What Is a False Start in Football? The Ultimate Rules Guide

Both football teams line up at the line of scrimmage.

Trying to understand all of the penalties in football is a daunting task. There are many ways a team can commit the seemingly same penalty. Most of us have probably heard the terms false start, illegal motion, illegal information, and offside. False starts are pretty common and come with many twists.

So, what is a false start in football?

A false start is when an offensive player moves intentionally or unintentionally (after coming set) prior to the snap, in a manner that would give them a competitive advantage. The penalty is in place to prevent the offense from trying to draw the defense offside and comes with a 5-yard penalty.

As we progress through this article, you’ll be able to identify a false start as well as differentiate it from other similar procedure penalties – be it on the offensive or defensive side of the ball.

What Is a False Start in Football?

A false start penalty is when an offensive player moves intentionally or unintentionally prior to the start of the play in a manner that would give them a competitive advantage.

Any offensive player is able to commit a false start. Yet, certain positions are more likely to commit a false start due to their position on the field and the importance of executing a play or assignment quicker than the defensive team.

Offensive linemen and wide receivers commit false starts the most often. Offensive lineman commit false starts because they don’t have as adequate vision of the ball, as does, say, the running back or wide receivers.

They also need to be able to step and block quickly in order to execute their assignment successfully.

Wide receivers will also commit false start penalties because they aren’t always looking inward for the ball to be snapped. It can be difficult for them to hear the cadence. The cadence is the set of verbal cues used to indicate when the ball will be snapped to begin play.

Running backs, although less common, commit false starts if they flinch or step prior to the ball being snapped. Running backs draw fewer false starts because they’re usually lined up in the backfield and have better vision of the football.

A false start typically occurs due to miscommunication or misunderstanding between one or more players in the huddle. During a huddle, the name of the play and when the ball will be snapped is communicated. The “when” is called the cadence.

A common huddle would start with the quarterback saying, “red right, 24 power, on 1.”

The “on 1” portion of the play call is the cadence, telling all players when the ball will be snapped to start the play.

The offense will typically use at least two different types of cadences in order to keep the defense from knowing when the ball will be snapped every time.

For example, some teams like to snap the ball the second time the word “go” is called. It has the chance to lure the defensive offside. There is also the potential for an offensive player to move before the play because they thought the snap was going to occur “on 1.”

What Is Considered a False Start?

One standard exists for false starts. It is any movement made prior to the start of the play, or snap of the ball, by the offense. A small, almost unnoticeable flinch triggers the penalty just as much as a player breaking out into a full sprint down the field prior to the snap.

Why Is It Called a False Start?

The term false start is used because one or more offensive players accidentally move before the ball is snapped. The point of such a penalty is to uphold the integrity of the game and to ensure the offense doesn’t gain an unfair advantage.

What Is the Penalty for a False Start?

The offensive and defensive line battle at the line of scrimmage.

The penalty for a false start is five yards. Wherever the ball was placed, the offensive team will move the ball backward five yards and run their next play from the new position. For example, if it’s first and 10 from their 25-yard line and the offense commits a false start, they will be moved back 5 yards to their own 20-yard line, and it will be first and 15.

Notice there is no loss of down on this penalty. The offensive team gets to repeat the down but now they need to move the ball 5 extra yards instead of 10 to earn a new set of downs. The penalty for a false start is always five yards unless the offensive team is backed up to within five yards of their own goal line.

Take this situation:

The ball starts on the offense’s 25-yard line. It is 1st and 10; meaning the offense is making their first attempt to gain 10 yards that would result in a fresh set of downs.

Before the start of the play, one of the wide receivers runs their route downfield before the ball is snapped. The officials would blow their whistles, identify the penalty and player who committed the penalty, and assess the consequence.

The ball would be moved back five yards, to the offense’s 20-yard line. The next play would be 1st and 15 to account for the five-yard penalty. Notice the down didn’t change. This penalty does not result in a loss of downs– only a loss of yardage.

A nuance on this penalty takes effect when the ball starts inside of the offense’s own 5-yard line. Picture the ball starting on the 4-yard line and the offense commits a false start.

Since a five-yard penalty cannot be enforced with the ball spotted at the 4-yard line, the penalty would be enforced “half the distance to the goal.”

So, instead of a five-yard penalty, the ball would be moved from the 4-yard line to the 2-yard line and it would be 1st and 12.

It’s helpful to know, although not essential, that there are no half-yard measurements in the down and distance measurements. For example, yards are expressed in whole numbers and never half numbers like 1st and 12.5 yards.

False Start Rule

The false start rule exists to maintain an equal standard of how to start plays for both teams.

