), 15 yards + first down (defense)

  • Holding: A player actually grabs or pulls another player that doesn't have the ball.
Penalty: 10 yards (offense), safety (if committed by offense in end zone); 5 yards + first down (defense)
Signal: Referee grasps left wrist with right hand at chest level; left hand is in a fist.

  • Horsecollar tackle: Pulling a player down from behind by the inside of his shoulder pads or jersey.
Penalty: 15 yards (offense), 15 yards + first down (defense)
Signal: Referee makes pulling motion at collar with right hand. (Canada: Same signal as for personal/major foul, as this is considered a subset of unnecessary roughness.)

  • Illegal batting: Deliberately knocking a loose ball away from another player. This doesn't count for blocking kicks or deflecting forward passes.
Penalty: 10 yards (offense and defense)

  • Illegal formation: This can happen several ways: Less than 7 players on the line of scrimmage (NFL, high school); more than 4 players in the backfield (college); eligible receivers are not at the very ends of the line of scrimmage (NFL); five ineligible players are not on the line of scrimmage. Also, any player who is normally an offensive lineman (i.e. ineligible), who reports as eligible and then fails to line up as an eligible receiver. On defense, seven players on the line of scrimmage on one side of the ball.
Penalty: 5 yards (offense and defense)

  • Illegal hands to the face: Pushing or striking a player by the head or helmet. This is a personal foul in college but not in the NFL
Penalty: NFL: 10 yards (offense), 5 yards + first down (defense); college: 15 yards (offense), 15 yards + first down (defense)

  • Illegal kick: This can happen several ways: kicking the ball after a drop kick bounces more than once; kicking the ball after a turnover or return kick; kicking the ball once it's past the line of scrimmage; kicking a loose ball in the same manner as illegal batting.
Penalty: 15 yards (offense and defense)

  • Illegal participation: 12 players are involved in a play for either side; or an offensive player goes out of bounds on his own and then comes back in during the play. This is not called in the NFL.
Penalty: 5 yards (college, high school)

  • Illegal shift: This can happen several ways: A stationary player is not set before the snap; two or more players are in motion at the snap; the entire line is not set for one second after one player shifts. (In Canada, the only players who must be set at the snap are the interior linemen. The players on each end of the line may be moving parallel to the line of scrimmage, and any number of backfield players may be in motion in any direction.)
Penalty: 5 yards (offense and defense)
Signal: Referee swings open hands from chest to straight out.

  • Illegal substitution: This can happen several ways: More than 11 players in the huddle for 3-5 seconds or in the formation, or the ball is snapped before a player that's leaving the field can get out of bounds. Also called "substitution infraction" or "too many men on the field".
Penalty: 5 yards (offense and defense)
Signal: Referee places both hands on top of head.

  • Illegal use of hands: Any of several infractions regarding how a defender initiates contact with another player.
Penalty: 10 yards (offense), 5 yards + 1st down (defense)
Signal: Referee makes pushing motion with one hand while grasping that wrist with the opposite hand.

  • Offside: A player for either side is in the neutral zone when the ball is snapped. Usually called on a defensive player who jumps into the neutral zone and doesn't get back before the snap. If called on the offense, it's generally called as "Lined up in the neutral zone" or "Neutral zone infraction".
Penalty: 5 yards (offense and defense)
Signal: Same as for encroachment.

  • Palpably unfair act: Any action(s) which the officials see as an intentional and egregiously unfair attempt to keep a team from scoring. An exceedingly rare penalty, normally only assessed in instances of an inactive player or member of the coaching staff entering the field to interfere with a play.
Penalty: Yardage or score as the officials see fit, and possible ejection(s) (NFL), forfeiture or other penalty as the officials see fit (college, high school)

  • Pass interference: Either a pass receiver or his defender contacts the other in a way that hinders or prevents him from being able to catch a forward pass which has left the quarterback's hand. There are a couple of quirks in the rule:
    • Pass interference cannot be called behind the line of scrimmage. However, the "interfering" player may still be flagged for a different foul. Note that in Canadian football, pass interference rules apply throughout the field of play.
    • If the officials deem the pass to be "uncatchable" by any eligible offensive player, there is no pass interference in the NFL, CFL, or college. The "uncatchable pass" exception does not apply in high school play.
Penalty: On offense, 10 yards (NFL) or 15 yards (college, high school). On defense, spot of foul + first down (NFL), lesser of 15 yards or spot of foul + first down (college), or 15 yards (high school)
Signal: Same as for kick catch interference.

