NFL Rules Digest

A quick reference guide to the NFL rulebook.

Disclaimer: The NFL Rules Digest is not a substitute for the official NFL rulebook. If there is a discrepancy in language, the official rulebook takes precedence.

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What are the NFL overtime rules in the regular season?

Here are the regular season NFL overtime rules:

  • One 10-minute period.
  • Coin toss determines possession.
  • Both teams have an opportunity to possess the ball unless the initial possession results in a TD or safety.
  • Each team gets two timeouts.
  • There are no coach’s challenges; all reviews will be initiated by the replay official.
  • The point after try is not attempted if the game ends on a touchdown.
  • If the team that possesses the ball first scores a field goal on its initial possession and the second team loses possession by an interception or fumble, the down will be permitted to run to its conclusion, including awarding points scored by either team during the down.
  • If the score is still tied at the end of the overtime period, the game will end in a tie.

What are the NFL overtime rules in the playoffs?

Unlike in the regular season, playoff games cannot end in a tie, so the overtime rules change slightly in the postseason.

Here are the postseason overtime rules:

  • Each overtime period will be 15 minutes.
  • If the game is still tied at the end of an overtime period — or if the second team’s initial possession has not ended — the teams will play another overtime period.
  • There is no limit for overtime periods and there is no halftime period.
  • There is a kickoff before the third overtime period.
  • The same timing rules that apply at the end of the second and fourth regulation periods also apply at the end of a second and fourth overtime period.
  • If there is still no winner at the end of a fourth overtime period, there is another coin toss, and play continues until there is a winner.
  • If the team that possesses the ball first scores a field goal on its initial possession and the second team loses possession by an interception or fumble, the down will be permitted to run to its conclusion, including awarding points scored by either team during the down.

Process of a Catch

What is a catch?

There are three main requirements for completing a catch. The player must:

  • Have control of the ball
  • Get two feet or another body part down (other than his hands)
  • Make a football move, such as a third step, reaching or extending the ball forward, or having the ability to perform such an act

A player does not have to maintain control the ball through contact with the ground if he makes a football move, and movement of the ball does not automatically result in loss of control.

If a player loses control of the ball, it is an incomplete pass if the ball hits the ground before he regains control, or if he regains control out of bounds.

Challenges and Instant Replay

What is the instant replay process?

When a review is initiated, Alberto Riveron, NFL Senior Vice President of Officiating, or a senior designated member of the officiating department, examines the play inside Art McNally GameDay Central in New York. An on-field instant replay technician brings the Referee a Microsoft Surface tablet so they can communicate with GameDay Central and the in-stadium replay official, and review the play. Riveron or a senior designated member of the officiating department makes the final decision on each review.

View this infographic for a full rundown of the NFL’s instant replay review process.

Coaches' Challenges

Each team has two challenges per game, each of which requires the use of a timeout. If the challenge is ruled in the team’s favor, the team gets its timeout back. A third challenge is allowed if a team wins its first two challenges.

If a team initiates a challenge with no timeouts remaining or when it is not permitted to do so, it is a penalty and loss of 15 yards.

Which plays can a team challenge?

A team may use a challenge to review these situations:

  • Possession
  • Plays involving touching of either the ball or the ground
  • Goal line plays
  • Plays at the sidelines, line of scrimmage and line to gain
  • Number of players on the field at the snap, even when a foul is not called
  • Game administration:
    • Penalty enforcement
    • Proper down
    • Spot of a foul
    • Status of the game clock
    • Disqualification of a player

Which plays are not reviewable?

These situations are not reviewable:

  • All fouls (except for numbers on players on the field)
  • Spot of the ball and runner:
    • Runner ruled down by contact or out of bounds (not involving fumbles or the line to gain)
    • The position of the ball not relating to first down or goal line
    • Whether a runner’s forward progress was stopped before he went out of bounds or lost possession of the ball
    • Whether a runner gave himself up
  • Miscellaneous:
    • Field goal or extra-point attempts that cross above either upright without touching anything
    • Erroneous whistle
    • Spot where an airborne ball crossed the sideline
    • Whether a player was blocked into a loose ball
    • Whether the ball was advanced by a player after a fair catch
    • Whether a player created the impetus that put the ball into an end zone.

Which plays are automatically reviewed?

A replay review is initiated by a replay official or a member of the officiating department in Art McNally GameDay Central — the NFL’s officiating command center in New York — during these scenarios:

  • A score is ruled on the field
  • Turnovers (an interception, fumble or backward pass recovered by opponent, or muffed punt legally recovered by the kicking team)
  • Plays that start after the two-minute warning of each half and all plays during overtime
  • Player disqualifications

Teams are not charged timeouts during an official review. There is no limit to the number of official reviews. An official review must be initiated before the next play begins.

Penalty Enforcement

What penalties result in a loss of 5 yards?

