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American Football Penalties Explained

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Jesse is a lifelong sports fan with a passion for finding the facts. His writing has been recognized and published by Sports Illustrated.

Head referee Ed Hochuli addresses a penalty during a game.

Head referee Ed Hochuli addresses a penalty during a game.

NFL Referees and What They Do

In the National Football League, the game is played with 53-man rosters. 22 men in total take the field at any given time during the game. With the many different positions, plays, formations, and styles come a large assortment of rules as well. This is where the seven officials of the game come into play, commonly referred to as referees.

Each of the seven officials has a different name and set of responsibilities on the field. They are known as:

  • Referee
  • Umpire
  • Down Judge
  • Line Judge
  • Field Judge
  • Side Judge
  • Back Judge

Each of these officials stand in designated spots and focus on specific parts of the game in which they rule upon. While it's common to see a referee throw a yellow flag during a game to indicate a penalty, they have many more responsibilities than that on gameday.

This diagram shows the name and position of each NFL official during a game.

This diagram shows the name and position of each NFL official during a game.

What Does Each NFL Referee Do?

The following are the positions and responsibilities of each NFL official:

Referee

The Referee is the head of the entire officiating team. He can easily be identified by his white hat, as well as being the only official to address the penalties aloud. If you've ever watched an NFL game, this is the guy you're yelling at about a blown call and who present the penalty live on the broadcast. He's positioned 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage where the normal tight end would line up. His responsibilities include:

  • Overseeing all aspects of the game/officiating crew.
  • Has the final say in all officiating disputes.
  • Verbally and visually communicates all fouls.
  • Counts the players on the field.
  • Determines first-downs and measurements if needed.
  • Watches for false starts from the QB or RB positions.
  • On running plays the Referee watches the center, right guard, and right tackle as well as their defensive engagements for any fouls.
  • On passing plays the Referee watches the right guard and right tackle as well as their defensive engagements for any fouls. As the defense becomes a threat he turns his focus primarily to the QB or passer and is specifically in charge of roughing the passer calls, offensive holding, pass/fumble calls, and intentional grounding.

Umpire

The Umpire is located nearly opposite of the Referee, only slightly outside of the normal tight end position. His specific responsibilities include:

  • Reviews the players' equipment.
  • Directly speaks with players throughout the game to ensure safety and maintain control.
  • Counts the number of offensive players on the field.
  • Marks off penalty yardage and makes sure it is accurate.
  • Digs into piles of players after fumbles to ensure which team has possession of the ball.
  • Watches for false starts by the center, left guard, and right guard.
  • On all plays, the Umpire watches the center, left guard, and left tackle as well as their defensive engagements for any fouls.
  • On passing plays, the Umpire assists the Referee on rulings around the QB/passer.

Down Judge

The Down Judge is located on the sideline looking down the line of scrimmage. He will be opposite of the Line Judge. His duties include:

  • Overseeing the line of scrimmage.
  • Directing the chain crew.
  • Watching for offside and encroachment penalties.
  • Overseeing sideline plays on his side of the field.
  • Counting offensive players and relaying the count to the Referee.
  • On running plays, the Down Judge watches for false starts, offsides, encroachment at the line of scrimmage. He watches all blocking near his side of the field as well as where to mark an out-of-bounds runner on his sideline. He is also in charge of marking forward progress.
  • On passing plays, the Down Judge is in charge of certain wide receivers based on the plays' formation. She may determine whether a receiver is out of bounds on her end of the field, as well as whether the pass is complete or incomplete. Of the receivers she is responsible for, she will also rule on both offensive and defensive pass interference, as well as holding and illegal contact of eligible receivers. She is also in charge of monitoring if a QB or passer is past the line of scrimmage when releasing the ball, and determining if a pass was forward or backward on her side of the field.

Line Judge

The Line Judge is located on the sideline looking down the line of scrimmage. They are exactly the opposite of the Down Judge. The Line Judge's responsibilities are the exact same as the Down Judge, just for their half of the field and within their immediate vicinity.

