Football Rules

Rules and regulations for the game

Football has hundreds of different rules. Officials take classes in order to officiate a game of American football, just as someone would take a driver’s education class to learn to drive.

The college and pro games also have idiosyncratic rules, fashioned to handle the different levels in talent, or simply to make the game move along faster. Among the pro games, there are many differences in the rules structure.

That being said, there are certain basic football rules that are common to virtually all forms of American football. We will go over those below.

The Ball

A football is a spheroid shaped ball of inflated leather. It has stitches along one side, which are usually used to better grip the ball.

The team with control of the ball is said to have "possession", and it is this team’s goal to move the ball down the field and across the opponent’s goal line. If this happens, a score is made.

Player’s can move the ball by running with it, pitching it backwards to a teammate, handing it to a teammate, kicking it towards the goal post, or passing it over the opposition’s heads.

There are strict rules which limit the way in which each of these methods can be employed.

The Field

Football Rules - NFL Rules - NCAA RulesA football field is 120 yards long. On each end of the field is an end zone, and both of these are 10 yards long. The object of the game is to move the football into one of these end zones. Therefore, the field between the end zone markers is 100 yards exactly.

The field is 53 and 1/2 yards wide. The out of bounds is marked by a white line, which is called the boundary marker, boundary line or simply "out of bounds". When a player steps over this line, play stops.

Between the end zone lines, there is a yard line every five yards. Every other one of these yard lines is marked with a number, which from left to right read 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 40, 30, 20, 10. These are used to count the distance from the center of the field towards either of the end zone lines.

At the end of either end zone, there are goal posts. These post are 18.5 feet apart, and serve as targets for field goals and extra point attempts. Kicking the ball through these goal posts, also called uprights, yield 3 points for a field goal and 1 for an extra point.

Each yard is also marked with a yard dash, which are called "yard markets". These are used by referees, broadcasters and fans alike, to keep track of a team’s progress.

Football Gear

Organized tackle football requires players to use regulation football gear to reduce the risk of injury. For a full list of football equipment and how it works, take a look at this article on Football Gear.

Moving the Ball

In most American football rules, a team has four downs to move the ball ten yards. A "down" is simply a snap of the ball, which initiates a play.

As long as a team continues to attain the ten yard minimum, a team retains possession of the ball. Reaching the ten yards (or more) in the allotted number of plays is called "gaining a first down". This simply means a team receives a new set of down, and once again has four plays to make ten yards.

For the sake of field position, most teams punt on fourth down. This means that team usually use three down to get the ten yards, then yield possession of the ball on the fourth snap of the ball. Because a punt usually yields around 40 to 45 yards in field possession, it is often advantageous to force one opponent to go an extra forty yards, or four extra first downs. Games with little scoring, but lots of possessions which end in punts, are called field position battles.

Snapping the Ball

A football holdover from old Rugby rules is the snapping of the ball. A lineman, called the center, hikes the ball between his legs to the quarterback. This initiates a play sequence. Once the quarterback has possession of the ball, he tries to get the ball to his most athletic teammates. There are several ways of doing this.

Offensive Tactics

The simplest (and often most used) tactic is to hand the ball to a running back. The running back, sometimes called a halfback, has a combination of speed, agility and durability. This player will try to run behind his blockers, who are intent on creating a hole for him in the defense.

Running or rushing the ball, as it is called, is the basic football play, because it requires nothing more than blocking (pushing and shoving) and tackling (the ball carrier). This tends to wear down opposing defenses, though it also tends to yield fewer yards on average than a pass. Teams who run the ball often are considered conservative, and this might lead to too many punts.

Variations of handoffs include pitches, where a quarterback pitches the ball to the running back, in the hopes that back can get outside the mass of defenders quickly.

The Forward Pass

Passing the ball is when the quarterback steps back, surveys the field, finds an open receiver and throws it towards that receiver. This is usually done when the offense has a longer distance to travel for a first down, or when the offense wants to use speed and skill instead of brute force to move the ball down the field. Passing tends to yield longer plays, and it is the best means for moving the ball quickly down the field.

Teams with fast receivers and strong-armed quarterbacks will try deep passes, also called "bombs". These quick strikes can seize the momentum of a game for one team. This is considered a risky play.

One, for a deep pass to work, the quarterback must hold onto the ball for an extra second or two, to allow the play to develop. This means that the pass rushers have extra time to tackle the quarterback for a yardage loss, more commonly called "sacking" the quarterback. Deep passing opens up the possibility not only of losing yardage, but also causing harm to one’s quarterback.