Some examples of 5-yard penalties include:

  • Defensive holding (automatic first down)
  • Defensive illegal use of hands (automatic first down)
  • Delay of game (offensive/defensive)
  • Delay of kickoff
  • Encroachment
  • False start
  • Illegal contact (automatic first down)
  • Illegal formation
  • Illegal forward pass (loss of down)
  • Illegal motion
  • Illegal shift
  • Illegal touch kick/pass
  • Invalid fair catch signal
  • Neutral zone infraction
  • Offside
  • Player out of bounds on kick
  • Running into the kicker
  • Too many men on the field

What penalties result in a loss of 10 yards?

Some examples of 10-yard penalties include:

  • Offensive pass interference
  • Offensive holding
  • Offensive illegal use of hands
  • Illegal block in the back
  • Tripping
  • Assisting runner by pulling him forward
  • Batting or punching a loose ball towards opponents’ goal line or in any direction if in end zone

What penalties result in a loss of 15 yards?

Some examples of 15-yard penalties include:

  • Not being able to start each half on scheduled time
  • Interfering with fair catch
  • Tackling or blocking maker of fair catch
  • Head slap
  • Striking, kneeing and kicking
  • Striking opponent below shoulders with forearm or elbow by turning or pivoting
  • Twisting, turning or pulling of opponent’s facemask
  • Blocking below waist on kicks and change of possession
  • Roughing the kicker/holder
  • Falling on or piling on a player on the ground
  • Unnecessary roughness
  • Unsportsmanlike conduct
  • Illegal conduct by non-players
  • Chop block
  • Clipping
  • Horse-collar tackle
  • Illegal use of helmet
  • Roughing the passer
  • Illegal blindside block
  • Illegal crackback block
  • Illegal peel back block
  • Leaping
  • Leverage
  • Taunting

Game Timing

When is the play clock set to 40 seconds?

The play clock is set to 40 seconds immediately after a play ends (unless it follows one of these scenarios). If the ball is not snapped before the play clock expires, it is a delay of game.

When is the play clock set to 25 seconds?

The play clock is set to 25 seconds after certain administrative stoppages, including:

  • Change of possession
  • Charged timeout
  • Two-minute warning
  • End of a quarter
  • Penalty enforcement
  • Extra-point of two-point conversion attempt
  • Punt

The Referee can reset the play clock to 25 seconds by pumping one hand vertically.

When does a 10-second runoff occur?

When there is a 10-second runoff, the clock starts on the referee’s signal. A 10-second runoff occurs when a team commits any of these acts after the two-minute warning with the clock running:

  • An offensive foul that prevents the snap (e.g., false start)
  • Intentional grounding
  • Illegal forward pass thrown from beyond the line of scrimmage
  • Throwing a backward pass out of bounds
  • Spiking or throwing the ball in the field of play after the down ends (except after a touchdown)
  • Any other intentional foul that causes the clock to stop

There is a 10-second runoff if a replay review of a play after the two-minute warning results in the on-field ruling being reversed and the correct ruling would not have stopped the clock.

This runoff only applies to the offense. The defense always has the option to decline the 10-second runoff and have the yardage penalty enforced, but if the yardage penalty is declined, the 10-second runoff is also declined.


When is a player automatically ejected?

A player is automatically disqualified if they are penalized twice in the same game for:

  • Throwing a punch, forearm, or kicking at an opponent, even if no contact is made.
  • Using abusive, threatening, or insulting language or gestures.
  • Using baiting or taunting acts or words.

The player will be automatically disqualified regardless of whether the penalty is accepted or declined by the opponent. The fouls do not have to be judged by the official to be flagrant for the automatic disqualification to occur, and any foul that occurs during the pregame warm-up period will carry over into the game. Note: If a game official judges a foul to be flagrant, he/she may disqualify a player based on one occurrence.

What is unsportsmanlike conduct?

Unsportsmanlike conduct is any act contrary to the generally understood principles of sportsmanship. Some examples include:

  • Throwing a punch, forearm, or kicking at an opponent, even if no contact is made.
  • Using abusive, threatening, or insulting language or gestures.
  • Using baiting or taunting acts or words.
  • Any violent, sexually suggestive or offensive act.
  • Excessive celebration.
  • Unnecessary physical contact with an official.
  • Using any object as a prop or possessing a foreign object on the field or the sideline during the game.
  • Removal of helmet by a player on the field or the end zone during a celebration or confrontation with an official or other player.

The penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct is a loss of 15 yards. If the foul is by the defense, it is also an automatic first down.

2021 NFL Rules Changes

Learn About the 2021 Rules Changes

Learn about the 2021 rules changes – narrated by NFL Pro Football Hall of Famer Cris Carter.

Fouls During Try Attempts

The Competition Committee has revised the rule enforcement of fouls that occur during try attempts. Any previously enforced penalty on a try attempt cannot be negated. Even if the resulting penalties allow a team to attempt a different try option.

Illegal Forward Pass

A forward pass from beyond the line of scrimmage results in a loss of down and five yards from the spot of the pass.

Beginning in the 2021 season, a second forward pass thrown from behind the line of scrimmage, or a forward pass thrown after the ball returns behind the line of scrimmage, will now result in a loss of down and a five yard penalty from the previous spot. Additionally, if the foul occurs in the end zone, it will result in a safety.

