Rules : Fair Catch

football, rules, fair catch

Have you ever seen the guy waving in the end zone during a kickoff? He’s not waving to welcome the defenders who are rapidly approaching; he’s signaling for a fair catch.

What’s a fair catch?

A fair catch is when a receiver signals that he is going to catch the ball only – not advance it – during a kickoff. If you would like to know the technical definition of a wave, the NFL says the receiver, “must raise one arm a full length above his head and wave it from side to side while kick is in flight.” Good to know.

When a player signals for a fair catch it means he wants to catch the ball right where he’s standing, and that’s all. He won’t try to run forward and advance the ball down the field after signaling a fair catch. (If he does, he’ll just end up further back than he was when he started thanks to a 5-yard penalty from the spot where he waved.) As a result, players on the kicking team are not allowed to tackle a player on the receiving team who signaled for a fair catch. They also aren’t allowed to interfere with the ball or the path of the ball. (Interfering in any way will cost the kicking team 15 yards!) However, if a player signals for the fair catch and then decides it isn’t so fair after all, that’s fine. He doesn’t have to catch the ball. But once he signals for the fair catch he can’t interfere with anyone on the kicking team. If he does, it’s a 15-yard penalty.

Here’s a bonus point to ponder, just because I’ve never heard of it before and think it’s hilarious:

If time expires while ball is in play and a fair catch is awarded, receiving team may choose to extend the period with one fair catch kick down. However, placekicker may not use tee.

I honestly have no idea what that would look like in an actual game. All I can picture is the ref coming over to the kicker and taking his tee away.

Zebra Talk : The Not Forward Pass

football, rules, pass

Last week we learned about what constitutes an illegal forward pass. But a forward pass isn’t the only pass allowed in the NFL. There’s also the backward pass. Which should probably just be labeled the Not Forward Pass, as we’ll soon find out.

Here’s a definition that just might make your day:

Any pass not forward is regarded as a backward pass. A pass parallel to the line is a backward pass.

The first part would have a better shot at making sense if second part wasn’t there. Because the second part makes me want to come to a four way stop, turn right, and regard myself as going backwards, as per the definition. And also because a pass parallel to the line is actually a thing. It’s called a lateral pass.

And you wonder why football makes you crazy.

So for those of you keeping score: a pass that isn’t a forward pass is a backward pass. Even if it’s a lateral pass. Any direction not forward is backward.

And that’s Wednesday.

But not so fast! There are a few other details.

First, backwards passes are legal. There won’t be any yellow flag action for a non-forward pass.

Second, backwards passes circumvent the second pass rule we talked about last week. A player can throw the ball either backwards or sideways (which, apparently, is still backwards) and the player who catches it can legally throw the ball forward to another player since that would be the first forward pass. Second total pass, but first thrown forward.

This is most frequently seen when the circus comes to town at the end of a close game. You might have seen a team that is losing receive a kickoff as time runs out and try to advance the ball down the field backwards – one player throws it behind to another player who runs forward and then throws it behind to another player and so on and so forth. It’s all legal as long as the ball doesn’t travel forward.

In closing: may all of your progress be forward. And may your car understand you mean regular backwards and not NFL backwards when you put it in reverse today.


Zebra Talk : Illegal Forward Pass

football, rules, forward pass

Did you all see the A Football Life documentary on the forward pass? If you haven’t it’s definitely one to add to your watch list for a great piece of NFL history. Because really, can you even imagine what the league would be like today if the forward pass was still illegal?

It would be rugby, pretty much.

So we are all very thankful for the evolution of the forward pass. But not all forward passes are legal. There is still such a thing as an illegal forward pass.

An illegal forward pass happens when: a) a pass is thrown in front of the line of scrimmage, b) a pass is thrown after a change of possession, or c) a pass is the second forward pass thrown on one play.

Let’s unpack that a little.

