American football is full of penalties, given the dangerous and complicated nature of the sport. Football penalties might at times seem arbitrary and confusing to someone just learning the game of football, since similar penalties might be assessed different yardage. While many penalties are 5 yards, an interference penalty down the field is assessed at the spot of the foul, and might give an offense an extra 50 yards of field position.
Football penalties are generally assessed by the amount of advantage it gives to one side or the other, the amount of risk it places one or more players on the field and the intent of the player committing an offense. In the aforementioned interference penalty, it’s assumed that the defensive player committing this foul is trying to prevent a touchdown. If only 5 yards and a first down are assessed for such a foul (as it is in college football), the defenders would be encouraged to tackle receivers who are likely to catch the ball and go for a touchdown.
Given that football penalties and the football penalty rules have evolved over a hundred years of organized American football, most of the rules of football make a certain sense, once you understand the intent behind the rule. Here’s a comprehensive list of the football penalties.
Five Yard Penalty
These penalties are considered lesser, because they neither endanger another player’s health or they are not attempting to give a team an unfair advantage in player (such as interference to save a touchdown or holding to save a sack). I’ll break down the five yard penalties according to the type of unit which commits these penalties.
Five Yard Penalties – Offense
Ineligible player downfield during passing down
Less than seven men on offensive line at snap
Failure to pause one second after shift or huddle
Failure to report change of eligibility
Second forward pass behind the line
Forward pass is first touched by ineligible receiver (eligible receiver who went out of bounds and returned to field)
Forward pass touches or is caught by an ineligible receiver on or behind line
Forward pass thrown from behind line of scrimmage after ball once crossed the line
More than one man in motion at snap
Five Yard Penalties – Defense
Grasping facemask of the ball carrier or quarterback
Loss of team time out(s) or five-yard penalty on the defense for excessive crowd noise
Five Yard Penalties – Special Teams Units
Delay of kickoff
First onside kickoff out of bounds between goal lines and untouched or last touched by kicker
Ineligible member(s) of kicking team going beyond line of scrimmage before ball is kicked
Invalid fair catch signal
Running into kicker
Kicking team player voluntarily out of bounds during a punt
Five Yard Penalties – All Units
Delay of game on offense or defense
Neutral zone infraction
Excessive time outs
Twelve (12) men in the huddle.
More than 11 players on the field at snap for either team
Player out of bounds at snap
Automatic First Down
Offenses are awarded an automatic first down, except in the case of penalties which are considered lesser in offense. Since penalties like offsides and delay of game are among the most common penalties, these 11 instances account for a large percentage of football penalties.
The following 8 penalties do not result in an automatic first down.
Delay of game
Excessive time outs
More than 11 players on the field at the snap
Neutral zone infraction
Running into the kicker
Note: At one time, there was a 5-yard penalty in this category called “incidental face mask”. Because of the subjective nature of the ruling, the NFL changed the rule in the last year or so, making all facemask penalties 15 yards.
Five Yards and Automatic First Down
Defensive holding or illegal use of hands (usually assessed before the ball is in the air, as opposed to interference)
Combination Penalty – Five Yard Penalty and Loss of Down
Forward pass thrown once the passer is beyond the line of scrimmage
10 Yards Penalties
Ten yard penalties in football are not dangerous to other players on the field (except in case of tripping/illegal blocks), but are not considered as egregious as the 15-yard penalties. Usually, the players committing these fouls tend to be trying to cover up a missed assignment on their part, either protecting their quarterback from a sack or a desperation move to avoid a touchdown.
Offensive pass interference
Holding, illegal use of hands/arms/body by offense
Tripping by a member of either team
Helping the runner (usually an offensive lineman pushing the pile at the goal line)
Deliberately batting or punching a loose ball (the fumblerooksi rule)
Deliberately kicking a loose ball (usually kicking it out of bounds to avoid fumble recovery)
Illegal block above the waist
10 Yards and Loss of Down (Combination Penalty)
New rules were instituted to give quarterbacks a better chance to get rid of the ball. If the quarterback is outside of the pocket (or outside where the offensive tackles lined up), he can legally ground the ball, if he gets it near the line of scrimmage. How close he must throw the ball to the line of scrimmage (or beyond) is a judgment call by the line judge.
Intentional grounding of forward pass. If foul occurs more than 10 yards behind line, play results in loss of down at spot of foul
Intentional grounding of forward pass in the end zone – Results in a safety
15 Yards Penalties
These plays tend to be dangerous in nature, such as the much-hated “chop block”, where one blocker engages a defender up top, while another dives at the defender’s legs (perhaps attempting to cause a knee injury). Others fall into the bad sportsmanship category and are enacted to keep children from being bad sports, or to keep NFL players from influencing children with their unsportsmanlike behavior.
Some of these penalties are more extreme versions of lesser penalties. While the 5-yard running into the kicker penalty doesn’t incur an automatic first down, the roughing the kicker penalty is 15 yards and an automatic first down. “Running into” is meant to protect a kicker as he’s in a precarious position with one foot raised to the air, and involves any contact. “Roughing” involves a deliberate attempt to injure or intimidate the kicker, but a blatant run at his exposed leg.
Any player who removes his helmet after a play while on the field (the Emmitt Smith Rule)
Clipping below the waist
Delay of game at start of either half
Fair catch interference
Illegal chop block
Illegal crackback block by offense
Illegal low block
Leaping (over the line to block a field goal)
Punter/placekicker/holder who simulates being roughed by a defensive player.
Roughing the kicker
Roughing the passer
Taunting an opponent
Twisting/turning/pulling an opponent by the facemask
Using the crown of the helmet – using the helmet to butt/spear/ram an opponent
15 Yards and Loss of Coin Toss Option
Team�s late arrival on the field prior to scheduled kickoff (never seen this happen in the NFL)
No team captains appearing for coin toss (never seen this happen in the NFL)
15 Yards (and disqualification if flagrant)
Kicking/kneeing an opponent
Malicious unnecessary roughness – Taking helmet off and using as a weapon is one example.
Palpably unfair act (depriving opposing team of touchdown, such as running off your own sideline to make a tackle.
Roughing the kicker (if flagrant)
Roughing passer (if flagrant) – Picking up the quarterback and body-slamming him, such as what happened to Jim McMahon, is a DQ.
Striking opponent with a fist
Striking your opponent on the head or neck with forearm/elbow/hands whether or not the initial contact is made below the neck area
15 Yards and Automatic Disqualification
Using a helmet (yours or another’s) as a weapon
Striking or purposely shoving a game official
Suspension From Game – For One Down Only
Wearing illegal equipment. Once the equipment used is replaced with proper equipment, you may return to the game.
Palpably Unfair Act Explained – A touchdown is awarded for a “palpably unfair act”, such as running off the bench to tackle an opponent streaking to the end zone.
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