Field Judge

The Field judge is located 20 yards past the line of scrimmage in the defensive backfield. He lines up on the same sideline as the Line Judge. Their responsibilities include:

  • Watching the receiver split out wide on his side of the field for illegal use of hands, blocking fouls, and fouls against the defender who is guarding him.
  • Watching the sideline to determine if players are in or out of bounds.
  • Counting defensive players.
  • On running plays the Field Judge watching the outside wide receiver for any blocking or holding penalties, as well as determining if a runner is out of bounds on their side of the field.
  • On passing plays the Field Judge watches the outside wide receiver to make sure they're not impeded on their routes, as well as whether they are in or out of bounds or secured a catch on the sideline. He also monitors for pass interference.

Side Judge

The Side Judge is located 25 yards from the line of scrimmage in the defensive backfield. They are on the same sideline as the Down Judge. Their responsibilities include:

  • Being the primary timekeeper for the game if the clock malfunctions.
  • Signals the Referee if time expires at the end of a quarter.
  • Watches the outside wide receiver on their side of the field for any blocking or holding penalties, as well as the defender who is guarding him.
  • Counts defensive players on the field.
  • During running and passing plays the Side Judge has the same responsibilities as the Field Judge, only on their respective side of the field.

Back Judge

The Back Judge is located 30 yards deep in the defensive backfield between the two sets of hash marks. Their responsibilities include:

  • Counting defensive players.
  • Keeping track of all 40 or 25-second game clocks and manages all television breaks.
  • On running plays, the Back Judge focuses on the center, right guard, and left guard to determine if the play is a run play. Once assessed, she shifts her focus to the first level of the defense and looks for any holding fouls by the defense. As the play progresses she shifts her focus to the second level of the play and looks for holding by the offense. Finally, she shifts to the primary point of a foul, which is likely the runner himself.
  • If the Back Judge determines a passing play, they shift their focus to the #2 or #3 wide receiver, depending on the formation. Immediately when the ball is thrown she changes her focus to the would-be receiver and determines whether they complete the catch. She also rules on offensive and defensive pass interference, defensive holding, and illegal contact of all legal receivers.

Are Women Allowed to Become NFL Referees?

Female referee Sarah Thomas prepares to officiate an NFL game.

Female referee Sarah Thomas prepares to officiate an NFL game.

How Many Female Referees Are in the NFL?

As you read the descriptions of the NFL Officiating positions, you may have noticed me switching between him and her when describing the officials' duties. That's because, as of 2020, the NFL has begun to bring in female officials to officiate the games. In 2020, the NFL hired Sarah Thomas to become the first full-time female referee in the NFL. A year later, they added Maia Chaka to the league, becoming the first female African-American official in league history.

What Are All the Penalties in the NFL?

Below is an extensive table indicating most of the penalties in the NFL. Some very obscure penalties exists outside of this table, but are so rarely common that I decided not to include them because I am writing this article to help a casual fan become more interested and educated about the game of football. Among the list of penalties, you'll find that I have typed the most common penalties in bold. I hope this list helps you when watching football from now on.

A table of most of the penalties in the NFL, including all of the common fouls.

PenaltyDescriptionConsequenceHand Signal Indication

Blocking Below the Waist

All contact below the waist outside of the tight end box unless it involves a runner or player catching a pass.

15 yards and an automatic first down on defense.

Both hands brought down with wrists turned inward, in a chopping motion across the front of the thighs.

Block in the Back

Contacting any non-ball-carrying player of the opposite team from behind and above the waist.

10 yards

Similar to a "stop" motion. One arm extended out with a palm facing outward. The other hand grasps the wrist of the extended hand.

Chop Block

Diving at the legs of a player who is already engaged in a block. Also known as an "Illegal Cut Block" or a "High-Low Block"

15 yards. If the play occurs by an offensive player in the endzone it is ruled a safety. Automatic first down if committed by the defense.

Arms extended down and out with palms facing out. Both hands perform a chopping motion to the thighs.

