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The Best Moves on the Field: Football Ref Signals

How Hand Signals Came About in Football

Did you know that NFL ref, Brad Allen, makes an estimated $250,000 annually? 

While top NFL players make a ton of money, officiating the games is not a bad gig either. But it does require years of training, experience, and the proven ability to make accurate, split-second decisions to call games at the NFL level. 

You also need to memorize and use a whole lot of hand signals, currently over 35 of them.

Interestingly enough, hand signals weren’t used in the early days of football. Officials started off shouting calls which often made it tough for fans to hear. As stadiums and crowds got bigger (as well as louder), and as broadcasting games over the radio was introduced, the refs realized that calls needed to be more clearly communicated.

The first signals, however, can be traced to college football and not the NFL. 

Before a game between Syracuse University and Cornell in 1929, radio announcers asked the official, Elwood Geiges, to come up with a way to let them know what was happening down on the field so they could relay that information to listeners. So, Geiges devised the first four hand signals—offside, holding, illegal shift and timeout.

Soon, the NFL adopted the same practice. And over time, many more signals were developed and changed to best communicate calls made by the officials. In 1975, the NFL also equipped refs with microphones to further provide clarity to players, coaches and fans.

The Best Moves on the Field

Below you’ll see some of the most common signals made by game officials. To see the full list, click here

NFL Football Ref Official Hand Signals

What Exactly Do These Hand Signals Mean?

It's one thing to know the call and another to understand the penalty being called. Here are a few explanations for the most common penalties that occur during a game:

  • Holding – This penalty applies to all players on the field and is quite common. An offensive player, typically a lineman, can’t grab or tackle (twist/hook or pull to the ground) a defensive player while trying to block him. The same basically goes for the defense unless their target is the ball carrier. 
  • False Start – Often an attempt to draw the defense offsides, this is when an offensive player on the line makes an abrupt move before the snap, or when an offensive player in the backfield moves forward before the snap.
  • Pass Interference – This is when a player makes contact that interferes or prevents the opponent’s opportunity to make a catch. According to the NFL rulebook, pass interference includes holding, pulling, tripping, putting hands in the face, or making contact while cutting in front of an eligible receiver.
  • Delay of Game – After a play ends, the offense has 40 seconds to begin the next play unless they call a time out. If the clock reaches zero before the center snaps the ball to the quarterback, the official will throw a yellow flag and penalize the offense for the delay by pushing them back five yards on the field. 
  • Defensive Offside – Extending the entire width of the field and the length of the football (nose to nose) as it sits at the line of scrimmage, the neutral zone keeps the offense and defense properly separated prior to the snap. Officials call offsides when a defensive player is caught lined up in the neutral zone as the ball is being snapped. 

Now that you know where hand signals came from, how to spot them and what they mean, it's time to watch your favorite team and really know what's going on. Pass the queso and let's go Broncos!

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