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Football Illegal Substitution Penalty

Football Illegal Substitution Penalty

Penalties can make or break a football game for one particular team, which is why it's important for football players to understand each penalty and its consequences. An illegal substitution penalty will be called when a team has too many players on the field due to a player failing to make a substitution. This would give the team an unfair advantage compared to their opponent that has the proper number of players on the field.


An illegal substitution penalty in football occurs when a player fails to make a substitution which results in the team having too many players on the field. This can happen in a few different ways. On offense, an illegal substitution penalty will be called if there are more than 11 players in the huddle at any point. On offense or defense, having 12 or more players lined up on the field when the ball is snapped also constitutes an illegal substitution, or a too many men on the field penalty. Even if a player is in the process of running off the field, if the team has 12 players on the field when the ball is snapped they will be called for an illegal substitution or similar penalty. Illegal substitution penalties happen more often at lower levels of football, as these players are less experienced at making substitutions.


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The consequence for a team being penalized for an illegal substitution is a loss of 5 yards and the down being replayed. If the penalty is called on the defense, the offensive will have the option to decline the penalty and instead take the result of the play rather than 5 yards. This result is consistent across most football leagues from high school to professional. The NCAA, NFL, and AFL all enforce a loss of 5 yards on the offending team. The CFL is the only league that differs in ruling for illegal substitution penalties, enforcing a 10 yard penalty for illegal substitutions instead of 5 yards.

Penalty Signal

football penalty signal illegal substitution

In football, the referee's signal for an illegal substitution penalty is both hands on top of their head with palms facing downwards. This motion is consistent across all levels of the sport from high school to professional. The same signal is used for the illegal substitution, 12 men in offensive huddle, too many men on the field, or illegal participation penalties.


  • A team has 12 players in an offensive huddle. If this occurs at any time in the game, an illegal substitution penalty should be called.
  • The defense failed to make a substitution and now has 12 players on the field before the ball is snapped. The player that should have left the field realizes their mistake and begins to run off the field. If the ball is snapped before the player fully exits the field, referees will throw a flag to signal an illegal substitution penalty.
  • More than 11 players line up in formation in preparation for the ball to be snapped. Since the team has more than 11 players lined up, this is an illegal substitution penalty.

Similar Penalties To Illegal Substitution