Officially Speaking: Not all motion is illegal

Editor's Note: Officially Speaking with Steve Hall is a feature that allows readers to ask questions about high school football rules, and will run weekly throughout the season. Hall has been a New Hampshire high school official since 1989 and has officiated more than 200 regular-season varsity games in all five divisions. He has also officiated 10 championship games and more than 25 playoff games. Hall, who is a member of the New Hampshire Football Officials' Association Board of Directors, has been the NHFOA rules interpreter for the last seven years. Questions for Steve can be sent to Questions may be edited for clarity. 

Question: Can you please explain the differences (if there are any) between false start, illegal motion, illegal procedure, offsides and encroachment? Is it just a case of different refs using different terms?
E.B., North Hampton

Answer: There are some pretty significant differences between the fouls listed above, and it's not simply the officials using different terms. A false start is any action by any offensive player that simulates action at the snap (e.g., the player leaves before the snap or flinches). It is also any action by a player that is intended to cause the defense to encroach (like the QB using jerky upper body movement while calling cadence in an effort to get the defense to encroach). Finally, it is a false start if any interior lineman moves his hand(s) or makes any quick movement after placing his hand(s) on or near the ground (i.e., below the knees). Contrary to what some people believe, a back who misses the count and leaves early is guilty of a false start. He cannot "correct" his mistake by going motion, nor can he return to his position and reset. A false start is a dead ball foul, meaning that as soon as it occurs, the covering official will blow his whistle to prevent the ball from being snapped.


Illegal motion occurs when a player is in motion toward his line of scrimmage at the snap or when two or more players are in motion at the snap. Motion is legal as long as only one player is in motion at the snap, the motion is parallel to or away from the line of scrimmage at the snap, and the act of going in motion doesn't simulate action at the snap (meaning that the commencement of motion must be a relatively slow and deliberate movement, and not a quick movement). Illegal motion is a foul at the snap, which means that the play is allowed to continue, but if the defense accepts the penalty, the offense is penalized five yards from where the ball was snapped and the down is replayed.

An illegal shift is somewhat similar to illegal motion (and the penalties are identical). After any shift, which is one or more players moving from one set position to another, all eleven offensive players must be simultaneously motionless for a full second prior to a player going in motion or the ball being snapped. One example of an illegal shift is when a player goes from a two-point stance to a three-point stance and the ball is snapped while he is doing so or less than one second after he has done so. As with illegal motion, an illegal shift is a foul at the snap, with enforcement five yards from the spot of the snap with a replay of the down.

Encroachment is when a player is lined up with any part of his body in the neutral zone (beyond his line of scrimmage) after the snapper has placed his hands on the ball. Encroachment is a dead ball foul. The play is blown dead and the offending team is penalized five yards. Officials will routinely warn players early in the game if they are lining up in the neutral zone. We will tell them to move back, unless they are significantly beyond their line of scrimmage, in which case a foul will be called immediately. If they continue to encroach after being warned a couple of times, officials will then throw the flag and blow their whistle for each subsequent offense.

There is no such thing as "offsides" under National Federation rules. While we see offsides called in TV games (NCAA and NFL), if a player encroaches on the neutral zone under Federation rules, it's a dead ball foul. The player can't legally go "offsides" then jump back prior to the ball being snapped. "Illegal procedure" is a term of art that refers to fouls such as illegal numbering (less than 5 players on the line of scrimmage numbered 50-79) or illegal formation (less than 7 players on the line of scrimmage at the snap). The signal given by the referee for these fouls as well as for false start, illegal snap and a few other fouls is the same (the "travelling" signal in basketball), so announcers frequently refer to any such foul as "illegal procedure". However, there is no such foul as illegal procedure.

Question: Player X leaves the offensive huddle before the rest of his team and runs to the sideline (off the field). The rest of the team (10 players) then breaks the huddle and sets itself at the line of scrimmage. Just before the snap, Player X returns to the field and sets himself as a wide receiver. If this were done quick enough there would be no defensive back lined up opposite Player X. Is this a legal play?
Mark L., Kensington

Answer: No, it's not legal. Player X would be guilty of illegal substitution. During any period between downs, a player cannot leave the field then return, nor can a player enter the huddle and then leave unless a dead ball foul occurs, there is a charged time out, or the period ends. Illegal substitution is a dead ball foul (the play is not allowed to proceed) and the penalty is five yards.

Question: I recently read a story about how little padding NFL players wear. Some players wear no padding at all below the waist. As the parent of a high school player, I was wondering if teams are required to wear a certain amount of equipment. (I know each player has to wear a mouthguard). Who enforces this?
H.B., Hudson

Answer: The NFL and NCAA have very different rules on required equipment. Under National Federation rules, mandatory equipment includes a helmet with a face mask, hip pads and tail bone pads, shoulder pads fully covered by a jersey, knee pads worn under the pants, shoes, thigh pads and a mouthguard. Prior to each game, the referee asks the head coach of each team if his team is legally equipped. If a player is not legally equipped, he is not allowed to play. If officials discover that a player is missing any mandatory equipment, then an unsportsmanlike conduct foul is assessed to the head coach.

Check the archives for more Officially Speaking features with Steve Hall.