Football Basics

Football Basics

American football is a game that has been around for over a hundred years. It has evolved into a hard-hitting, action-packed sport that millions watch each year. If you’re here, then you’re probably looking to learn some of the basics of this popular game. Read on to learn about all the basics of football!

How to Play

Football is played by two teams in the format of a 60-minute game, with four 15-minute quarters. The game takes place on either a grass or turf field that is 53 yards wide and 120 yards long (100 yards of field and two 10-yard “end zones”). Football games begin with a kickoff, where one team kicks the ball down the field to be received by the other team. The receiving team then becomes the offense, with the task of moving the ball down the field towards their end zone to score points.

Whenever they are in possession of the ball, offensive teams get four attempts, or “downs,” to reach a “first down,” which is 10 yards away from their starting point after the kickoff. If the 10 yards are not achieved in four downs, then the defensive team gains possession of the ball. However, most teams elect to “punt” the ball after three downs. Reaching a first down gives the offensive team four more downs to keep going. This goes on until either the offensive team scores points (explained below) or a “turnover” occurs, either by a fumble, an interception, a punt, or a turnover on downs

The team that scores more points by the end of the game is the winner. The result of the game is added to a team’s win-loss record, and at the end of the season, teams are chosen for the playoffs based on their records.

How to Score

In football, there are four ways a team can score, each of which has a different point value and is accomplished by performing different actions.

Touchdown

A touchdown is the most valuable action in the sport, scoring six points. In order to score a touchdown, a team must possess the ball while entering the end zone they are advancing towards. The ball can either be carried into the end zone or thrown to a player already standing inside the end zone. 

Field Goal

If a team is unable to score a touchdown but is close enough to the end zone, they may elect to go for a field goal. A field goal is worth three points and requires a member of the offensive team (the kicker) to kick the football through the uprights, which are located behind the end zone. Field goals are normally only attempted when a team is within “field goal range,” which is the range of distance in which a team’s kicker can conceivably make a kick.

Point After Touchdown (PAT)

After a touchdown is scored, a team can go for the point after. They have a choice of trying for one or two points. A one-point try is called an “extra point” and is the same process as a field goal, except it is from a set distance (the 15-yard line). A two-point try is called a “two-point conversion,” and it involves the offense running one play from the two-yard line. The offense must get the ball into the end zone on this play to be awarded the two points.

Safety

Safeties are rare and can only be scored by the defensive team. If a defender tackles an offensive player in their own end zone, they are awarded two points.

Timing

Football games use a clock to track the amount of time left in the game. College football and NFL games are split into four 15-minute quarters. There are breaks in between each quarter, as well as a longer break between the second and third quarters, known as halftime. The game clock stops throughout the game for timeouts, penalties, and stoppages in play. This means football games will last around three hours on average, much longer than the allotted time on the game clock.

A play clock is used to time each play and ensure that teams are not wasting time. In the NFL and college football, the play clock lasts 40 seconds. The play clock starts from the moment the previous play ends. In certain situations, such as after a timeout, penalty, or change of possession, the play clock is set to 25 seconds. 

Football Equipment

Besides the ball used in the game, football requires players to wear multiple pieces of protective equipment to keep players safe on the field. Pieces of equipment you will see football players wear include:

  • Helmets
  • Jerseys
  • Pants
  • Cleats
  • Shoulder Pads
  • Thigh/Hip/Knee Pads
  • Rib Protectors
  • Gloves
  • Mouth Guards
  • Girdles

Penalties

Football Penalties

In football, players are punished for breaking the rules. When this happens, they are given a penalty. Penalties most commonly result in teams losing yardage, which puts them at a disadvantage. Some of the most common football penalties include holding, offside, and false starts.

Terminology

Now that the basics of football have been covered let’s go through some football lingo, as well as some popular terminology that is used in the sport.

Audible: Calling an audible is when a team changes their play from the one originally planned by using an auditory or visual signal.

Backfield: The area of the field behind the offensive linemen, in which only four offensive players are allowed.

Blitz: A risky play that utilizes extra defenders attempting to tackle the quarterback.

Downfield: The part of the field controlled by the defense. If the offense moves the ball past the line of scrimmage, they are moving it downfield.

End Zone: A 10-yard deep by 53-yard wide area where touchdowns are scored.

Fair Catch: When a player signals to the referee that they do not intend to run after catching a kickoff or punt and instead accepts the field position where the catch is made. 

First Down: An imaginary line 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. It is displayed on television broadcasts as a yellow line projected on the field to help viewers.

Lateral: A pass made to a player that is either parallel to or behind the player making the pass. Lateral passes may be performed by any player, unlike forward passes.

Line of Scrimmage: An imaginary line that marks where the ball was placed at the end of the previous play. Teams cannot cross the line of scrimmage until a play has begun.

Neutral Zone: Often referred to synonymously with the line of scrimmage, the neutral zone is an imaginary area between the offensive and defensive lines, where players cannot enter until the ball is snapped (other than the center who snaps the ball). 

Pick Six: When a player on the defense intercepts a pass, then immediately runs the ball into the opposing team’s end zone to score a touchdown, scoring six points.

Punt: A drop kick by the offensive team to the defensive team. This action changes possession from team to team and is enacted on fourth down.

Sack: A sack is when a quarterback is tackled with the ball behind the line of scrimmage.

Snap: The start of every down in football when the center or long snapper hands or tosses the ball between their legs to the quarterback, holder, or punter.

Turnover: When the defensive team takes the ball away from the offense. This can be done as either an interception (catch a pass from the quarterback) or a fumble (pick up the ball from the ground).

Turnover on Downs: If a team fails to reach a first down in four tries, it is called a turnover on downs, and the defensive team receives possession of the ball. 

Upfield: Refers to the direction the offense is traveling to move toward the other team’s end zone.

Uprights: The goalposts of football, between which extra points and field goals are kicked,  are made up of a horizontal crossbar and two vertical uprights.

FAQ

How many yards must the offense gain to get a first down?

At all levels of football, the offense must advance ten yards from the original line of scrimmage to gain a new set of downs. If the offense takes a penalty during the set of downs, the first down marker does not move, and they still must gain ten yards from the start of the drive. If the offense does not gain at least ten yards within four downs, the ball will be turned over to the opposition.

How does football work?

In football, the objective is to score more points than the other team. A team tries to score points while they are on offense and try to stop the opponent from scoring points on defense. Football offenses move the ball down the field, toward the opposing team’s end zone, by either passing the ball through the air or carrying it on the ground. Teams primarily score points through touchdowns and field goals. A touchdown (six points) is scored when a player either carries the ball into the end zone or catches the ball in the end zone. A field goal (three points) is scored when a team’s kicker successfully kicks the ball through the goalposts behind the end zone. Teams are given four tries, known as downs, to move ten yards down the field; if they are successful, they are given another four tries. This continues until a team reaches the end zone or loses possession of the ball.

How does overtime work in football?

Sometimes, football games end regulation time with two teams having the same score: in these cases, a game will enter a period of extra time known as “overtime.” In the NFL, overtime consists of a 10-minute period played after the end of regulation time, in which each team gets a chance to possess the ball and attempt to score. The team to possess the ball first is determined by a coin toss, and the only way they can end the game without giving the other team a chance to score is if they score a touchdown on their opening drive. If a touchdown is not scored, the other team gets a chance to score, and if they do not score or fail to match the other team’s score, they will lose the game. If two teams are tied after overtime ends, the game is recorded as a tie. In the postseason, because a winner must be recorded, there are no limits to the number of overtime periods that can be played, though after four overtimes, continuous play begins until a winner is declared.