Zebra Talk: Things to Know About Penalties

football, rules, pass

football, rules, penalties

Let me tell you first that writing this post gave me a whole new level of appreciation and sympathy for last year’s replacement refs. The NFL rulebook is a JUNGLE. Seriously. Just take a look at this thing. (And if you’re really brave, download the complete 120 page PDF at the bottom.)

Last week we learned a bit more about which officials are on the field and what they do. This week, we’ll tread lightly into murky waters: the penalties themselves and the consequences that go with them. If I were a ref, I think flat out remembering which foul goes with which penalty would be the hardest part of the job.

Things to know about penalties

Penalties are enforced when players or coaches do something (called a foul) that is against the NFL rules. It seems so simple. We’ll soon learn that it is not. Grab your Tylenol and we’ll dive in!

Penalties generally result in a loss of yardage, but not all penalties are created equally. Illegal motion or illegal substitution will run you 5 yards. Deliberating kicking a loose ball just for fun (or even not for fun!) will cost 10. Taking your helmet off while still on the field? It’s like speeding in a work zone: 15 yards.

Not all penalties are created in ways that make sense, either. Take these two: A “forward pass thrown from behind line of scrimmage after ball once crossed the line” is worth 5 yards. A “forward pass thrown from beyond line of scrimmage” is worth 5 yards and the loss of a down.

Why? Because. That’s why.


For the most part, penalties come gift wrapped in two ways: Penalties that result in a loss of yardage (5, 10, 15 yards), and penalties that result in a loss of yardage and another bonus gift (automatic first down, loss of down, ejection from game, etc).


There are also variations for offensive and defensive penalties. If there is an offensive foul, the penalty yardage gets added to their original down and distance. For example, a 5-yard penalty on 3rd and 10 now becomes 3rd and 15. Most (but not all) defensive fouls result in an automatic first down for the offense. In the event that the penalty does not result in an automatic first down or does and has additional distance added onto it (like a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness), the offense gets to advance up the field at the specified number of yards. If there are both offensive and defensive penalties on one play that are worth the same amount of yardage, the penalties usually offset.

Also, as we learned in the offsetting penalty post, sometimes penalties result in the down being replayed (like when 3rd and 10 becomes 3rd and 15) and sometimes penalties result in a loss of down (like with offsetting dead ball fouls).

Things to know about penalties in the last 2-minutes of each half

As if the mix-and-match of fouls and penalties wasn’t enough, the rules change at different points of the game. (And you’ve wondered why you’ve found football so confusing.) Penalties that are one way at one point in the game are completely different in the final two minutes of each half. The way that penalties effect the time on the clock changes in the final 5 minutes of the game.

Why? Because. That’s why.

One odd thing to note about penalties occurring in the last 2-minutes of each half: some of them are accompanied by a 10-second clock runoff rule. This penalty is assessed if the offense is trailing or if the game is tied and the offense has no timeouts and commits one of the following actions: false start, intentional grounding, illegal forward pass, illegal backward pass thrown out of bounds (…really?), spikes of throws the ball after a play that is not a touchdown, anything else to intentionally cause the clock to stop.


It’s important to note that if there are less than 10 seconds left in the game and one of the above occurs, the 10-second runoff can end the game. It’s also important to note that games are not allowed to end on a defensive foul, unless the penalty is declined by the offense (we’ll talk about that next).

Does your head hurt yet?

Things to know about accepting and declining penalties

Just to keep life interesting, coaches have the option to either accept or decline the result of the penalties committed by the other team. “Why wouldn’t they automatically want the benefits of the penalties?” you might be asking. Good question!

Football is a game of strategy. All of that strategy comes into play with accepting or declining penalties.

Let’s consider this scenario: the offense is on the defense’s 20 yard line, which means they are in prime position to score (they are also in the “red zone” – the 20 yards prior to the end zone – while we’re talking about it). The down and distance is 3rd and 4. The offense gets flagged for a false start, which is a 5-yard penalty. The other team’s coach can either accept or decline this penalty. If he accepts the penalty, that means the down is replayed and the other team’s down and distance is now 3rd and 9, and they are still in good position to get a first down and/or score a touchdown. But if he declines the penalty the game just goes on, which means it’s now 4th down for the offense. More than likely they’ll kick a field goal instead of trying to go for it on 4th down.

So the coach has to decide whether he’d rather trust his defense to get a stop on 3rd and 9 or takes his chances with the other team’s offense trying a fairly average field goal attempt on 4th down.


As per above, it’s important to know that games can end with a declined penalty. We’ll wrap things up on this note:

“If the defensive team is behind in the score and commits a foul when it has no time outs left in the final 40 seconds of either half, the offensive team can decline the penalty for the foul and have the time on the clock expire.”

Now go stick your head into a bucket of cold water.

Author: Beka