Clipping

A blocker contacting a non-ballcarrying opponent from behind at or below the waist.

15 yards. Automatic first down if committed by the defense.

Chopping the back of one thigh with the hand.

Delay of Game

Any action that delays the next play. This could be failing to snap the ball before the clock reaches 0, spiking or throwing the ball after a play that doesn't result in a score, or a defender hinders an offense from resetting to snap the ball.

5 yards

One arm layed on top of the other in front of the chest of the official. Similar to crossed arms, only straight.

Encroachment

When a defensive player crosses the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped and makes contact with an opponent or has a clear path to the QB.

5 yards

Two hands placed on hips.

Equipment Violation

A player who's uniform and equipment aren't in line with the NFL's regulations.

Timeout charged against the offending player's team and the player must come out of the game for at least one play to correct their violation.

One hand placed on the back of the head.

Face Mask

Intentional grasping of the face mask of an opponent to block or tackle them.

15 yards. Automatic first down if committed by the defense.

Arm up to the chin with a fist made as if grasping. The arm pulls downward.

False Start

An offensive player moves in a way that simulates the start of the play after becoming set. This could be full movement or even a slight twitch.

5 yards

Horizontal arms with fists that rotate in a rolling motion around each other.

Holding

Illegally grabbing or pulling an opponent in an attempt to block or move a blocker.

10 yards on offense. If the offensive holding happens in the endzone it is an automatic safety. 5 yards for defensive holding with an automatic first down.

One arm is held vertically in front of the body, while the other hand grasps the vertical arm's wrist.

Horse Collar Tackle

Tackling another player by grabbing the inside of their shoulder pads or grabbing their jersey from behind and jerking downward.

15 yards. Automatic first down. The penalty is tacked on after the amount of yards the offense has gained on the play.

One arm reaches up towards the neck area with a fist and yanks outward.

Illegal Batting

Intentionally batting a ball in order to gain yardage or keep it away from opponents when loose. Typically this is to keep opponents from grabbing a loose fumble or to avoid a tackle and toss the ball forward for a teammate to pick up and continue a play.

10 yards

Elbows out with fingertips brought to both shoulders.

Illegal Contact

Making significant contact with a receiver after they have advanced 5 or more yards past the line of scrimmage. This is when the QB is still in the pocket and has the ball in their hands.

5 yards. Automatic first down.

Similar to the "stop" motion as well as the "Illegal Block in the Back" only one hand is used to face outward with palm up. A pushing motion is made.

Illegal Formation

Fewer than 7 players are lined up on the line of scrimmage or eligible receivers aren't the leftmost or rightmost player on the line.

5 yards

Same as "False Start" Horizontal arms with rolling fists in front of chest.

Illegal Forward Pass

A forward pass is thrown from past the line of scrimmage or a second forward pass is made after the initial pass or a change of possession.

5 yards from the spot of the foul and a loss of down.

A flat palm is waved behind the small of the back of the referee, as if they were trying to scratch their lower back.

Illegal Hands to the Face

Pushing or hitting a player in the head or helmet.

10 yards if committed by the offense. 5 yards and an automatic first down if committed by the defense.

One open fist in a pushing motion to the referee's chin.

Illegal Motion

A player in motion is moving forward at the time of the snap.

5 yards

One arm with palm face down at the chest, moving outward. Similar to a sideways karate chop.

Too Many Players (Typically Twelve Men on the Field)

If 12 or more players participate in a play or are on the field during the play.

5 yards

Two hands flat on top of the head with elbows out.

Illegal Shift

A player is not set before the snap, more than one player is in motion when the snap occurs, or after more than one player moves all eleven players aren't motionless for at least one second.

5 yards

Same as "Illegal Motion" but with two hands. Two arms with palms down at the chest moving outward.

Illegal Touching of a Forward Pass

A forward pass touches an ineligible receiver. This rule becomes void if a defensive player touches the ball first.

5 yards and a loss of down.

Same as "Illegal Batting" Elbows out with fingertips touching each shoulder.

