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A penalty flag on the field during a game on November 16, 2008 between the San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams season.

In American football and Canadian football, a penalty or a foul is a sanction called against a team for a violation of the rules. Officials initially signal penalties by tossing a bright yellow colored "penalty flag" onto the field toward or at the spot of a foul. Most penalties result in moving the football toward the offending team's end zone, usually either 5, 10, or 15 yards depending on the penalty. Some penalties against the defensive team also result in giving the offense an automatic first down, while a few penalties against the offensive team cause them to automatically lose a down. Also depending on the spot of the foul, the ball is moved half the distance to the goal line or the defense scores an automatic safety.

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Rationale

Because football is a high-contact sport requiring a balance between offense and defense, many rules exist that regulate equality, safety, contact, and actions of players on each team. It is very difficult to always avoid violating these rules without giving up too much of an advantage. Thus, an elaborate system of fouls and penalties has been developed to "let the punishment fit the crime" and maintain a balance between following the rules and keeping a good flow of the game. Players are constantly looking for ways to find an advantage that stretches the limitations imposed by the rules. Also, the frequency and severity of fouls can make a large difference in the outcome of a game, so coaches are constantly looking for ways to minimize the number and severity of infractions committed by their players.

It is a common misconception that the term "penalty" is used to refer both to an infraction and the penal consequence of that infraction. A foul is a rule infraction for which a penalty is prescribed.[1]

Signaling and announcing penalties

Officials initially signal penalties by tossing a bright yellow colored flag onto the field toward or at the spot of a foul. Because of this, broadcasters and fans often use the term "flag" synonymously with penalty to refer to penalties during the game.

During a play, multiple officials may flag the same play, and multiple flags may be thrown for separate fouls on the same play. If applicable, the same official can signal additional fouls on a given play by throwing a beanbag or his hat. When officials throw a flag during a down, play does not stop until the ball becomes dead under normal conditions if there were no penalties.

Once the ball is dead, or immediately when a penalty is called after a play is over or prior to a snap (since the ball is dead anyway), the referee, the official(s) who threw the flag(s) and other officials with a view of the play confer to come to a consensus on whether an infraction was actually committed, what it was, and who committed it. The final determination and assessment of the penalty is the sole responsibility of the referee. The referee then makes initial visual body signals to the press box (and crowd) indicating what fouls were committed and the team that committed them, the latter shown by extending the arm toward that team's end zone.

The referee then confers with the offended team's on-field captain to find out whether the offended team would rather decline the penalty and take the result of the play. In certain situations, the result of the play may be more advantageous to the offended team, especially, for example, if time is running out in the half and a 7-yard gain is a better option than a 5-yard penalty. However, there are certain scenarios where the referee may not have to confer with the team captain because the enforcement is entirely automatic (such as a false start foul or other penalties called prior to the snap) or when the choice is fairly obvious (such as when the defense commits a foul during a play in which the offense scores a touchdown).

After any final conference, the referee then makes full visual signals describing the foul in detail, which consists of: the foul that was committed, the team that committed it, whether or not the opposing team chooses to decline it, and the resulting down or possession. In College Football, the NFL and other professional leagues, and in some high school games, the referee also announces the fouls and their penalties over a wireless microphone to the members of the teams, the crowds in the stands, and viewers/listeners of the televised/radio broadcast of the game. In college and professional football, the referee will also give out the numbers of the players who committed the fouls. During these announcements over the microphone, the referee usually does not use names of the respective teams or their cities, but rather will use the generic terms "offense", "defense", "kicking team", "receiving team", etc.

General types of penalty enforcement

The following are general types of penalty enforcement. Specific rules will vary depending on the league, conference, and/or level of football.

Most penalties result in replaying the down and moving the ball toward the offending team's end zone. The distance is usually either 5, 10, or 15 yards depending on the penalty. However, such penalties, when enforced, are always capped at half the distance to the offending team's goal line.

Depending on the foul, the spot where the penalty is enforced may be at the spot of the foul; the previous spot (the line of scrimmage where the down began); the spot of the snap, fumble or backwards pass; or the succeeding spot (the line of scrimmage of the next down).[2]

Some defensive penalties give the offense an automatic first down. Conversely, some offensive penalties result in loss of a down (loss of the right to repeat the down). If a penalty gives the offensive team enough yardage to gain a first down, they get a first down, as usual. But if the offense commits a foul in their own end zone, the defense scores an automatic safety.

