Football Terms – Possession of the Ball
Possession specifically means "possession of the ball", meaning the team which is allowed the snap the ball at the start of the play. The offensive team snaps the ball, so a team that is on offense is said to have possession. Therefore, the term possession denotes which team is on offense and which is on defense.
Teams try to maintain possession of the ball, because this gives them a better chance to score, while keeping the opponent from actively attempting to score. To control possession, a team must continue to make first downs.
At the start of a possession, an offense has 4 plays to gain 10 yards. (It is 3 plays in Canadian football.) If the 10 yards are gained, then the offense receives a new set of downs. This new set of downs is called "getting a first down", because the play count starts at 1st down again.
Typically, if a team has not gained 10 yards by 4th down, the team chooses to punt the ball away to the other team. A punt is the offensive team willingly surrendering possession, though they kick the ball as far downfield as possible. This is predicated on the idea that the team is unlikely to attain a new 1st down on the 4th down play, if they were unable to move it ten yards on the first three attempts.
In this case, maintaining possession of the ball is subordinated to the need to gain "field position", effectively making it harder for the opponent to score.
Turnover of Possession
Besides punting, there are several other ways possession can change. After a score, the scoring team surrenders possession by "kicking off" the ball to the opponent. Once again, they seek to kick the ball as far downfield as possible, setting up a situation where the opponent has a long way to go to score. If the kicking team does not want to surrender possession of the ball, that team can attempt an onside kick, though at the risk of surrendering field position to the opponent in the likely event the onside kick does not work.
A more dramatic way to lose possession is the turnover. A turnover occurs when the ball is possessed by a player on the defense. The two main ways this occurs is through fumbling and intercepting the ball.
A fumble is when a ball carrier drops the ball, allowing all the players on the offense and defense to scramble for the ball. In this case, whichever player gains possession of the ball gains possession for his team. Fumbles usually occur when a defender pries the ball away from a ball carrier, or hits them so hard they drop the ball.
An interception occurs when a defender catches a pass from the quarterback instead of the quarterback’s intended receiver. Interceptions usually are made by defensive backs who read the eyes of the quarterback and break on the ball, or who get inside position on the wide receiver and winning the ball this way, or by catching the ball when it is tipped by another player.
If either an interception or fumble occur, the defensive team gets a new set of downs, and sends its offensive unit onto the field.
Time of Possession
Time of possession becomes a huge factor in many games. Offensive teams know where they are running, while defensive teams do not. Therefore, defenders must run around the field, trying to make up for their lack of foresight with hustle to the ball. Because offenses dictate play, defenses are reactive and all 11 players must chase the ball around the field. Therefore, defensive players tend to get exhausted quicker than offensive players.
This means that time of possession usually allows one team to tire and wear down the opponent quicker. Not only is the team with more time of possession receiving more opportunity to score, they are keeping the opponent from scoring opportunities as well as keeping their own defense fresh. All of these factors tend to aid a team in winning the ballgame.
Most coaches believe the best way to win the time of possession battle is to run the ball effectively. This keeps the clock running and slowly, methodically allows the offense to run down the field. Because the defense must fight off the blocks of large offensive linemen and gang tackle to bring down the running back, this tends to be particularly tiring to the defense. As the game wears on, it becomes harder for the defense to make tackles and regain possession.