Penalty (gridiron football)
||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (October 2014)|
In American football and Canadian football, a penalty is a sanction called against a team for a violation of the rules, called a foul. Officials initially signal penalties by tossing a bright yellow (American Football) or orange (Canadian football) colored "penalty flag" onto the field toward or at the spot of a foul. Many penalties result in moving the football toward the offending team's end zone, usually either 5, 10, or 15 yards, depending on the penalty. Most 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. In some cases, depending on the spot of the foul, the ball is moved half the distance to the goal line rather than the usual number of yards, or the defense scores an automatic safety.
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 and coaches 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.
Signaling and announcing penalties
Officials initially signal fouls by tossing a bright yellow colored flag onto the field toward or at the spot of the foul. Because of this, broadcasters and fans often use the terms "flag" or "flag on the play" to refer to fouls 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 their hat. When officials throw a flag during a down, play does not stop until the ball becomes dead under normal conditions, as if there were no fouls.
Once the ball is dead, or immediately when a foul 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 cannot be declined (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, consisting 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 (however, in the Canadian Football League, they are announced by their respective city or province), but rather will use the generic terms "offense", "defense", "kicking team", "receiving team", etc. Some officials will refer to teams by their jersey color (e.g. "white", "red", "blue", 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 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).
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. However, if the offense commits a foul in its own end zone, the defense scores an automatic safety if the penalty is accepted.
If the defense commits a foul during the last play of any quarter, the offense usually has the option to accept the penalty and replay the down even with the clock showing 00:00 (i.e., an untimed play). Conversely, in most cases where the offense commits a foul during the last play in the half, the play in which the foul is committed is usually nullified and the half ends.
When a "double foul" occurs, when both teams commit a foul during a play, regardless of severity, the fouls are usually offset and the down is replayed. However, the two fouls must be committed in the same time frame. For instance, two fouls during the active play can offset, but a foul 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. In the NFL, a major (15 yard) penalty by one team may not offset a minor (5 yard) penalty by the other team.
List of penalties
In the NFL, most defensive penalties result in an automatic first down. The exceptions are offside, encroachment, neutral zone infraction, delay of game, illegal substitution, calling excess timeouts, running into a kicker, and having more than 11 men on the field. In these cases, the appropriate yardage penalty is assessed. If the yardage penalty results in a first down, then a new set of downs is awarded; otherwise, there is a repeat of down.
|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; automatic first down if committed by the defense (penalty also counts regardless of how many yards the offense gained).||15 yards; automatic first down if committed by the defense (penalty also counts regardless of how many yards the offense gained).||15 yards|
|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|
|An offensive 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 (if it is in the end zone the play will be ruled a safety); automatic first down if committed by defense (penalty also counts regardless of how many yards the offense gained).||15 yards; automatic first down if committed by defense (penalty also counts regardless of how many yards the offense gained).||15 yards|
(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|
|Before the snap, a defensive player illegally 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 either team, whether contact is made or not. The play is not allowed to begin.||Two hands placed on the hips||5 yards||5 yards||5 yards|
|Equipment violation||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).||One hand placed on the back of the head||—||Timeout charged against the offending player's team||5 yards|
(offense, defense, or special teams)
|Grasping the face mask of another player while attempting to block or tackle him. In the NFL, the grasping and pulling/twisting must be intentional to be penalized. Under NCAA rules, it is a foul to grasp and twist the face mask. Under high school rules, any grasping of the face mask, any helmet opening, or the chin strap is a foul, though grasping and twisting carries a more severe penalty than "incidental" grasping without any twisting.||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 if committed by defense (penalty also counts regardless of how many yards the offense gained).||15 yards; automatic first down if committed by defense (penalty also counts regardless of how many yards the offense gained).||15 yards for grasping and twisting, 5 yards for incidental grasping|
|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 who moves after he has gotten in his set position before the snap in a way that simulates the start of the play.
