Monday, October 4, 2010

Apple #485: Football Penalties

Watching football on TV the other day with a friend and regular Apple reader, when a team got called for being offsides he wondered, what's the difference between offsides and false start?  I realized I didn't know the answer.  There are other penalties, too, he went on, which seem awfully similar, like encroachment and illegal motion. What's the difference between all of those, or are they only different words for the same thing?

All questions for the Apple Lady to investigate, to be sure.

Turns out, it's not just a matter of a ref preferring one word for the same penalty over another, they are distinct penalties.

This is Doug Rosenbaum, a current NFL ref who started his officiating career at high school games
(Photo from Illinois Wesleyan University Magazine)

I should say, I looked this up for NFL rules only. NCAA (college) rules might be different, as might high school rules.

All these penalties are related to what you can and can't do before the ball is snapped. The rules vary depending on whether you're on offense -- the players with the ball -- or defense.

Before the ball is snapped, everybody on offense must stay perfectly still. The only players on offense who can move before the ball is snapped are the quarterback and one running back who may run horizontally behind the offensive lines of players, or backward away from them. No one else on offense can move. Offensive players also can't enter the neutral zone, which is the space the length of the football between the defensive line and the offensive line of players.

The neutral zone is as wide as the length of the football between the two lines of players. Each line of players is called a line of scrimmage.  The offensive line is the players with the ball--in this drawing, it's the guys with the dark pants.
(Diagram from Football Made Simple)

Also, if the offensive line decides, after they've lined up, that they want to line up differently or shift, they can all shift to different positions, but they have to come to rest again for a full second before the ball is snapped.

Defensive players can move before the ball is snapped, but they can't be in the neutral zone when the ball is snapped, and they can't make contact with anybody.  This is why you see guys on one side of the ball leaping forward and back sometimes several times before the ball is snapped.

If anyone who is not supposed to move does move, or moves where they're not supposed to before they're supposed to, the referees will call a penalty.  Exactly what penalty they call depends on who moved and when.

I'll take the penalties in turn, starting with those typically called against the offense, and then those typically called against the defense.

A pretty intense line of scrimmage from the Super Bowl in 2009.  The Pittsburgh Steelers on the left have the ball (offense), and the Arizona Cardinals on the right do not (defense).
(Photo from Stiletto Sports)

False start
  • Offensive foul, only to do with motion.
  • Called when anyone on the offensive line moves before the ball is snapped.
  • Flinches, twitches, tiny adjustments of the hand on the ground -- this is the kind of stuff that gets called false starts.
  • Quarterbacks are allowed to move before the ball is snapped, but they may be called for a false start anyway if the ref thinks the quarterback was deliberately and obviously trying to make someone on defense move before they were supposed to.
  • Penalty: five yards granted to the other team.

Referee signal for false start, with his hands circling each other. This signal is also used for illegal formation or various kicking fouls such as a safety kick out of bounds.
(Image from NFL's rulebook)

Illegal motion
  • Offense only
  • A player is moving forward at the time the ball is snapped.
  • Only one player besides the quarterback is allowed to be moving at the time of the snap, and that's a running back behind the line of scrimmage.  The running back must be moving horizontally to the line of scrimmage or away from it when the ball is snapped.
  • If another offensive player beside the back running horizontally is in motion, or when any player including the running back is moving forward or toward the line of scrimmage, that is illegal motion.
  • Flag is thrown immediately but play is allowed to continue.
  • Penalty: five yards granted to the other team and replay of the down, if the opposing team chooses to accept it instead of the results of the play.

Referee's signal for illegal motion. He moves his hand out horizontally from his chest.
(Image from NFL's rulebook)

  • The key to this foul is the player is in the wrong place once the ball has been snapped.
  • May be called against the defense or the offense, but usually it's against the defense.
  • A player is offside when any part of his body is forward of the line of scrimmage, or in the neutral zone.
  • This one doesn't have anything to with motion, it's only about where the players are when the ball is snapped.  This means that a player might not even have been moving; he could have only lined up in the neutral zone and he'd get called for being offside.
  • A defensive player can enter the neutral zone all he wants before the ball is snapped, as long as he goes back into position.  Once the ball has been snapped, however, if he's in the neutral zone, he has committed a foul, and he'll get called for being offside.

This is a college game, not NFL, but you can see that one guy in red, who is on defense, is standing in the neutral zone.  The black line is what the television broadcasts use to indicate where the ball is placed so those of us watching from home can see infractions like this more clearly -- though the refs don't always catch it, which is what apparently happened in this game between Alabama and Penn State.
(Photo from Linebacker-U)

  • An offensive player can get called for being offside if he has lined up in the neutral zone.
  • Flag is thrown immediately, but play is allowed to continue.
  • Penalty: five yards granted to the other team and replay of the down, if the opposing team chooses to accept it instead of the results of the play.
  • By the way, technically, it's "offside," not "offsides." You can only be off of one side of the ball at a time, not more than one. So the word should be singular.

The referee makes the same signal for offside and encroachment, though the penalties are different.
(Image from NFL's rulebook)

  • Defense only
  • The player enters the neutral zone before the snap and makes contact with the opposing player.
  • A defensive player may enter the neutral zone all he wants before the ball is snapped as long as he doesn't touch anybody else.
  • The play is blown dead immediately
  • Penalty: five yards granted to the other team and the down is replayed

Now, can you imagine keeping all that--and more--straight in your head while you're standing in the middle of a play wearing the zebra stripes and knowing exactly what to call the moment it happens right in front of you?
(Photo from Don't Mess With Taxes)

Sources Rulebook
New Hampshire Football Report, Officially Speaking: Not all motion is legal
Howard Becker, ezine articles, Most Common Penalties in (American) Football
Sports Comet, Football question -- What is the difference between "encroachment" and "offsides"?
Jerry Markbreit's answers, Chicago Tribune, December 9, 2004, Penalties of American Football


  1. A receiver can go in motion too before a play, right? At least, I see that happen all the time. Running from one side of the field to the other.

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