Bench Points Summer Workouts: Basic Spot Enforcement (Fouls and Penalties)

In my ongoing effort to combat stupidity in the stands, I have decided to go full Swayze in Road House (or Neeson in Taken, if you prefer a recent reference) on basic spot penalty enforcement. 

Bottom line: yelling stupidly from the stands that the penalty yardage should be tacked on to a 40 yard play when the defense was offsides is not a good look. 

Shall we?

Dead Ball Fouls

Dead Ball Fouls are penalties that are enforced prior to the snap. Technically, no snap ever occurs. The whistle sounds immediately and the penalty is stepped off. There are only a handful of these penalties and some are seldom called. But, not to fear, we have an acronym. 

Full disclosure: anyone who officiated with me understands, and likely expects, that I will be using acronym that we learned to keep track of these fouls. It’s not all that complicated, but it was drummed into us all the same. Anyway, the acronym for dead ball fouls is FIELDS, and, as you’re about to see, they really had to reach to make it work and it’s not a particularly helpful mnemonic device. All of these common dead ball fouls carry a 5 yard penalty without changing the down-semantics: some officials will announce it as “replaying” the down, but the down was never played in the first place, I digress. 

F – False Start (seems obvious); occurs when a member of the offense acts to start the play prior to the ball moving. 

I – Illegal Substitution (not as obvious, lots of penalties have the word ‘illegal’ in them); occurs when a participant, usually on offense, substitutes in a manner that could be exploited for advantage. E.g. 12 men in the huddle, breaking the huddle with 12, leaving the wrong side of the field, or entering and exiting in the same dead ball interval

E – Encroachment; defensive penalty that occurs when the defense crosses the neutral zone AND MAKES CONTACT with a member of the offense. Simple enough. 

L – Lining Up In the Neutral Zone (not even sort of obvious); offensive penalty that occurs when some idiot lines up in front of the football and they snap the ball. Requires a snap, but is still considered dead ball because it is blown dead immediately. 

D – Delay of Game; occurs mostly when the offense runs out of time to snap the ball. Can rarely occur on defense as well, but usually due to moving the football or illegally conserving or consuming time. 

S – Snap; illegal snaps ought to be lumped in with false starts. It’s basically a false start on the Center for either deceiving the defense or stopping his motion. 

FIELDS penalties are minor and simply used to police the dead ball interval so that an unfair advantage isn’t gained prior to the ball being snapped. They will always be enforced from the previous spot, and always kill the play. No circumstances exist where a dead ball foul could be enforced from the end of a play or from the succeeding (resulting) spot. These fouls are always 5 yards or half the distance to the goal, whichever is less. 

Simultaneous with the Snap Fouls

Simultaneous fouls are exactly what they sound like. These actions do not become illegal until the ball is snapped. However, unlike dead ball fouls, these do not kill the play. They can, however, call back a big gain or negate a stop on defense. Below is a list of the simultaneous snap fouls. I don’t have a fancy acronym, sorry. 

Offsides – defensive penalty where a member of the defense lines up in or is drawn into the neutral zone when the ball is snapped. 

Illegal Motion – offensive penalty where the man in motion is moving towards the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped. In big time football, this is usually a timing mistake. 

Illegal Shift – offensive penalty called when the offense fails to set before bringing a man in motion, or two people are in motion simultaneously when the ball is snapped. 

Illegal Formation – see what I mean about a lot of fouls beginning with ‘illegal?’ This occurs when the offense has five (or three) men in the backfield. Usually, the culprit is a Tackle cheating back. No excuse for this penalty, ever. 

Illegal Participation – simply this occurs when either the offense or defense decides to play with twelve, or with a player that it’s not legally allowed to participate in the play (like someone who’s helmet comes off). This is rarely called because teams usually get called for a substitution infraction long before the twelfth man is allowed to participate. 

Illegal Substitution – if none of the dead ball violations occur, a team can still be called for illegal substitution. This is reserved for the offensive or defensive substitute who doesn’t make it off the field before the ball is snapped, but who is clearly not a participant in the play or formation. 

Illegal Procedure – the other fouls will be called primarily, but illegal procedure covers the other random acts that may become illegal when the ball is snapped. 

Snap Fouls are fouls where teams are literally given to the last possible instant to fix things. Sometimes, you just can’t figure it out. Now, the basic spot enforcement for these penalties is the previous spot. This means the offense cannot add defensive penalty yards to gains, and the defense cannot push the offense back from the spot of a loss. These penalties are generally five yard fouls, and the decision is either five yards or result of the play. Announcers refer to snap penalties, especially offsides, as a ‘free play,’ which is accurate since these fouls forced a replay of the down if accepted. 

Live Ball and Basic Spot Enforcement

Live Ball fouls are basically everything not covered by dead ball and snap fouls. They range in terms of yardage and special enforcement, however, they are basically enforced using the highly technical principal of the all but one rule AKA “screw the offense.” With the occasional exception, most penalty enforcements seek to give the offense the worst possible field position even on penalties committed by the defense. This all has to do with basic spot enforcement. Basic spot means where the penalty yardage is stepped off from. 

If the play is a running play, the basic spot is the end of the run, except when a foul occurs by the offense behind the end of the run, then it is spot of the foul. Think of that this way: penalties on the offense are walked off from the last legal yard gained. They can’t keep the portion of the yards gained illegally. 

If the play is a loose ball play (pass), the basic spot is the previous spot. So, accepted penalties are walked off from the previous line of scrimmage. You can’t keep a pass and get free yards on top of that, with roughing the passer being the obvious exception. 

Occasionally, the enforcement basic spot will be the succeeding spot. Post scrimmage kick fouls and fouls on plays where there is a touchback or scoring play have this kind of enforcement. 

Knowing basic spot enforcement will ruin you for live games, which is my goal. Few people understand where the ball goes and the basis of penalty enforcement. Therefore you will hear people yelling at the officials for blowing enforcement. These people are rarely correct. I wish you well, and I’m terribly sorry for teaching you this. 

Vaya con Dios. 


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