Football Basics 101
If you are anything like me, you may have enjoyed watching American football for many years without really understanding everything that was going on. It was only after I developed a better knowledge of the rules and terminology of the game that I became a "true" fan. Since football is such a popular sport in the United States, you too may want to learn more about the ins-and-outs of this sport. (Note: this article focuses on the rules of the National Football League (NFL)).
In football you have two teams. The 11-man team that has possession of the football is called the offense. The goal of the offense is to advance the ball down the field either by running it or throwing it down the field. They score points by crossing the goal line and the area called the end zone.
The other team, which also has 11 players, is called the defense. It tries to stop the offense team from crossing into the end zone. The defense also tries to make the offense give up possession of the ball. If the offense does not score or is forced to give up possession, the offensive and defensive teams switch roles. This will continue, back and forth, until all four quarters of the game have been played.
Timing Within the Game
Football games are divided into four quarters. Each quarter is 15 minutes long. There are 2-minute breaks at the end of the first and third quarters (as teams change ends of the field). After the second quarter there is an extended 12-minute break (a period known as "halftime").
If a game is tied at the end of the fourth quarter, a 15-minute overtime period will be played. In the NFL, the first team to score wins (this is known as sudden death) . Possession in overtime is determined before the period begins by a coin toss.
The offensive team will have 40 seconds to snap off the football at the end of each play. The clock stops when a player is out of bounds, when a passing play is incomplete or when a penalty is called.
Although game time adds up to just one hour, it usually takes about three hours to play a game since teams can stop the clock by running out of bounds, throwing an incomplete pass, or calling a time-out (they each get three time-outs per game half). Time also stops at halftime and for each of the observed two minutes prior to the end of the second and fourth quarters.
A football field measures 100 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide (see diagram to the right). You will notice many different white lines all over the playing field. The white side lines and end lines delineate the outer boundaries of the field. Side lines are 100 yards long and run the outer length of the field, and end lines are 53 1/3 yards long and run the outer width of the field. If a player passes the side lines or end lines during a game he is considered out of bounds.
The white lines that run across the entire width of the field inside of the goal lines are the 5 yard line markers. And the little white hash marks that run the length of the field are 1 yard interval lines. They are used to help the players and officials keep track of the ball.
The 50 yard line is the center of the field. Note that even though a field is 100 yards long, you will only hear people refer up to the 50 yard line. After reaching the 50 yard line, the markers start to descend (40, 30,20,10) until reaching the goal line. Each team defends it own half of the field. You might hear someone say that the offense has the ball on its own 20 yard line. That means that they have 80 yards to go to score a touchdown. Or if the ball is on the defense's 20 yard line, then the offense only has 20 yards to go for a touchdown.
One of the most important parts of the field is the end zone. It's an additional 10 yards on each end of the field. There is also a goal post in each end zone which is 30 ft tall and 18 ft 6in apart. It is when the offense gets the ball into the opponent's end zone that they will score points.
From Kickoff to Tackling
A football game starts with the kickoff. A coin is literally tossed within three minutes of kickoff in center of field. The toss is called by the visiting team's captain before the coin is flipped. The winner of the coin toss chooses if they want to 1) receive or kick, or 2) pick which goal his team will defend. The losing team then gets the other privilege that was not chosen. The team that loses the coin toss at the beginning of the game would then get first choice to start the second half, meaning it would be their choice to defend a goal, kickoff, or receive the ball.
During kickoff, the ball is placed on a tee at the defense's 30-yard line, and a special kicker ("placekicker") kicks the ball to the offense. A kick return manfrom the offense will try to catch the ball and advance it by running. Wherever the kick return man is stopped is the point from which the offense will begin its plays. When a kickoff is caught in the offense's own end zone, the kick returner can either run the ball out of the end zone, or kneel in the end zone to signal a touchback (which is a sign to stop the play). The ball is then placed on the 20-yard line, which is where the offense begins play.
Each time the offense gets the ball, it has four downs, or chances, in which to gain 10 yards. If the offensive team successfully moves the ball 10 or more yards, it earns a first down, and another set of four downs. If they fail to gain 10 yards, the offense loses possession of the ball. The defense tries to prevent the offense from scoring and also from gaining the 10 yards needed for a first down. If the offense reaches fourth down, it usually punts the ball (kicks it away). This forces the other team to begin its drive further down the field.
Moving the Ball Down the Field
A play begins with the snap (i.e., a pass). At the line of scrimmage (the position on the field where the play begins), the quarterback calls out a play and the center (which is the player in front of him) snaps the ball under his legs to the quarterback. From there, the quarterback can either throw the ball, hand it off, or run with it himself.
There are two main ways for the offense to advance the ball. The first way is to run with the ball. The quarterback will hand the ball off to a running back, who then tries to gain as many yards as possible while eluding defensive players. The quarterback is also allowed to run with the ball.
