Has There Ever Been An NFL Game Without Penalties

Some NFL games are like watching a traffic jam. Take Thanksgiving 2021, when the Dallas Cowboys Vs. Raiders had so many flags it was like flames from Mt. Vesuvius raining on the field. The game should have been an action-packed battle but was turned into a conference meeting. Not that fans want cheating. But have officials ever stood back, letting teams play football penalty-free?

There have been four NFL Games without penalties:

· Brooklyn Dodgers Vs. Pittsburgh Pirates – October 28, 1934

· Boston Redskins Vs. Brooklyn Dodgers – September 27, 1936

· Cleveland Rams Vs. Chicago Bears – October 9, 1938

· Pittsburgh Steelers Vs. Philadelphia Eagles – November 10, 1940

There hasn’t been an NFL penalty-free game since the 1940s. Some argue it’s impossible with today’s technology to have such a game without at least one penalty. But modern tech can’t be blamed for every blow of the whistle. After all, the record for the most penalties in any NFL game is 37 and occurred in 1951, Chicago Bears Vs. Cleveland Browns. Then again, TV was popular by then.

4 NFL Games With No Penalties

It’s difficult to say which book is bigger, the Bible or the NFL rule book. Even the penalty summary section could use a summary, and that’s not even counting the foul codes. You could tell fans there are rules on how players should breathe, and nobody would be surprised. (We made that up. We think.)

Thus, with seven officials and a rule book thicker than some kids are tall, it’s a miracle that any NFL game has ever been played without penalties. Yet, in American football, miracles can happen, and this one occurred four separate times.

1. NFL Brooklyn Dodgers Vs. Pittsburg Pirates 1934

On October 28, 1934, two NFL teams met up at Ebbets Field and made history, playing the first game with no penalties. Not that it made the Pittsburg Pirates feel any better about their 3-21 loss to the Brooklyn Dodgers. But the Pirates were young, only in their second year, and the Dodgers were twice that.

Dodgers opened in the first quarter with a touchdown by Jack Grossman. It looked like the Pirates might still have a chance when Armand Niccolai scored a 50-yard field goal shortly after. But, alas, that was the last time they’d score. Meanwhile, Grossman scored another touchdown in the fourth, followed by Ralph Kercheval.

But why was it penalty-free? Well, by all reports, the weather was terrible, and Tom Thorp, the referee, didn’t want any excuses to extend the game.

2. NFL Boston Redskins Vs. Brooklyn Dodgers 1936

Two years later, on September 28, 1836, at Ebbets Field, the Brooklyn Dodgers would pull the same penalty-free stunt. However, this time they lost the game. The Boston Redskins got them 14 to 3. The first touchdown was made by Cliff Battles, who ran 68-yards.

However, it isn’t clear why referee William Halloran and the three other officiators didn’t throw a flag. Maybe the teams were just really good at following the rules.

3. Cleveland Rams Vs. Chicago Bears, 1938

The NFL would have to wait another two years for another game without penalties. October 9, 1938, the Cleveland Rams beat the Chicago Bears at the Cleveland Stadium, 14 to 7. The Rams had scored touchdowns in the first and third quarters by Julie Alfonse and Carl Littlefield. Bert Johnson did a 5 yard rush after that, but it was too little too late.

So why didn’t referee Ed Cochrane and his team see any penalties? It remains a mystery.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers Vs. Philadelphia Eagles, 1940

Two years after that (see a pattern?) would be the last time an NFL game was played without penalties. It was November 10, 1940, and the Pittsburg Steelers were playing the Philadelphia Eagles at Forbes Field. The only touchdown was scored by Coley McDonough, who was third-string.

Once again, William Halloran was refereeing, and maybe he was just a man who valued his spare time. But then again, it was raining.


The NFL rule book is a heavy tome. Thus, the fact that games routinely rack up penalties is hardly surprising. What is astonishing is that four games managed to be played without a single one. It is a feat that is unlikely ever to happen again. But when it comes to football, miracles can and do happen.

Subscribe to NFL World

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.