What Is Delay of Game in Football? The Ultimate Guide


A view of Wisconsin's field during a college football game.

Delay of game is an often-overlooked penalty compared to more common or well-known ones such as holding, false start, offside, and pass interference. So…

What is delay of game?

Delay of game is a penalty that’s called when the offense fails to snap the ball before the play clock runs out. Delay of game is a 5-yard penalty and a repeat of down. The offense usually gets 40 seconds between plays, but 25 seconds is sometimes put on the play clock after timeouts or injuries.

Throughout this article, we’ll explain what leads to delay of games getting called and the penalty’s purpose in the game of football. So make sure to stick around!

Clock Stoppage, Penalty Yardage and Loss of Down

A delay of game penalty briefly stops the clock, but only so the clock can be reset and started again after the penalty is assessed on the offending team, which is a five-yard penalty in most cases, such as in high school, college, and professional leagues.

The only difference in penalty yardage for a delay of game penalty is in the Canadian Football League, where it’s a 10-yard penalty. Despite the penalty yardage, delay of game doesn’t cause a loss of down like other penalties, such as intentional grounding and an illegal forward pass.

What Causes a Delay of Game?

The most common example of what causes a delay of game penalty is when the quarterback doesn’t realize the play clock is running out of time. Most of the time, when the play clock is close to expiring, the team’s coach will call a timeout to prevent a delay of game penalty from being called. But if the play clock runs out before a timeout can be called, a delay of game penalty is issued.

What Is Delay of Game on the Defense in Football?

Even though a delay of game penalty is normally associated with the offensive unit of a football team, delay of game can be called on the defense as well under certain circumstances.

The most common situation when a defensive delay of game penalty is called is when a defensive player lies on the ground too long after a play has been whistled dead, or if they prevent an offensive player from getting up after a play to stall for time.

Defensive delay of game may also be called if a defensive player takes the ball from an offensive player, and doesn’t return it to the referee in time to continue play. In any case, delay of game is called on the defense when they delay the pace and timing of the game.

Delay of Game Hand Signal

The signal for delay of game looks like someone folding their arms across each other. The referee has his left arm over his right arm, with both hands near the bend in the opposing elbow.

After making the motion, the official then points to either the offensive or defensive unit on the field, depending on who was called for the delay of game penalty. The official will then list the number of the offending player.

Controversial Example of a Delay of Game No-Call

Unlike other penalties during a football game that can be overturned after being challenged, delay of games are currently not reviewable by officials on the field or in the booth. This has sometimes caused anger or dismay among some NFL fans and teams.

One example of a possible delay of game penalty that wasn’t called which caused a lot of controversy was in the closing moments of a Week 3 game of the 2021 season between the Baltimore Ravens and Detroit Lions.

The Lions were holding onto a lead by the slimmest of margins, 17-16, looking to knock off the Ravens for their first win of the season. On the other side of things, Baltimore was lining up for what would be a career-long field goal for Justin Tucker, their incredibly accurate and nearly automatic kicker.

Tucker made the field goal from 66 yards out, setting the record for the longest field goal in NFL history to give the Ravens a 19-17 win. But upon closer inspection of instant replay by the announcing crew as well as angry Detroit fans, the play clock appeared to expire before the ball was snapped to kick the field goal.

A sizable number of people believed that there should have been a delay of game penalty called on the Ravens offense.

If a delay of game penalty had been called, this would have backed the Ravens up five yards, making the field goal attempt an astronomically long 71 yards, which Justin Tucker may or may not have been able to make. But alas delay of game penalties are not reviewable or able to be overturned once called or missed.

Can You Decline a Delay of Game Penalty?

A referee points during a football game.

Like every other penalty within the game of football, delay of games can also be declined. Coaches, however, take delay of game penalties on purpose in certain circumstances.

Two examples of this include deliberately taking a delay of game to provide more room for the punter to kick the ball on fourth down situations, and trying to draw the defense offsides in fourth down and short situations. Let’s take a look at these two examples, so you can learn why coaches might deliberately take a delay of game penalty.

In the first example, a coach might allow their team to take a delay of game penalty to allow the punter more room to kick the football away to the other team on fourth down. The goal of the coach and his special teams unit in this situation is to use the extra penalty yardage from the delay of game penalty to pin the opposing team’s offense as deep as possible in their own territory using a punt.

This way, the offense has to move the ball down an extremely long field in order to kick a field goal or score a touchdown, which can be extremely difficult. This situation is also extremely advantageous for a defense when an offense is pinned deep in their own territory.

A punt pinning an offense deep on their side of the field allows for the defensive coordinator to call extremely aggressive plays to tackle the opposing ballcarrier behind the line of scrimmage or sack the quarterback for a potential safety.

The second example of delay of game being used is to draw the defense offside to gain a “free” first down. In the game of football, the offense has four downs or attempts to gain ten yards in order to keep moving or driving toward the end zone.

In certain situations, though, an offense may be down to potentially their final attempt to gain a first down (fourth down) and they decide to go for the first down instead of punting or kicking a field goal.

In this case, a coach will instruct his quarterback to try to draw a defense offside. In other words, the quarterback will repeatedly try to get one of the defensive players to “jump” or move before the ball is snapped by using what’s known as a hard count.

If one or more of the defensive players jumps offsides thanks to the hard count, a five-yard penalty is assessed to the defense. In situations where the offense needs to gain less than five yards on fourth down to get a first down, the hard count is often an effective way to get a free first down.

If the hard count doesn’t work, however, a coach may still opt to willingly take the delay of game penalty to give his punter more room to kick the ball away to the opposing team, as discussed in the first example. Taking a delay of game is often inconsequential for kicking fields goals when you’re deep in the opponent’s side of the field.

How Often Is Delay of Game Called?

According to the Football Database, out of all 2,875 penalties called in 2020, only 120 penalties, or 4.17 percent were delay of game penalties. There could be two reasons for why there were such a low number of delay of game penalties compared to the other penalties.

One reason for the low number of delay of game penalties could be that, even on the worst teams, every quarterback in the NFL is a professional and are well-versed (mostly) on how to keep track of the play clock. It’s arguably one of the first skills a quarterback needs to learn how to manage before he can successfully direct an offensive unit.

The second reason there might have been an extremely low number of delay of game penalties compared to the other types of penalties is that delay of game is usually committed just by the quarterback.

Unlike other penalties such as holding, facemask, or offensive/defensive pass interference, for which players often get flagged, delay of game is usually reserved for quarterbacks.

Football has gone through plenty of changes and evolutions since the first game was played in 1869. But every aspect of the game has served to entertain millions of people in this country for over 150 years. The game as we know it is hard-hitting, strategic, and oftentimes forceful and violent.

But penalties protect the integrity of the game and the overall safety of the players in many ways. Certain penalties such as the chop block, horse collar, roughing the passer, and targeting penalties, aim to prevent more serious injury to players in what is already an often brutal game.

On the other hand, penalties such as holding, false start, offside, encroachment, pass interference, and delay of game, allow the game to be played the way it was meant to be played. These kinds of penalties protect the integrity of the game that has become America’s most popular national pastime.

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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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