Illegal Touching of a Free Kick

When the kicking team touches the ball before it travels 10 yards. This becomes void if the returning team touches the ball first.

5 yards. If the illegal touching occurs inside the kicking team's 5 yard line, then it is ruled a touchback.

Same as "Illegal Touching of a Forward Pass" Elbows out with fingertips touching each shoulder.

Ineligible Receiver Downfield

When an ineligible receiver is past the line of scrimmage before a forward pass is made.

5 yards

One palm touching the top of the head with elbow facing out.

Intentional Grounding

A forward pass is intentionally thrown incomplete to avoid a loss of yardage. This becomes void when the ball is being spiked or if the QB is outside of the pocket and throws past the line of scrimmage.

10 yards or a spot foul if it is father from the line of scrimmage, and a loss of down. If the foul occurs in the endzone the ruling is a safety.

Both hands start upwards near the shoulder and move down together diagonally past the hip.

Neutral Zone Infraction

Before the snap, a defensive player jumps into the neutral zone and causes an offensive player to move.

5 yards

Two hands on hips.

Offside

A defensive player is on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage when the ball is hiked.

5 yards, however the play isn't stopped on this call so the offense gets a "free play" where they may accept the offside or take a potential gain.

Two hands on hips.

Pass Interference

Making physical contact with an intended receiver after the ball was thrown, but before the receiver touched it. This rule becomes void if the ball is touched by another player prior to getting to the receiver.

10 yards if committed by the offense. If the defense commits the foul then the ball is placed at the spot of the foul. If the defense commits this foul in the endzone the ball is placed on the 1 yard line.

Both arms forward with palms facing forward in a pushing motion.

Roughing the Passer

If a defender takes 2 or more steps after the QB has thrown the ball and hits the QB anyway. This also applies if the defender hits the QB above the shoulders anytime or with the crown of the defenders helmet anywhere.

15 yards and an automatic first down. This penalty is tacked on after the yards gained by the offensive play as well.

Open-fist arm is raised above the same shoulder and brought diagonally down to the opposite hip.

Roughing the Kicker

A defender hits the kicker or holder in a way that could injure the player. Typically, but not limited to, running into the kicker's planted foot after a kick.

15 yards and automatic first down.

Leg kicks straight forward then fist brought down diagonally into a fist being held horizontally by the other arm.

Running into the Kicker

A defender runs into a kicker or holder unintentionally. Typically, but not limited to, hitting the kicking leg of the kicker after a kick.

5 yards

Leg kicks straight forward.

Spearing AKA (Targeting With the Crown of the Helmet)

Tackling or contacting an opponent by leading with the helmet.

15 yards and automatic first down when committed by the defense. Tacked on after the offensive yardage is gained.

Elbow out with a closed fist to the side of the head.

Targeting

A defensive player leads with the crown of their helmet and initiates contact with the opponents head.

15 yards, automatic first down, and an ejection for the offender. The penalty is subject to review by the officials.

Elbow out with a closed first to the top corner of the head. Same as "Spearing" but slightly higher.

What are the Most Common Penalties in Football?

Penalties will always be a part of the NFL game. Whether they're helping or hurting your team, it always seems like we're most aware of the big plays that hurt us like a defensive pass interference. However, based on the most recent years there are five penalties that stand out and are committed more often than any other.

From 2016 through 2020, the following penalties were called more than any other.

  1. Offensive Holding: 3,261
  2. False Start: 2,710
  3. Defensive Pass Interference: 1,359
  4. Defensive Holding: 1,102
  5. Unnecessary Roughness: 910

I was actually shocked to see unnecessary roughness in the top 10. I know football is a rough sport, but to think it happens more often than something like offsides or neutral zone infractions is mind boggling to me.

Regardless, I hope that this article helped you to better understand the game! You should have a better understanding of what referees have to do each game and what they have to remember. Don't forget, that long list of penalties I wrote about were only some of the many rules they have to remember. So when the game doesn't necessarily go your way, maybe give the ref a break.

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© 2021 Jesse Unk

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