American Football: Basic Objectives and Scoring Methods

Updated on March 28, 2020
Lissa Clason profile image

Melissa loves learning about new things and sharing her knowledge with others.

For many Americans, football is a cornerstone of life, a religion encapsulated in an oblong brown ball. You'll find people gathered around their televisions any given Sunday, hugging and high-fiving each other as a burly, helmet-clad man runs to the end of a field with a ball. Or maybe they will shout at the referee for making a call against their team; their entire week may be ruined by a loss. Football inspires powerful emotions in the people that it touches, from the players to the coaches to the fans watching on their couches.

However, it's not that easy for everyone to understand the sport right off the bat. Maybe you are from another country where American football isn't played (to you, football might be the sport Americans call soccer), or maybe you're a wife or girlfriend who wants to understand why her significant other is yelling at the TV, or maybe you've just never experienced it and want to see what all the fuss is about.

Football can be a very complex game at times with so many people running around on the field, but it isn't as hard to get as you may think. This guide will help you understand the basics of the game so you can follow along with your friends.

Players prepared for a kickoff. No Charlie Brown shenanigans are allowed in the NFL, or players would receive a penalty.
Players prepared for a kickoff. No Charlie Brown shenanigans are allowed in the NFL, or players would receive a penalty.

The Playing Field and the Kickoff

A regulation football field is 120 yards long (for those who use the metric system, one yard is .914 meters), with a 10-yard area called an endzone on each side and an upright goal post at each endzone. Football is like a war over territory, with teams gaining yards to get closer to their opponent's endzone so they can score. This war is begun in the center of the field, where the team captains and the referee meet for a coin toss. The side that wins the coin toss gets to decide whether to kick the ball to the other team or to receive the ball from the other team. In the second half, it is reversed with the side that originally chose to kick receiving and vice versa.

A typical football field
A typical football field


Each team gets four chances to move ten yards towards the goal, and these chances are called downs. Once they move ten yards, they'll get another set of four downs. A play will end when the ball is tackled (the person holding the ball is thrown to the ground), thrown out of bounds, fumbled (dropped), or makes it into the endzone. The place where the ball was last becomes the new line of scrimmage, where the players start for each down.

So when a sports announcer says that the Patriots are at 1st and 10, for example, it means that it is their first down and they have ten yards to go to win another four downs. If a team cannot move ten yards with four chances, then the ball is given to the other team, and they will receive four downs to move it the other direction.

The war for territory. With modern games they'll put CGI arrows on the screen sometimes to denote plays or point things out for viewers at home to follow along.
The war for territory. With modern games they'll put CGI arrows on the screen sometimes to denote plays or point things out for viewers at home to follow along.

Touchdowns and Conversions

If a team does make it far enough down the field, however, they have several methods to score. The touchdown, which you may have heard of, gives a team six points and can be achieved by running with the ball into the opposing team's endzone, or by catching a pass while standing in the opponent's endzone. This is the most desirable way to score because it gives the most points, so touchdowns are usually the main goal of a football team.

After a successful touchdown is made, the team can make a conversion attempt, which will give them bonus points. More commonly, a team will try a one-point conversion attempt (sometimes called a PAT), where a special player called the kicker will try to kick the ball through the goalposts at the 2-yard line to earn one extra point. If a team wants to take a risk, they can go for a two-point conversion, where they have one chance to run the ball or pass the ball into the endzone, like another touchdown.

After a team scores, they kick off to the other team, and the process begins again with the other team on offense (possessing the ball and trying to score) and the team that just scored on defense (trying to prevent the other team from scoring).

A beautiful running touchdown, well, more like a dive. Many touchdowns are like that, it's a very action-filled sport.
A beautiful running touchdown, well, more like a dive. Many touchdowns are like that, it's a very action-filled sport.

Field Goals

The field goal, another way to score, is where the kicker kicks the ball through the goalposts for three points; unlike the one-point conversion, it does not have to be at the two-yard line but can occur at any place on the field. Often, field goals occur on the fourth down, as a last-chance attempt to score points against their opponent, and sometimes a well-timed field goal can win the game.

Some other things a team may do on a fourth down is punting the ball to the other team so they have to start far away from the endzone, or going for it and trying to get the remaining yards they require, which can be risky since if they do not make it the other team gets to start at the last place the ball was at, and maybe the other team will be very close to their endzone.


The last way to score is the ironically named safety (doesn't feel very safe for the receiver of the safety), which gives a team two points if they are really close to their opponent's endzone, and tackle their opponent in that endzone while they are in possession of the ball. Seeing your team get safetied can be a sad experience, since most of the time that it happens, your offense has not been moving up the field very well and has been losing yards to be pushed back into a corner.

Keeping track of where you are on the field is very important; I once saw a Michigan State game where a player thought he scored a touchdown, but he was in the wrong endzone! To make it worse, he tried to crowdsurf into the opposing team's marching band, and naturally, they backed away from the crazy guy leaping at them, and he fell flat on his face. It wasn't considered a safety since he was never tackled, but it easily could have become one if the other team had tackled him while he was in their endzone.


So now you know how scoring works in American football. It's a very fun sport and can be very fulfilling (and filling—Super Bowl snacks are the best!). Enjoy the games and root for your favorite team!

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© 2018 Melissa Clason


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