A) A pass thrown in front on the line of scrimmage

This actually happened on Monday Night Football this past week. Russell Wilson, in a feat of pure ingenuity, found a way to lob a pass over to an open Marshawn Lynch for a first down. The only problem was that Wilson was in front of the line of scrimmage when he threw the pass, which resulted in some yellow laundry on the field for an illegal forward pass. The quarterback has to be behind the line of scrimmage, the imaginary starting line where the ball is placed, when he is throwing a forward pass.

b) A pass thrown after a change of possession

Let’s say a defensive back picks off a pass intended to go to the wide receiver he’s covering. That’s an interception, which is a change of possession because as soon the defensive back catches the pass for an interception he becomes an offensive player trying to score. He was once defending against the offense trying to score, now he is the offense trying to score. Change of possession. But after he picks off the pass and runs toward his opponent’s end zone he can’t find an open teammate downfield and chuck the ball to him. That’s a pass thrown after a change of possession, and that’s illegal.

c) A second forward pass thrown on one play

It’s cool for the quarterback to throw a forward pass to an eligible receiver while he’s standing behind the line of scrimmage. It’s not cool for him to throw it forward to another offensive player and then for him to throw it forward to another eligible receiver. That’s a second forward pass thrown on a single play, which constitutes an illegal forward pass.

So: a pass thrown from behind the line of scrimmage to an eligible receiver? Good. A pass thrown in front of the line of scrimmage, after a change of possession, or for a second go-round on one play? Not so good.

Zebra Talk : Ten Common Penalties (Part II)

football, rules, penalties

And…we’re back! Yesterday we eased into penalties with a few of the most common pre-snap penalties. Today we get into the meat of the matter: live action penalties. Here are six penalties you are likely to see multiple times this weekend (and every weekend).

Intentional Grounding (offense – 10 yards, loss of down)

If the quarterback is getting pressured and tries to throw the ball away to avoid taking the sack (and consequently having the ball downed at the spot of the sack), he has to do so while outside of the pocket (the distance between the offensive linemen at the ends of the line at the start of the play) and the pass has to go beyond the line of scrimmage (even if it’s thrown to the sidelines). If he throws the ball a) from inside the pocket, b) short of the line of scrimmage, c) where there is no eligible receiver to catch the ball, it’s intentional grounding. Why would the quarterback throw a pass like that in the first place, you might ask? He would rather have it be an incomplete pass, therefore starting at the original line of scrimmage on the next down, than take the sack and be moved backward to the new line of scrimmage where the sack occurred.

Roughing the Passer (defense – 15 yards, automatic first down)

The defense is not allowed to touch the quarterback after he has thrown the pass or handed the ball off. If they do, it’s roughing the passer. For you savvy fans out there, we saw this call set up a game-winning field goal for the Jets against the Bucs in Week 1.

*Quick note on automatic first downs with penalty yardage. It’s not a addition scenario – in this case, if the penalty occurred on 1st and 10, the offense wouldn’t be awarded 15 yards and the 10 yards of an automatic first down, giving them 25 total yards (whoa). It’s a 15-yard penalty, total, and it’s now first down instead of second down. Got it?

Roughing the Kicker (defense – 15 yards, automatic first down)

The defense is also not allowed to touch the punter or kicker at all, unless they’ve touched the ball first. To give you a bit of a visual for how this works, imagine a field goal scenario. If a defensive linemen jumps forward, blocks the ball, and then crashes into the kicker as a result, it’s a legal play because he made a play on the ball. If he jumps forward, misses the ball, and then crashes into the kicker as a result, it’s roughing the kicker.

Holding (the most subjective and most frequent call, with offensive and defensive variations)

Holding happens on every NFL play. It just does. Some of it is legal, and some of it is illegal and goes uncalled. A lot depends on the officiating crew and the blatancy of the foul. But in general, players cannot use their hands or arms to push from behind, hang onto, or encircle an opponent. Doing so, in most cases, will result in a holding call.

(Offensive Holding – 10 yards, replay down)

Offensive holding usually gets called on offensive linemen who are blocking defensive linemen and trying to open up holes for running backs, but offensive holding can also be called on receivers who are trying to gain an advantage over the defensive backs covering them.

(Defensive Holding – 5 yards, automatic first down)

Defenders can legally block a receiver within the first 5 yards from the line of scrimmage. After 5 yards, they are held to the standard definition of holding.

Pass Interference (another frequent flyer, also with separate offensive and defensive variations)

In general, pass interference is called when one player impedes another player’s ability to do his job during a passing play. Usually this takes the form of pushing, grabbing, or blocking without looking for the ball.

