MHR Primer Looks At: Those Scraps of Yellow on the Field

     In our last MHR Primer article we looked at the Men in Stripes -- those quiet individuals whom we never notice until a scrap of yellow cloth comes flying away from them and we begin to rant and rave about how they "have it in for us."

     The simple reality is that the officials are tasked with the enforcement of the rather complex code of behaviors set forth by the league. They are required to watch for and impose consequences for rules violations, in order to keep the NFL games from degenerating into a game that resembles the ones we see in school yards all around the county. Like it or hate, there are rules that have to be enforced and penalties imposed when they are broken.

After the jump, we'll be taking a look at penalties in the NFL.

The Most Common Types of Penalties

     In general all NFL penalties can fall into one of 3 categories, as defined by the yards assessed: 5-, 10-. and 15-yard penalties. Most penalties are assessed from the line of scrimmage, cause the play to be negated and the down to be repeated. Please note, this list is not intended to be an exhaustive listing of all of the penalties and their variations.

5-Yard Penalties

Penalty Can Be Called On Signal Description
Delay of Game Offense/Defense/Special Teams Upper arms extended out from the body, forearms bent toward the opposite arm so that one arm lies on top of the other This may be called on any action which delays the next play; on offense this may include such things as the failure to snap the ball before the play clock expires or spiking ball after a play; on defense this may include such things as any attempt by a defensive player to hinder an offensive player from returning to the line of scrimmage for the next play or not unpiling in a timely manner after the play is whistled dead; on special teams this may include such things as the returner running with the ball after signaling for a fair catch.
Encroachment Defense Hands placed on their respective hips This is called on a defensive player who illegally crosses the line of scrimmage prior to the snap and makes contact with an opponent, or has a clear line to the quarterback.
Grasping the Face Mask Offense/Defense/Special Teams One arm is extended forward, forearm raised vertically. The hand is closed into a fist in front of the face and pulled downward This is called when a player inadvertently makes contact with an opponent's face mask while attempting to block or tackle him, but does not sustain the contact.
False Start Offense/Special Teams Arms are held in front of chest, then closed fists are rolled around one another This is called when an offensive player illegally moves prior to the snap after lining up in his set stance.
Holding Defense One forearm is raised in front of the chest, it's wrist is held by the other hand This is called when a defensive player illegally grasps or pulls a non-ballcarrying opponent while attempting to ward off a block or cover a receiver. This results in an automatic first down.
Illegal Contact Defense One arm in front of the body with the palm of the hand facing forward, fingers pointing up, hand is moved in a pushing out motion This is called when a defender makes significant contact with a receiver after the receiver has advanced five or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage. It may only be called if: (a)the quarterback is still in the pocket, and (b)the ball is still in the quarterback's hand. This results in an automatic first down.
Illegal Formation Offense Arms are held in front of chest, then closed fists are rolled around one another This is called when the offense lines up with: (a)fewer than seven players on the line of scrimmage, or (b)eligible receivers are not the leftmost and rightmost players on the line, or (c)five properly numbered, ineligible receivers fail to line up on the line.
Illegal Forward Pass Offense One hand, held flat and parallel to the back is waved behind the small of the back This is called when a forward pass is either: (a)thrown after the quarterback has advanced past the line of scrimmage, or (b)is the second forward pass made on the same play. Note this penalty is assessed from the spot of the foul and the offensive team loses a down.
Illegal Hands to the Face Defense One hand in an open fist pushes towards the chin This is called when a defensive player pushes or hits an opponent in the head or helmet. This results in an automatic first down.
Illegal Motion Offense One arm is held horizontally across the chest with palm open and facing down, forearm is moved away from the chest This is called when an offensive player in motion prior to the snap advances towards the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped.
Illegal Shift Offense Both arms held horizontally in front of the chest with palms open and facing down, forearms are moved away from the chest This is called when the offensive team has: (a)a player who is not in motion but is also not set prior to the snap, or (b)more than one player is in motion at the snap, or (c)after one player was moving, the remainder of the players were not motionless for one or more seconds prior to the snap.
Illegal Substitution Offense/Defense/Special Teams Both are arms held with elbows out to the sides and the palms of both hands touching the top of the head
This is called when a team (a)has twelve or more players in the huddle for 3-5 seconds, or (b)has twelve or more players in a formation prior to the snap, or (c)has a player who is attempting to leave, but has not fully left the field of play when the ball is snapped. Also called a substitution infraction or too many men on the field.
Illegal Touching of a Forward Pass Offense Both hands are held up to the shoulders with the fingertips of both touching the shoulders This is called when a forward pass touches an ineligible receiver before being touched by either an eligible receiver or a defender.
Illegal Touching of a Kick Special Teams Both hands are held up to the shoulders with the fingertips of both touching the shoulders This is called when a kicked ball is first touched by a member of the kicking team who had gone out of bounds, then returned to the field of play. If this occurs inside the receiving team's 5-yard line, the penalty is assessed as a touchback.
Illegal Use of Hands Defense One forearm is held vertically in front of the chest with an open fist facing away from the chest and it's wrist being held by the other hand This is the violation of the NFL restrictions on the ways in which a defender may initiate contact while attempted to elude a block, cover a receiver or tackle a ballcarrier. This results in an automatic first down.
Ineligible Receiver Downfield Offense The palm of one hand is set on top of the head with the elbow turned out to the side This is called when a player who is not an eligible receiver has advanced past the line of scrimmage prior to the throwing of a legal forward pass that travels beyond the line of scrimmage. The criteria for the pass crossing the line of scrimmage was added to allow for the offense to set up offensive linemen as a blocking "screen" for passes behind the line of scrimmage.
Neutral Zone Infraction Defense Hands placed on their respective hips This is called when a defensive player, prior to the snap, advances into the neutral zone (an area between the offensive and defensive teams that is the width of the football running from sideline to sideline) in such a way -- without contact --  as to cause an offensive lineman to move prior to the snap.
Offside Offense/Defense/Special Teams Hands placed on their respective hips This is called when (a)a player on either team lines up in the neutral zone and remains there at the time of the snap, or (b)a player on either team is on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped. This penalty is most commonly called on the defense. This penalty does not stop the play. The non-offending team has the choice after the play to accept the penalty or the result of the play.
Running into the Kicker Special Teams One leg is extended out in front of the body at about a 20-degree angle
This is called when a defender, after missing an attempt to block a kick, unintentionally makes contact with the kicker.

