NFL Penalties: New and Old

I recently heard the NFL added some additional penalties for safety reasons. (I wager to cut down on risk of concussions?) I think one such penalty occurred when one team was punting to the other, but seemingly odd to me (the novice armchair observer) the two teams had some minimal yardage between them for this punt. In the least, do you know what I was seeing, or even better…do you know what penalty I may have seen? (Feel free to make an educated guess here.)

Also, are old penalties like “back field in motion” and “off-sides” still on the books? I hear these other penalties, like “neutral zone infraction”. WTF? Can someone explain this penalty and about when it came to be? (i.e., has this penalty always been around and I never noticed, or is it relatively new?)

I don’t remember when the neutral zone infraction became a penalty, but the basic gist is that defensive players cannot jump past the line of scrimmage and draw a false start penalty from an offensive player who reacts.

Offsides is being on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage, and is still regularly called. The past few seasons, Aaron Rodgers has gotten numerous free plays for realizing players were offsides (or too many men on the field) and calling for the snap at the proper time.

I haven’t heard of any changes for punting, except the difference in penalty for running into the kicker or roughing the kicker. There are a number of other penalties it could have been, such as holding or interfering with a fair catch. Do you remember which game it was?

Most of the old penalties are still around, there are just some new ones that fill in the gaps (like the newest “landing on the quarterback” inclusion to roughing the passer).

At the start of a play, before the snap, there are basically three areas. There is the offensive side, the defensive side, and then the “neutral zone” separating the two. That neutral zone ensures that both sides are clearly defined and players on both sides can’t make contact before the snap.

A “neutral zone infraction” occurs if prior to the snap, a defensive player is too far forward, going into the neutral zone, causing an offensive player to respond.

“Offside” occurs when a defensive player is crossing the line of scrimmage at the time of the snap, without touching an offensive player (generally running between or around offensive linemen).

“Encroachment” (which you didn’t mention) is when a defensive player touches an offensive player before the snap.

Unique among these plays is that in an “offside” penalty the play is not called dead, and is considered a “free play”, because if the offense screws something up (like throwing an interception or fumbling, getting a tackle for loss, getting the quarterback sacked) the offense can get a “do over” by retroactively accepting the penalty (they don’t lose a down, plus they gain five yards). So on a free play they’ll frequently play it loose, try to throw a long pass, and so on, and if that play succeeds they can decline the penalty. The only thing they have to be careful of is to not get a penalty of their own which might offset it.

It’s theoretically possible for the offense to get on offside penalty but it’s so rare I don’t remember ever seeing it in an NFL game. You’d have to be a major bonehead to get that penalty.

The “punt” was likely a “free kick” following a safety. The re-start after a safety involves the team that gave up the safety taking a “free kick” from the 20 yard line. It’s a “free” kick because the opponents cannot attempt to interfere with taking it, so they are forced to stay 10 yards away (in this case, that’s the “neutral zone”). Since an American football can be punted much further than it can be kicked from the ground (tees aren’t allowed for free kicks), that’s usually the method used.

The NFL has changed the rules on kickoffs and free kicks to preclude the kicking team from getting a running start prior to the kick. That’s the safety issue you were thinking of, most likely. Further, in a free kick, as in a kickoff, the ball must travel through the neutral zone (10 yards) before the kicking team can touch it (the on-side kick attempt). If they touch it before then, that’s also a penalty.

The answers are yes, and sort of.

Defensive offside violations used to be of two flavors: off-side and encroachment. A defensive player was “off-side” if, at the time the ball was snapped, he was in the “neutral zone” or beyond it (the “neutral zone” is the area from sideline to sideline, running from one end of the ball to the other). A defensive player committed the foul of “encroachment” if, prior to the snap, he crossed the neutral zone and made contact with another player. For encroachment, the play was whistled dead at the moment of contact; for off-side, the play was allowed to proceed, and the offense got the choice of taking the result of the play or the penalty yardage.

Now, they’ve modified this by adding the “neutral zone violation” foul. This occurs when a) a defensive player jumps into the neutral zone prior to the snap, and, in reaction to this move, an offensive player “in close proximity” moves, or b) a defensive player enters the neutral zone prior to the snap and has an unimpeded path to a quarterback or a kicker behind the line. The reason this foul was added was that under the old rules, in case a), if the defensive player returned to his side of the line before the snap, he wasn’t “off-side”, and if he didn’t touch an offensive player, he hadn’t “encroached”, but the offensive player, by moving before the snap, automatically was called for “illegal procedure”. That was more than a little unfair to the offense, which had to sit still and let a defender potentially come across the line and clock them hard to avoid being called for a penalty first. In case b), the defender who had jumped early might simply try to smash the quarterback, since no one could block him, given that he’d already committed the foul of “off-side” and had nothing really to lose.

As for “backfield in motion”, that’s “illegal motion”, and is still a penalty.

Just to add, the “Neutral Zone Infraction” rule was added in 1994, so it’s not really a new rule.

Encroachment is the rarest one. This year there were about 150 Offsides and Neutral Zone Infractions a piece. There were only 40 Encroachment penalties.

For offensive pre-snap penalties:

Illegal Formation: they must have at least 7 men on the line of scrimmage and the last guy on either side must be an eligible receiver. You’ll see this called if a lineman is set too far back, but more often when a tackle isn’t covered by an eligible receiver after a shift.
These rules go back to when players were dying around the turn of the century because of violent collisions when too many players could get a running start.

Illegal Shift: usually when two or more men are in motion at the snap. You can have one motion man at the snap in the NFL.
If there’s a pre-snap shift of formation, all offensive players must be set for one second before the snap or before the motion man may move. You may see that called “Illegal Procedure”

Illegal Motion: when the motion man is moving toward the line of scrimmage at the snap. You can shift a man forward, such as when a running back runs toward the center then splits out wide. But when the ball is snapped, it has to be sideways or backward.

12 Men in the Huddle: this was added after the Raiders under John Madden would send a bunch of extra receivers, tight ends and backs into the huddle to confuse defenses before having some exit to the sideline.

Illegal Snap: I don’t see this called in the NFL, but at lower levels a snap must be a single, fluid motion. Not a lift then a backward motion to the QB.

I believe the put is used after a safety because there is greater hang time in a punt and the kicking team can get closer to the receiver before he starts to run.

And to muddy the waters just a bit. Offsides on the defense is typically a “free play” for the offense unless the defender has a clear and open path to the QB or kicker. In those instances, the play is immediately blown dead and the referee will announce it as “unabated to the quarterback.”

As I pointed out in my comprehensive discussion of the penalties. :cool:

Wow, “backfield in motion”–there’s a phrase I haven’t heard in ever so long!

That’s a curious case where the rules remained the same, but the terminology changed when the referees were miked up starting, I believe, in the late 1970’s. Before that the refs would signal and it was up to the game announcers to announce the penalty, and they often announced it as “backfield in motion”. But of course, there are legal ways for one’s backfield to be in motion (insert your joke here), and illegal ways, and when referees announced the penalty, they always said “illegal motion”. So of course, that descriptor won out.

“Unsportsmanlike Twerking. Five yard penalty assessed at the end of the gyration.”

Automatic first down.

Mel & Tim, 1969.