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American football may well be the country's most popular spectator sport. Every weekend, fans across the United States (and the world) gather to watch high school, collegiate, and professional action, cheering their favorites, wearing team colors and enjoying themselves all the while.
To someone who isn't familiar with the rules, the sport can seem a little confusing. But once you get the basics down, it's really a snap. Hopefully, this short football "lesson" will help you understand the basic rules and strategies of this great game.
The main focus of football, like any sport, is to score points. To do this, each team puts 11 men on the field. The team with the ball is referred to as the "offense" while the team without the ball is the "defense." The offense tries to move the ball across the length of the field to score points; if they get into the "end zone," their reward is six points. The defense tries to stop the opposing offense and get the ball back for their own offensive group.
A play consists of both teams lining up their 11 members in various formations. The offense starts the play by "snapping" the ball (the center places the ball between his legs, where the quarterback grabs it and starts the play). At this point, both teams spring into action. When the offensive player with the ball is tackled, the play is over, the referees place the ball in the spot where the ballcarrier was brought down, and the teams ready for the next play. This is the basic way the game is played.
A regulation football game is divided into four quarters of fifteen minutes each. Of course, the team with the highest score wins!
American Football is big -- and so is its field. The field measures 100 yards long and 53 yards wide (a yard = .9144 meter). Little white markings on the field called yard markers help the players, officials, and the fans keep track of the ball. Probably the most important part of the field is the end zone. It's an additional 10 yards on each end of the field. This is where the points add up! When the offense gets the ball into the opponent's end zone, they score six points.
Each team has 3 separate units: the offense, those players who are on the field when the team has possession of the ball; the defense, players who line up to stop the other team's offense; and special teams, players that only come in during kicking situations (punts, field goals, and kickoffs). Only 11 players are on the field from one team at any one time, and the uniforms they wear are sometimes as colorful as the game itself.
A game starts with the kickoff. The ball is placed on a kicking tee at the defense's 30-yard line, and a special kicker (a "placekicker") kicks the ball to the offense. A kick return man from the offense will try to catch the ball and advance it by running. Where he is stopped is the point from which the offense will begin its drive, or series of offensive plays. When a kickoff is caught in the offense's own end zone, the kick returner can either run the ball out of the end zone, or kneel in the end zone to signal a touchback; the ball is then placed on the 20-yard line, where the offense begins play.
All progress in a football game is measured in yards. The offensive team tries to get as much "yardage" as it can to try and move closer to the opponent's end zone. Each time the offense gets the ball, it has four downs, or chances, in which to gain 10 yards. If the offensive team successfully moves the ball 10 or more yards, it earns a first down, and another set of four downs. If the offense fails to gain 10 yards, it loses possession of the ball. The defense tries to prevent the offense not only from scoring, but also from gaining the 10 yards needed for a first down. If the offense reaches fourth down, it usually punts the ball (kicks it away). This forces the other team to begin its drive further down the field.
A play begins with the snap. At the line of scrimmage (the area where the ball is placed and both teams line up head-to-head before the play), the quarterback loudly calls out a play in code and the player in front of him, the center, passes, or snaps the ball under his legs to the quarterback. From there, the quarterback can either throw the ball, hand it off, or run with it.
Steve McNair prepares to throw a pass for the Titans.
The Offensive Players
Whichever team has possession of the ball is the offense. While only the quarterback, the wide receivers and tight ends and the running backs can legally handle the ball, it is the quarterback who is the leader of the team and the playmaker. In fact, he's a man of many talents -- he not only throws the ball, he outlines each play to his team. The quarterback is protected by the offensive line.
("QB") passes or hands off the ball. The center snaps the ball to the QB and blocks the defense. Two guards and two tackles keep the defense at bay. A combination of five wide receivers, tight ends and running backs take the ball from the QB (or the QB can keep it himself) and try to run with it towards the end zone.
There are two main ways for the offense to advance the ball. The first is called a run. This occurs when the quarterback hands the ball off to a running back, who then tries to gain as many yards as possible by eluding defensive players. The quarterback is also allowed to run with the ball.