If the defense commits a penalty during the last play in the half, the offense usually has the option to accept the penalty and replay the down with the clock still showing 00:00. Conversely, if the offense commits a penalty during the last play in the half, the play in which the foul is committed is nullified and the half automatically ends.

When a "double foul" occurs, when both teams commit a penalty during a play, regardless of severity, the fouls are usually offset and the down is replayed. However the two penalties must be committed in the same time frame. For instance, two penalties during the active play can offset, but a penalty during the play and a personal foul after the whistle may not. Two personal fouls after the play can offset, although this is not often called.

List of penalties

Penalty Description Signal Yardage
NFL NCAA HS
Block in the back
(offense, defense, or special teams)
A blocker contacting a non-ballcarrying member of the opposing team from behind and above the waist One arm extended horizontally in front of the body, palm facing outward. The other hand grasps the first hand's wrist and pushes outward 10 yards 10 yards 10 yards
Blocking below the waist An illegal block, from any direction, below the waist by any defensive player or by an offensive player under certain situations, by any player after change of possession, by any player in high school with certain exceptions. Sometimes incorrectly referred to as a "chop block". Both hands brought down, wrists turned inward, in a chopping motion across the front of the thighs 15 yards 15 yards 15 yards
Chop Block
(offense)
An offense player tries to cut block a defensive player that is already being blocked by another offensive player. The second block may need to be below the thigh or knee, depending on the code. Arms extended alongside the body, palms facing outward, then moving in to the upper thigh in a chopping motion. 15 yards 15 yards 15 yards
Clipping
(offense, defense, or special teams)
A blocker contacting a non-ballcarrying opponent from behind and at or below the waist Chopping the back of one thigh with the hand. 15 yards; automatic first down if committed by defense 15 yards; automatic first down if committed by defense 15 yards
Delay of game
(offense, defense, or special teams)
Any action which delays the next play. On offense, this means failing to snap the ball before the play clock reaches zero. It may also include spiking the ball.
On defense, it occurs when a player hinders the offense in hurrying to make the next snap. This happens most often in the last two minutes of a half when the offense is trying to go down the field in a hurry. The defense can also be flagged for a delay of game if a player spikes the ball after the end of a play.
On special teams, it happens when the return team runs after signaling for a fair catch, or the defense does not unpile in a timely manner after the play ends.
Upper arms extended out from the body, forearms bent toward the opposite arm, such that the arms lie on top of one another or that each arm touches the opposite shoulder. 5 yards 5 yards 5 yards
Encroachment
(defense)
A defensive player crosses the line of scrimmage and makes contact with an opponent or has a clear path to the quarterback. In high school, this includes any crossing of the neutral zone by the defense, whether contact is made or not. The play is not allowed to begin. Two hands placed on their respective hips 5 yards 5 yards 5 yards
Equipment violations Any player in the game without necessary safety equipment (mouthpiece, pads), without chin straps properly fastened or in violation of certain clothing rules (e.g. sock requirements in college). Timeout charged against the offending player's team 5 yards
Face mask
(offense, defense, or special teams)
Grasping the face mask of another player while attempting to block or tackle him. For NFL and NCAA, the grasping and pulling/twisting must be intentional to be penalized. Under high school rules, it is still a foul to incidentally grasp the face mask One arm in front of the body, forearm extended vertically. The hand is closed into a fist in front of the face and pulled downward 15 yards, automatic first down 15 yards, automatic first down 15 yards, 5 yards if incidental
False start
(offense or defense)
An offensive player illegally moves after lining up for—but prior to—the snap. Since the ball is dead, the down does not begin.

