Why Wide Receivers Point At The Sideline During a Football Game

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: January 11, 2024

Wide receivers can often be seen pointing at the sideline after the huddle and before they get set in their position. Why are they pointing toward the sideline?

Wide receivers point to the sideline where the referee lets them know they are on the line of scrimmage or off the line of scrimmage. This helps the referee make sure there are enough players (7) on the line of scrimmage so the offense can avoid penalty.

In this article, we will show you why wide receivers point at the sideline.

Why Wide Receivers Point To The Sideline

Wide Receivers Point To The Referee

Although it may look like the wide receiver is pointing at the opposing (or the same) sideline, they are pointing at the referee. The communication between the referee, which we typically can’t hear on a live broadcast, is the receiver telling the referee he is “on” or “off.”

The referee that the player is pointing at is known as the side judge, or often they will have an “S” on their uniform. The side judge is responsible for ensuring enough players are on the line of scrimmage and looking for any pre-snap penalties.

This referee position is crucial because he essentially controls the line of scrimmage and makes sure there are no ineligible formations.

When he tells the referee that he’s “on,” he’s simply stating that he will be lining up on the line of scrimmage. This means one of his hands or feet will be lined up on the line of scrimmage, and he’s unable to make it in motion; he must be stationary.

On the flip side, if you see a wide receiver pointing at the referee and swinging your arm backward, it’s often signifying to the referee that he’s “off.” Being off the line of scrimmage usually means that you’re 1 yard off the line of scrimmage, and you can go in motion.

Eligible Receivers & Formations

To understand why the wide receiver is pointing toward the referee, you must first understand eligible formations. Here is a breakdown of eligible formations and how to line them up appropriately.

In short, there are a few rules that every offense must abide by, no matter if you’re running a power offense or a spread offense.

Here are the rules in American football for eligible receivers:

  • There must be 7 players on the line of scrimmage at all times.
  • Players who are on the line of scrimmage, inside of another player that is on the line of scrimmage, are considered “covered up”, and may not go out for a pass.
  • If there aren’t 7 players on the line of scrimmage, the referee will throw a flag and it will be called an “ineligible formation”
  • Players who are considered “on” the line of scrimmage, may not move. Once they set their feet, they no longer can go in motion. The only time they’re able to move is the quarterback shifts the entire formation

This is important to know, especially as a wide receiver, because if a big play pops off to the end zone and you weren’t lined up correctly, you’ll get a flag for an ineligible receiver down field, and the play will be erased.

Regardless if it’s a running play or a deep throw in the passing game, it’s important that every wide receiver is correctly positioned.

This is a large part of why coaches will have the wide receivers, once they break the huddle, jog over to their landmark and point to the referee, who is located on the sideline.

If the receiver covers up another receiver, then it will be an illegal forward pass on the offense, resulting in a penalty.

American Football can be overwhelming. That’s why we created a FREE 9-minute video to help you learn everything you need to learn about football as a beginner.

The referee will then shake his head yes (and possibly point to a spot) where the receiver on the line of scrimmage can line up. The referee then knows that (including the lineman) has six people on the line of scrimmage.

He will then signal to the referee across the field to make sure that he also has a player on the line of scrimmage. This puts seven players on the line of scrimmage.

However, if the widest receiver tells the referee he is “off” the line of scrimmage, he will wave his hand backward. The referee then has to find the next closest receiver on the scrimmage line, and then signal to the referee across the field.

For high-flying uptempo offenses, this can be a lot of a referee to try to decipher who is on and who is off the line of scrimmage.

Helping The Referee

Why do teams do this? It helps the referee in clarifying how many eligible receivers there are. Both referees signal to each other, letting them know they have enough men on the line of scrimmage.

They use hand signals to communicate with each other to ease the process of seeing seven men lining on the line of scrimmage.

Typically, five linemen are always on the line of scrimmage, so the referees look for one wide receiver on each side. In a perfect world, this makes it easy on a referee.

However, teams have been known to use a swinging gate or polecat formation where linemen have now lined up as wide receivers, and it’s a whole mess of confusion. Not only do these formations confuse defenses, but also referees.

This makes it harder for the referee to determine who is on the line of scrimmage and who is off the line of scrimmage.

If a defensive player is playing man coverage, they need to know who is eligible and who is not.

Keep Learning

Whether it be a play action pass or a run play, wide receivers are the key to making sure that 7 players are on the line. If the tight end is on the line, it’s important that the next available receiver is off.

Want to improve your football IQ? We recommend taking our Beginners Guide To Football course where you can learn even more!

Learn more about wide receivers by reading the articles below.

Learn To Stem & Stack At Wide Receiver

What Is a Slot Receiver Or A Slot Corner?

How to Beat Press Coverage In Football

What Does A Tight End Do In Football?

Why Do Wide Receivers Wear Gloves?

Pointing to the referee can be seen at all levels of football. If you’re a team coach who likes to flex out the wide receivers, you must teach them this tactic to avoid penalties.

As a coach, there’s nothing worse than ripping off a big play than having it come back because a wide receiver couldn’t line up one more yard up on the line of scrimmage.

Teach this tactic by having the player break the huddle and point the referee as he’s running toward the line of scrimmage. We encourage you not to teach the player to ask if he’s good once he’s set.

We want to grab the referee’s attention right before you hit the line of scrimmage. Waiting until your set, the referee already has his eyes on the line of scrimmage looking for a pre-snap penalty. Be the first thing he checks, not the last thing to avoid penalty.

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If you’re looking for more in-depth breakdowns & coaching resources, visit our coaching resource page here.

How do you avoid pre-snap penalties? Let us know.

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.