The other alternative to running the ball is to pass or throw it. Usually, the quarterback does the passing, although anyone on the offensive team is allowed to pass the ball as long as the pass is thrown from behind the line of scrimmage. A pass is complete if the ball is caught by another offensive player. If the ball hits the ground before someone catches it, it is referred to as an incomplete pass.
The defense prevents the offense from advancing the ball by bringing the player holding the ball to the ground. A player is considered tackled when one or both of his knees touch the ground. The play is then over. A play will also end if a player runs out of bounds with the ball in his hands.
Each team has 3 separate sub-teams: 1) the offense (the team which has possession of the ball); 2) the defense (keep the offense from advancing toward the defense's end zone); and 3) special teams that only come for kicking situations (punts, field goals, and kickoffs). Only 11 players are on the field from one team at any one time.
The offensive players include (see diagram below):
- The quarterback- the leader of the team and the one that decides the plays. he calls signals and is the primary passer and ball handler. He occasionally runs the ball.
- The center - snaps the ball to the quarterback and blocks the defense.
- 2 guards and 2 tackles - keep the defensive players away.
- 2 or 4 wide receivers (i.e., pass catchers) - catch the ball thrown by the quarterback. They are usually the team's fastest receivers.
- 1 or 2 running backs - take the ball and run with it. Sometimes identified as halfback running backs or fullback running backs. A halfback runs, blocks, receives and sometimes throws passes. A fullback is an extremely powerful runner who is also expected to be a good blocker and pass receiver.
- 1 or 2 tight ends - block the defense and can also catches passes. They must be bigger and stronger than most receivers. The side of the offense formation with the tight end is referred to as the "strong side" (while the opposite end of the formation is referred to as the "weak side").
Note that only the quarterback, the wide receivers and tight ends, and the running backs can legally handle the ball.
The defensive players include (see diagram below):
- Linebackers - pursue running plays, defend against the pass, and push forward to stop the run or tackle the quarterback.
- The defensive line (ends and tackles) - battles head-to-head against the offensive line. They are the largest men on the defense because their job is to stop the running attack and rush the passer. They are permitted to use their hands against the blockers.
- Defensive backs (also known as cornerbacks and safeties) - defend against the pass from the quarterback to the wide receiver and help to stop the run. They are required to tackle much bigger runners, and on pass plays, they must have the speed to catch the fastest receivers.
Special teams come out onto the field during specific situations. They include a kickoff team, a kick return team, a punting team, a punt blocking and return team, a field goal and extra point team, amongst others. Special teams plays are important because they determine where the offense will begin each drive. This has a direct effect on how easy or difficult it will be for the offense to eventually score.
A football team will typically carry three special teams specialists on their roster:
- A kicker, who will kick off the ball and attempt field goals and extra points.
- A punter, who punts the ball when the offense is stopped.
- A long snapper, who is a specialized center used during punts, field goals, and extra point attempts. His job is to snap the ball as quickly and accurately as possible.
There are four ways to score points in football:
- Touchdown - 6 points. To score a touchdown, the ball must be carried across the goal line into the end zone, caught in the end zone, or a fumble recovered in the end zone, or an untouched kickoff recovered in the end zone by the kicking team.A touchdown is worth six points, and it allows the scoring team an opportunity to attempt to get an extra point.
- Extra point (1 point) and the Two-Point Conversion (2 points). Immediately following a touchdown, the ball is placed at the opponent's two-yard line, where the offense has two options: 1) If the offense successfully kicks the ball through the goal posts, it earns an extra point; 2) The offense can also score a two-point conversion by running or throwing the ball into the end zone in the same manner as you would score a touchdown.
- Field Goal = 3 Points. If the offense cannot score a touchdown, it may try to kick a field goal. Field goals are worth three points and can be attempted from anywhere on the field on any down. For a field goal to be "good", the field goal kicker must kick the ball through the goal-post uprights and over the crossbar. The defense tries to block the kick to stop the ball from reaching the goal post.
- Safety = 2 Points. A safety occurs when the offensive ball carrier is tackled behind his own goal line. A safety is worth two points.
Sometimes the offense accidentally turnovers the ball to the defense. This can happen in one of two ways:
- A Fumble - the ball carrier or passer drops the ball. Any player on the field can recover the ball by diving on it or he can run with it. The team that recovers a fumble either gets-or retains-possession of the ball.
- An Interception - the defense can regains possession of the ball by catching (intercepting) passes meant for players on the other team.
Both fumble recoveries and interceptions can be run back into the end zone for touchdowns.
Referee Hand Signals
Football referees employ hand signals during the course of a football game for a variety of purposes. The graphic below illustrates some of the most common ones that you are likely to see during a typical football game:
That concludes our overview of the game of football. If you are ready to put what you've learned in this article to the test, watch the following NFL video featuring the highlights of Super Bowl XLV (February 6th, 2011) to see how well you can now follow along with the spokespersons' commentaries now. I hope you'll keep on learning more about this fascinating game and continue enjoying it for years to come!