COMPLETE GUIDE TO FLAG FOOTBALL RULES

This section details all the important flag football rules you need to know, while breaking down the different terms and positions.

The first rule of flag football is pretty straight forward: there’s no contact allowed. That includes tackling, blocking, and screening. 

Instead, players wear flags that hang along their sides by a belt. To “tackle” the person in possession of the ball, the opposing team needs to pull one or both of their flags off. 

This rule, along with several others, serve a single purpose: to keep players safe. From creating “no run zones” to eliminating fumbles, flag football rules are designed to create a fast-paced, engaging version of football without the physical contact. 

This section details all the important flag football rules you need to know, while breaking down the different terms and positions.

Quick Links: 

NFL FLAG FOOTBALL RULES

NFL FLAG FOOTBALL RULE BOOK

FLAG FOOTBALL TERMS

FLAG FOOTBALL POSITIONS 

 

NFL FLAG FOOTBALL RULES

NFL FLAG football teams compete 5 on 5, but you may find various leagues out there—6 on 6, 7 on 7, 9 on 9—depending on the region and age group. To accommodate a smaller team size, a flag football field is shorter than a typical football field at 30 yards wide and 70 yards long, with two 10-yard end zones and a midfield line-to-gain.

Every game begins with a coin toss to determine which team will start with the ball (there’s no kickoff). Games are two 15 to 25 minute halves, depending on the league, and the clock only stops for timeouts (each team has three), injuries and half-time. 

NFL FLAG football is a non-contact sport. There’s no tackling, diving, blocking, screening or fumbles.

The starting team begins on its own 5-yard line and has four downs (essentially four plays) to cross midfield for a first down. If the offense fails to advance after three tries, they have two options: they can "punt," which means they turn the ball over to the opposing team who starts its drive from its own 5-yard line, or they can go for it. But if they still fail to cross midfield, the opposing team takes over possession from the spot of the ball. 

If the offensive team crosses midfield, they have three downs to score a touchdown. In NFL FLAG football, a touchdown is 6 points and a safety is 2 points (1-point conversion from the 5-yard line; 2-point conversion from the 10-yard line). And the ball is dead when: it hits the ground, the offensive player’s flag is pulled from their belt, the ball-carrier steps out of bounds, or the ball-carrier’s body—outside of their hands or feet—touches the ground. 

FLAG FOOTBALL TERMS TO KNOW

If you’re new to flag football—or football in general—phrases like “flag guarding”  probably sound a little confusing. But it’s important to understand the meanings behind these common terms, especially when you’re learning flag football rules. Plus, it makes watching the game that much more fun.  

To make it easy, we’ve broken down terms into two categories: those that explain how the field is set up and those that explain how the game is played.

FLAG FOOTBALL FIELD TERMS

Boundary lines: The outer perimeter lines around the field, including the sidelines and back of the end zone lines. 

Offense: The team who has possession of the ball and is trying to advance to the opponent’s end zone for a touchdown. 

Defense: The team who doesn’t have possession of the ball and is trying to prevent the other team from scoring by pulling the ball-carrier’s flags down.  

End zone: The two end zones, located on opposite sides of the field, are the scoring areas. The goal line, which a player must cross to score a touchdown, is the start of the end zone. 

No run zone: Flag football rules include no run zones that are located five yards before each goal line and the midfield. If the ball is spotted within a no run zone, the offensive team must use a pass play to earn a first down or touchdown. The objective is to prevent power football in tight spaces, limiting contact. 

Line-to-gain: The line the offense must cross to get a first down or score. 

Line of scrimmage: This is an imaginary line that expands the width of the field and runs through the point of the football. It indicates where teams can’t cross until the play has begun. 

Backfield: The part of the field directly behind the line of scrimmage. 

FLAG FOOTBALL GAME TERMS

Charging: An illegal movement made by the ball-carrier to a defensive player who has established position on the field. It includes lowering their head or initiating contact with their shoulder, forearm or chest. 

