3 Fouls We Miscall the Most

In most seasons, false starts are the most frequently occurring fouls and arguably the foul that requires the second least amount of judgment (calling 12 players in the formation doesn’t require much judgment). But every foul requires some degree of discretion before the flag is thrown. For various reasons there are three fouls that seem to be most often called incorrectly.


Judging the legality of blocking is arguably the most difficult aspect of officiating a football game. On any given play there are six to 10 blocks and some of them go unobserved by a crew of five. Consequently, holding and illegal use of hands may be the most problematic of all fouls in football because there are so many forms of hand contact between players during constant personal collisions. Complicating the matter is the rules allow defensive players more freedom (push, pull and grasp to get at the runner) in how they use their hands.

For a holding foul to be called, a player must prevent an opponent from possibly making a play by using an illegal technique. In other words, there must be a demonstrated restriction. If an opponent is taken to the ground, that is an obvious restriction. That could occur either through an outright tackle, a takedown or, less frequently, the pull-over in which the blocker pulls the opponent down over himself to make it look like he has been run over.

An upright restriction can occur if the opponent is grabbed and prevented from moving to participate in the play (grab and restrict). The opponent can also be grabbed and physically manhandled to a different position (jerk and restrict) or be hooked with an outstretched arm to alter his path to the runner (hook and restrict).

None of the preceding restrictions are likely to have an impact on the play unless they occur at or near the point of attack — an area in close proximity to where the play is intended to go. Since that isn’t really a “point,” some prefer to call it the “attack zone.”

By examining the logic trail an official must follow, we can begin to understand why that foul is inconsistently called. First is the judgment on the legality of how the hands are used. Often the hands are hidden from the observing official and the decision must be made on the effect of the apparent grip. If the hands are deemed to be used illegally, the official must decide if the technical indiscretion actually restricted the opponent. Did the jersey pluck slow him down? Did an arm bar change his path sufficiently to prevent a tackle? Sometimes opponents will hold onto one another while they are moving — the so-called “dance.” Who is holding who? In actions such as that, it is hard for an official to make an accurate distinction.

The next step is to assess the impact of restriction on the play. A block may begin legally and then progress to an illegal restriction. In passing situations, that may happen after the quarterback has released the ball. Or it may happen far enough away from the quarterback that an impact on the play is highly unlikely. Some officials will call that; others won’t. Additionally, because the point of attack is not a precisely defined term and is not addressed in the rulebook, there are officials who do not take that into account when ruling on holding. Whether an act does or does not prevent a play may not be taken into consideration.

Takedowns by offensive players who are well away from or behind the play pose a particular problem for officials, especially when they are out in the open for all to see. Some officials believe the takedowns should always be called while others make exceptions especially when a touchdown would be negated. Similarly, there is a school of thought that holding should not be called when a defender is double-teamed. The theory is that if the offense is committing two players to one opponent, any advantage gained by holding is negated because a different defender has gone unblocked.

Other variations include calling unnecessary roughness instead of holding and declaring a dead-ball foul when the act began while the ball was live.

Without taking all those notions into consideration, a simple grab of a jersey — and a relatively quick release — may look like a foul, but it isn’t necessarily so. Consequently, making judgments on holding requires a thorough knowledge of what is legal, plus long study and experience to detect the actual behavior and to determine if an advantage has been gained.

Pass Interference

The inequities in the calling of pass interference appear to emanate from two elements. The first of those is an apparent lack of understanding on the part of the officials that both receiver and defender have a right to the ball and that “incidental contact” is a legitimate option if both players are making a simultaneous and bona fide attempt to reach the ball. Some officials are unconsciously biased in favor of the offensive player. When you think about it, any favoritism should be for the defender; he doesn’t know what’s happening, while the receiver is following a planned route that has been decided in the huddle.

The words “not playing the ball” often enter the discussion by officials on pass interference and although the phrase is not mentioned in the rulebook, it is a legitimate factor — to a point. A player who is not playing the ball is responsible for any contact with an opponent, while a player who is playing the ball — making a bona fide attempt to reach the ball and looking back at it — may be absolved from unintentional contact.

The second source of inconsistency is “catchability.” Under NCAA rules, a pass must be catchable for there to be defensive pass interference. However, an uncatchable pass does not excuse offensive interference (7-3-8c). In NFHS play, it is not interference if the contact by team B is obviously away from the direction of the pass (7-5-11c). However, if such contact interferes with an eligible opponent’s opportunity to move toward, catch or bat the ball, catchability is not a factor. The spirit of pass interference restrictions is to apply them to intended receivers and their defenders and not to other players who go downfield.

Some prep officials will avoid calling an interference foul when the pass is not catchable and they can be very creative in explaining their rationale, such as, “The play was over when the contact occurred.” That discretion is frequently applied when the ball is past both players when the contact occurs or when both players are or nearly are out of bounds and no catch is possible. Other officials will strictly follow the rule and call a foul.

To a much lesser extent, there are different philosophies on face guarding. It’s not an issue in NCAA play because contact must occur for there to be a foul for pass interference. However, under high school rules, blocking the opponent’s vision is a foul. Some officials will call face guarding if the opponent’s hands get between the receiver’s face and the ball while others will only call deliberate attempts to block sight of the ball.

Blocks In The Back

The challenge in calling blocks in the back is that contact from the side is legal. If the player who is blocked saw or could have seen the blocker, there is probably not a foul. A block from the side, even though violent and even though it results in a player being put on the ground in vigorous fashion, is not a foul unless for some other reason it is also a personal foul. Frequently blocks from the side are erroneously flagged.

A key element of judgment is whether the person being blocked had an opportunity to see the blocker before being hit. The placement of the hands or shoulder during the block is also another good indicator. If an official can see both jersey numbers, unobstructed, on the back of the player being blocked when the initial contact occurs, it’s difficult to rule such contact a foul. To be called a foul, a block in the back should clearly meet the definition of contact on or near the numbers of the player being hit.

Another guideline is to note how the player who is blocked falls. If the blocked player falls forward, he almost certainly was blocked in the back. That is the type of fall that is most prone to cause injury and a player would not go down like that unless it was unavoidable. If he falls to side, it is a sign he was most likely blocked from the opposite side, but it is not an absolute indicator because in some cases players who are blocked in the back are able to turn to their side to lessen the impact.

Another aspect of those blocks that is subject to varying philosophies is whether the blocked player is knocked to the ground. Those should be called as a safety foul and they usually are (if observed). Contact that merely puts a player off stride is subject to advantage/disadvantage. Not every bump in the back should be flagged. A slight brush that does not cause the contacted player to tip off-stride is not a foul. Some contact of that sort is incidental, because the player making the contact may himself have been jostled into another individual. However, slight contact that causes a defender to stumble and to perhaps miss an opportunity to make a tackle is deserving of a flag.

Additionally, location is a factor. That type of block may take place far from where a play can be made. If an opponent is tipped off balance far from where the ball is in play, such action may be judged incidental, as having no effect on the play. If the contact occurs away from the point of attack and does not affect the outcome of the play, a verbal reminder.

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