Also, throwing the ball opens up the possibility of interceptions, where a defensive player can catch the ball and return it towards his opponent’s end zone. While a ball handler can fumble the ball while rushing with it, it is considered a more secure way of advancing the ball than throwing it.

An Incomplete Pass

When a quarterback throws the ball forward, but no one on either team catches the ball before it hits the ground, this is called an incomplete pass. The ball is returned to the original line of scrimmage and that particular down is lost. Therefore, if it was first down and ten yards to go, then after an incomplete pass, it becomes second down and ten yards to go.


There are many rules infractions in football. If one of the referees see an infraction, that official throws a yellow flag to signal that a penalty has occurred. After the play, the referees concur, where they determine the penalty yardage to be assigned.

Each rules infraction comes with a standard yardage penalty, which is usually between 5 and 15 yards. There are special situations where the yardage may be more or less, but those will be covered on the Football Penalties page.

Goal to Go

When a team wins a first down within ten yards of the opponent’s goal line, this is called "First Down and Goal to Go". This simply means the team has no chance of winning a new set of downs, and therefore must score within the next four plays or lose possession of the ball. Typically, on fourth down in this scenario, a team will attempt a field goal for three points.

The Red Zone

Anytime a team is within 20 yards of the opponent’s goal line, they are said to be in the red zone. This simply means that team has a prime scoring opportunity. Even if they cannot score the touchdown, that team has a relatively simple field goal opportunity.

Field Goal Range

Since field goals can be made from around 50 yards out (and sometimes more with good kickers), and the distance of field goals is figured by adding about 17 yards to the point at where the ball is snapped, a team is in "field goal range" if they are around the opponent’s 35 yard line. If a team is not in field goal range, that team will usually punt on fourth down.

Game Duration

NFL games are 60 minutes long. This is broken into four quarters of 15 minutes apiece. Every quarter, teams switch ends of the field. This is done to minimize the advantage one team might have in going with the wind, which can be a tremendous influence in the passing and kicking games.

High school games typically have 12-minute quarters.

The standard four quarters are called "regulation time" or "regulation play", or more simply regulation.


If after regulation play, both teams are tied, then many football games go to overtime. There are several different sets of overtime rules.

In the NFL, teams enter "sudden death" overtime. This means that the first team to score wins the game. Possession is determined by a coin toss, just like it is at the beginning of a game. Most fans assume it is advantageous to win possession in overtime with the coin toss, though the statistics show this is not necessarily true. Historically, the team winning the coin toss wins only about 47% of the games.

During the regular season, teams play one extra 15-minute quarter. If the teams are tied at the end of this overtime period, then the game is declared a tie. During the postseason, play continues until one team wins. At the end of the first period, the teams simply switch ends of the field they are defending.

NCAA Overtime

In college football, new overtime rules have gone into effect in recent years. Teams are given an equal chance to score.

In the first overtime period, one team is given the ball at the opponent’s 25 yard line. This team has four downs to either score or gain a new first down. Possession continues until that team either scores, runs out of downs or loses the ball due to turnover.

After the first team’s possession is over, the other team is allowed a chance to score. The ball is once again placed at the 25 yard line and the same possession rules apply. The team with the highest score (after each team has a possession) wins.

If after both possessions, called the "first overtime period", the score is tied, then a second overtime period begins. These periods continue until one team outscores the other. In this way, you might hear that one team won in the "third overtime". This simply means that it required three overtime periods before one team gained the advantage.

The Roster

Most teams have a much larger roster than the eleven man minimum unit. This both offensive, defensive and special teams units, along with backup players in case starters get hurt.

The full roster in the NFL is 53 men. The active roster is 45 men. These other eight are deactivated an hour or two before kickoff. This usually involves injured players or inexperienced players.

The full roster in college football might be among 80 and 100 players, or perhaps more. This includes all the players who are scholarship athletes, along with "walk on" athletes. "Walk ons" are students who win a spot on the roster through a tryout, and do not have a scholarship to play football.

The Offensive and Defensive Units

Each team is allowed 11 players on the field at a time. Most football teams have distinct "offensive" and "defensive" units. A team is on offense when it has possession of the ball. A team is on defense when it does not.

There are also transitional phases of the game, in which possession is being transferred or special scoring opportunities are taken. These are called special teams, though special teams is often referred to as the "kicking game". This is because special teams plays are the only time when kicking the football is appropriate.

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