football hand signals

Football Sideline Signals – Hand Signals, Picture Boards (Explained)

While the action on the field is what captures the attention of fans, there is a whole world of signals and signs happening on the sidelines that play a critical role in the game.

Coaches and players use various methods to communicate with each other, including hand signals and picture boards.

Here we’ll look at the importance of football sideline signals, how they are used, and their impact on the game.

The Importance of Football Sideline Signals

Football is a fast-paced game where split-second decisions can make all the difference.

Sideline signals allow coaches to relay instructions and strategies to their players without having to call a timeout or shout across the field.

These signals help maintain secrecy and prevent the opposing team from anticipating the next move.

Additionally, sideline signals enable coaches to make adjustments on the fly.

They can quickly communicate changes in play calls, formations, or defensive schemes based on the opponent’s actions.

This real-time communication helps teams adapt to the ever-changing dynamics of the game.

Hand Signals

Hand signals are one of the most common forms of communication used on the football sidelines.

Coaches and players use a predefined set of hand signals to convey specific messages.

These signals are often complex and require practice to ensure accurate interpretation.

Here are some examples of common hand signals used in football:

  • Play Call Signals: Coaches use hand signals to communicate the play call to the quarterback or other players on the field. Each signal represents a specific play or formation.
  • Defensive Signals: Defensive coordinators use hand signals to relay defensive formations and assignments to the players. These signals help the defense adjust their positioning and coverage based on the offensive formation.
  • Audible Signals: Quarterbacks often use hand signals to change the play at the line of scrimmage. These signals indicate a change in the original play call based on the defensive alignment.
  • Special Teams Signals: Hand signals are also used in special teams situations, such as punt or kick returns. These signals help coordinate blocking assignments and determine the direction of the return.

Hand signals are effective because they can be easily understood even in noisy or crowded environments.

They provide a visual cue that can be quickly processed by the players on the field.

Picture Boards

In addition to hand signals, coaches often use picture boards to communicate complex strategies or game plans.

Picture boards consist of a series of images or symbols that represent different plays or formations.

Coaches can quickly flip through the board to show the players the desired play or formation.

Picture boards are particularly useful for conveying intricate details that may be difficult to explain using hand signals alone.

They allow coaches to visually demonstrate the desired positioning, routes, or blocking assignments.

This visual representation helps players better understand their roles and responsibilities within a play.

Furthermore, picture boards can be used to introduce new plays or formations during halftime or timeouts.

Coaches can draw up the plays on the board and explain the key points to the players, ensuring everyone is on the same page.

How do the play-calling signs in college football work?

Why Do They Use Picture Boards in College Football But Not the NFL?

The use of picture boards in college football is typically a method to communicate plays and strategies quickly and effectively to a team.

This form of visual communication is particularly helpful because college football teams often consist of young athletes who are still learning to execute complex strategies.

It’s also valuable given the sheer size of college teams, which can exceed 100 players, and the sometimes extremely loud, distracting environments of college football games.

Picture boards can include an array of symbols, logos, numbers, and images that each have a specific meaning to the team.

These symbols are quickly interpretable by the players, allowing teams to relay information about the next play without giving anything away to the opposition.

In contrast, the NFL typically doesn’t use picture boards for a variety of reasons:

  1. Smaller Roster: NFL rosters are capped at 53 players, so there are fewer individuals to communicate with at any given time.
  2. Advanced Knowledge: NFL players typically have a more advanced understanding of the game and its strategies, given that they’re professionals. This allows them to execute more complex plays that can be communicated verbally or via signals.
  3. In-Helmet Communication: In the NFL, one player on offense (usually the quarterback) and one player on defense have helmets equipped with radio receivers. This allows the coach to directly communicate the plays, making the use of visual boards less necessary.
  4. Security: The NFL may also avoid using picture boards due to concerns about giving away strategic information to opponents, who could potentially decipher the meaning of the symbols and images. The professionals at this level are likely to invest significant resources in scouting opponents, including attempts to crack their communication codes.

It’s worth noting that while the NFL doesn’t typically use picture boards, they still use other non-verbal communication methods like hand signals, especially when crowd noise might interfere with verbal commands.

FAQs – Football Sideline Signals

1. Why do football teams use sideline signals?

Football teams use sideline signals to communicate instructions and strategies without alerting the opposing team.

It allows for quick adjustments and maintains secrecy.

2. How do coaches and players learn the hand signals?

Coaches and players learn the hand signals through practice and repetition.

They study the playbook and memorize the corresponding signals for each play or formation.

3. Can the opposing team decipher the hand signals?

While it is possible for the opposing team to decipher hand signals, teams take precautions to prevent this from happening.

They often change their signals regularly and use complex signals that are difficult to interpret.

4. Are there any rules or restrictions on sideline signals?

There are no specific rules or restrictions on sideline signals as long as they do not involve any illegal or unsportsmanlike conduct.

However, teams must ensure that their signals are not easily visible to the opposing team or the spectators.

5. How do picture boards help in communication?

Picture boards provide a visual representation of plays and formations, making it easier for players to understand their roles and responsibilities.

They are particularly useful for conveying complex strategies or introducing new plays.

6. Can picture boards be used during the game?

Picture boards are typically used during timeouts or halftime to discuss strategies or introduce new plays.

However, they are not used during live gameplay as they would require stopping the game to refer to the board.

7. Do all football teams use sideline signals?

Most football teams, from professional to youth levels, use sideline signals to some extent.

The complexity and sophistication of the signals may vary depending on the level of play.

8. How do quarterbacks communicate with their teammates on the field?

Quarterbacks often use a combination of hand signals, verbal calls, and audibles to communicate with their teammates on the field.

Hand signals are particularly useful for changing the play or adjusting the formation.

9. Are sideline signals used in other sports?

Sideline signals are not exclusive to football and are used in various other sports as well.

For example, basketball teams use hand signals to call plays or defensive assignments, while baseball teams use signs to communicate between the coach and the catcher.

10. Can sideline signals be intercepted by the opposing team?

While it is possible for the opposing team to intercept sideline signals, teams take precautions to prevent this from happening.

They often use coded signals, change them regularly, and employ other methods to maintain secrecy.


Football sideline signals, including hand signals and picture boards, play a crucial role in the game.

They enable coaches to communicate instructions and strategies to their players quickly and discreetly.

Hand signals provide a visual cue that can be easily understood, while picture boards help convey complex strategies and introduce new plays.

These communication methods enhance the team’s ability to adapt and make real-time adjustments during the game.

While there is always a risk of the opposing team deciphering the signals, teams take precautions to maintain secrecy and prevent interception.

Overall, football sideline signals are an integral part of the game’s strategy and contribute to its excitement and competitiveness.

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