Football 101: A Foolproof Guide to the Game

Are you tired of feeling out of the loop once the football season starts? If your family is hooked on the sport, instead of trying to find ways to unplug the TV without them noticing, why not learn why they're into the game in the first place?

The object of the game
The primary object of football is to advance the ball into the end zone and score the most points. When a team has possession of the ball and is trying to score a touchdown, they are called the "offense." When a team does not have possession of the ball and is trying to prevent the other team from advancing or scoring points, they are called the "defense."

Numbers to know

  • Length of the football field: 100 yards (not including the end zones)
  • Length of the end zones: 10 yards each
  • Length of quarters per game: 15 minutes (but they seem to last forever)
  • Number of players on the field per team: 11

Advancing the ball
The ball is advanced in two ways: running and passing. "Running" is when a player literally runs as far as he can with the ball; usually, either the quarterback runs with the ball or he "hands it off" to another player. "Passing" is when a player throws the ball forward to another player on his team. Generally, it is the quarterback throwing to a "wide receiver."

Scoring points
A team scores the most points when they run or pass the ball into the opposing team's end zone -- an action called a "touchdown." Touchdowns are each worth six points, though points can be earned in other ways throughout the game. When a team is on offense, they aim to score touchdowns and rack up points, but when a team is on defense, they aim to stop the other team by "tackling," or knocking the player holding the ball to the ground.

The four downs
Basically, each team has four chances to go 10 yards with the ball, before possession of the ball is given back to the other team. Each chance is called a "down," so, for example, when a team first gets possession of the ball, the referee will say, "First and 10," meaning that it is the first down and the team has the full 10 yards to go. During each down, a "play," or strategy, is used to best move the ball down the field. During each play, only one forward pass is allowed, but lateral or backward passes are always acceptable.

Advance, punt or kick
After three plays, on the fourth down, if the team has not yet moved the ball 10 yards, they have three options. They can once again try to gain the remaining yards by running or passing, which is called "going for it on the fourth down." They can return the ball to the other team by kicking it down the field (called "punting"), so that the other team then has a farther distance to go with the ball before they can score a touchdown. Or they can bring a "holder" and "kicker" out onto the field and attempt to score a three-point field goal by kicking the ball through the "goalpost" in the end zone.

Touchdowns
If the team is successful at advancing the ball on the field and manages to score a touchdown, they then have two options. They can try to kick an "extra point," which looks just like a field goal but is only worth one point. Or they can attempt a "two point conversion." In this scenario, the ball is placed on the three-yard line and the team attempts to run or pass it into the end zone. If this is successful, the team earns two more points.

Penalties
When a player breaks the rules of the game, it is called a "penalty." If a referee notices that a player has broken the rules, he will throw a yellow flag, and then move the ball position back 5, 10 or 15 yards as punishment, depending on the severity of the penalty. Some common penalties include:

  • Illegal motion: When the offensive team moves before the ball is put into motion, or "hiked"; although the defensive team is allowed to move horizontally before the ball is hiked, offensive players are not allowed to move an inch
  • Offsides: When a defensive player moves too far forward and crosses the line of scrimmage before the ball is hiked
  • Delay of game: When the offense takes too much time before hiking the ball
  • Holding: When a player grabs onto another player and literally holds or restrains him
  • Pass interference: When a defensive player interferes with a receiver before he has caught an incoming pass
  • Face mask: Pulling a player by his face mask
  • Unnecessary roughness: Hitting a player when he is down, out of bounds or the play is already over; spearing another player with one's helmet; punching; etc.

Words to know
If you really want to impress the boys, try throwing some of the following keywords into the mix:

  • Fumble: When a player loses possession of the ball during play (it is usually knocked out of his hands by another player)
  • Interception: When a pass meant for the offense is caught by a defensive player
  • Return: When a player runs with the ball after a fumble, interception, kickoff or punt
  • Line of scrimmage: The imaginary line that bisects the field where the ball is placed and the players take position
  • Safety: When the defense tackles an offensive player with the ball within his own end zone (worth two points) -- not to be confused with the defensive position, also called "safety"
  • Blitz: The pressure tactic by which defensive players abandon their positions in order to rush the quarterback and "sack" him
  • Sack: The act of rushing the quarterback and tackling him to the ground while he is behind the line of scrimmage
  • Block: When an offensive player gets in the way of a defensive player so that he cannot get to the ball carrier
  • Incomplete pass: A pass that is not caught
  • Timeouts: Breaks in play during which the clock is stopped (each team has three per half)
  • Special teams: All the players that are on the field for field goals, kickoffs and punts
  • Bomb: A long pass play
  • Hail Mary: A desperation pass at the end of a half or game
  • Snap: To hike the ball
  • Heisman Trophy: The award given to the college football player of the year

Don't forget to ask questions
Are you afraid to ask football questions for fear of sounding stupid? Don't be! The football aficionados in your family love to play the expert and show everything they know about the ins and outs of the game. Here are a few intelligent questions to ask that will make you look good and feel more informed at the same time.

  • How are they (your team) playing lately? (Winning/losing streak, chance of making the playoffs, etc.)
  • How are their (your team's) draft picks doing so far?
  • What is the (your team's) offensive game plan strategy?

With this know-how, you'll soon be high-fiving after touchdowns and doing your best end-zone dance with the rest of the family.

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