If you have been watching football this season, you should have seen many instances by now where the offense and defense get in position at the line of scrimmage, the quarterback crouches down behind the center, begins his cadence and, just when the center snaps the ball, “TWEET!!!” yellow flags fly and the officials come running in, waving their arms to stop the play.
Not only do penalties at this point punish one of the teams, but they disrupt the flow of the game and can interfere with one team’s strategy. For example, the offense may have been trying to get the next play off quickly before the defense can react to the last play or substitute fresh players. Or, since a penalty stops the game clock, the offense could gain an advantage if it was out of time outs.
Today’s lesson is an introduction to the fouls that occur just before or at the snap, causing so much drama….
1. False Start: We learned about this penalty when we discussed the offensive linemen. All members of the offense, except for one player behind the line of scrimmage, are prohibited from making an abrupt movement once they are in a set position. This abrupt movement must be one that can make the defense believe that the play has started. The quarterback can actually commit a false start penalty if, as he calls the play signals, he makes any movement (like a strong head bob) that makes it look like the snap is about to happen.
2. Too Many Players: Each team is allowed only 11 players on the field at one time. There are two fouls sprouting from this rule: (1) having 12 players in the huddle; and (2) having too many players on the field when the ball is snapped. You might be wondering why these are two different infractions. After all, if there are too many players on the field at the snap, weren’t there too many in the huddle? Not necessarily. The teams might not huddle before a play. Or, a player might have run onto the field at the last second before the snap, thinking that there weren’t enough players, or getting faulty instructions on the sideline.
3. Neutral Zone Fouls: The neutral zone is the space, measured as the length of the football, between the offensive and defensive lines before the snap. No player on either team may be in the neutral zone before the ball is snapped. There are three possible fouls that violate this rule (the first two are only called against the defense):
a. Offside: This is when a defensive player crosses into the neutral zone before the ball is snapped and either does not get back to his side before the ball is snapped, or the movement prompts a member of the offense to commit a false start foul. If the player is going to be able to reach the quarterback unabated (i.e., without being touched by an offensive player), the play is blown dead. Otherwise, the officials will let the play continue and the offense can choose to accept or decline the penalty once the play is over.
b. Encroachment: The foul is encroachment when the defensive player touches a player on the offense after crossing the line of scrimmage.
c. Lining up in the neutral zone: Exactly what it sounds like—a player was in a set position inside the neutral zone.
4. Delay of Game: The offense must snap the ball before the 40-second play clock expires between plays. If not, it commits a delay of game foul. This is usually a 5-yard penalty, but if it occurs at the start of the game or the start of the third quarter, the penalty is 15 yards. The defense can also be called for a delay of game if it appears that they are trying to prevent the offense from getting a play off in time (e.g., not letting a tackled player get off the ground).
5. Illegal Procedure: There are several fouls that fall under the category of “Illegal Procedure”: illegal substitution; illegal motion; and failure to report change of eligibility. Click here for a discussion of these infractions.
6. Excessive crowd noise: If the officials determine that a crowd is causing so much noise that it interferes with the ability of the visiting offense to proceed with its play, the defense can be penalized with a loss of a time out or 5 yards if it has no more time outs. As you can imagine, this violation is very rare. In fact, quarterbacks will probably refrain from complaining to officials about the noise, since this would only inflame the crowd more.
All of the above (except the delay of game foul, as noted) cost the violating team a 5-yard penalty. Most of these fouls also stop the play either before or immediately after the snap. However, the play will usually continue if the foul has been committed by the defense (except offside when the player is moving unabated to the QB), allowing the offense to have a “free play.” When the play is over, the offense can then decide whether to accept the penalty against the defense; if the result of the play is more favorable than assessing the penalty against the defense, the offense will decline the penalty.