If this wasn’t a rule, teams would constantly start players before the snap to advance them downfield. This would lead to an unfair advantage for the defense. The defense is held to a similar set of rules to prevent the defensive team from gaining an advantage.

There is no way to play football the way it’s intended without ensuring both teams start each play at the same time. Otherwise, the safety of the players would be a concern.

Players would be allowed to move across the line of scrimmage at will which could put certain positions at increased risk of injury. The game would be near impossible for spectators to follow and there would no longer be the need for a down and distance system if plays were allowed to be run freely without any parameters.

How Often Are False Starts Called?

ESPN calculated how often each penalty is called. Interestingly, the false start penalty is the second-most common penalty. It makes up around 13-14% of all penalties called – only second to holding.

The frequency of false starts makes sense because a huge competitive advantage can be gained if one team is able to start faster at the line of scrimmage.

Furthermore, false starts can occur more often due to a variety of factors such as various cadences, motions and shifts, crowd noise, and defensive pressure.

False Start Signal

To signal a false start, the official will stand with their feet shoulder-width apart, lift their arms to shoulder level, clench their fists, and turn their fists over one another continuously. This motion creates a rolling or wheel action.

They will then place their hands on their hips, extend their arm and hand toward the guilty team, and indicate the yardage assessed from the penalty and the next down.

False Start Examples

The quarterback prepares to receive the snap in the snow.

These are some of the most common instances when you’ll see a false start:

An offensive lineman lines up in a three-point stance. In the huddle, the quarterback indicated the play would start “on 2”, or the second “go.” The quarterback says, “down, set, go (first time)” and an offensive lineman steps forward to block a defensive player before the ball is snapped.

This example is subtler:

A pass play is called in the huddle. The cadence is “on 1.” The offensive lineman gets into a three-point stance. The defensive player in front of the lineman is leading the league in quarterback sacks. In other words, they are a dominant player in passing situations.

The offensive lineman, anxious to get into a good position to protect the quarterback, flinches ever so slightly to anticipate getting up to block first.

Another not as common example:

A running back is lined up in the backfield seven yards behind the quarterback under center. Before the ball is snapped, they start to lean forward. This forward lean and body roll is an example of a false start because of the movement prior to the play.

In all of these situations, the offensive player is intentionally or unintentionally moving before the ball is snapped in order to execute a play – commonly out of anticipation of a matchup or situation on the field.

False Start vs Offside

A false start and offensive offside are very different penalties. One is dynamic and the other is static, meaning there is no movement when one of the penalties occurs.

We can agree, based upon our discussion of false starts, that it’s a dynamic penalty in which a player moves before the ball is snapped.

False start and offside are both procedure penalties.

They are different because a false start can occur on or behind the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped. Offensive offside has to occur past the line of scrimmage on the defensive side of the ball at the time the play begins.

False Start vs Neutral Zone Infraction

A neutral zone infraction is when an offensive or defensive players’ movement draws the other team across the width of the football at the start of a play. The small width of the football is considered the neutral zone. This is an area that belongs to neither the offense nor defense.

If a defensive player moves before the play and it causes an offensive player to move into the neutral zone, that’s a neutral zone infraction. This infraction exists to ensure neither team has an advantage in each play.

False Start vs Encroachment

Encroachment is called when a defensive player moves across the line of scrimmage and makes contact with an offensive player. Similar to a false start, the encroachment penalty happens before the snap.

Defensive players fall guilty to this penalty when they don’t watch for the ball being snapped. Defensive lineman closest to the ball commit this penalty a lot of the time due to the importance of getting off the ball faster than the offense in order to make a tackle for loss.

False Start vs Illegal Formation

An illegal formation penalty is very different from a false start penalty because it’s concerned with the number of players on the line of scrimmage versus any procedural movement.

A legal formation has seven players lined up on the line of scrimmage. Oftentimes, this is the five linemen and two other skill players like a wide receiver or tight end.

It’s an illegal formation if only four linemen and two receivers are on the line of scrimmage; the same goes for a formation with five linemen and one tight end on the line of scrimmage.

It is important for receivers and tight ends to be sure they are lined up on the line of scrimmage prior to the start of the play for it to be a legal formation.

False Start vs Defensive Offside

Defensive offside occurs when a defensive player is lined up on the offensive side of the football when the ball is snapped. Any defensive player can commit this penalty.

Most of the time this happens when a player is attempting to blitz at the same time the ball is snapped. Sometimes, the player may overshoot and be on the offensive side of the football when the ball is snapped. This would result in a defensive offside.

Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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