 

10-Yard Penalties
Penalty Can Be Called On Signal Description
Block in the Back Offense/Defense/Special Teams One arm is raised horizontally in front of the body, palm facing away from the body, its wrist grasped by the other hand, then the palm is pushed away from the body
This is called when a blocker makes contact with a non-ballcarrying member of the opposing team from behind and above the waist
Holding Offense One forearm is raised in front of the chest, it's wrist is held by the other hand This is called when an offensive player illegally grasps or pulls an opponent while attempting to execute a block. If this occurs in the offense's end zone, a safety is awarded to the defensive team.
Illegal Batting Offense Both arms are raised to shoulder level, pointing away from the body, the arms are then curled to bring the fingertips to the shoulders This is called when an offensive player intentionally bats a loose ball. (Note it is legal to bat balls in certain situations such as an attempt to block a field goal or deflect a forward pass away from a defender/receiver)
Illegal Hands to the Face Offense One hand in an open fist pushes towards the chin This is called when an offensive player pushes or hits an opponent in the head or helmet.
Illegal Use of Hands Offense One forearm is held vertically in front of the chest with an open fist facing away from the chest and it's wrist being held by the other hand This is the violation of the NFL restrictions on the ways in which an offensive player may initiate contact while attempted to execute or sustain a block, or elude a potential tackler.
Intentional Grounding Offense Arms are extended in front of the chest with palms parallel and facing each other, arms are moved diagonally from shoulder to opposite hip This is called when the quarterback deliberately throws a forward pass in such a way that it cannot be legally caught in order to avoid the loss of yardage or to conserve time. Spiking the ball is not considered a grounding penalty. If the quarterback has moved out of the area between his offensive tackles and he throws the ball past the line of scrimmage, no foul is called.
Pass Interference Offense Both arms are held horizontally in front of the chest with palms upright and facing away from the body, arms are then make a pushing motion away from the body This is called when a receiver makes intentional physical contact with defender between the time the ball is snapped and the time the ball is touched by another player in order to block a defender away from a passed ball or to prevent the defender from making a play on the ball.
Tripping Offense/Defense/Special Teams One foot kicks the ankle of the other leg from behind This is called when a player uses his lower leg to trip an opposing player. When committed by the defense, this results in an automatic first down.

 