Any player moves after they have gotten in their set position before the snap in a way that simulates the start of the play.
Two arms in front of chest with closed fists "rolling" around each other (same signal that basketball referees use to signal traveling). 5 yards 5 yards 5 yards
Holding
(offense or defense)
Illegally grasping or pulling an opponent other than the ball-carrier while attempting to ward off a block or cover a receiver. One of the most commonly called penalties. If a penalty for holding that occurred in the offense's endzone is accepted, a safety results. Raising one arm in front of the body and grabbing its wrist with the opposite hand Offense, 10 yards; defense, 5 yards and automatic first down Offense, 10 yards; defense, 10 yards 10 yards (and repeat the down)
Horse-collar tackle Illegally tackling another player by grabbing the inside of an opponent's shoulder pads or jersey from behind and yanking the player down. Raising one arm to the side of the body with the elbow bent, so that the closed fist is located near the neck. The fist is then pulled away, horizontally, from the neck. 15 yards 15 yards 15 yards
Illegal contact
(defense)
Making significant contact with a receiver after the receiver has advanced five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The illegal contact is called only if the quarter back is still in pocket and the ball is still in his hands. This rule was adopted in 1978, and its enactment is regarded as contributing to the dramatic increase in both passing yardage and scoring the NFL has witnessed since that time. One arm in front of the body with palm out and fingers up, moved in a pushing motion out 5 yards and an automatic first down Does not exist Does not exist
Illegal formation Fewer than 7 players line up on the line of scrimmage(NFL/High School); more than four players in the backfield (NCAA only); eligible receivers fail to line up as the leftmost and rightmost players on the line in the NFL; or when five properly numbered ineligible players fail to line up on the line. Two arms in front of chest with closed fists "rolling" around each other (same signal that basketball referees use to signal traveling). 5 yards 5 yards 5 yards
Illegal forward pass
(offense)
A forward pass is thrown from past the line of scrimmage, after a change of possession, or when a second forward pass is thrown on the same play One hand, flat, waved behind the small of the back. 5 yards from the spot of the foul and loss of down 5 yards from the spot of the foul and loss of down 5 yards from the spot of the foul and loss of down
Illegal hands to the face Pushing or hitting a player on offense in the head or helmet (NFL/NCAA) One open fist in a pushing motion to the referee's chin; (HS) Same signal as holding 10 yards if committed by offense; 5 yards and automatic first down if committed by defense 10 yards 10 yards
Illegal motion
(offense)
A player in motion is moving forward at the time of the snap One arm in front of chest, palm open and down, with the elbow out to the side, moved away from chest. 5 yards 5 yards 5 yards
Illegal participation Twelve or more players participate during the play, because the extra players either are not detected before the snap or enter during the play. Once the down begins, no further players may enter the field and participate, even if there are fewer than 11 players. Illegal participation is also called when an offensive player goes out of bounds (unless forced out by contact by the defense) and returns during the play. Two hands, palms down, touching the top of the head, with an elbow out to each side 15 yards 15 yards
Illegal shift A player is not in motion but is not set before the snap; more than one player is in motion at the snap; or after more than one player was moving (shifting), all eleven players have not been motionless for one second. Two arms in front of chest, palms open and down, with the elbows out to the side, moved away from chest 5 yards 5 yards 5 yards
Substitution infraction/Illegal Substitution/"Too many men on the field" The team has twelve or more players in the huddle for a period of 3–5 seconds or twelve or more players in the formation before a play or a player is attempting to leave the field as the ball is snapped (NCAA/High School) arm along the side of the body with the palm of the hand touching the opposite shoulder; (NFL) two hands, palms down, touching the top of the head, with an elbow out to each side 5 yards 5 yards 5 yards
Illegal touching
(defense)
