Friday, September 25, 2009


For those of you who are watching your first football games this year, tell me if this sounds familiar. A player on team A has the ball and runs 20 to 30 yards down the field, perhaps he even scores a touchdown. You are excited and cheering the good accomplishment, and then the next thing you know team A is lining up for the next play further back then where they started the last play. Confusing, right? Well, what you missed between the plays was a penalty committed by team A. Penalties are infractions of the rules. The officials (the ones wearing black and white stripped shirts) throw a yellow cloth called a flag when one team commits an infraction for which they are then penalized. Not all penalties are equal. They can range from 5 yards, 10 yards, and 15 yards. A few penalties are marked at the spot on the field that they occur. Most of the time when a penalty is assessed, the team with the ball get to repeat the down, however, the more severe infractions are penalized by a loss of down. If the penalty is against team A, team B has the option of accepting or rejecting the penalty. If it is strategically better for team B to accept the outcome of the play (such as an incomplete pass on third down), then the penalty against team A does not turn into a penalty for team B, too. The following list cites the name of common penalties, explains what the infraction is, and the yards penalized for that infraction.
  • DELAY OF GAME--the team on offense does not snap the ball before the 40 second play clock counts down to zero. Distance: 5 yards and repeat the down.
  • FALSE START--a player on the team on offense moves laterally before the the center snaps the ball. Distance: 5 yards and repeat the down.
  • OFF SIDES--a player on the defense crosses onto the offense's side before the center snaps the ball. Distance: 5 yards and repeat the down.
  • ILLEGAL PARTICIPATION--a team has more than 11 players on the field. Distance: 5 yards.
  • FACE MASK--a player grabs or puts his hand on another player's face mask. Distance: 15 yards and an automatic first down for the offense (repeat the down if an offensive player does it to a defensive player).
  • HOLDING--a player grabs and holds another player to stop him from making a tackle or from getting away from him. Distance: 10 yards if against the offense and repeat the down, 5 yards if against the defense and an automatic first down.
  • PASS INTERFERENCE--a player touches another player that is trying to catch a pass. Distance: 15 yards if against the defense and an automatic first down, 5 yards and repeat the down if against the offense.
  • ROUGHING THE PASSER--a defensive player hits the quarterback well after he has thrown the ball. Distance: 15 yards and an automatic first down.
  • INTENTIONAL GROUNDING--a quarterback throws the ball away to avoid getting sacked by a defensive player (no receiver can be close to where the quarterback threw the ball). Distance: ball is marked where the quarterback was standing when he threw the ball, and the offense loses one down.
  • ILLEGAL FORWARD PASS--a player can only throw the ball forward if he is behind the line of scrimmage (the yard line that the center snapped the ball to start the play). Distance: 5 yards and loss of a down.
  • PERSONAL FOUL--a hit after a play was over or unsportsmanlike conduct during a play. Distance: 15 yards and an automatic first down.
  • RUNNING INTO THE KICKER--lightly contacting the kicker after he kicked ball (unless the player blocked the kick). Distance: 5 yards and repeat the down.
  • ROUGHING THE KICKER--heavy contact with the kicker after he kicked the ball, usually presently a serious safety risk to the kicker. Distance: 15 yards and an automatic first down.
  • EXCESSIVE CELEBRATION--there are many forms of this penalty and it is most always a judgement call by the official. Distance: 15 yards.

This list can go on and on, but this is a good start for you. It is important to understand penalties are judgment calls by human officials while a play is going full speed. Therefore, they do miss some and this is just another aspect of the game that can cause controversy. Hopefully it never costs your favorite team the win.

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