The way penalty yardage is assessed in football depends on what type of penalty has been called. If you are watching a football game you might hear the referees or announcers refer to a “spot foul” What is a spot foul in football and how does it work?
Spot fouls are penalties that are assessed from the spot on the field where the foul occurred. This is in contrast to many other penalties that are assessed from the original line of scrimmage (source).
This difference can be a bit confusing, especially since spot fouls themselves are not all assessed the same way. In this article we will define the different types of spot fouls and use different examples to help you understand what a spot foul is in football and how they are applied.
What is a Spot Foul in Football?
As we discussed above, a spot foul in football is a penalty that is assessed from the spot on the field where the foul occurred.
There are several different types of spot fouls in football, and some are assessed differently than others. Let’s take a look at the penalties that are spot fouls in football.
Penalties That Can Be Spot Fouls
- Defensive Pass Interference (always a spot foul in NFL)
- Intentional Grounding (always a spot foul)
- Holding (If ball is beyond the line of scrimmage)
- Illegal Block in the Back (If ball is beyond the line of scrimmage)
- Clipping (If ball is beyond the line of scrimmage)
Two Ways Spot Fouls are Assessed
- Some spot fouls like defensive pass interference and intentional grounding result in the play being spotted at the actual spot of the foul.
- Other “spot fouls” like downfield holding, clipping, and illegal blocks all result in the penalty yardage being assessed from the spot of the foul. This means the ball isn’t just placed at the spot of the foul, instead they mark off yardage from the spot. So if a hold occurs downfield at the 17 yard line, penalty yardage will be assessed from the spot of that foul, meaning the ball will be placed 10 yards behind that spot at the 27 yard line.
Why Do Spot Fouls Exist in Football?
Now that we’ve discussed what a spot foul is in football, the next question to answer is why they exist. Spot fouls exist to protect the integrity of the sport. If they didn’t exist, there would be certain situations where fouls would be under-penalized and there would be certain situations where fouls were over-penalized.
Spot fouls are a way of attempting to make sure penalties have the appropriate amount of impact on the outcome of the game. It would do the sport no good if the assessment of penalties were disproportionately severe or disproportionately lax compared to the true impact the actual foul had on the game. Spot fouls help assign the appropriate amount of penalty yardage for certain types of fouls.
For example, let’s say the ball is at the 50 yard line and a running back breaks a clean run down field to the 10. But a wide receiver holds a defender at the 17 yard line.
Well, the run was clean all the way from the 50 to the 17, if the foul was assessed from the original line of scrimmage (meaning 10 yard foul assessed from the 50 yard line), that would wipe out the 33 clean yards that the running back gained before the hold occurred. Even though a penalty occurred on the play, the thought process behind a spot foul is it would not be fair to wipe out the entire run since much of it was clean.
Instead, the penalty yardage is assessed from the actual spot of the foul, which in this example is the 17 yard line. So the ball would be placed at the 27 yard line after the penalty (10 yards assessed from the spot of the penalty).
Examples of Spot Fouls in Football
Defensive Pass Interference
A ball is throw downfield to the receiver. A wide receiver goes up to catch the ball at the 19 yard line where the defender rakes the receiver’s arms before the ball arrives, and is called for defensive pass interference. Because dpi is a spot foul, the ball is placed at that exact spot. The result of the play/penalty is the ball being placed at the 19 yard line, with an automatic first down awarded. (Examples)
Holding/Clipping/Illegal Block Downfield
The ball is on the 50 yard line and it’s 1st and 10 and a running back runs to the 32 yard line for a -8 yard gain. But a referee throws a flag and says another offensive player committed a hold at the 38 yard line.
Offensive holding downfield is a 10 yard penalty from the spot of the foul, so the ball is placed at the 48 yard line and the down is replayed. (10 yards behind the spot of the foul which was the 38). So it will now be 1st and 8 from the 48 (the yard line to gain a first down remains the 40 yard line which was 10 yards from the original spot).
Illegal blocks (10 yard penalties) in the back on the offense and clipping (15 yard penalties) on the offense work in the same way. The penalty yardage will be assessed from the spot where the foul occurred.
The QB drops back to throw and at the 35 yard line he is tackled by a rushing linebacker. But before his knee hits the ground, he flings the ball forward simply in an attempt to avoid a sack, and is subsequently called for intentional grounding.
The result of the play is a loss of that down and the ball is spotted at the 35 yard line (spot of the foul). (examples)
Spot Foul: Result of Play is a First Down
Sometimes even though a penalty occurs downfield on the offense (like a hold or illegal block etc), the result of the play may still be a first down for the offense. Here’s an example:
2nd and 10 from the 50. Running back runs the ball to the 20 yard line for a 30 yard gain. But a hold occurs at the 28. 10 yard penalty from the spot (28). So the ball is placed at the 38.
Well, the original line to gain for a first down was the 40 yard line, and now even after the penalty, the ball is beyond that line to gain. Because of this, the offense is still awarded with a first down even though a penalty occurred. So the result, after the penalty is assessed, is 1st and 10 from the 38 yard line.
Spot Foul Exception: Defensive Pass Interference in the Endzone
If defensive pass interference is committed in the endzone, although it’s a spot foul, the offense is not rewarded with a touchdown. Instead, the ball is place at the 1 yard line with an automatic first down for the offense.
NCAA College Spot Foul vs NFL
One major difference in how college football handles spot fouls vs how the NFL handles spot fouls is defensive pass intereference. In college football, defensive pass interference is not always a spot foul.
If the defensive pass interference occurred more than 15 yards downfield in college, the penalty is 15 yards assessed from the original line of scrimmage.If defensive pass interference in college is committed less than 15 yards downfield, that’s when the ball is placed at the spot of the foul.
This rule in college does draw criticism from some fans because it creates situations where it almost makes sense to commit downfield penalties. If a defender is beat deep, why not just grab and tackle the receiver before the ball gets there? Instead of giving up a 50+ yard touchdown, they just get hit for 15 yards.
As we discussed earlier in the article, spot fouls are intended to protect the integrity of the sport by making sure fair penalty yardage is assessed as proportionately as possible in relation to the actual impact the penalty had on the outcome. College defensive pass interference does a poor job of this at times.