The football basics are not hard to understand. Bill Parcells, the Hall of Fame coach who long ago was dubbed a football genius by the sports media, is fond of saying football isn’t rocket science.
Covering the fundamentals of football makes the game a whole lot more fun to watch, so read the following and start to enjoy the football being watched in your house.
Football Field – How Football Is Played
On a college and pro level, football is played on a 100 yard long field which is also 50 yards across. Each yard is marked off on the field by a white dash, while every 5 yards are marked off by white lines running from sideline to sideline. Every 10 yards are marked with a number to indicate the part of the field you’re on: 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 40, 30, 20, 10. The middle of the field is the 50 yard line, while either side of this point is designated the part of the field belonging to the team defending that area – that is, with their backs to the goal line and/or end zone on that end of the field.
Scoring a Touchdown – How Football Is Played
The 100×50 yard field is the area being contested being contested by both teams, who hope to take a ball down length-wise, eventually reaching one of the end zone areas. These “end zones” are the same width as the field (50 yards), but only 10 yards deep. Carry the ball into the endzone area and you score points for your team – 6 points. Carrying the ball (or passing it) into the end zone is called a “touchdown”, and this also gives you a 1-play opportunity to add +1 point on a kick for an extra point, or +2 points by taking the ball into the end zone once more, starting from the 2-yard line.
Offensive and Defensive Units
Each team is allowed to have 11 players on the field at a time. When a team is in possession of the ball, they are called the “offensive unit” or the “team on offense”, because they are actively trying to move the ball down the field and score. When a team isn’t in possession of the ball, their players on the field are called the “defensive unit” or the “team on defense”. It is their job to stop the opponent from gaining ground, thus acquiring the ball for their team again. If they happen to cause a turnover and score a touchdown on their own, all the better, but this isn’t their job.
Also, there are special plays within the game during changes of possession, and the 11-man units on the field during these special plays are called “Special Teams” units. Special teams plays involve the kicking game, and often is referred to by players, coaches, commentators, and fans as the kicking game. These plays are kickoffs, punts, field goals, and extra point attempts. This is where football presumably takes its name from, since special teams plays are the only time a football player kicks the ball.
Possession of the Ball in Football
Possessing the ball in football is important, because this gives your team its best chance to score. When you first gain possession of the ball, your team is given four plays to advance the football. To initiate a play, one player must snap the ball between his legs to another player on the offense. The ball snapper is called the “center”, because he’s the center of the offensive line. The player receiving the ball on the snap is usually the “quarterback”, though in certain formations (single-wing or “Wildcat” offenses), the running back receives the snap. When the ball is snapped, this is the signal to all 22 players on the field that the play has started, and they can begin their offensive and defensive assignments.
When a play begins, the offense can run or pass the ball, in order to advance it. When running the ball, the runner tries to evade or break tackles, while all 11 defenders try to tackle him. When a tackle happens, or when the ball carrier runs out of bounds, the play is ended (by the referee blowing the whistle). When passing the ball, the quarterback drops back from the line of scrimmage (where the ball was snapped from), surveys the field, and finds an eligible receiver to throw the ball to. There are 5 eligible receivers on every play, including wide receivers, tight ends, h-backs, or running backs.
Offensive Line – Football Introduction
The 5 “down lineman” are not eligible receivers, but are specifically in the game to block defenders trying to reach the quarterback. They are called down linemen because they begin most plays in a “down position”, with one hand on the ground. One hand on the ground is a 3-point stance (1 hand, 2 feet), while two hands on the ground is a 4-point stance (2 hands, 2 feet touching the ground). In either case, they place their hands on the ground much like a sprinter would, to gain explosion when they drive off the line, but also in order to get low to the ground and gain leverage on their opponents. Knowing how to use leverage and footwork to block an opponent is called “technique”, while using speed, quickness, and leverage to get past a blocker is technique for a defensive lineman.
To complete a pass in football, the ball cannot hit the ground from the time it leaves the quarterback’s hand to the time it reaches the receiver’s hands. The receiver also must be “in-bounds” for the catch to be legal. In college football, the receiving player only has to have one football come down on the field of play while clutching the ball, while the receiving player in the NFL has to have both feet come down in the field of play. The defensive players can try to intercept the ball, which causes a change of possession, but the same rules for receptions apply to them.
4 Downs, 10 Yards
It was mentioned earlier that teams have four players to advance the ball. By this, I mean that teams have four plays to advance the ball 10 yards. If they do not get the ball ten yards on these four players, then the ball changes possession and the defense gets the ball at the point of the last tackle.
