Football Hand Signals & Picture Boards

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: March 6, 2024

The evolution of the spread offense is upon us, and offenses in football are moving faster than ever. Communicating with picture boards and hand signals is a common theme among spread offenses. Why do they use picture boards and hand signals?

Teams use picture boards and hand signals in football to communicate faster to multiple players, and it gives the coaches more flexibility to make adjustments to the play call in real time. Instead of huddling, teams can look to the sideline, see a picture or hand signal, and know exactly what play is called.

Coaches are innovating every way they communicate to the quarterback and the offense.

As we cover in our Ultimate Football Guide, coaches have shorted (and lengthened) their terminology in communicating plays over the years.

This blog will look at how coaches use hand signals and picture boards to relay plays from the sideline.

Coaches are communicating with their offense in many ways, including:

  • Hand Signals
  • Picture Boards

The main goal of the coordinator is to get the call to the offense/quarterback as quickly as possible.

Why Offenses Use Hand Signals & Picture Boards

A few reasons:

  • Keeps the defense/coaches off their rhythm
  • Tires players out
  • Allows the offense to create confusion

When teams practice fast, move fast, and play fast – it creates a rhythm that is hard to stop defensively. Everything from formations and tempo – puts defenses at a disadvantage.

One major benefit of playing fast is it tires players out. Running 3-4 plays in under a minute can quickly drain the front seven. If the offensive lineman and skill positions are in good shape, this is where the big plays tend to pop off.

The last perk of moving fast is creating confusion. If defensive teams are used to huddling – this will force them to set up right away, causing miscommunication within the defensive scheme.

Why Don’t All Teams Use Picture Boards & Hand Signals

Moving fast is not all great. Here are a few reasons why:

  • 3 and outs tire your own defense
  • Time of Possession
  • Offenses Can Get Out Of Rhythm

The first and main reason why going fast is not for everyone is simply fatigue. This was one significant criticism of Chip Kelly’s offensive schemes. He would call three plays in under a minute and have to punt. The defense wouldn’t have time to make adjustments before they were back on the field.

Here is a great little breakdown of Chip Kelly’s Eagles from Dusty and Cam in the Morning.

Highlights from the Dusty & Cam Show:

  • The Eagles, by week 12, have already played a full season (play-wise)
  • Player’s bodies started to break down mid-way through the season

Maintaining ball and clock control is essential in winning football games. Moving fast neglects the time of possession battle, as three-and-outs can stall an offense.

Last, the rhythm can stall. Good offenses & quarterbacks get in a rhythm to maximize potential. When you’re moving fast (especially in cold weather), the offense going three and out can stall a drive and keep your offense on the sideline.

Hand Signals In Football

The evolution of hand signals in football started with a single coach using sign language to communicate directly with his quarterback. Here is a video of former ASU coach Todd Graham signaling plays.

These hand signals then evolved into multiple coaches giving hand signals. We’ve seen 3, 4, and sometimes 5 coaches (sometimes players) giving hand signals in football. Some coaches are used as dummies, others to signal to certain positions.

Hand signals in football are nothing new to the game of football. However, their popularity has increased with the innovations to the spread of offense.

Gallaudet University in Washington DC, a school that fields a football team with all deaf players, uses hand signals in football for offense, defense, and special teams.

Below is a great video by CBS on how Gallaudet students play fast and effectively using only sign language.

Picture Boards In Football

Picture boards have gained popularity ever since Chip Kelly and Oregon began using them in the 2008 season. The picture boards have multiple meanings.

Often crafted in a 4 picture square, each item can mean something different. We’ve seen the colors, words, celebrities, animals, and anything you can ever imagine in the picture. They often relate to a word or meaning in offensive play calls. Oftentimes, they mean nothing! It’s just a way to psych the opposing defensive staff to think they can decipher it.

An example of how a coach could use the picture board above:

  • Top Left Box Is the formation
  • Top Right is the Protection
  • Bottom Left is the Running Back’s responsibility (Run/ Pass)
  • The Bottom Right is the Passing (Run/Pass)

Here is an example of how a coach could use the picture board above.

So before the game, a coach could use any bald characters to describe an empty formation (No hair = no backs). The O could stand for 50 protection. The elephant could be a heavy package (elephants = heavy personnel). The books could be used for a read concept across the formation for all receivers.

Above is just an example of how coaches can relate to these picture boards. There are thousands of combinations that can allow coaches to be creative.

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Picture Boards On Defense

Picture board and hand signals in football are starting to mature, not just into spread offenses.

Power teams that want to move fast will start to implement hand signals and picture boards into their offense.

Picture boards aren’t just for defense. We often see picture boards on defense that indicate personnel (11, 21, 13, etc.).


As spread offenses have become more abundant, defenses almost always use hand signals. This is to keep up with the speed that the offenses are pushing.

Like Learning Football? Our Ultimate Football Guide has everything you need to know about football!

What do you think about the new hand signal or picture board phase? Do you think coaches are doing too much to communicate effectively? Do you think there needs to be more hand signals and picture boards? Let’s hear your thoughts!

About the author 

Chris Haddad

Chris Haddad is the founder of vIQtory Sports & high school coach for over 12+ years. He has been featured as an authority on Hudl, Bleacher Report and countless other football-centric platforms. Chris continues to study and provide valuable content for those looking to learn more about the game of football.