Football Down Cycle

Chapter 5.6

So you know what a scrimmage down is and that a team gets four of them when they get the ball. Get ready to learn how this cycle of four scrimmage downs works in football.

The Down Cycle

When a team first gets possession of the ball, they are given a set of four (4) scrimmage down to move the ball up and down the field toward the opposing team's end zone. The order of scrimmage downs goes like this:

Rookie Road Football Down Cycle Image

This is called the down cycle. When a team reaches the 1st down line, the down cycle resets and they are given a new set of four scrimmage downs.

First And What?

You may hear announcers say phrases like 1st & 10, 2nd & 8, 3rd & 1 or 4th & goal. This is just short-hand for describing the current scrimmage down and the distance to the 1st down line.

Rookie Road Football Down and Distance Image

You may also hear the phrase replaced with the word goal like 4th & goal.

Rookie Road Football Down and Distance Goal Image

The only difference here is that the 1st down line is the goal line.

Rookie Road Football 1st Down Line Goal Line Image

When The Down Cycle Resets

A team can reach the 1st down line on any scrimmage down. Once they do, the 1st down line is placed 10 yards away and the cycle starts over.

But, what happens if a team fails to reach the 1st down line after four (4) scrimmage downs?

Turnover On Downs

If a team fails to reach the 1st down line in four downs they must turn the ball over to the other team, for a turnover on downs. A turnover on downs is one of the five ways teams change possession of the ball in football that we will learn about in future chapters.


To prevent a turnover on downs, teams will usually go for a field goal or a punt on 4th down. This gives them a chance to either score points or gain strong field position.

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