How to Play American Football for Beginners

Updated on October 21, 2019
CarlySullens profile image

I love football and enjoy educating people on how the game works.

Learn how the sport of American football works.
Learn how the sport of American football works. | Source

What Is Football?

Football is a team sport that is played on a rectangular field. The object of the game is to get the oval-shaped football down the field, either by running it or passing it. The goal is to get the football into the opponent's end zone. There are various positions and rules at play, and this this article will explain the basics of the sport to those that are unfamiliar with it.

What Are the Rules of Football?

Here is a basic rundown of how a football game works.

  • Scoring is done by the team on offense. Their objective is to get the ball to the end zone of their opponent. This is done by either running or passing the ball down the field.
  • The team on offense has four downs to move the ball 10 yards forward. A down is basically an attempt to move the ball forward. If a team fails to advance 10 yards after four downs, the ball is turned over to the opposing team. (Note that the CFL only uses three downs.)
  • On the fourth down, a team has the option to either attempt a field goal or a punt. A field goal is usually attempted within 40 yards.
  • A game is divided into four quarters that last 15 minutes each. There is a halftime break between the second and third quarter.
  • A game usually begins with a coin flip between the team captains. Whoever wins the coin flip chooses to either kick off or receive the opening kickoff. The other team is given the same choice at the start of the second half.

Basic Football Info

Time: Football games are divided up into two halves or four quarters. The clock doesn't run all of the time. It gets stopped for timeouts and between certain plays.

  • In high school, each quarter is 12 minutes long.
  • In college and NFL, each quarter is 15 minutes.

Dimensions: The field is 100 yards (300 feet) long and 53 1/3 yards (160 feet) wide.

  • At each end of the field is an end zone. This area extends the field another 10 yards on each side.

Field Goal: Centered at the end of the end zone is the field goal. The bottom of the field goal is 10 feet high.

Field Position: Where the offense starts with the ball determines how far they have to go to score. Good field position can mean the difference between scoring or not scoring. Many times the team with the best field position throughout the game wins.

Jersey Numbers: Each player has a number on their jersey. In the NFL, certain positions must have a number within a certain range.

  • 1-9: Quarterback, kicker, punter
  • 10-19: Quarterback, wide receiver, kicker, punter
  • 20-29: Running back, cornerback, safety
  • 30-39: Running back, cornerback, safety
  • 40-49: Running back, tight end, cornerback, safety
  • 50-59: Offensive line, defensive line, linebacker
  • 60-69: Offensive line, defensive line
  • 70-79: Offensive line, defensive line
  • 80-89: Wide receiver, tight end
  • 90-99: Defensive line, linebacker

How to Score in Football

Points
Name
Definition
6
Touchdown
In order to score a touchdown, some portion of the ball must cross the goal line while it's in the possession of an offensive player.
1
Extra Point- After a touchdown
The kicker kicks the ball between the goalpost and above the crossbar.
2
Two-Point Conversion- After a touchdown
Instead of going for an extra point, the ball is taken across the goal line again as if scoring an immediate second touchdown.
3
Field Goal
The kicker kicks the ball between the goalpost and above the crossbar. This is attempted during the fourth down.
2
Safety
A safety is scored if the opponent travels backwards into their own endzone and is tackled in the end zone or steps out of bounds in the end zone.

What Is a Football Down?

A down is basically a football play, or the time when the ball is played. A down begins with a snap to the quarterback or kicker and ends when the ball or the player in possession of the ball is declared down by an official.

Downs usually end when:

  • The player with the ball is tackled.
  • The team scores.
  • The ball or player in possession of the ball steps out of bounds.
  • The player with the ball fumbles or drops the ball.
  • The quarterback throws an incomplete pass or deliberately throws the ball to the ground.
  • A player recovering the ball in their opponent's end zone after a kickoff drops to one knee.

When the team has possession of the football, their offense will have four downs to move the football 10 yards. If the offensive team gains 10 yards or more, than the downs start over. If they do not gain 10 yards within four tries, the opposing team gets possession of the football. If they fail at the fourth attempt, the other team gets possession of the ball at the spot where the ball last went down.

A team will usually punt the ball on their fourth try to get it as far away from the opponent's goal as they can.

When you hear the announcer say 2nd and 7, he is basically saying this is the second down and the offense needs to move the ball 7 more yards to complete 10 yards. After the 10 yards are completed, the downs will start over again, allowing the offense to get closer to the goal line and score.