Football is not only a game of possession, but it’s also a game of “field position”. The further your opponent is from your end zone, the less chance they have to score a touchdown (by the percentages). Most often, teams choose to punt the ball away, if they haven’t reached the 10 yard point in 3 downs. They do this to change the position of the ball on the field, because most punters can kick the ball 40+ yards. For instance, if you 4th-&-5 on your own 30, and you punt the ball downfield to your opponent’s 30-yard line, they have 70 yards to go to score a touchdown, instead of 30 yards. The percentages of doing so are much less, so teams in that situation prefer to punt the ball – unless it’s late in the game and the team is desperate to score before the clock runs out.
Field Goals – Football 101
Another time when the kicking game becomes important is when a team can drive down the field into scoring position, but their drive stalls short of the endzone. When this happens, the offense has the option of attempting a field goal. The offense snaps the ball 7-8 yards behind the line of scrimmage to a holder, while another player (the field goal kicker) takes a running start at the ball and kicks it towards the goal posts at the back of the endzone.
These goal posts are aligned with the hash marks, and if the kicker can kick the ball through these posts, the team gets 3 points. This obviously isn’t as desirable as 7 points from a touchdown and conversion, but can be the difference in winning and losing in closely contested ballgames. Having a reliable field goal kicker (or not) could mean winning two or three extra games to NFL teams, especially if they are a team which depends on running the ball, playing tough defense, and winning close games. In any case, a team risks ruin if they don’t have a good kicker.
Football and the Game Clock
Unlike baseball, football has a game clock. The game is 60 minutes long, divided into four 15-minute quarters. Each quarter, the teams switch ends of the field, to account for the advantage of playing with/against the wind, or playing into the Sun, or playing at the closed off end of the field (crowd noise). Pop Warner football games might be significantly shorter, and 8 minutes per quarter is common in Pee Wee leagues.
The clock runs between plays, unless the last pass was incomplete. In the NFL, the clock stops when teams run out of bounds in the last 2 minutes of the first half, and the last 5 minutes of the second half. This is to allow teams trying to catch up chances to stop the clock on a drive. (This is a vestige of a time when the clock stopped anytime a player ran out of bounds, but the desire to keep games within a 3-hour time frame for the tv networks dictated these rule changes.)
Teams that are trying to save time often throw the ball more, while teams that are ahead and trying to run out the clock tend to run the ball more, in order to keep the clock running. Each team receives 3 timeouts per half.
Winning at Football
Winning at football on a basic level is about scoring more than your opponent. But what goes into winning is many things. Linemen have to block for quarterbacks and running backs, giving them time and space to make their plays. Receivers have to defeat their defenders, either getting wide open for an easy pass, or outfighting their opponent for a close-fought ball.
Quarterbacks have to find open receivers and make accurate throws, all the while sensing the oncoming rush (while not looking at the rush). Running backs need to stay on their feet, run past defenders, break tackles, and punish defenders. This wears out the opposing defense.
On the defense, the “front seven” (lineman, linebackers) must control the line of scrimmage, stopping running plays and putting the offense in 2nd and 3rd-&-long situations, where everyone knows the team has to pass. Then they must switch gears, rushing the passer, so he doesn’t have time to throw the ball.
Defensive backs must cover their receiver, giving the quarterback the smallest margin of error when he throws their way. They have to be opportunistic when the football is throw off-line or tipped on its flight to the receiver. These same defensive backs are the last line of defense when a runner or receiver breaks into the open field, and therefore they have to be ready to sacrifice their bodies to tackle bigger players running at all-out speeds.
To succeed, all football players, on one level or another, must exhibit strength, endurance, and technique, which comes through long hours of training and practicing football skills. All teams need skill position players to be fast, quick in evading tackles, and agile to stay on their feet.
Teams also need good coaching, to help them improve in all areas, but also to draw up offensive and defensive schemes to utilize their players’ talents the best, as well as draw up individual offensive and defensive plays to put their players in the best position to win. Finally, both coaches and players (on the high school level and beyond) study film of their opponents, to learn about their strengths, their weaknesses, and their tendencies.
Basic Football Information
As you can see, football is pretty basic, but at the same time, football has a lot of little things that make the game seem complicated to the new fan. Once you get down these basic concepts of football, watching a football game becomes fun, rewarding and entertaining. Remember, though, the game is a lot more entertaining if you care who wins and loses, so find a football team and become a fan.