Free Kick Formation

For one year only, all receiving team players must be inbounds and behind their restraining line, and at least eight, but no more than nine, players must be positioned between their restraining and a spot 15 yards behind their setup zone.

Game Officials Receiving Assistance From Replay Officials

The Committee has expanded the rule for game officials to receive assistance from the Replay Official and designated members of the Officiating department to advise the game officials on specific, objective aspects of a play when clear and obvious video evidence is present, and/or to address game administration issues.

This rule is designed to assist game officials in the administration of certain objective on-field rulings.

Blocks Below the Waist

New for 2021, the tight end box is defined as the area two yards outside of the normal tackle position and extends five yards on either side of the line of scrimmage.

Blocks below the waist during a scrimmage down, prior to a change of possession, are prohibited by players from either team, unless the contact occurs within the tight end box.

This does not apply to a runner or a player attempting to catch a forward or backward pass. Players are still restricted by other low block rules, even if the contact occurs within the tight end box, such as an Illegal Crackback Block, a Chop Block or Clipping.

Elimination of Overtime in Preseason

If the score is tied at the end of regulation during the preseason, overtime will not be played.

Numbering Rules by Position

The Committee expanded the numbering rules that allows certain positions to wear single-digit numbers, which had previously been assigned to quarterbacks, kickers and punters.

The expanded numbers are adjusted as follows:

  • Running backs, tight ends, fullbacks, H-backs and wide receivers: 1-49 and 80-89
  • Defensive backs: 1-49
  • Linebackers: 1-59 and 90-99
  • Offensive linemen: 50-79
  • Defensive linemen: 50-79 and 90-99

2021 NFL Points of Emphasis

Use of Helmet

The Officiating Department will continue to emphasize the Use of Helmet rule, first adopted in 2018.

The officiating standards for the Use of Helmet rule are:

  • Lowering the head (not to include bracing for contact)
  • Initiating contact with the helmet to any part of an opponent. Contact does not have to be to an opponent’s head or neck area — lowering the head and initiating contact to an opponent’s torso, hips, and lower body, is also a foul.


To promote good sportsmanship and respect for opponents, the NFL Competition Committee, NFL coaches, and the NFL Players Association all strongly recommended that the taunting of an opponent be a point of emphasis for officials.

What is taunting? Any flagrant acts or remarks that deride, mock, bait, or embarrass an opponent.

Two taunting penalties committed by an individual player will result in an automatic disqualification. In addition, the taunting player may be subject to additional discipline depending on the severity of the action.

Intentional Grounding

What is intentional grounding?

It is intentional grounding if a passer, in danger of losing yardage due to defensive pressure, throws a forward pass without a realistic chance of completion. A realistic chance of completion is defined as "a pass that is thrown in the direction of, or lands in, the vicinity of an eligible receiver."

What is not intentional grounding?

It is not intentional grounding if the passer:

  • Throws a pass from outside the pocket (the area between the tackles) that lands at or beyond the line of scrimmage, in or out of bounds, even if there is no eligible receiver nearby.
  • Has his passing motion significantly affected by contact from a defender, even if the ball doesn’t reach the line of scrimmage.
  • Spikes the ball to stop the clock (quarterback must be under center when he receives the snap).

What is the penalty for intentional grounding?

The penalty for intentional grounding:

  • Loss of down and 10 yards from the previous spot; or
  • Loss of down at the spot of the foul; or
  • A safety if the passer intentionally grounds the ball from his end zone.

Forward Pass

What is an illegal forward pass?

If the passer’s entire body (airborne or on the ground) and the ball are beyond the line of scrimmage when the ball is released, it is an illegal forward pass.

Other examples of an illegal forward pass include:

  • A second forward pass thrown from behind the line of scrimmage
  • A forward pass thrown after the ball has crossed the line of scrimmage and has returned behind it
  • A forward pass thrown after a change of possession

What is the penalty for an illegal forward pass?

These are the penalties for an illegal forward pass:

  • For a forward pass from beyond the line of scrimmage: loss of down and five yards from the spot of the pass.
  • For a second forward pass from behind the line, or for a forward pass that was thrown after the ball returned behind the line: loss of five yards from the previous spot.
  • For a forward pass thrown after a change of possession: loss of five yards from the spot of the pass.


What is a safety (score)?

It is a safety:

  • A runner is tackled with possession of the ball in his own end zone; or
  • If the ball goes out of bounds behind the goal line; or
  • If the offense commits a foul in its own end zone. Fouls could include intentional grounding or holding.

A safety is worth two points. The team that gave up the safety will put the ball in play with a free kick (punt, dropkick, or placekick) from its 20-yard line.

When is it not a safety?

It is not a safety if:

  • A forward pass from behind the line of scrimmage is incomplete in the end zone.
  • A defender, in the field of play, intercepts, catches or recovers the ball and his momentum carries him into his end zone. His team keeps the ball at the spot where his foot or other body part touched the ground to establish possession. If that spot is in the end zone, then it is a touchback.