Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Do you know your football referee penalty signals?

Block & Tackle is John Teti’s column about pro football.

You have to listen to the flags they don’t throw

During the offseason, the NFL ominously announced that defensive pass penalties would be a “point of emphasis” this year, the league’s term for rules that it plans to enforce with sudden and exasperating frequency. There are new points of emphasis every year. Last year, sideline sportsmanship was one such emphasis. In 2012, the horse-collar rule was emphasized in a promotional deal with the ailing horse-collar industry.


This year, because Peyton Manning lost the Super Bowl, NFL bylaws require that pass defenses must be punished. The point of emphasis felt like a point of no return after the first week of the 2014 preseason saw defensive holding and illegal contact penalties called about six times per game—a more than five-fold increase over the rate of these fouls in 2013 season. The league’s officiating chief, Dean Blandino, promised that this golden shower of flags would taper to a drizzle as team members adjusted, and the whole issue would be zipped up by the time the regular season was underway.

After five weeks of play under the new officiating emphasis, Blandino’s prediction has mostly panned out. All told, the three “point of emphasis” defensive pass penalties—holding, illegal contact, and pass interference—have been called at a rate of 2.26 per game this year, as opposed to 1.75 per game in the 2013 regular season and playoffs. (I’m calculating these figures based on data from the helpful site NFL Penalty Stats Tracker.) On the one hand, that means just one more flag is being thrown for every two games played, which doesn’t sound like much. On the other hand, defensive pass penalties are anticlimactic and unsatisfying plays, and now they’re happening 30 percent more often. I guess that doesn’t sound like a whole lot, either, but I already committed to the whole “on the one hand/on the other hand” thing, so let’s pretend that it does.

Obviously, a 30 percent increase is far too much—an outrage. And one of the worst parts of the uptick in defensive pass penalties is that the referee signals for them are so dull. When a ref declares holding, he simply grabs his wrist, and for the other penalties, he sticks out a hand or two. Look, we all know that rookie crew chief Brad Allen has the potential to be a breakout star with those dynamite gams of his, but if Allen’s going to warm America with his brilliant light, he needs better choreography. Why can’t the league establish a “point of emphasis” for penalties with more entertaining signals? An illegal motion announcement, for instance, requires the ref to put a hand to his chest and wave it back and forth in a horizontal arc. Forget holding; let’s call some more of these, because I’m in favor of emphasizing any rule that makes a referee look like a member of The Ronettes.


There are 36 body signals that an NFL referee must know, and more than 40 if you count small variations. Below are diagrams for some of the more spirited signals, taken straight from the NFL rule book. I’ve blurred out the infractions for each one so that you can quiz yourself: How well do you know your NFL referee signals? Some of them will be familiar, and others are more obscure, but I know that the flattery-susceptible and brilliant Block & Tackle readers will be able to identify most of them. If you can get the last one, though—which I’ve never seen in action—then you are probably Pete Morelli, the NFL’s shrewdest and most hirsute referee. We meet again, Morelli. (Answers are at the bottom of the column.)

No. 27:


No. 16:


No. 30:


No. 14:


No. 25:


No. 35:


No. 31:


No. 18:


Official Official Of The Week: Lee Dyer


Block & Tackle’s official Official Of The Week is Lee Dyer. He’s a back judge on referee Craig Wrolstad’s crew, and he wears number 27, a perfect cube. Dyer does not need fancy signals, because he uses his forceful eyes to prevent future penalties from even happening—like Minority Report, except for back judges.

Late in the first quarter of Sunday’s Bills-Lions game, Detroit receiver Golden Tate caught a touchdown pass and then made a running start to slam-dunk the football over the goalposts, a newly illegal celebration this year. As he approached his dunk, though, Tate stopped short and dropped the ball. Maybe Tate was making a clever joke about the league’s ever more ridiculous celebration regulations, or maybe Lee Dyer used his mind-controlling gaze to stop this pre-crime before it happened. Congratulations to Lee Dyer, Block & Tackle’s official Official Of The Week.


Andrew Luck: student of the game, teacher of the game

Your penalty-signal quiz answers

No. 27: Illegal cut

No. 16: Intentional grounding of pass

No. 30: Trippin’

No. 14: Pass juggled inbounds and caught out of bounds

No. 25: Touching a forward pass or scrimmage kick

No. 35: Reset play clock (25 seconds)

No. 31: Uncatchable forward pass

No. 18: Invalid fair-catch signal

If you got 0-2 correct: You are a Football Fool!

3-5 correct: You’re not a Football Fool, and you even know a few things about NFL football. You watch it once in a while, if it’s on. Maybe? Hell, I don’t know. You tell me.


6-7 correct: I guess you’re a true football fan, or you cheated on the quiz. I’m tired of trying to figure you out.

8 correct: Come on. You definitely cheated. Let’s drop the charade.

Thanks for playing!


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