|Two arms in front of chest horizontally with closed fists "rolling" around each other (same signal that basketball referees use to signal traveling).||5 yards||5 yards||5 yards|
(offense or defense)
|The act of banging one's helmet into the helmet of another player. Can also result in a fine and/or suspension.||see Targeting, below||15 yards|
(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 end zone is accepted, a safety results.||Raising one arm in front of the body (forearm is roughly vertical with elbow at bottom) and grabbing its wrist with the opposite hand||Offense, 10 yards. If it is called in the end zone by the offense, it's an automatic safety; defense, 5 yards and automatic first down.||10 yards||10 yards|
|Horse-collar tackle||Illegally tackling another player by grabbing the inside of the ball carrier'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, automatic first down if committed by defense (penalty also counts regardless of how many yards the offense gained).||15 yards, automatic first down if committed by defense (penalty also counts regardless of how many yards the offense gained).||15 yards|
|Any intentional batting of a loose ball or ball in player possession. Batting is legal in certain limited situations, such as blocking a kick or deflecting a forward pass (any eligible player may bat a forward pass in any direction).||(NFL) Both arms extended the side, with the fingertips brought up to the shoulder of the respective arms.
(NCAA/HS) One arm extended the side, with the fingertips brought up to the shoulder of the same arm.
|10 yards||10 yards||15 yards|
|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 quarterback 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 increase in passing efficiency 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
|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 (safety if the foul occurs in the end zone).||5 yards from the spot of the foul and loss of down (safety if the foul occurs in the end zone).||5 yards from the spot of the foul and loss of down (safety if the foul occurs in the end zone).|
|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||15 yards (personal foul); automatic first down if committed by defense (penalty also counts regardless of how many yards the offense gained).||10 yards|
|Illegal kick||Any ball not kicked in accordance with the rules, for instance:
All of the above kicks are legal in Canadian football. One is illegal in CFL.
|Right arm is curled so that the hand touches the shoulder.||15 yards||10 yards||15 yards|
|The ball, after a kickoff, heads out of bounds between both goal lines without touching any player on either team.||Two arms in front of chest with closed fists "rolling" around each other (same signal that basketball referees use to signal traveling).||Receiving team awarded possession 25 yards from spot of kickoff, or at spot out of bounds, whichever is more advantageous.||Five yards from the previous spot (with the kick retaken); or five yards from the spot where the subsequent dead ball belongs to the receiving team; or the receiving team may put the ball in play 30 yards beyond the kicking team's restraining line.||5 yards and rekick, or receiving team can take possession where kick went out of bounds, or receiving team awarded possession 25 yards in front of kicking team's free kick line.|
|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||5 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 offense has twelve or more players in the huddle for a period of 3–5 seconds; or twelve or more players are in the formation before a play; or a player is attempting to leave the field as the ball is snapped; or an offensive player entering the field fails to step at least nine yards from the sideline (inside the field's yardage numbers) before the snap; or a player who has been suspended or disqualified attempts to enter the field of play.||(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 of a forward pass
|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.||One hand held up to shoulder, fingertips touching the shoulder; (NFL) two hands held up to shoulders, fingertips touching the shoulders.||5 yards and a loss of down||5 yards (if touched by an originally ineligible receiver) / 5 yards and loss of down (if touched by an originally eligible receiver who voluntarily went out of bounds)||5 yards and a loss of down|
|Illegal touching of a free kick
|The ball, after the free kick, first touches a member of the kicking team prior to travelling 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: in NFHS it is called 'first touching', not 'illegal touching'.
It is also illegal touching for a kicking team player to touch a free kick after going out of bounds, unless the kick is touched by the receiving team.
|One hand held up to shoulder, fingertips touching the shoulder; (NFL) two hands held up to shoulders, fingertips touching the shoulders.||5 yards, unless the illegal touching occurs inside the receiving team's 5 yard line. In that case, it is ruled a touchback.||Five yards from the previous spot, or five yards from the spot where the subsequent dead ball belongs to the receiving team, or from the spot where the ball is placed after a touchback.||Not a foul.
Receiving team may take possession at the spot of touching unless it commits a foul.
|Illegal touching of a scrimmage kick
|The ball, during the scrimmage kick, is touched by a kicking team player, unless the kick is touched by the receiving team or another member of the kicking team.||One hand held up to shoulder, fingertips touching the shoulder (NFL); two hands held up to shoulders, fingertips touching the shoulders (NCAA).||Not a foul. Receiving team has the option of taking possession at the spot of illegal touching unless it commits a foul.||Not a foul (called "first touching" in the NFHS rulebook).
