Why Do NFL Refs Throw Blue Flags?

Why Do NFL Refs Throw Blue Flags

Have you ever watched an NFL game and wondered about those mysterious blue flags that referees sometimes toss onto the field? They’re not flags at all, but rather beanbags, and they play a crucial role in the game. Let’s delve into the fascinating world of these seemingly simple objects and uncover their hidden purpose.

What are the Blue Flags?

Before we delve into anything else, let’s address the most significant misunderstanding. Those blue objects aren’t flags, they’re beanbags! These beanbags serve a specific purpose on the field, marking key locations for penalty enforcement and other critical plays.

Debunking the Myth: It’s Not a Flag, It’s a Beanbag

While the term “blue flag” is commonly used, it’s actually a misnomer. These beanbags are filled with soft materials like foam or sand, making them safe for players and officials alike. Unlike flags, which can be easily blown away by the wind or tripped over, beanbags remain firmly planted on the ground, ensuring accurate identification of key spots.

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Uses of the Beanbag

Now, let’s explore the different scenarios where you’ll see the beanbag in action:

Marking the Spot of a Fumble: When a player loses the ball during a play, the beanbag marks the exact location where the fumble occurred. This helps officials determine the correct yardage gain or loss, and whether the fumble was recovered by the offensive or defensive team.

Identifying the End of a Kick: For punts and kickoffs, the beanbag marks the spot where the receiving team first touches the ball. This helps determine the field position and whether the receiving team was able to secure the kick successfully.

First Touching of a Kicked Ball: In some situations, the beanbag might be used to identify the first player who touched a kicked ball before it went out of bounds. This information is crucial for determining dead-ball situations and awarding possession of the ball.

Interceptions: In the NFL, when a defensive player intercepts a pass, the beanbag marks the spot of the interception. This helps officials determine the starting point for offensive possession after the turnover.

Why Use Beanbags Instead of Flags?

So, why do NFL referees use beanbags instead of flags? Here are some key reasons:

Safety and Visibility: Beanbags are less likely to cause injuries to players or officials compared to flags, which can become tangled in equipment or trip players during a dynamic game. Additionally, their bright blue color makes them highly visible on the field, ensuring clear identification for officials and players alike.

Durability: Unlike flags, which can tear easily, beanbags are highly durable and able to withstand the wear and tear of a football game. This reduces the need for frequent replacements and contributes to a smoother game flow.

Versatility: Beanbags can be easily tossed and placed on the ground without needing a specific holder or pole, making them incredibly versatile for marking various locations on the field. This adaptability allows officials to use them in a variety of situations beyond just penalties.

History of the Beanbag in the NFL

The exact origin of the beanbag in the NFL isn’t documented, but its usage dates back to at least the 1970s. Over time, the beanbag has become an integral part of the game, evolving in design and color to enhance its visibility and functionality.

Beanbag Color Variations

While blue is the most common color for beanbags used in the NFL, other color variations exist depending on the league or situation. Here’s a breakdown:


Blue: The most commonly used color, particularly for marking fumbles and interceptions.

Black: Sometimes used for punts and kickoffs.

White: Occasionally used for marking the spot of the ball during a kickoff or punt return.

College Football

Orange: Primarily used in college football, particularly for marking fumbles.

Blue: Also used in college football, often alongside orange for differentiation.

Other Leagues

Red: Used in some leagues to mark penalties.

Yellow: Sometimes used for specific game situations or for marking challenges.

The choice of color ultimately depends on the league’s specific rules and preferences. Regardless of the color, the beanbag remains a vital tool for officials to maintain clear and accurate game management.

Common Misconceptions About the Beanbag

Despite its simple appearance, the beanbag often sparks confusion among viewers. Here are some common misconceptions about the beanbag:

Misconception 1: It Signals a Penalty

While flags are thrown to signal penalties, the beanbag itself doesn’t signify a penalty. It simply marks the location of a specific event on the field, like a fumble or the end of a kick.

Misconception 2: It Marks the Yardage Gained

While the location of the beanbag can be used to determine yardage gain or loss, it doesn’t directly represent the exact yardage. Officials still need to consult other markers and measurements to determine the official distance gained or lost.

Misconception 3: It’s a Sign of Challenge

While coaches can challenge specific calls during the game, the beanbag has no relation to challenges. It’s solely used to mark specific locations and plays on the field.

Fun Facts About the Beanbag

The humble beanbag has a fascinating history and holds a unique place in the world of football. Here are some fun facts to add to your football trivia bank:

The Origin of the Beanbag:

While the exact origin remains unknown, some speculate the beanbag originated as a practical and cost-effective alternative to flags. Another theory suggests it was initially used for practice drills before being adopted in official games.

Nicknames for the Beanbag:

The official term might be “beanbag,” but players and fans have given it various nicknames over the years. Some popular nicknames include “the marker,” “the blue bag,” and “the peanut.”

The Beanbag’s Role in Iconic NFL Moments:

The beanbag has played a silent role in some of the most iconic moments in NFL history. From marking the spot of game-winning catches to identifying crucial fumbles, the beanbag has been a silent witness to countless football triumphs.


The beanbag, often overlooked by viewers, plays a crucial role in maintaining the integrity and fairness of the game. Its versatility, durability, and safety make it a valuable tool for officials and contribute to a smoother and more accurate game experience. So, next time you see the blue beanbag land on the field, remember its vital function and appreciate its contribution to the beautiful game of NFL football.


What happens if the beanbag gets lost or damaged during the game?

If the beanbag gets lost or damaged, a replacement will be used as quickly as possible to avoid delays in the game. Officials typically carry extra beanbags on the field to ensure they’re readily available.

Can the beanbag be used to challenge a call?

No, the beanbag itself cannot be used to challenge a call. However, the location marked by the beanbag can be used as evidence to support or refute a challenge.

Can players touch or move the beanbag?

Players are not allowed to intentionally touch or move the beanbag. Doing so can result in a penalty against the offending team.

Who is responsible for retrieving the beanbag after it’s used?

The referee or another official is responsible for retrieving the beanbag after it’s used. This ensures it is readily available for future use and doesn’t become a distraction on the field.

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