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What is a Hard Count in Football?

When you think about pro football, you probably conjure images of big, strong men pushing and fighting each other in a crude attempt to matriculate the ball down the field. 

And while I can’t deny strength and size play significant roles in determining the outcome of a football contest, smart fans recognize that strategy, planning, and purpose are every bit as necessary.

The most valuable position in team sports is the football quarterback. The quarterback’s savvy, creativity, and manipulation before the snap often determine what unfolds after the snap. 

One tool that the quarterback can deploy is the hard count. Let’s examine what a hard count is, what it might sound like, and how it can benefit the offense.

Key Takeaways

  • A hard count is a technique where quarterbacks alter the rhythm of their audible snap count and accentuate certain words, usually “hut,” in a deliberate attempt to draw a defender offsides.
  • A defender is deemed offsides when he occupies the neutral zone or is across the line of scrimmage at the snap.
  • An offsides infraction penalizes the defense five yards and, if not whistled dead, provides the offense with a free play.

What is a Hard Count? 

A hard count occurs when the quarterback varies his audible snap count by emphasizing certain words and using an irregular rhythm with the intention to dupe one or more defensive players into encroachment of the neutral zone – the space that spans the length of the football – and commit an offsides penalty. [1]

A hard count usually occurs on fourth down when the offense requires less than five yards for a first down and would like to get the first down without running a play.

Image source: The New York Times

When the center snaps the football, no defender can be in the neutral zone or across the line of scrimmage. With a hard count, the quarterback attempts to cause the defense to jump early and enter the neutral zone before the ball is snapped, resulting in an offsides penalty.

An offsides penalty is called against the defense, is sometimes referred to as ‘encroachment’ or a ‘neutral zone infraction,’ and results in a five-yard gain for the offense.

Defenders are likely to jump because they are anxious to get off the ball quickly and make a play. If the quarterback can use his voice to trick the defenders into believing the ball is about to be snapped when it is not, the offense can pick up an easy five yards.

Examples of Hard Count Deployed

The following is an example of when the hard count in football is likely to be used:

It is fourth down, and the offense needs to gain three yards for a first down. The offense does not want to run a play here, but the quarterback approaches the line of scrimmage as if he will run a play. The center is told not to snap the football unless the defense jumps. [2]

The quarterback aggressively yells all kinds of words, including “hut,” attempting to get the defense to jump offsides. If the defense jumps offsides, the offense is awarded five yards and a first down, as they only need three yards for a first down. [3]

In the below video, you will see a compilation of the NFL’s funniest hard counts as quarterbacks use all kinds of words in their snap counts.

While most hard counts are reserved for fourth downs with less than five yards to go, there are exceptions. For example, quarterback Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers is so adept at manipulating his voice and causing defenders to jump offsides that he may use the hard count on any play, generating free plays for the Green Bay offense.

How Does Offside Infraction Provide Free Play?

The defense is penalized five yards for an offside penalty if a defender enters the neutral zone or crosses the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped. Advancing the ball five yards is great for the offense; however, the better payoff may occur after the flags fly: a free play.

Once the defense commits a neutral zone infraction (offsides), the play is allowed to continue (unless the guilty defender is deemed a threat to hit the quarterback), and the name for a play that is allowed to continue after the defense is flagged for an offsides penalty is a “free play”. [4]

The offsides penalty is called at the beginning of the play but is not enforced until after the free play concludes. Depending upon the result of the free play, the offense has the option to accept the five-yard offsides penalty or the result of the free play. 

If the result of the free play is in excess of five yards, the offense will decline the offsides penalty and accept the result of the play. If the result of the play is less than five yards, or worse, an interception, the offense will accept the five-yard penalty, and the result of the play will be negated.

In short, the quarterback manipulates his voice to draw the defenders offside. If he succeeds in his endeavor, the ball is snapped, the quarterback is aware that the defense has committed a penalty, and the offense enjoys free play. 

At this point, the quarterback may attempt risky plays that he otherwise would not since he knows that the defense has already committed an offsides penalty and the worst outcome of the play is a gain of five yards. 

Hence, the quarterback drops back, throws caution to the wind, and heaves a long pass downfield, hoping for a massive gain or a pass-interference penalty.

On a free play, quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers are never conservative. Therefore, in the event of free play, all pass catchers run long, deep routes in an attempt for a significant yardage gain.

The video below emphasizes the above point.

A compilation of Aaron Rodgers using hard counts in his cadences

It also demonstrates Rodgers’ hard count. You can see that by emphasizing certain words, usually “hut,” Rodgers makes the defense believe that the center is snapping the football when in actuality, he is not. Once the defense jumps offside, the center snaps the ball and the free play begins.

Notice that the first three plays in the video are clean, as the defense does not jump early. However, on the fourth play in the video, it’s clear that one or two defenders jump early. As the center snaps the ball, a yellow flag appears in the screen’s lower right-hand corner, and Rodgers runs a free play.

Aaron Rodgers: The Master Practitioner

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers owns the greatest hard count in NFL history. And when he is awarded free play, he is deadly to opposing defenses [5].

Image source: CBC

Since 2008 (not including this season), Rodgers has completed 30 passes, twelve of them for touchdowns, on free plays, according to TruMedia. During that time, no other quarterback has thrown for more than four touchdowns on free plays. [6]

Yes, the hard count is a powerful tool, and those who master it reap significant rewards.

Even in the macho, manly world of professional football, brains can still triumph over brawn. 


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