Receiving team may take possession at the spot of first 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 ball carrier. 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
|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|
|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 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 in the end zone, the play is ruled a safety.||Spot of foul and loss of down (safety if the foul occurs in the end zone).||5 yards from the spot of the foul and loss of down (safety if the foul occurs in the end zone).|
|A defender at least one yard in front of the line of scrimmage 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.||(NCAA) Same as Personal foul, it is a subset of that penalty.(NFL) Same as Unsportsmanlike conduct, it is a subset of that penalty||15 yard penalty; automatic first down if committed by defense (penalty also counts regardless of how many yards the offense gained).||15 yard penalty; automatic first down if committed by defense (penalty also counts regardless of how many yards the offense gained).|
|A defensive player jumping or standing on a teammate or an opponent to block or attempt to block an opponent's kick.||(NCAA/NFL) Same as Unsportsmanlike conduct, it is a subset of that penalty||15 yard penalty and automatic first down||15 yards|
|Neutral Zone Infraction
|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|
(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. 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 call 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 (any offensive player that moves into the neutral zone after setting would be charged with a false start). 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 the hips||5 yards||5 yards||Not applicable (see Encroachment)|
|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 insignificant).||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.|
(offense or defense)
|Making physical contact with an intended receiver (intentional physical contact in NFL), 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 yard line 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 yard line 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. Beginning with the 2013 season, the down is replayed, unless the ball is beyond the line to gain after enforcement; the penalty no longer includes an automatic first down (defensive interference) or loss of down (offensive). If the interference is judged to be intentional, 15 additional yards.|
(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.||One arm extended from the body and bent at the elbow; the forearm is tilted at an angle, so the wrist is roughly in front of the collarbone but at a distance from the body. The other arm is brought down in a chopping motion, striking the first arm wrist-to-wrist||15 yards|
|Roughing the passer
|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, or if the passer is hit above the shoulders, or if the passer is targeted using the crown of the helmet.)||Open-fist arm extended above same-side shoulder, brought diagonally downward towards the opposite side waist.||15 yards and an automatic first down (penalty also counts regardless of how many yards the offense gained).||15 yards and an automatic first down (penalty may be enforced from the end of the run if the pass is completed, otherwise penalty is enforced from the previous spot).||15 yards and an automatic first down (penalty also counts regardless of how many yards the offense gained).|
|Roughing the kicker
|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 preceded by the personal foul signal.||15 yards and an automatic first down if committed by defense||15 yards and an automatic first down if committed by defense||15 yards and an automatic first down|
|Roughing the snapper
|On a punt or field goal attempt, the long snapper 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
|On a kicking play where the defense fails to touch ("block") the kicked ball, the defense runs 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 is 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 high school, the penalty for a coach on the field of play is unsportsmanlike conduct, not a sideline infraction.)||Arms bent and extended to both sides, hands waved forward and backward in a pushing motion.
Interference (NFHS): Both hands placed behind the back.
|N/A||5 yards (first infraction)
15 yards (subsequent infractions, also unsportsmanlike conduct)
|No yardage (first infraction—warning)
5 yards (second infraction—interference)
15 yards (subsequent infractions—unsportsmanlike conduct, interference)
(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 (this foul is no longer referred to as spearing in the NCAA rulebook, but as "targeting with the crown of the helmet")||15 yards|
|Targeting||A defensive player tackles with the crown of his helmet, by initiating contact to the opponent's head above the player's neck, or makes helmet-to-helmet collision.||Personal Foul, one arm bent to form a triangle, fist pointing at head.||15 yards||15 yards, ejection; if penalty occurs in second half, player is suspended for the first half of his team's next game. Penalty subject to video review. If hit is not deemed to be targeting by the referee, player allowed to stay in the game and yardage not enforced.||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 end zone 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, if a single player, coach or spectator commits two unsportsmanlike conduct fouls, the person in question should automatically be ejected.||Both arms extended to the sides perpendicular to the body with open fists, palms down||15 yards, automatic first down if committed by defense (penalty also counts regardless of how many yards the offense gained).||15 yards. As of 2011, if the foul was committed (1) during a play that ended in a touchdown, (2) before the ball crossed the goal line, and (3) by the team that scored, the touchdown is nullified, and the penalty is assessed from the spot of the foul.||15 yards|
In certain situations, a team may intentionally commit a foul in order to receive a penalty that they see as advantageous:
- A delay of game penalty may be sought intentionally in order to back up the line of scrimmage prior to a punt to allow for a larger punting field.
