What Is a Flag In Football? Penalty Flags Explained

By vIQtory

Penalty flags in football can be seen throughout the entire game. The referee is in charge of throwing the yellow flags on the ground. What do these yellow flags mean?

Yellow penalty flags in football are thrown when one or both teams commit a penalty, resulting in a loss of yardage.

This article will look at what a flag is in football and how teams can avoid penalties.

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What Causes a Flag In Football?

The referee throws penalty flags in football on the ground when they identify a penalty.

Three types of penalty flags are thrown:

  1. Pre-snap Penalties
  2. Post-snap Penalties
  3. After The Play Penalties

Each type of penalty will yield different results. The smaller penalties will result in a loss of 5 yards, while stricter penalties could result in 15-yard penalties and downs.

Penalty flags are thrown by the referees, who can be seen wearing black and white striped shirts.

Whenever a referee encounters a penalty, it’s their responsibility to throw the flag in the air so everyone can see it, then identify why it was thrown at the home.

The yellow flag is made up of yellow cloth and rock or hard material inside to act as a weight. Referees have multiple flags that are tucked into their hip.

Different penalties require stoppage in play, while other penalties require the play to continue, and once the play is over, the referees will assess the penalty.

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Pre-Snap Penalty

A pre-snap penalty is when a penalty occurs before the play happens. These penalties often relate to how the offense or defense lines up, movement before the snap, or having too many players on the field.

Pre-snap penalties on offense include:

  • False Start
  • Illegal Formation
  • Illegal Shift
  • Delay Of Game
  • Too Many Players On The Field

These penalties all resort to small 5 yard penalties, with a replay of the down. These penalties are minor, and the consequences are minor. However, they do impact if the team has a 3rd down.

Offensive players’ cadence, motions, and alignments must be practiced daily to avoid pre-snap penalties on offense.

Pre-snap penalties on defense include:

  • Encroachment
  • Offsides
  • Neutral Zone Infraction
  • Too Many Players On The Field

We’ve broken down the pre-snap penalties in a video here:

Post-Snap Penalty

Post-snap penalties occur after the football has been snapped to the quarterback. These penalties are more common in football than pre-snap penalties.

These penalties are often due to a lack of technique, poor hand placement, or poor leverage. The result is a penalty that will usually result in a loss of 10 yards.

On offense, some of the post-snap penalties include:

  • Block In The Back
  • Clipping
  • Holding
  • Pass Interference
  • Illegal Hands To The Face

These penalties all occur after the ball is snapped on offense. As mentioned, these penalties are often a result of bad technique. These penalties will result in a loss of 10 yards.

Post-snap penalties on defense are also a result of poor form. Hand placement is key for defensive players to avoid post-snap penalties. These are some of the penalties:

  • Facemask
  • Pass Interference
  • Holding
  • Roughing The Passer
  • Illegal Contact

These penalties range in a loss of 5-15 yards. Post-snap penalties should be avoided at all costs, as it typically results in an automatic first down, giving the offense a fresh set of downs.

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After The Play Penalty

After the play is officially ruled down, there is a small window of opportunity to throw a penalty flag.

These penalty flags are often thrown because of an unnecessary penalty. This call is known as “unnecessary roughness.”

Unnecessary roughness is when a play hits another player after the play is over. Once the whistle blows, all players must stop what they’re doing and go back to their sides of the ball.

If a player is still making contact after the whistle, the referee will throw the flag, resulting in a 15-yard penalty. Unnecessary roughness calls are often the result of undisciplined players or players that are too aggressive.

How To Avoid Football Penalty Flags

To avoid pre-snap penalties, teams must practice stance, start, and cadence.

On offense, having the quarterback consistently practice his cadence with the offense will help prevent false starts.

Defensively, the defensive line should always be watching and reacting off the football. If they watch the receiver or, even worse, listen to the offense’s cadence, there’s a good chance a penalty will soon follow.

To avoid penalties post-snap, users should focus on their footwork, hand placement, and leverage. Post-snap penalties often occur because one of these three items is lacking. This ultimately results in a 10-yard penalty that can set back the offense.

Finally, after the snap, penalties can be solved through discipline. Football penalties can be avoided after the snap by making sure your players are disciplined.

Undisciplined players will often get “after the play” penalties because they’re too aggressive or too angry actually to control their emotions. This will result in flags after the play.

Keep Learning

Below are articles to help you learn more about the rules of football.

Rules Of American Football – Beginner’s Guide

Difference Between Legal & Illegal Blocks In Football

Illegal Contact With Wide Receivers Explained

Can A Football Game End On A Penalty?

Football Overtime Rules: NFL Vs. College/High School

Understanding the 5 Yard Contact Rule In The NFL

Learn Offsides, Neutral Zone Infraction, and Encroachment

Complete Guide To Referee Signals In American Football

What Is A Safety In Football? Explained

Penalty flags are important because they help regulate the game of football. Referees will throw penalty flags, so neither team gets an advantage. Penalty flags are at the referee’s discretion.

Oftentimes, referees can miss a call, resulting in a team benefitting from a miss call. We must understand that referees are humans, and they make mistakes.

The team that can avoid the most penalties is often the team that will win. Coaches don’t prepare plays for penalties; they prepare for situations. Negative situations are something that every coach tries to avoid.

Consistent, disciplined teams will win and win for a long time. The perfect example is the New England Patriots. Year after year, they consistently win football games because of their discipline and attention to detail.

No referee is perfect, although they strive to be. Referees are the most important people on a football field, as they help regulate and officiate the football game. Without referees, there is no football.

Let’s keep learning! Our learning center is packed with information regarding techniques, schemes, and more!

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About the author

Chris Haddad is the founder of vIQtory Sports. Chris has coached football for 12+ years and continues to coach at the high school level. He continues to study and provide valuable content for those looking to learn more about this wonderful game of football.