The Basics of Football

Written by Laurie Selwitz

The team with the most points wins. There, it’s simple, isn’t it? Well, it’s a little more complicated than that, but the basic principles of the game are pretty simple.

The game consists of four fifteen-minute quarters of playing time, which equals out to be about three hours. I know, 4 X15 doesn’t exactly add up to three hours. But between scoring, time outs, and the clock stopping, you’ll be surprised how quickly one hour becomes three.

After the first and third quarter there is a two minute break, two sides switch sides, and play continues exactly where it left off. After the second quarter there is a fifteen minute intermission known as half time. No matter who has the ball, and where they have it, that’s it. The half is over and when the second half starts, they start fresh. (Although I don’t know how fresh they are, I don’t think they had time to shower.)

The object of the game is to move the ball down the field in order to score points. But just how that is accomplished is not so easy. The offense is given four tries to advance the ball (at least) ten yards, from the original line of scrimmage. Remember – each attempt, or play is called a down, starting the moment the ball is put into play, and ending when the ball is called dead. They can either: pass the ball – where the defense will attempt to either intercept (catch) or knock the ball away from the receiver or run the ball – where the defense will attempt to stop the ball carrier by either tackling or running him out of bounds. If a player steps on the sideline, he is out of bounds and the play is dead at that spot.

Now they don’t have to get those ten yards all at once. Like I said they have four tries to get them, but the ten yards are from the line of scrimmage. So, let’s say on the first down the quarterback throws a pass eight yards, but he drops back (takes a few steps back to give himself some room to throw) three yards while looking for an eligible receiver. He has only advanced five yards, known as a gain of five, because the ball only advanced five yards from the line of scrimmage. It is now second and five, meaning second down and five yards to go. (That’s a good phrase to know.) Now, if the quarterback had dropped back three yards and been sacked (tackled behind the line of scrimmage when in possession of the ball), it would have been second and thirteen – the original ten plus the three yards he lost when he was sacked. Remember if the quarterback throws an incomplete pass, there is no loss of yards, only a loss of a down. But if he is sacked, there is a loss of yards and a loss of a down.

Now the third down is very important. If the third down is successful – the offense gets the necessary yardage to complete the full ten yards – they start over. Four more tries to get ten more yards. But, if after the third down the offense has not been able to advance ten yards, it is the fourth down and they have three options:

  1. They can go for the fourth down.
  2. If they are in field goal range,they can go for the three points.
  3. They can punt.

If they go for it it’s usually because they only need a yard or even less, and they’re probably going to try and push their way through. They may pass the ball, but that’s not done often. Now if they get it, it’s another first down. If they don’t get it (the defense holds them back), not only do they lose possession of the ball, but the other team gains possession with good field position. But if they punt, at least they can get the ball deep into the opposing team’s territory.

If they go for it and make it, it’s first and ten. That’s known as a fourth down conversion. They’ve just “converted” that fourth down into another first down. Just as if they complete the ten yards on the third down, that would be a third down conversion. (Next time you’re watching the game with your guy, when your team is on it’s third down, ask him if thinks they’ll be able to convert. What? You’ve never seen him speechless before?)

Written for women who want to share (or survive) the tradition of watching the game, Men Are From Locker Rooms, Women Are From Luxury Boxes: A Woman’s Survival Guide to Understanding Spectator Sports explains the basics of baseball, basketball, football and hockey in an entertaining and easy to read format. With examples and glossaries for each sport, Selwitz’ book will have you yelling at the ref in no time.

Used with permission.

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16 Responses to “The Basics of Football”

  • Dawn Smith says:

    Thanks so much! My fiance passed in December and he was a huge Dallas Cowboy and Sooner fan. I decided to try to learn the game better in his honor. I used to watch with him and sometimes our friends but mostly just to be with him and them. This is also one way I can keep that connection with some of his friends who really loved him plus I feel I really need to know more about football if I’m going to continue to wear my Cowboys or Sooner t-shirts. So again, thank you and God bless!

  • Tom Tom says:

    Hannah–
    How about telling this guy you like that you really don’t know anything about football but would be glad to have him teach you. Maybe you could go to a game together and let him explain what’s happening.