  • Sideline infraction: A player is outside the team box, a coach is outside the coaches' box, or there are too many coaches in the coaches' box. Not called in the NFL.
Penalty: 5 yards for first infraction, 15 yards for each subsequent infraction (college), warning for first infraction, 5 yards for second, 15 yards for each subsequent (infraction (high school)

  • Time count (Canada): The equivalent to the American "delay of game" on the offensive team; called when the ball is not snapped before the play clock expires.
Penalty:
5 yards before the three-minute warning at the end of each half, and during all convert attempts (whether before or after the warning)
Loss of down on first or second down after the warning
10 yards on third down after the warning. After a time count in this situation, the referee has the right to demand that the offence place the ball in play in a timely fashion or else lose possession.
Signal: Referee extends one arm nearly horizontally, and then moves it in a circular manner.

  • Tripping: Actually tripping another player with the foot or lower leg. (Note that tripping the person in possession of the ball is legal in NCAA and US high school play, but not in the NFL or Canada.)
Penalty: 10 yards (offense), 10 yards + first down (defense)
Signal: Referee makes kicking motion with right foot against back of left foot. (Canada: Referee extends arms downward to knee level, going into a semi-squat, with hands bent inward toward the center of the body.)

  • Unnecessary Roughness: Any hit or tackle on a player that is in a position such that he cannot be legally hit. Examples include:
    • Late hit: Hitting any downed player at a point where play is reasonably expected to be over.
    • Late hit out of bounds: Hitting the ball carrier after he has crossed the sideline.
    • Piling on: Jumping/falling onto a player who has already been tackled and brought down.
    • Targeting: Similar to a helmet-to-helmet collision, but initiated either intentionally or recklessly. Called spearing in the NFL.
Penalty: 15 yards (offense), 15 yards + first down (defense); can also lead to ejections for either side. In college, targeting is an automatic ejection and suspension for one full game (if done in the second half of one game, the player can't play the first half of the next game).

  • Unsportsmanlike conduct: Any of several infractions where players (and sometimes coaches or even spectators) speak or act in an egregiously harmful or objectionable manner. Called "objectionable conduct" in Canada. Examples include:
    • Verbal abuse of officials, and/or any intentional contact with an official.
    • Taunting: Mocking opposing players in an over-the-top manner. This has been expanded to include elaborate scoring celebrations, as well as using the ball or pylons in such celebrations
    • An uninjured player removing his helmet on the field.
    • Fighting, especially if one or more players attempts to punch or kick another player or official
Penalty: 15 yards (offense), 15 yards + first down (defense); can also lead to ejections for either side. Intentional contact with an official is an automatic ejection.
Signal: Referee holds both arms out to sides with hands flat and palms down. (Canada: Referee places one hand behind the back at waist level.)

    Other terms 

  • Illegal procedure: An umbrella term for several minor penalties using the same signal, including false start, illegal formation, snap infraction, and kickoff out-of-bounds (illegal kickoff). Generally these are 5-yard penalties, with the exception of kickoff out-of-bounds.

  • Personal foul: A term used for major penalties involving violent contact, including Unnecessary Roughness and the various "Roughing" penalties; the referee announces this before the actual penalty. The penalties are generally 15-yard penalties. Called a "major foul" in Canada.
Signal: Referee holds left fist over his head and makes a chopping motion with right hand against the left wrist. This signal is followed by the signal for the specific penalty. (Canada: Referee extends one arm to the side of the body and makes a pumping motion.)


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