When to Throw Flags, When Not to, and When to Pick ’em up

By Referee – January 15, 2019

The block at the right may or may not be a foul. It is at the point of attack, so it merits attention. But if the blocker began the block from the front and continued contact while the opponent turned, it would not be a block in the back. Seeing the entire block is crucial to avoiding incorrect rulings. (Photo Credit: Dale Garvey)

The idea of a flag being waved off brings to mind an overbearing referee trumping the decision of a younger crewmate. That has happened on occasion, but picking up a flag can be a prescribed mechanic and it can also be smart officiating. That’s not to say picking up a flag should be done very often, and it certainly is not a crutch to compensate for weak officials. The risks entail antagonizing a thin-skinned official and raising the ire of a coach who thought he had a decision in his favor. The important thing is to get the call right. In addition to picking up a flag, getting it right may entail throwing a late flag or simply having a brief crew discussion that affirms the original call.

For ease of discussion, the scenarios in which picking up a flag may be prudent are grouped in categories based on the circumstances that may dictate the wave-off. The first group is situations where covering officials are not expected to observe events outside their coverage area.

Ineligible receiver downfield/offensive pass interference. Whether an ineligible simply goes downfield or goes downfield beyond the expanded neutral zone (NFHS) or more than three yards (NCAA) and initiates a block against an opponent, a flag should be thrown when a forward pass is thrown and there is a possibility the ball crossed the neutral zone. If it is subsequently determined the pass did not cross the line, the flag must be picked up. Under NFHS rules, a pass deflected by a team B player behind the line is considered to not have crossed the line while in NCAA play that applies for a tip by any player. Depending on crew size, a specific official is responsible for determining if a pass crosses the line, and that probably won’t be the official who observes the possible illegal act.

Defensive pass interference. The flag should be picked up if the pass was tipped prior to the illegal contact. Pass interference restrictions end for all players once a team B player touches the pass. If a team A player tips the ball, restrictions also end for all team B players and for eligible team A players.

Two forward passes. An apparent second forward pass should be flagged and picked up if discussion reveals the first pass was ruled backward.

Illegal participation. When a player is observed returning inbounds (NFHS) or returns inbounds and is the first to touch a pass (NCAA), the flag should be thrown and picked up if discussion reveals the player was blocked out of bounds (in NFHS the player must have returned immediately).

Delay of game. A flag for a delay of game foul can be picked up if another official had granted a timeout before the play clock expired.

The next group includes acts that are highly dependent on the angle of view and almost always have multiple covering officials. Those crewmates must immediately compare notes even if both had flags. In order to change such a call, differing officials must be 100 percent sure of what was observed or they must be able to point out what the calling official did not see. If the two officials cannot agree, the original call should stand.

Targeting. It’s possible to interpret a straight-line view of the engagement as head contact (like an eclipse) when in reality the contact was at or below the shoulders.
Blindside blocks. If open hands are used, the blindside block is legal. The covering official may be screened by the blocker’s back.

Pass interference. There are multiple ways for pass interference to occur and in many cases, no one official can see exactly what transpired, including which player initiated the contact.

Another category includes situations where one official should be able to get the call correct, but for a variety of reasons, including not seeing the whole play, being in a poor position or simply miscounting is unable to do so.

Roughing the kicker. If the referee calls a roughing foul, but the player is blocked into the kicker or the ball is tipped by the contacting player, the contact is excused. Under NCAA rules, the contact is only excused if the block was illegal.

Counting error. If a team is flagged for too many players in the formation and a recount reveals there were only 11 players, the flag must be picked up. Likewise, if a belated count indicates more than 11 players participated, a late flag should be thrown.

Illegal blocks. Officials should not call a foul when they don’t see the whole play. Examples where an official can get a wrong picture of what transpired include blocks in the back where the player abruptly turns on the blocker and blocks below the waist where the initial contact is high and the blocker slides down on the opponent.
The final category includes only one foul. Intentional grounding should only be flagged by the referee and only if it is determined the passer was under duress (the embodiment of intent to conserve yardage).

Intentional grounding. Referees can rarely make that call without assistance because they will not see where the ball landed. Other members of the crew should immediately volunteer information regarding whether or not the ball was thrown into an area occupied by an eligible offensive receiver. When a referee believes the passer’s intent was to intentionally ground the ball to avoid a sack, it should be flagged. If an eligible receiver was nearby, the flag can be picked up. If the referee does not throw his flag and is told the ball went into an area not occupied by an eligible offensive receiver, it is acceptable to throw a late flag.

The debate over whether it is better to pick up a flag is a valid one and is subordinate to getting the play right. There are times when each is appropriate, but in the majority of cases, the pick-up is preferable if for no other reason than a late flag feeds coach paranoia that the officials are plotting against that team.