The other alternative to running the ball is to throw it. Or as they say in football, pass it! Usually, the quarterback does the passing, though there are times when another player may pass the ball to confuse the defense. Actually, anyone on the offensive team is allowed to pass the ball as long as the pass is thrown from behind the line of scrimmage. A pass is complete if the ball is caught by another offensive player, usually the "wide receiver" (who receives passes) or "tight end" (who lines up at the "end" of the offensive formation). If the ball hits the ground before someone catches it, it is called an incomplete pass.
The job of the defense is to stop the offense! It's that simple. The 11 men on the defensive team all work together to keep the offense from advancing toward the defense's end zone.
The Defensive Players
Linebackers defend against the pass, and push forward to stop the run or tackle the QB. The defensive line (ends and tackles) battles head-to-head against the offensive line. Cornerbacks and safeties line up away from the line of scrimmage and defend against passes from the QB to the wide receivers, as well as helping stop the run.
A defensive player tackles the ballcarrier by bringing him down until one or both of his knees touch the ground. The play is then over. A play also ends when a player runs out of bounds. When this happens, the clock also stops running, making it a valuable strategy for late in games when the offense is trying to save time.
Special teams get their name from the special circumstances that they play in. Whenever a play doesn't involve a normal offense vs. defense matchup at the line of scrimmage, it is a special teams play. This is also referred to as the kicking game.
At the beginning of each half of play and after an offensive team scores a touchdown or field goal, a kickoff occurs. This is described in detail above.
Punts work similar to kickoffs, but usually occur on fourth down after an offensive team has failed to gain the required 10 yards to earn a first down. The punter lines up about 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and the ball is snapped all the way back to this specialized kicker. The punter then drops the ball onto his foot, kicking it away to the defense, which can return it in the same manner as a kickoff.
Field goals also usually occur on fourth down. A holder has the ball snapped to him about seven yards behind the line of scrimmage and then places it on one end for a placekicker. The placekicker then attempts to kick the ball through the goal posts at the back of the end zone. If the kicker is successful, the team gets three points and kicks off to the opposition. If he misses, the defensive team takes over the ball from where the kick was attempted.
Of course, the object of the game is to score the most points. There are four ways to score points in football.
Touchdown = 6 Points
A touchdown is the biggest single score in a football game. It is worth six points, and it allows the scoring team an opportunity to attempt to get an extra point. To score a touchdown, the ball must be carried across the goal line into the end zone by any of various ways (running, catching pass, recovering a "fumble").
Extra Point And The Two-Point Conversion = 1 or 2 Points:
Immediately following a touchdown, the ball is placed at the opponent's two-yard line, where the offense has two options. Usually the offense will kick an extra point, also called the point after touchdown, conversion, or PAT. If the offense successfully kicks the ball through the goal posts, it earns one point. The offense can also score two points by running or throwing the ball into the end zone in the same manner as you would score a touchdown. Since going for two points is more difficult than kicking an extra point, the offense generally chooses to kick the extra point.
Field Goal = 3 Points
If the offense cannot score a touchdown, it may try to kick a field goal. Field goals are worth three points and often are the deciding plays in the last seconds of close games. They can be attempted from anywhere on the field on any down, but generally are kicked from inside the defense's 45-yard line on fourth down. For a field goal to be "good," the placekicker (or field goal kicker) must kick the ball through the goal-post uprights and over the crossbar. The defense tries to block the kick and stop the ball from reaching the goal post.
In the NFL Europe League, field goals kicked from over 50 yards are worth 4 points.
Safety = 2 Points
A rarity, the safety is worth two points. A safety occurs when the offensive ball carrier is tackled behind his own goal line.
While trying to advance the football to the end zone, the offense may accidentally "turn the ball over" to the defense in one of two ways:
Oops! When the ball carrier, handler, or passer drops the ball, that's a fumble. Any player on the field can recover the ball by diving on it or he can run with it. The team that recovers a fumble gets (or retains) possession of the ball.
Any defensive player can make an interception and run with the ball. An aggressive defense can regain possession of the ball by catching (intercepting) passes meant for players on the other team.
Both fumble recoveries and interceptions can be run back into the end zone for touchdowns.
Hopefully, you now have a better idea of what the game of football is all about. We're certain that you'll get hooked now that you know what it is you're watching.