American Football Rules (the Short Version!)

American Football Rules Book

The Official Rules of the NFL fill over one-hundred pages. The basic football rules you actually need to know to so that you can figure out what's going on (and maybe even enjoy the game) are summarized for you on this one little page.

It's sort of like all those new telephone devices that come with multiple-page instructions. Maybe you won't be able to create a major motion picture without reading the whole thing, but you can probably call your mother after page one.


Football Rules for the Structure of the Game:

  • Football is played on a rectangular field one hundred yards long x 160 yards wide, with a ten foot long area at each end called the end zone.
  • football field

  • There are two opposing teams of eleven players each, with each team having opposite halves of the football field as their 'territory.' The teams take turns at either being the Offense (having the ball in their possession and trying to score points) or the Defense (trying to stop the offense from scoring points).
  • Time of play is 60 minutes, divided into four fifteen-minute segments (called quarters). Yes, we know: you've never heard of a football game that lasted only an hour. That's because these guys take more time-outs than your average pre-schooler.


    Football Rules for Scoring Points:

  • Touchdown - scores six points if the ball is thrown or carried into the opponent's end zone.
  • Point after Touchdown/Extra point - as the names imply, after a touchdown is scored, the scoring team has an opportunity to score additional points by either kicking the ball between the goal posts in the end zone (one point) or throwing or carrying the ball into the end zone from two yards away (i.e., the two-yard line) for two additional points.
  • Field Goal - even if a team has failed to get into the end zone for a touchdown during their possession, they may feel they are close enough to exercise the option of kicking the ball between the goal posts for three points.
  • Safety - If an offensive player who has the ball in his possession gets stuck in his own end zone, and is tackled there by a defensive player, the defense is awarded two points. This, perhaps not surprisingly, is the most uncommon way to score points.


    Football Rules for Starting a Game:

  • The coin toss - before the game begins, the referee and team captains get together for a good old-fashioned coin toss, with the visiting team calling heads or tails. Winner gets to choose either to have his team start the game with the ball in their possession (receiving the kickoff) or picking which end of the field he wants for his team's 'territory.' The latter may not sound like a big deal, but sometimes having the sun in your face or the wind at your back can make a difference. In any event, the positions are reversed before the start of the third quarter (aka the beginning of the second half), and the ends of the field being defended are traded at the end of each quarter.
  • The kickoff - yes, a football game really does start with an actual kickoff. The football is kicked by the defense to the offense to start the action at the beginning of the game, at the beginning of the second half of the game, and after points have been scored.


    Football Rules for Playing a Game:

  • When a team has possession of the ball (i.e., they are 'on offense'), the object is to move the ball forward into the end zone, or, barring that, to move the ball a minimum of ten yards in four attempts (called downs, the first of each series being 'first down,' and so on). To make it easy to keep track of their success or failure ,the playing field has lines drawn across it at five-yard intervals, with the yard numbers noted every ten yards (as you can see in the above diagram of a football field).
  • If the offense fails to move the football forward the required ten yards, they must turn the ball over to their opponent.
  • If the offense takes all four downs and fails to move the ball the required ten yards, the ball is turned over to the other team at that point on the field. That is, the defense now becomes the offense at the exact place where the offense has been stopped.
  • The offense also has the option, on fourth down, of kicking the ball to the opponent when they have failed to make the requird ten yards and have too far to go to take a chance of making it on the remaining down. As you can see, if they have to turn over the ball to the opposition after failing to make ten yards in four downs, where they are on the playing field when this happens is key. If they are still closer to their own end zone than to that of their opponent, if they give the ball to their opponent at that place on the field, they have placed their opponent closer to being able to enter their end zone and score against them. In that case, they can (and usually do) use the option of kicking the ball to their opponent such that the ball winds up as far away from their end zone as possible.


  • There!!! All the football rules you need to know to distinguish an NFL game from that half-price sale at Filene's!


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