If you have recently been bitten by the football bug, or don’t follow football but want to watch the big game on Sunday, it’s not unusual to find yourself….well, a little lost. Most of us pretty much get the touchdown concept, but what’s all that other stuff going on? What’s a 1st down? Why did they kick a field goal? What’s a penalty? And why in the world do all those guys keep running on and off the field? Yes, football CAN be really confusing if you don’t understand the basic concepts of the game. Let’s try to fix that just a bit before Super Bowl Sunday with my take on Football 101!
This is how bad I once was when it came to football. I actually thought a “down” was when all of the players fell on top of one another. Embarrassing to actually admit this, but oh so true! So if I eventually came to understand the game, trust me, YOU absolutely can too! Ok, so no one is going to hire me at ESPN, but I can totally put myself in the shoes of a new, slightly baffled fan. Football is a complicated, strategic game, so over the next couple of days, I’m just going for the very basics and hopefully provide a little help before Super Bowl Sunday. So let’s get started!
The football field is measured in yards and the total length of the field of play is 100 yards. At each end of the field, is a goalpost, also called the “uprights.” Each team will try to drive the ball the length of the field of play to score points. Driving the ball just means moving the ball down the field toward the goalpost or “end zone.”
A football team is made up of groups of players who have specific jobs on the field. Players are part of the offense, the defense or special teams. Some players on specials teams also play on offense or defense. We’ll talk a little more about each of these groups, but let’s start at the very beginning of the game.
A football game is made up of four 15-minute time periods, called “quarters.” First quarter, second quarter, third quarter, and fourth quarter, with halftime between the second and third quarters. There is a “2 minute warning” at the end of the second and fourth quarters, which means there is two minutes left in the half or in the game. A quarter does NOT last just 15 minutes in actual time. Time stops for things such as timeouts, penalties, incomplete passes, when possession of the ball changes from offense to defense, if a player is injured, when a player runs out of bounds with the ball and of course, for commercial breaks!
The game starts with a coin toss. The team who wins the coin toss can choose to either “receive” or “defer.” If the team chooses to receive, they will get the ball first and their offense will be on the field. If they choose to defer, the other team will have the ball and their defense will be on the field. The job of the offense is to drive, or move, the ball toward the other team’s goalpost or end zone, to score points. The job of the defense is to stop the other team from moving the ball toward the end zone. Why a team chooses to receive or defer is, I think, part of each coach’s specific strategy for that particular game.
The game begins with the “kickoff.” The team who will be on defense first kicks the ball to the “receiving” team, who will be on offense. The players on special teams are responsible for the kickoff and kickoff return. A lot of things can happen during kickoff, but basically; the ball is either caught or picked up off the ground by a player on the receiving team, either on the field or in the zone; or, the ball is kicked beyond the “end line,” the line at the very back of the end zone. When the ball is kicked beyond the end line, it is a “touchback.” This means that the offense will start its drive on the 2o-yard line.
When a player on the receiving team catches the ball at kickoff, he can choose to advance the ball, which means running with the ball to gain additional yards to give better field position to the offense, or not run the ball. The special teams unit of the opposing team will be bearing down to tackle the player who receives or catches the ball, which pretty much determines whether or not the ball will be advanced. If the receiving team catches the ball in the end zone, they can either run with the ball or “take a knee” for a touchback. This means that the player does not want to advance the ball and the player is considering himself stopped.
A lot of things can happen during kickoff! A player can run the ball (called a kickoff return) for a few yards, a lot of yards or all the way down the field into the end zone for a touchdown. Along the way, a player can drop or lose the ball, called a “fumble.” More on that later!
Now, all those guys running on and off the field? After kickoff, special teams leaves the field and the offensive and defensive teams come onto the field. There are 11 players on offense and 11 players on defense.
Offense moves or “drives” the ball through a series of plays, starting with 1st down. (Which has absolutely nothing to do with players falling on the field!) A team must move or advance the ball ten yards to get a 1st down. Offense gets four tries to get a 1st down. Every time the offense gets a 1st down, they get four more tries for another 1st down.
We’ll get into some positions later, but let’s see if this helps you to understand 1st down. For example, let’s say the quarterback hands off the ball to a player to run; the player runs 3 yards and is stopped by the defense. At this point, it’s 2nd down. You may hear or see on the screen 2nd and 7; that means that the offense gained 3 yards, and now has three more tries to gain an additional 7 yards for a 1st down.
If the team gains the additional 7 yards before 4th down, they get another 1st down. Every time the offense gains a 1st down, they get to keep driving the ball down the field. You may hear the term “they moved the chains,” which just that the offense has advanced the ball 10 yards or more. The “chains” are a measuring tool used by the referees to mark on the sideline of the field the 10 yards needed to get a 1st down.
The offense will either “pass” or “run” the ball. The quarterback either throws a “pass” to another player, who catches the ball (or not!) and is either stopped by the defense or he runs the ball for additional yards. The ball is “run” when the quarterback hands it off to another offensive player to run the ball for additional yards. Whether the offense is running or passing, they are always working to advance the ball toward the goal line and the defense is always trying to stop them.
If at any point during the drive, the offense gets to 4th down, the coach will decide to do one of two things; the team will either “punt” the ball or they’ll “go for it on 4th.” This decision is dependent on a lot of things, but let’s say they “punt.” This means that special teams is back on the field and the team that was on offense kicks the ball back to the opposing team. Now teams will switch, with the team that was previously on offense bringing their defense on the field and vice versa.
A coach may decide to “go for it on 4th.” Let’s just say its 4th and 1 (1 yard to go for a 1st down) or 4th and inches (less than one yard to go.) Depending on how much time is left in the game, where the offense is on the field, e.g., how close they are to the end zone, what the score is and probably a million other considerations, a team may try to go for the yards needed to get a 1st down or score on 4th down. If they are successful and get the yards, they either get a 1st down and the drive stays alive or they score. If they go for it on 4th down and don’t get enough yards for a 1st down, the ball automatically goes to the other team’s offense right at the yard line where the play is stopped. At that point, there is no “punt.”
This is a lot to process (and to write) so it’s a wrap for today. Hopefully, this gives you a little basic knowledge about the game. More to come! Oh, and I take full responsibility for Football 101 – my lifetime, superfan husband is completely exonerated, though he has generously offered to be on clean-up and help answer questions!
Thank you for visiting today and six days until Super Bowl!