Important downs and yards you will hear the announcer say include:

  • 1st and 10: This means the offense has possession of the ball and has 4 tries to move the ball 10 yards.
  • 1st and goal: This means the offense has possession of the ball and the goal line is within less than 10 yards; they have 4 tries to make a touchdown.
  • 4th and 2+: At this point, the offense has to decide if they will try to move the ball to gain another 1stdown, punt the ball to the other team to move it further away from the other team's goal line, or they could try for a field goal.
  • 4th and 1: Sometimes teams will try to move the ball one yard to gain another set of downs. If they fail, the other team gets possession of the ball at the spot where the ball was last downed.

Orange markers indicate the line to gain.
Orange markers indicate the line to gain. | Source

What Are the Orange Field Markers on the Football Field?

The orange field markers on the sidelines are used to help determine if the offense gained 10 yards. They are used when it is too close for the officials to determine if the football placement on the last play had indeed gained 10 yards or more. There is a chain between the two markers. When the makers all pulled tautly, they measure exactly 10 yards.

The number marker on the sidelines indicates what down the offense is playing.

A quarterback looking for a pass.
A quarterback looking for a pass. | Source

Football Positions: Offense

 
Position
Role in Game
Strengths
Famous Example
1
Center
In the middle of the offensive line, the center snaps the football to the quarterback, and then blocks.
Big, strong, able to block.
Mike Webster, Pittsburgh, Steelers
2
Left Guard
Protect the quarterback and open holes for the running backs.
Big, strong, able to block.
Jerry Kramer, Green Bay, Packers
3
Right Guard
Protect the quarterback and open holes for the running backs.
Big, strong, able to block.
Gene Upshaw, Oakland, Raiders
4
Left Tackle
Protect the quarterback.
Big, strong, able to block.
Anthony Munoz, Cincinnati, Bengals
5
Right Tackle
Protect the quarterback.
Big, strong, able to block.
Dan Dierdorf, St. Louis, Cardinals
6
Tight End
Tight ends are combination of offensive linemen and receivers.
Big, strong, fast, and have good hands.
Tony Gonzalez, Kansas City, Chiefs
7
Quarterback
The man in charge. He calls the signals to begin the plays. He is the primary ball handler. The quarterback may run with the ball, hand it off to a running back, or pass the football to a receiver.
Leadership, strong, good passer, be able to see the field, read the defense, and make good decisions quickly.
Brett Favre, Green Bay, Packers
8
Running Back
Full backs are a type of running back whose main job is to block. They usually run in front and block for another running back that is carrying the football
Strong, fast, and able to see the field and quickly cut toward openings in the defense.
Jim Brown, Cleveland, Browns
9
Running Back
Their main job is to carry the football, but running backs also need to block during pass plays.
Strong, fast, and able to see the field and quickly cut toward openings in the defense.
Walter Payton, Chicago, Bears
10
Wide Receiver
The main objective of these players is to get open and catch passes.
Speed, ability to catch the football.
Jerry Rice, San Francisco, 49ers
11
Wide Receiver
The main objective of these players is to get open and catch passes.
Speed, ability to catch the football.
Cris Carter, Minnesota, Vikings
Famous Football Players taken from http://bleacherreport.com
American football positions on the field.
American football positions on the field. | Source
A defensive tackle stopping the offense.
A defensive tackle stopping the offense. | Source

Football Positions: Defense

 
Position
Role in Game
Strengths
Famous Example
1
Middle Line Backer
Plays at the center of the Defense line.
Big, strong player who can clog up the middle and make it hard for the offensive team to run the ball.
Ray Lewis, Baltimore, Ravens
2
Defensive Tackle
Inside force of the defensive line.
Big, strong, able to tackle.
Joe Greene, Pittsburg, Steelers
3
Defensive Tackle
Inside force of the defensive line.
Big, strong, able to tackle.
Alan Page, Minnesota, Vikings
4
Defensive End
Main objective is to rush the passer and to keep any rushing plays from getting outside.
Big and strong, but also fast so they can get around the outside and to the quarterback.
Gino Marchetti, Baltimore, Colts
5
Defensive End
Main objective is to rush the passer and to keep any rushing plays from getting outside.
Big and strong, but also fast so they can get around the outside and to the quarterback.
Reggie White, Green Bay, Packers
6
Line Backer
Usually the main tacklers on the defense.
Fast and good tacklers.
Lawrence Taylor, New York, Giants
7
Line Backer
Usually the main tacklers on the defense.
Fast and good tacklers.
Dick Butkus, Chicago, Bears
8
Corner Back
Cover the wide receivers and try to prevent them from catching a pass, also help line backers.
Speed, able to read plays.
Richard Sherman, Seattle, Seahawks
9
Corner Back
Cover the wide receivers and try to prevent them from catching a pass, also help line backers.
Speed, able to read plays.
Charles Tillman, Chicago, Bears
10
Safety
Safeties are there to prevent big plays. At least one safety tries to stay behind the wide receivers if they should pass the cornerbacks.
Speed, good tackler.
Chuck Cecil, Houston, Oilers
11
Safety
Safeties are there to prevent big plays. At least one safety tries to stay behind the wide receivers if they should pass the cornerbacks.
Speed, good tackler.
Ronnie Lott, San Francisco, 49ers
Famous Football Players taken from http://bleacherreport.com
A punter in the act of kicking a ball.
A punter in the act of kicking a ball. | Source