- Defensive pass interference may be committed in or near the end zone toward the end of a game in order to prevent a touchdown. This would place the ball at or near the goal line with a first down, and give the defense of a team that is slightly ahead a chance to prevent a touchdown that would put the opponent ahead. Some leagues have considered instituting palpably unfair act calls in these situations and calling touchdowns to prevent this from occurring.
- Since a penalty will stop the clock, a team may commit a foul in order to stop the clock when no timeouts are available. Some leagues have instituted a 10-second runoff in order to negate the ability to do this. (See below.)
The ten-second runoff rule
In the NFL and NCAA, a 10-second runoff is assessed if any of the following acts are committed by the offense in the last minute of either half:
- A foul by either team that prevents the ball from being snapped
- Intentional grounding
- Illegal forward pass beyond the line of scrimmage
- Throwing a backwards pass out of bounds
- Spiking or throwing the ball away after a down (unless after a touchdown)
- 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 has timeouts and elects to use one in lieu of the runoff.
- If the defense declines the runoff (which prevents the offense from committing fouls to intentionally run out the clock). Note that the team on defense may elect to decline the runoff while accepting the yardage penalty, but may not do the reverse.
Moreover, 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, seven regular season NFL games ended automatically due to this rule: 2005 Arizona-St. Louis, 2009 Cincinnati-Green Bay, 2011 Chicago-Oakland, 2012 Washington-Philadelphia, 2012 New England-Arizona (which cost New England the chance to attempt a field goal at the end of the half in a game they eventually lost by two points), 2014 St. Louis-Tampa Bay (which cost Tampa Bay a chance to attempt a game-winning field goal), and 2015 New England-New York Jets (which cost the Jets an attempt to throw a Hail Mary and force the game to overtime). 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. A 2013 divisional playoff game between the New Orleans Saints and the Seattle Seahawks also ended on a 10-second runoff after Saints wide receiver Marques Colston threw an illegal forward pass.
Starting in 2011, the NCAA adopted a similar 10-second penalty rule for college football. Like the NFL rule, it applies in the last minute of each half, but the NCAA rule differs in that it applies to fouls by either side that cause a clock stoppage. Like the NFL rule, the team that benefits from the penalty may elect to take both the yardage and the runoff, the yardage alone, or neither (but not the runoff in lieu of yards). The penalized team may elect to take a charged timeout in order to avoid the run-off.
The new NCAA rule was passed in response to the end of the 4th quarter in the 2010 Music City Bowl. In that game, the North Carolina Tar Heels were down 20-17 at the end of the 4th quarter and because they had no timeouts, they spiked the ball to stop the clock with 1 second left while too many men were on the field due to confusion about whether the field goal unit needed to come on the field. Because college football did not yet have the 10-second runoff, UNC was penalized 5 yards but was still able to kick the field goal to send the game to overtime, and would wind up beating Tennessee 30-27 in double overtime. Ironically, the new rule would not have saved Tennessee, because the Tar Heels' foul came after the snap, which would not have triggered the runoff.
- 1941 Oklahoma City vs. Youngstown State football game, first use of the penalty flag
- NCAA Rule 2-9
- "NFL Digest of Rules: Spot of Enforcement of Foul". National Football League. Retrieved 2009-03-06.
- "NFL supports official's call based on Rule 12". ESPN.com. October 7, 2003. Retrieved 2008-01-16.
- "Additional Rules Approved in High School Football Regarding Helmets Coming Off Players". National Federation of State High School Associations. Retrieved May 3, 2013.
- Associated Press (April 15, 2011). "Series of rules changes approved". ESPN.com. Retrieved June 11, 2011.