Referee signal: one hand held up to shoulder, fingertips touching the shoulder; (NFL) two hands held up to shoulders, fingertips touching the shoulders.
Illegal touching of a forward pass
(offense)
A forward pass first touches an ineligible receiver (an offensive lineman). If the ball is touched by the defenders first, any player may touch it. 5 yards 5 yards 5 yards and loss of down
Illegal touching of a free kick
(special teams)
The ball, after the free kick, first touches a member of the kicking team prior to traveling 10 yards. This is most often seen on an onside kick where a member of the kicking team prematurely comes in contact with the ball in an attempt to recover it. Like illegal touching of a forward pass, if a defender (member of the receiving team ) first touches the ball, any player may touch it. Note that in NFHS, it is called 'first touching' not 'illegal touching'. Not a foul.
Receiving team may take possession at the spot of touching unless it commits a foul.
Illegal use of hands Illegal use of the hands against a player on offense while attempting to ward off a block, cover a receiver, or tackle a ballcarrier. There are several restrictions on how a defender may initiate contact. One forearm vertically held in front of the body with an open fist facing away from the referee's chest (closed fist for a HS referee); the other hand grasping the first arm's wrist 10 yards if committed by offense; 5 yards and automatic first down if committed by defense 10 yards, automatic first if committed by defense against an eligible receiver 10 yards
Ineligible receiver downfield
(offense)
An ineligible receiver is past the line of scrimmage prior to a forward pass. Ineligible receivers must wait until the pass is thrown beyond the line of scrimmage (or touched) before moving past the line of scrimmage. This exception has been added to accommodate the screen pass, where a receiver (most often a back, but sometimes a tight end or wide receiver) catches a ball behind the line of scrimmage behind a "screen" of offensive linemen. One palm touching the top of the head with the elbow out to the side. 5 yards 5 yards 5 yards
Intentional grounding
(offense)
A forward pass is thrown intentionally incomplete so that the passer avoids loss of yardage or to conserve time. Not assessed if the ball is thrown out of bounds or is spiked. If the quarterback has moved outside of the area between his offensive tackles (the "tackle box" or more commonly called "the pocket"), there is no foul for grounding the ball if the quarterback throws the ball past the line of scrimmage. High school is more restrictive: spiking the ball is only allowed if the quarterback is under center, and the quarterback may not legally throw the ball away when outside the "tackle box." Both hands held out flat, facing each other, in front of the referee, moving down together diagonally roughly from one shoulder to the opposite hip. 10 yards or spot of foul, whichever is farther from the original line of scrimmage, and loss of down. If the foul occurs within the endzone, the play is ruled a safety. Spot of foul and loss of down 5 yards from the spot of the foul and loss of down
Leaping
(defense)
A defender running forward and leaping in an attempt to block a field goal or a point-after try lands on other players on either team. The penalty is not called if the defender was within one yard of the line of scrimmage at the time of the snap.[3] 15 yard penalty and automatic first down 15 yard penalty and automatic first down
Neutral Zone Infraction
(defense)
Before the snap, a defensive player (most often a lineman), jumps into the neutral zone and "startles" an offensive player causing him to false start Same as encroachment/offsides 5 yards 5 yards 5 yards
Offside
(offense or defense)
A player is on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped. This foul occurs simultaneously with the snap. Unlike offensive players, defensive players are not compelled to come to a set position before the snap. So if a defender jumps across the line but gets back to his side before the snap there is no foul. In the case of an offside foul, play is not stopped, and the foul is announced at the conclusion of the play. Media covering the games calls it a "free play" for the offense, as the non-offending team may decline the penalty and take the yardage gained on the play (and when the play works against them, like a turnover to the opposing team, the non-offending team can accept the penalty and retake possession of the ball) - unlike in the case of a false start foul against the offense, whereupon the play is immediately stopped by the officials.

