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I saw some highlights from an NFL game the other day (I think it was Detroit's 22-21 comeback win against Atlanta) and the presenter said they won the game with a field goal.

Their first attempt at scoring the field goal was wide, however there was a flag on the field, due to an offensive foul (delay of game) and they would replay the down with a 5 yard penalty. Of course they then had another attempt at the field goal and scored it.

Now, I know it is possible (only in certain situations?) to decline a penalty in the NFL, so since it's an offensive penalty, why couldn't the Falcons decline this penalty, counting the missed field goal as a failed attempt and ending the game?

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Generally penalties can be declined. Though you mostly don't want to decline them.

Refusal of Penalties. Unless expressly prohibited, the penalty for any foul may be declined by the offended team, and play proceeds as though no foul had been committed. The yardage distance for any penalty may be declined, even though the penalty is accepted. (NFL rulebook p76)

The noted exception here is the double foul. Which cannot be accepted or declined as they typically offset.

However, certain penalties, mostly of the pre-snap kind on the offense, mean that no play took place (play is blown dead prior to the snap) and not accepting the penalty means that the down is replayed at the same spot on the field rather than 5 yards further back. That means that you don't want to decline them, and you're stuck accepting them or not getting any benefit at all.

So basically in this instance, if the penalty is declined, it would be the same situation again as the missed field goal try, the result of the play cannot be accepted as it never happened (it was after the whistle).

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    Generally, any pre-snap penalty on the offense is automatic blown dead, while pre-snap penalties on the defense are not, where no other reason exists. Offsides, for example, allows the play to continue, unless the offsides player has an unabated path to the quarterback, or touches an offensive player. That's because presumably the offense would not want the choice of "results of the play or the offensive penalty" (since the defense could benefit), and if they knew the flag came out they would choose not to snap the ball. – Joe Oct 28 '14 at 18:04
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There is no play on a delay of game. But yes...it COULD be declined...and delay of game penalties are declined fairly often. The result is simply they play the down as if no flag was thrown. The times when delay of game penalties are declined is when a punting team purposely wants to move back 5 yards to give their kicker a little more room to try to pin their opponents inside the 10 without worrying about kicking it into the end zone. The defense will some times decline the delay of game penalty.

But yes...EVERY penalty can be declined. Even false starts can be declined. Even unsportsmanlike conduct penalties can be declined, although there is literally no reason to ever do so.

  • Small technicality on the UCs - the penalty for an Unsportsmanlike cannot be declined, but the associated yardage can. The player is still charged with the foul, but the ball is still left at the same spot. – Ian Nov 7 '16 at 14:59
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Looks like the confusion about it even inspired rules guru Mike Pereira to post a quick video to answer this question: http://www.foxsports.com/video?vid=348073539671

The heart of it: "Why can't you decline delay of game and false start? Well you can, if you don't want the five yards, but there's no play. You can't have a play. A false start and a delay of game are before the ball is snapped so you have no play."

Why would a team want to decline delay of game\false start? Only situations I can think of is perhaps because they want to encourage an opponent to make a risky move (going for it on fourth down, trying a long field goal, etc)... or just maybe if a team is on one hashmark and pretty close in, maybe around the 5-10 yard line, and has 4th down... to keep the field goal angle sharper (though that'd be a tough one to swallow).

One other reason would be for sportsmanship's sake, such as when Fresno State declined a penalty on Nebraska who sent out their punt team without the punter this year to celebrate him after he died in the offseason.

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