    It’s always best to be honest up front, especially in relationships.

  • Hannah says:

    I was only trying to impress this guy I like, by acting like I knew football stuff. I honestley don’t understand football at all, and never will. But, this website would be awesome to anyone who was capable of learning football stuff

  • Elkay says:

    Lisa, thank you for your note because we appreciate knowing when someone has found an article to be helpful. If you don’t understand what’s going on in a game like football, it really isn’t fun to watch. I previously remarked how the athletic skills displayed are a testimony to God’s design of the human body with its amazing intricacy and interconnectedness. It is also one of His miracles that an injured body can repair and heal itself. Amazing Grace!

  • Lisa says:

    Good info for those trying to learn

  • Elkay says:

    Frank, I am glad that helped . . . watching football without knowing what is happening may be why so many don’t enjoy it. Some of the athletic talent displayed is a big testimony to the amazing intricacy of the human body, especially the ability to communicate with just the player’s eyes. Reminds me of Prov 21:2, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the hearts.” Enjoy your next game!!

  • Frank says:

    Thank you for the help I’m a dummy in football

  • Doris Beck Doris says:

    Good for you Ruth, for learning and wanting to learn about the basics of the game. It’s never to late to learn and asking questions is always a great way to learn it. My husband loves any and all sports so I have learned a lot and continue to learn about whatever new thing he is watching!

  • ruth says:

    Thank you, my son and grandsons played football. We never missed a game, but I didn’t really understand the technical aspects of the game this helped, especially the clarifications by Claire Colvin. You did forget to define some of the terminology in your tutorial.

  • Shelly says:

    Yay…thank you. This is very helpful.

  • It’s taken me a short while to read all of the comments, but I seriously loved the post. I am sure it will likely be very useful to me. It’s always a great surprise each time a post is both educational and entertaining! Thanks :)

  • halbcust says:

    The terms you used I will try to explain.
    Conversion – In Football a team is given a set number of attempts (downs) to move the football 10 yards into the opposing teams teritory. In US football that is 4 and in Canadian 3 times.

    A conversion is when a team accomphishes this. So for instance if your team moved the ball against my team 10 yards on your second try, that would be called a second down conversion.

    A punt. This is the strategy that if the team believes they will not be able to convert on the last try (down) they may decide to punt the ball. This is mainly done to give better field position. They will determine this by how much yardage is needed to convert. The position on the field and also the relative success they have had in the past (specifically against this opposing team).Punting is also done when the team believes that they are out of field goal range.

    Going for it is the term used when the team is on their last down they believe that the chance of conversion is good enough to risk the chance of losing possession of the ball. Going for it almost always means they will run the ball to try to convert. Running the ball is a lower risk play then passing and the hope of conversion is to maintain possession of the ball so that points will be socred.

    So going for it means risking losing possession by trying to convert on your final try (down).

    I hope that makes sense.

  • Claire Colvin Claire Colvin says:

    Jay – I am no expert, but in this context, punting is when a player drops the ball and kicks it downfield. The idea is to simply move the ball as far down the field as possible so when the opposing team takes their first down they have a lot more ground to cover. Ideally, they’d like to score with either a touchdown or a field goal but if neither of those is likely to happen on the fourth down punting at least makes it harder for the other guys to score.

    If a team can move the ball at least 10 yards down the field then they get another four downs to try and move the ball another 10 yards. That’s a conversion – they have converted the third or forth down into a new first down.

    When the author refers to “going for it” she means the team tries to push through and make the last few yards they need to either score a touchdown or complete 10 yards from the line of scrimmage.

  • Jay says:

    This partly helped me but left me with more questions. Still unsure about what conversion is and punt. Also what do you refer to when you say “they go for it”. Which option? This website is not for full on dummies like me. needs more info. Thanks tho for a partial understanding. :)

  • Jessica Hargreaves says:

    I have to say thank you for this… I myself am a huge football fan, the boyfriend not so much… this helped him understand it better than I could!

  • Zoro Fredrickton says:

    This helped me a lot! I have a football test in gym, and I honestly thought I was going to fail it. Until I found this website. thank you so much

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