This foul is almost always committed by the defense. However, it is possible for the offense to commit this foul. If an offensive player lines up in the neutral zone, an offside foul will be called against the offense.
Two hands placed on their respective hips 5 yards 5 yards n/a
Palpably unfair act Called as necessary in the case of any illegal action that the officials deem has clearly and indisputably deprived a team of a score. For example, if a player or other person not legally in the game at the start of a given play comes onto the field to tackle a player apparently en route to a touchdown, the team that would have scored is awarded the touchdown. This can also conceivably (explicitly in high-school rule books) be invoked in cases where the defense commits repeated intentional infractions very close to its own goal line (the half-the-distance rule making the consequence of such infractions otherwise infinitesimal). Yardage or score at discretion of referee, possible disqualification Game may be forfeited, or other penalty at discretion of referee. Game may be forfeited, or other penalty at discretion of referee.
Pass interference
(offense or defense)
Making physical contact with an intended receiver, after the ball has been thrown and before it has been touched by another player, in order to hinder or prevent him from catching a forward pass.
(On offense, the restriction begins at the snap and continues until the ball is touched in order to prevent receivers from blocking defenders away from a passed ball.)
Both arms extended in front of the body, palms upright, in a pushing motion Offense, 10 yards; defense, spot of foul (or placement on the 1 if the foul occurs in the end zone) and automatic first down Offense, 15 yards; defense, lesser of 15 yards or the spot of the foul (or placement on the 2 if the foul occurs in the end zone) and automatic first down 15 yards, regardless of whether or not the foul is in the end zone. Additionally, loss of down if against the offense or automatic first down if against the defense.
Personal Foul
(offense or defense)
A conduct- or safety-related infraction. Includes unnecessary roughness, such as hitting a ball carrier after he is already out of bounds, "piling on" a ball carrier who is already down, or violent contact with an opponent who is away from and out of the play. If the officials decide that the action was particularly flagrant, the player in question can be ejected from the game. Same as offensive personal foul 15 yards; automatic first down if committed by defense 15 yards; automatic first down if committed by defense 15 yards; automatic first down with select penalties
Roughing the Kicker
(special teams)
A defender, having missed an attempt to block a kick, tackles the kicker or otherwise runs into the kicker in a way that might injure the kicker or his vulnerable extended kicking leg. This protection is also extended to the holder of a place kick. Leg moved in a kicking motion 15 yards and an automatic first down 15 yards and an automatic first down 15 yards and an automatic first down
Roughing the Passer
(defense)
A defender continues an effort to tackle or "hit" a passer after the passer has already thrown a pass. (In the NFL, a defender is allowed to take one step after the ball is thrown; a defender is penalized if he hits the passer having taken two or more steps after the ball leaves the passer's hand.) Arm moved in a passing motion 15 yards and an automatic first down 15 yards and an automatic first down 15 yards and an automatic first down
Roughing the Snapper
(special teams)
On a punt or field goal attempt, the center is allowed to regain his balance and assume a protective position before he is contacted by the defense 15 yards and an automatic first down 15 yards and an automatic first down 15 yards and an automatic first down
Running into the kicker
(special teams)
On a kicking play where the defense fails to touch ("block") the kicked ball, they run into the kicker/punter. If such an act occurs but is not intentional, this foul is assessed. If intentional, the personal foul of roughing the kicker may be assessed instead (see above). Extending one leg, straight, up to about a 20 degree angle in front of the body. If the penalty is roughing the kicker, preceded by the personal foul signal. 5 yards 5 yards 5 yards
Sideline infraction A player is outside of the team box, a coach is outside the coaches' box (along the sideline in front of the team box), or too many coaches are in the coaches' box. In college, the first foul is 5 yards and subsequent fouls are for 15 yards. In high school, the first sideline infraction is a sideline warning with no yardage penalty, the second is a 5 yard penalty, and subsequent infractions are 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. (In high school, the penalty for a coach on the field of play is unsportsmanlike conduct, not a sideline infraction.) Arms extended to both sides, hands waved slightly up and down N/A 5 yards 15 yards
Spearing
(offense or defense)
Tackling or otherwise contacting an opponent with one's helmet. (This technique is illegal because of the risk of neck injuries to the tackler.) Arm extended, bent at the elbow, touching the side of his head with a closed fist 15 yards; automatic first down if committed by defense 15 yards; automatic first down if committed by defense 15 yards
Tripping A player trips another player with the lower leg. Note that tripping the runner is legal under NCAA and NFHS rules. One foot kicks the ankle of the other leg from behind 10 yards, automatic first down if committed by defense 15 yards, automatic first down if committed by defense 15 yards
Unsportsmanlike conduct Any person, usually a player but occasionally a coach and very rarely one or more spectators; acts or speaks in a manner deemed to be intentionally harmful or especially objectionable by the game officials, or by rule. Unsportsmanlike conduct is a non-contact foul; if contact is involved it becomes a personal foul. Examples include verbal abuse of officials, and taunting, which, since 2004 in the NFL, has included any "prolonged and premeditated celebrations" by players (prior to that year the latter carried only a 5-yard penalty). Later rules included using the football or endzone pylon in a touchdown celebration. If the officials decide that the action was particularly flagrant, the player, coach or spectator in question may be ejected from the game. In high school, two unsportsmanlike conduct fouls on a single player or coach automatically results in ejection. Both arms extended to the sides perpendicular to the body with open fists, palms down 15 yards, automatic first down if committed by defense 15 yards 15 yards

In the NFL, a 10-second penalty is also assessed if any of the following acts are committed by the offense under one minute in either half:

  1. A foul by either team that prevents the ball from being snapped
  2. Intentional grounding
  3. Illegal forward pass beyond the line of scrimmage
  4. Throwing a backwards pass out of bounds
  5. Spiking or throwing the ball away after a down (unless after a touchdown)
  6. Any other intentional act that causes the clock to stop

The 10-second penalty does not apply if the clock is stopped when the ball is set for play and will not start until the ball is snapped, if the team on offense with time-outs elects to use one in lieu of the runoff, or if the defense declines the runoff (which prevents a team from committing fouls to intentionally run out the clock). In addition, the game clock will run once the ball is placed. If such a runoff occurs with 10 seconds or less remaining, the half automatically ends. Since the enforcement of the 10-second runoff, two NFL games ended automatically due to a false start with less than 10 seconds remaining (in 2005 between Arizona and St. Louis, and in 2009 between Cincinnati and Green Bay). A pre-season game in 2006 between Houston and Kansas City had the first half end automatically due to an intentional grounding foul with less than 10 seconds left.

Notes


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