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False Start

Five-yard penalty, replay the down.

North Carolina v South Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

There are few things that can drive a football coach over the edge like a false start. Maybe it’s something to do with having a plan in place, imagining that you have the defense precisely where you want them, then wires get crossed in the huddle and one of the linemen flinches early, saddling the offense with five additional yards to gain. Maybe it’s because a false start penalty is often seen as emblematic of a lack of discipline, a criticism that indicts the leadership rather than the individual athlete. Maybe it’s because it feels like something that should be easily controlled, in a game in which there are a lot of things that are out of your control. Whatever it is, I’ve seldom seen a coach go as ballistic as when the offense earns themselves a five-yard retreat at a pivotal point in the contest.

It’s just five yards, but 3rd & 3 and 3rd & 8 have a very different feel to them. Even going from 1st & 10 to 1st & 15 is demoralizing, but the gap between 4th & 1 and 4th and 6 may mean the difference between keeping a drive alive and electing to punt. A single false start, with no hint of exaggeration, may mean the difference between winning and losing. When those kinds of stakes are in play, it can be a big deal when it goes wrong.

It seems like something that should be easily avoidable. If everyone in the huddle is listening when the quarterback calls the cadence, there should be no issue. Remember, though; these are college kids. They’re excited to play the game, amped to be on the field, and that level of excitement just grows exponentially in these make-or-break kind of situations. If playing for the Tar Heels is anything like playing for the Wildcats of East Chapel Hill High School (and I’d imagine it super isn’t, in every case but this one) that excitement can and will bubble over and result in whistles before the play.

Even something that seems so readily controllable can sometimes slip through a team’s grasp, and I can only imagine that’s what frustrates coaches so much. A poorly-timed false start can have a direct impact on the outcome of a game, and it must incense a coach to no end that something as simple as snapping the ball to begin play can be bungled to such a degree that it can change a potential win to a crushing loss. Every coach I’ve ever known has always had a plan in place, a plan dependent on the down and distance remaining the same. A surprise five yards can send that plan up in smoke, and most coaches I’ve known are not super into improvising.

A false start can be back-breaking. I’ve seen promising drives go up in smoke thanks to the flinch of an overeager right guard, anxious to get a good first step on a pull. I’ve seen games lost thanks to those easily-avoided five yards pushing a kicker out of his comfortable range. I’ve seen many a headset spiked into turf by a football coach as the referee measures the customary five yards. It may seem like a small thing, but a false start can have an outsized and lasting effect—and I’m positive we haven’t yet seen the extent of the havoc that a false start can wreak.