NFL challenge rules: How many does each team get and when can a head coach throw the red flag?

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As millions of viewers tune into Super Bowl LVI on Sunday, February 13 on NBC, the more attention turns onto the league’s officiating crews on game days.

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A big part of today’s officiating centers around replay reviews and, of course, coaches’ challenges. However, it can be confusing for many — NFL coaches included — when challenges are allowed.

Coaches have red flags which they can use to toss onto the field before the next snap, indicating to a referee in the vicinity to initiate an instant replay review on the previous play. A coach gets two challenges per game but has an opportunity to earn a third if the first two challenges were successful. There is no scenario where a fourth challenge can be given. However, if the coach fails the challenge, he’s assessed a timeout. If a coach challenges with no timeouts, the team will be assessed a 15-yard penalty. 

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What’s important to remember is that not every play can be challenged, while some plays are automatically reviewed so a coach doesn’t need to challenge them. Some examples of these automatically reviewed plays are scoring plays (touchdown, field goal, safety, etc.) and turnovers (fumble, interception.) Coaches are not permitted to challenge judgment calls made by officials, such as false starts, offsides or holding penalties. A team also can’t commit a penalty before the next snap and then challenge.

What NFL plays can be challenged and reviewed by referees?

Here’s a list of plays that a team can challenge, per the NFL Football Operations’ NFL Rules Digest:

  • Possession
  • Plays involving touching of either the ball or the ground
  • Goal line plays
  • Plays at the sidelines, line of scrimmage and line to gain
  • Number of players on the field at the snap, even when a foul is not called
  • Game administration:
    • Penalty enforcement
    • Proper down
    • Spot of a foul
    • Status of the game clock
    • Disqualification of a player

What plays are not reviewable?

Here’s a list of non-reviewable plays, per the NFL Football Operations’ NFL Rules Digest:

  • All fouls (except for numbers on players on the field)
  • Spot of the ball and runner:
  • Runner ruled down by contact or out of bounds (not involving fumbles or the line to gain)
  • The position of the ball not relating to first down or goal line
  • Whether a runner’s forward progress was stopped before he went out of bounds or lost possession of the ball
  • Whether a runner gave himself up

Miscellaneous:

  • Field goal or extra-point attempts that cross above either upright without touching anything
  • Erroneous whistle
  • Spot where an airborne ball crossed the sideline
  • Whether a player was blocked into a loose ball
  • Whether the ball was advanced by a player after a fair catch
  • Whether a player created the impetus that put the ball into an end zone.

Can a play be challenged in the final two minutes of a half or OT?

Once a game enters the final two minutes of the first or second half, known as the two-minute warning, neither team’s head coach is allowed to throw a challenge flag for any reason as all calls will be automatically reviewed. Coaches challenges are also prohibited during overtime periods.