What Are Special Teams?

Offensive and defensive teams play a considerable amount of time in a football game, but there is a third set of players that play an important role in every game—the special teams.

The special teams include:

  • The kickoff unit.
  • The punting unit.
  • The punt return and kickoff return unit.
  • The field goal and extra point unit.

The kickers are members of the special teams in football. They have very specialized skills and roles to play in the game.

Football Positions: Special Teams

 
Position
Role in Game
Strengths
Famous Example
1
Punter
Kicks punts.
Flexibility, strong legs, able to control his distance to stop the ball inside the 20 yard line.
Ray Guy, Oakland, Raiders
2
Field Goal kicker
Kicks field goals and extra points.
Flexibility, strong legs, able to perform under pressure.
Adam Vinatieri, Indianapolis, Colts
3
Holder
Holds the ball for the field goal kicker.
Able to catch, steady, able to pass if needed.
Steve Weatherford, New York, Giants
4
Long Snapper
Snaps the ball to the punter.
Strong, good listener.
Patrick Mannelly, Chicago, Bears
Famous Football Players taken from http://bleacherreport.com
The line of scrimmage between two teams.
The line of scrimmage between two teams. | Source

List of Football Penalties

Here is a list of common penalties that can occur in a football game.

  • Blocking below the waist: This is an illegal block below the waist from either an offensive or defensive player.
  • Block in the back: This is when a blocker tackles a non-ballcarrying opponent from behind and above the waist.
  • Chop block: This is when an offensive player hits a cut block (a hit at the knees) on a defending player that is already being blocked by another offensive player.
  • Clipping: A blocker hits a non-ballcarrying opponent from behind and below the waist.
  • Delay of game: This is any type of action that delays the next play.
  • Encroachment: This is when a defensive player crosses the line of scrimmage before the snap and makes contact with an opposing player.
  • Face mask: This is when a player grabs an opponent's face mask while attempting a block or tackle.
  • False start: This is when an offensive player illegally moves before the snap of the ball.
  • Helmet-to-helmet collision: This is when a player's helmet collides with another helmet.
  • Holding: This is pulling or grabbing an opponent besides the ball carrier while attempting to prevent a block or to cover a receiver.
  • Horse-collar tackle: This is tackling another player by grabbing inside their shoulder pads or jersey.
  • Ineligible receiver downfield: This is when a receiver is past the line of scrimmage before the forward pass.
  • Intentional grounding: This is when a forward pass is intentionally thrown as incomplete. This is typically done to avoid the loss of yardage or to stall for time.
  • Pass interference: This is making contact with the intended receiver after the ball has been thrown and before it has been touched by another player.
  • Roughing the passer: This is when a defender continues to try to tackle a passer after they have thrown the ball.
  • Roughing the kicker: This is when a defender tackles a kicker after failing to block a kick.
  • Spearing: This is when you tackle an opponent with your helmet.
  • Unfair act: This refers to any type of flagrant and illegal act that can have a major impact o the game.
  • Unsportsmanlike conduct: This refers to any action or manner of speaking that is deemed as objectionable by officials.

How Is the National Football League Organized?

Here is a quick rundown of how the NFL is structured and how the season is played out.

  • The NFL consists of 32 teams. The league is divided into two conferences; the National Football Conference and the American Football Conference. Each conference consists of 16 teams.
  • Each conference consists of four divisions (East, North, South, and West). There are four teams within each division.
  • After the 16-week regular season, the top team from each division will go to the playoffs. They will be seeded one through four. The top two teams will get a bye in the first round and go on to the divisional playoffs.
  • After the division winners have placed, the next best two teams from the conference will be selected as wild cards. These two teams will compete with the division winners that placed as the third and fourth seed.
  • The winners of the first round of the playoffs will face the first and second seed teams in the divisional playoffs. The winners from this round will then compete in the Conference Championship game.
  • The NFC champions and AFC champions will then face each other in the Super Bowl.

