NFL penalties are one of the few things every player needs to avoid on the football field. After all, there’s nothing a head coach hates more and nothing that’ll get you benched quicker than a careless penalty – which, let’s be honest, all NFL penalties are careless penalties. If you want to win, you’ll avoid them.
The truth is most players don’t think about just how badly NFL penalties can hurt a team. In the heat of the moment, it might seem like nothing more than 5 or 10 – maybe 15 – yards, but those yards quickly add up, especially when they come at a crucial period in the game. That’s when they turn very sour.
Unfortunately for players, the rules don’t bend in their favor often as there are a flurry of NFL penalties that can be called on any given play – both on the offense and defense. In fact, coaches can even be flagged for a penalty, if deemed necessary. There are a lot of different ways you can hurt your team.
The Most Common NFL Penalties Are…
Anyone who watches football regularly understands there are certain NFL penalties that appear more frequently than others. In fact, some of them appear so frequently that they make you cringe every single time you hear it called – unless it’s called against a team you want to lose, then it’s always a positive.
According to NFLPenalties.com, there were only two NFL penalties called more than 225 times this season – and they both top off near 600 calls on the year. Two other NFL penalties were called at least 200 times, three others were called at least 100 times, and eight others were called at least 50 times.
With penalties happening every few minutes of a game, many people might be wondering which NFL penalties happen the most throughout a full regular season. Don’t worry, we’re going to break down the 15 most common NFL penalties – including how many times they were called in the 2022-23 season.
15. Illegal Use of Hands
Illegal use of hands is similar to a face mask penalty, except it includes any illegal contact made by the hands with the head, neck, or face while trying to block for a teammate. If committed by the offense, it results in a loss of 10 yards. If committed by the defense, it results in a loss of 5 yards and a first down.
According to NFLPenalties.com, illegal use of hands was called 55 times for a loss of 327 yards during the 2022-23 regular season. The Saints and Commanders had the most illegal use of hands calls this year at 5 each, while the Lions, Colts, Chiefs, Rams, Giants, Seahawks, and Titans each had 3 calls.
14. Offensive Pass Interference
Offensive pass interference is described as any act by an offensive player more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage that significantly hinders an eligible defender’s opportunity to catch or defend the ball. The punishable team loses 10 yards and must replay the down – negating any yardage on the play.
According to NFLPenalties.com, offensive pass interference was called 61 times for a loss of 600 yards during the 2022-23 regular season. The Giants had the most offensive PI calls against them at 6 on the year, while the Seahawks finished with 5 and the Vikings finished with 4 – six other teams had 3 each.
13. Illegal Contact
Illegal contact can happen within the five-yard ‘neutral’ zone or beyond it. Within the zone, defenders can’t make contact in the back of a receiver or maintain contact after the receiver moves past them. Beyond the zone, defenders can’t initiate contact with a receiver. The result is a loss of 5 yards and first down.
According to NFLPenalties.com, illegal contact was called 66 times for a loss of 331 yards during the 2022-23 regular season. The Lions were penalized the most with 6 illegal contact calls, while the Giants followed closely behind with 5 calls. The Bears, Broncos, Raiders, Seahawks, and Titans each had 4.
12. Illegal Block Above the Waist
Illegal block above the waist occurs when a blocker illegally uses his hands or arms to push or block an opponent above the waist – usually the back. It’s not a foul when players are recovering a loose ball, the opponent turns away at the last second, or the hands are on the opponent’s side. It’s a loss of 10 yards.
According to NFLPenalties.com, illegal block above the waist was called 67 times for a loss of 633 yards during the 2022-23 regular season. The Raiders were the most-penalized team in this regard with 7 such penalties, while the Texans came in second with 5 such calls. 5 other NFL teams shared 4 calls each.
A facemask penalty refers to any twisting, turning, pushing, or pulling of the facemask while blocking or tackling. It can be one of the worst penalties for a team, especially considering it results in a 15-yard loss and the player can be disqualified if deemed flagrant. If called on the defense, it’s an automatic first down.
According to NFLPenalties.com, the facemask penalty was called 76 times for a loss of 1,021 yards during the 2022-23 regular season. The LA Chargers were the most-penalized team in that regard with 5 calls, while the Falcons, Browns, Texans, Dolphins, Vikings, Patriots, and Titans had 4 calls each.
10. Neutral Zone Infraction
The neutral zone is the area the width of the field and length of the football at the line of scrimmage where neither team can cross prior to the ball being snapped, except the center when snapping the ball. When a defensive player disobeys this, it’s called a neutral zone infraction and results in a loss of five yards.
According to NFLPenalties.com, neutral zone infraction was called 83 times for a loss of 410 yards during the 2022-23 regular season. The Cardinals were by far the most-penalized team in this regard with 9 such penalties, while the Texans came in second with 6 such calls. The Cowboys and Seahawks each had 5.
9. Ineligible Downfield Pass
Also known as ineligible player downfield or ineligible receiver, an ineligible downfield pass occurs when the quarterback throws the ball while an ineligible receiver (usually linemen) is too far down the field. The outcome is a loss of 5 yards and will only be called on the offense – who must then replay the down.
According to NFLPenalties.com, an ineligible downfield pass penalty was called 85 times for a loss of 427 yards during the 2022-23 regular season. The Eagles and Steelers were the most-penalized teams in that regard with 7 calls each, while the Cardinals, Panthers, Colts, Chiefs, and Dolphins had 5 calls each.