15-Yard Penalties
Penalty Can Be Called On Signal Description
Blocking Below the Waist Offense/Defense/Special Teams Both hands are dropped in a chopping motion against the thighs with the wrists turned inward This is called when an illegal block is thrown from any direction and makes contact below the waist by a defensive player, or by an offensive player under certain circumstances
Chop Block Offense Both arms are extended alongside the body then move to the upper thigh n a chopping motion This is called when an offensive player tries to cut block (a legal block thrown from in front of a defender, making contact between the waist and knees) a defensive player who is already being blocked by another offensive player.
Clipping Offense/Defense/Special Teams One hand makes a chopping motion into the back of the thigh This is called when a blocker makes contact with a non-ballcarrying member of the opposing team from behind and at or below the waist; automatic 1st down if called on the defense
Face Mask Offense/Defense/Special Teams One arm is extended forward, forearm raised vertically. The hand is closed into a fist in front of the face and pulled downward This is called when a player intentionally grasps the face mask of an opponent while attempt to block or tackle him and maintains contact, often with a pulling or twisting motion.
Horse-collar Tackle Defense A closed fist is placed near the neck with the elbow bent to the side, the fist is then pulled horizontally away from the neck This is called when a player tackles another player by grabbing the inside of his shoulder pads or jersey from behind and yanking him down
Illegal Participation Offense/Defense/Special Teams Both are arms held with elbows out to the sides and the palms of both hands touching the top of the head This is called when a team has twelve or more players on the field during a play.
Leaping Defense Both arms extended perpendicularly to the body with palms facing down This is called when a defender who began the play more than one yard away from the line of scrimmage, runs forward and leaps then lands on other players during an attempt to block a field goal or extra point attempt. This results in an automatic first down.
Leverage Defense Both arms extended perpendicularly to the body with palms facing down
This is called when a defender attempts to jump or stand on a teammate, or an opponent during an attempt to block an opponent's kick. This results in an automatic first down.
Personal Foul Offense/Defense/Special Teams One arm is held with a bent elbow and the forearm on a diagonal so that the wrist is in front of the collarbone. The other arm makes a chopping motion making wrist to wrist contact This is a conduct and/or safety violation. It includes such things as hitting a ball carrier who is already out of bounds, diving onto the pile on top of a downed ball carrier, executing violent contact with a player who is not away from the play. If the officials decide that the action was particularly flagrant, the offending player may be ejected from the game. When committed by the defense, an automatic first down is awarded.
Roughing the Kicker Special Teams One leg moved in a kicking motion This is called when a defender who attempted to block a kick and missed, continues his forward motion to tackle the kicker, or make contact in such way that might injure the kicker and/or his extended kicking leg. This protection is also extended to the holder on field goal and extra point attempts. This results in an automatic first down.
Roughing the Passer Defense One arm is moved in a passing motion This is called when a defender takes two or more steps after the ball has left the passer's hand and makes an attempt to tackle or hit the quarterback. This results in an automatic first down.
Roughing the Snapper Special Teams (could not find a description of the signal for this call) On punts and field goal attempts, the long snapper is allowed to regain his balance and assume a protective position before contact may be made by a defender. This results in an automatic first down.
Spearing Offense/Defense One arm extended, with a bent elbow so that a closed fist touches the side of the head This is called when a player uses his helmet to initiate contact with an opposing player. When committed by the defense, this results in an automatic first down.
Unsportsmanlike Conduct Offense/Defense/Special Teams/Coach/Spectator Both arms extended perpendicularly to the body with palms facing down This is a non-contact infraction. It is called on any player, coach or spectator who is deemed by the officials to have acted in a manner deemed to be intentionally harmful or especially objectionable by the game officials or by rule. Examples of this type of penalty include: verbal abuse of officials, taunting, prolonged/premeditated celebrations, using the football and/or end zone pylons in a touchdown celebration. If the violation is determined to have been particularly flagrant, the offending player/coach/spectator may be ejected from the game.




There are a few additional penalties that do not fit precisely into the categories above:

Variable Yardage Penalty

Pass Interference Defense Both arms are held horizontally in front of the chest with palms upright and facing away from the body, arms are then make a pushing motion away from the body This is called when a defender makes intentional physical contact with an intended receiver after the ball has been thrown and before it has been touched by another player in order to deny the receiver from catching the forward pass. The ball is placed at the spot of the foul, unless the foul occurred in the defender's end zone, in which case the ball is placed at the 1-yard line.




Penalties that Include a Running of Time Off the Clock

Ten seconds are run off the clock if any of the following occur in the last minute of either half:

A foul by either team that prevents the ball from being snapped
The quarterback intentionally grounds the ball
An illegal forward pass is thrown beyond the line of scrimmage
A pass is thrown backwards and out of bounds
Spiking or throwing the ball away after a down (unless a touchdown has just been scored)
Any other illegal act committed intentionally to stop the clock



This penalty is not assessed if:

1)the clock is already stopped and will not start until the ball is snapped
2)the offensive team has a time out and elects to use it in place of the run off
3)the defensive team declines the runoff -- to prevent the offense from committing fouls that would run the clock down

If there are ten seconds or less left in the half, the half automatically ends.

An Interesting and Rarely Heard Call

Palpably Unfair Act Offense/Defense/Special Teams (could not find a description of the signal for this) This is called when a player commits an illegal action which the officials determine has clearly and indisputably deprived the opposing team of a score -- as in the case of a substitute player coming off the bench to tackle a ballcarrier who is apparently going to score a touchdown. The non-offending team maybe awarded yardage or a score at the discretion of the referee. The offending player may be disqualified from further participation in the game, again at the discretion of the referee.






     I hope that this has been helpful in improving our understand of exactly what is meant when an official throws his flag and the referee announces what happened.

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