(Offensive Pass Interference – 10 yards, replay down)

Most frequently called when a receiver makes an obvious attempt to create space between himself and a defender, usually by shoving him out of the way. Offensive PI can also be called in a “pick play” scenario, when another offensive player intentionally runs down a defensive player in order for a teammate to get open.

(Defensive Pass Interference – automatic first down at the spot of the foul (KILLER PENALTY))

Nothing gives the offense more of a chance to score than a timely defensive pass interference call, given the steep penalty that comes with the foul. If a defender illegally impedes a receiver’s ability to catch a pass – especially if he does so without looking behind him for the pass (telltale PI giveaway) – it’s a pass interference call, and the new line of scrimmage will be wherever the foul was called. This is especially deadly when the PI call happens in the end zone, in which case the line of scrimmage is moved all the way up to the 1-yard line.

Personal Foul (a description given to certain fouls on offense or defense, 15 yards) 

Personal fouls are the things that make coaches turn fuchsia and loose sleep at night. A personal foul isn’t a specific foul; it’s the name given to any number of undisciplined actions that endanger the health of another player.  It’s usually called in reference to unsportsmanlike conduct or unnecessary roughness, but is also called for plays like roughing the passer or kicker, face mask, excessive celebration, and others. When the offense commits a personal foul it’s a 15-yard penalty; when the defense commits a personal foul it’s a 15-yard penalty and an automatic first down. (As we learned previously, sometimes these penalties are called on both sides, causing them to offset.) You’ll hear personal fouls referenced in the call as follows: “Personal foul, defense, number 57, face mask, 15 yard penalty, automatic first down.”

WHEW. We made it through!!! Was this helpful?! There are plenty of other penalties that get called on a weekly basis, but these are the ones you’ll hear most frequently. If you hear anything else that needs an explanation or if something in here is still fuzzy shout it out in the comments! And get ready to come back on Friday for a free printable

Zebra Talk : Ten Common Penalties (Part I)

football, rules, penalties

Here’s the post a lot of you have probably been waiting for most in this series: ten common NFL penalties explained in terms that won’t make you want to poke your eyes out. This should prove to be tremendously helpful the next time a whistle blows and a yellow flag hits the turf.

Originally I put all of this info into one post…but it got so long that I feared it might make you go back on the statement above and actually poke your eyes out. So let’s tackle this over the course of two days!

We’ll start with these pre-snap penalties…or several variations of the same foul with the same penalty with four different names because why not make life complicated?

False Start (offense – 5 yards, replay down)

Players on the offensive line have to come to a complete stop for at least one second before the ball is snapped. When a player on the offensive line crosses the line of scrimmage or makes any sudden movement prior to the snap of the football, it’s a false start.

*One member of the offense is allowed to be “in motion” prior to the snap. You’ve seen this happen when a running back or wide receiver runs across the back of the formation to take a new position – totally legal. However, if he moves forward prior to the snap after arriving at his new position, it’s an illegal motion penalty.

Offsides (defense – 5 yards, replay down)

For nearly all intents and purposes, offsides is a false start call on the defense. If any member of the defense moves suddenly or crosses the line of scrimmage prior to the snap, it’s an offsides penalty. (To remember which one goes with which side, associate the “start” part of false start with the offense, since they are the ones “starting” the play.)

Encroachment (defense – 5 yards, replay down)

Encroachment is when a defensive player crosses the line of scrimmage prior to the snap and makes contact with an offensive player. One would think that a foul that is slightly different from the offsides call would also carry a slightly different penalty, but one would be wrong.

Neutral Zone Infraction (defense – 5 yards, replay down)

You know when someone jumps over the line and both sides are pointing to the other side to assign fault? That’s funny usually a neutral zone infraction: when a member of the defensive line moves offsides and causes a member (or members) of the offensive line to false start.

*Just a note: the offense can, and often will, try to do a legal version of this to draw the defense offsides. It usually happens in a critical 3rd or 4th down situation. The quarterback will fake like he’s about to take the snap in an attempt to get one of the defensive linemen to jump offsides. As long as none of the members of the offensive line false start, this act is as legal as the day is long.

Those four are the most likely offenders prior to the snap – tomorrow we’ll get into the wild world of live action penalties. It’s going to be a blast! See you all then!!!

Zebra Talk: Things to Know About Penalties

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.