8. Roughing the Passer
Roughing the passer is a penalty aimed at protecting the quarterback – who is often put in a vulnerable position when stepping back to pass. It’s more of a judgment call by the referee, but defensive players are essentially limited in how they can contact a QB. The play results in a loss of 15 yards and a first down.
According to NFLPenalties.com, roughing the passer was called 90 times for a loss of 1,189 yards during the 2022-23 regular season. The Giants were the most-penalized team in this regard with 7 calls on the year, while the Panthers, Broncos, and Jets each had 5 calls – either other teams had four calls each.
7. Defensive Offside
Defensive offside occurs when a defensive player crosses the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped and is called simultaneously with the snap of the ball. It essentially gives the offense a ‘free play’ since the play continues. If the offense chooses to accept the penalty, it results in 5 yards for the offense.
According to NFLPenalties.com, defensive offside was called 135 times for a loss of 619 yards during the 2022-23 regular season. The Titans were the most-penalized team in this regard with a whopping 11 calls on the year, while the Bills finished with 9 calls. The Cowboys, Broncos, and Seahawks each had 8 calls.
6. Unnecessary Roughness
Unnecessary roughness is defined as any egregious act against a defenseless player – such as forcibly hitting a player’s head, tackling with the crown of the helmet, or hitting a player who’s already out of bounds. The result of the play is a loss of 15 yards, an automatic first down, and a potential ejection.
According to NFLPenalties.com, unnecessary roughness was called 154 times for a loss of 1,968 yards during the 2022-23 regular season. The Rams (11) and Cowboys (10) were the only two teams with double-digit penalties in this regard. The Jets finished the season with 9 calls and the Packers had 8.
5. Delay of Game
The delay of game penalty is one that happens both on purpose and on accident. It occurs when the offense fails to snap the ball before the play clock strikes zero – it resets to 40 seconds after each play. Some quarterbacks lose track of time, while other teams just want more space for their punter.
According to NFLPenalties.com, the delay of game penalty was called 158 times for a loss of 786 yards – it results in a loss of 5 yards – during the 2022-23 regular season. The Vikings led the league with 10 delay of game penalties, while the Panthers, Packers, Raiders, Patriots, Giants, and Seahawks had 8.
4. Defensive Holding
Defensive holding occurs when a defensive player holds an offensive player, preventing him from making a normal football play – it can also happen if a defensive player tackles an opponent who’s not the runner. The play results in 5 yards for the offense and an automatic first down – which can hurt the defense.
According to NFLPenalties.com, the defensive holding penalty was called 211 times for a loss of 1,011 yards during the 2022-23 regular season. The Saints led the league with a whopping 14 defensive holding penalties on the year – the Bills and Giants each had 11, while the Texans and Colts each had 10.
3. Defensive Pass Interference
Defensive pass interference has become one of the most annoying NFL penalties today – they either miss the call or call it when there’s no contact. It occurs when the defensive player makes illegal contact with the receiver, preventing him from catching the ball. It’s a spot-of-the-ball foul, which is devastating.
According to NFLPenalties.com, the defensive pass interference penalty was called 225 times for a loss of 3,871 yards during the 2022-23 regular season – which is down from a year ago, but still a lot. The Chiefs led the league with 14 such calls, while the Ravens, Dolphins, and Commanders each had 11.
2. False Start
The false start penalty is the one that’ll give any coach a heart attack – especially since they seem to come in bunches. It occurs when an offensive player motions as if the play has started before the ball has been snapped. It can be called on any player, but usually the offensive line and results in a 5-yard loss.
According to NFLPenalties.com, the false start penalty was called a whopping 580 times for a loss of 2,853 yards during the 2022-23 regular season. The Seahawks were the most-penalized team in this regard with 26 such calls, while the Cardinals and Saints had 25. That’s a lot of gray hairs for their coach.
1. Offensive Holding
Offensive holding is another penalty that’ll drive a head coach wild. It’s similar to the defensive holding call, but occurs when an offensive player – usually a linemen or tight end – holds a defensive player, preventing them from doing their job. It results in a loss of 10 yards and they must replay the down.
According to NFLPenalties.com, the offensive holding penalty was called a whopping 597 times for a loss of 5,735 yards during the 2022-23 regular season. The Browns were the most-penalized team in this regard with 28 such calls on the year – the Lions had 25, while the Cardinals, Cowboys, and Titans had 24.
What About Some of the Rarest NFL Penalties?
While there are plenty of NFL penalties that are heavily represented on the regular, there are also a wide variety of NFL penalties that we don’t hear often – if at all. For example, the kick catch interference penalty wasn’t called once during the 2022-23 regular season (according to NFLPenalties.com).
There were four penalties only called once all year long – invalid fair catch signal, illegal substitution, illegal kick, and illegal bat. Some of the other lesser-called penalties include leverage, illegal touch kick, illegal crackback, illegal double-team block, delay of kickoff, roughing the kicker, and illegal motion.
NFL penalties can happen at any moment of the game, which is why players need to stay focused and stick to the fundamentals. One penalty can be the difference between a win and a loss in the NFL – it’s something head coaches preach every single week and it needs to be learned at a very young age.
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