Dead ball: This refers to the period of time directly before or after a play, when the ball isn’t in motion. In flag football, a dead ball commonly happens when the ball touches the ground, the ball-carrier’s flag is pulled from their belt, the ball-carrier steps out of bounds, or the ball-carrier’s body—outside of their hands or feet—touches the ground.

Downs: A down is the period after the ball is snapped and the team is attempting to advance down the field. In flag football rules, teams have four downs to cross midfield. If they successfully cross midfield within four downs, then they have three downs to score a touchdown. 

Flag guarding: This happens when the ball-carrier prevents a defender from pulling down their flags. For example, they might stiff arm, cover their flag with their open hand, or lower their elbow. It is illegal and results in a penalty. 

Lateral: A backward or sideway toss of the ball by the ball-carrier. Reminder: laterals are not permitted in flag football. 

Live ball: This is the period of time when the ball and play is in motion. It’s generally used in regard to penalties—live ball penalties are enforced before the down is considered complete. 

Passer: The passer is the person throwing the ball. This term is more common in flag football because the passer doesn’t necessarily have to be the quarterback. 

Rush line: An imaginary line running across the width of the field seven yards (into the defensive side) from the line of scrimmage. In other words, any defensive player who is positioned seven yards off the line of scrimmage is eligible to rush.

Rusher: The defensive player assigned to rush the quarterback to prevent him/her from passing the ball by pulling his/her flags or blocking the pass. Offensive players must steer clear of the rusher. When the ball is handed off, any defender may rush. 

Shovel pass: A pitch attempted beyond the line of scrimmage. The quarterback “shovels” the ball directly forward to a receiver. These are legal, whereas laterals and pitches are illegal plays.  

 

YOUTH FLAG FOOTBALL RULES

If you ask any flag football coach what they like most about the game, you’ll typically hear the same answer: it’s incredibly inclusive. Kids of all abilities can learn to play flag football. 

They don’t need a specific build, or even prior football experience. If they’re motivated and a team player, they can learn. Plus, it’s a great source of exercise that improves cardiovascular health, hand-eye coordination, and strength. 

WHO CAN PLAY NFL FLAG FLAG FOOTBALL?

NFL FLAG offers leagues for boys and girls from 5 to 17 years old. There are several co-ed leagues as well. While flag football is a growing youth sport nationwide, you’ll find that it’s increasingly popular in the northeast.

Even more, flag football has opened doors for female athletes who want to play football. In 2010, flag football became a growing high school sport among female athletes in various parts of the country, and participation has increased since then. In fact, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), in collaboration with the NFL and Reigning Champs, will launch the first college sanctioned women’s flag football league in the spring of 2021. 

FLAG FOOTBALL POSITIONS

Picture a traditional offensive line in tackle football, all 11 players. Now, remove the linemen.   This is where the idea of 5 on 5 flag football comes from—it’s essentially the shell of tackle football, without the linemen. In other words, from an offensive standpoint, everyone can catch the pass, creating a continuous, fast-paced game.   Here’s a closer look at flag football positions, and what skills are needed for both offense and defense:

OFFENSE

Typically, teams set up in a formation with these 5 positions: 

  • Quarterback

  • Center

  • Wide receivers, running backs, or a mix of both 

At the start of a play, the center snaps the football back to the quarterback, who can either hand it off or throw it. If handed off, the quarterback can then run to receive a pass. The center is also allowed to run for a pass.

DEFENSE

Without linemen in the mix, there are really two kinds of flag football defensive positions: rushers and defensive backs. Rushers try to get to the quarterback as quickly as possible, while defensive backs line up to face wide receivers, or even farther back as safeties.  

Coaches typically teach zone defense in the beginning and as players grow and become more skilled, they move to man-to-man. It really depends on the league and level of competition.  

But the most important skill players learn on defense is the proper way to pull off an opponent’s flags. This technique actually lays the foundation for tackle football. For example, when breaking down, players are taught how to square up their opponent, where to align their head and knees, and what angles to take when pulling off flags. Essentially, it’s the exact position an athlete would need to take to physically tackle their opponent. This is a transferable skill set that benefits players who eventually want to play tackle football.