Do you enjoy watching football?

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© 2013 Carly Sullens

Comments

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  • CarlySullens profile imageAUTHOR

    Carly Sullens 

    16 months ago from St. Louis, Missouri

    Thank you for the feedback Thatcher.

  • profile image

    your mama 

    19 months ago

    awesome

  • profile image

    xxricky 

    21 months ago

    it is very helpful now when in grow up im a try to be a pro

  • profile image

    ethan 

    22 months ago

    awesome instructions

  • profile image

    Thatcher 

    23 months ago

    Nice hub! I would like you to tell me more about footbal

  • profile image

    Christopher 

    2 years ago

    Good good good.

  • CarlySullens profile imageAUTHOR

    Carly Sullens 

    6 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

    Hi Rose, I am glad you understand football a lot better. Thank you for sharing and voting up. It is always appreciated.

  • CarlySullens profile imageAUTHOR

    Carly Sullens 

    6 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

    jdw7979, thank you! I appreciate your comments.

  • rose-the planner profile image

    rose-the planner 

    6 years ago from Toronto, Ontario-Canada

    Wow.......this is an amazing article! It has definitely helped me to understand the sport a lot better. It's no wonder that you made HOTD, this was excellent. Congratulations and thank you for sharing. (Voted Up) -Rose

  • profile image

    jdw7979 

    6 years ago

    Nice hub! I enjoyed the read, and as a former player and current fan, appreciate the ideas and work put into this HUB..

  • CarlySullens profile imageAUTHOR

    Carly Sullens 

    6 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

    TeaPartyCrashers, I like your idea of adding common offensive and defensive plays. I think I will make another hub for that, because this one is already lengthy and I wanted to keep the information as simple as I could as not to overwhelm the reader who knows little to nothing about football. Thank you for the suggestions!

  • CarlySullens profile imageAUTHOR

    Carly Sullens 

    6 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

    Cyndi, thank you for reading and commenting. I am glad this hub can help you understand this game a little bit more.

  • CarlySullens profile imageAUTHOR

    Carly Sullens 

    6 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

    Toyasting, Thank you for stopping by, reading and commenting. I hope your brother enjoys the hub.

  • CarlySullens profile imageAUTHOR

    Carly Sullens 

    6 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

    thebiologyofleah, I am glad this hub pulls it all together for you. It is a hard sport to learn because of all the intricacies of the rules, positions, etc. However, once you 'get it,' the game becomes that more exciting because you understand exactly what the offensive and defensive need to accomplish in order to win.

  • thebiologyofleah profile image

    Leah Kennedy-Jangraw 

    6 years ago from Massachusetts

    Great Hub, very deserving of Hub of the Day. I was so excited to see this when I logged on because I have been meaning to read up on the basics of football. I enjoy watching with my family during the season and I understand the very basics but this article helps tie everything together for me. Thank you!

  • Toytasting profile image

    Toy Tasting 

    6 years ago from Mumbai

    Carly, This was an interesting read. I shall send the link to my brother, he just loves this sport. Congratulations on HOTD! Cheers :)

  • cclitgirl profile image

    Cynthia Calhoun 

    6 years ago from Western NC

    Haha...congrats on HOTD! And a great topic, too. I know NOTHING about football, but I'll come here when I need a refresher. :)

  • TeaPartyCrasher profile image

    TeaPartyCrasher 

    6 years ago from Camp Hill, PA

    One quick note, I have never heard the term "Place Holder" used; usually that person is just called the "Holder".

    May I suggest for part 2, you look at common offensive plays like the sweep, trap, screen pass, etc. Also looking at some basic defensive alignments 4-3 and 3-4 as well as blitzing, etc.

  • CarlySullens profile imageAUTHOR

    Carly Sullens 

    6 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

    Thank you ParadigmEnacted. It is a good rough outline and simple for those who are just learning the game.

  • ParadigmEnacted profile image

    ParadigmEnacted 

    6 years ago

    Good rough outline. I'd recommend this to certain people.

  • CarlySullens profile imageAUTHOR

    Carly Sullens 

    6 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

    Chace, I think many people, mom's and women especially like football but do not really understand. Once you understand it better I think the game becomes that much more exciting. I hope she likes the hub.

  • CarlySullens profile imageAUTHOR

    Carly Sullens 

    6 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

    aud99, I am glad this hub helped. I didn't know Australia had a football . Something I would like to know more about. :)

  • CarlySullens profile imageAUTHOR

    Carly Sullens 

    6 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

    Tara, thank you for stopping by. The different positions and their names is where I too need to keep studying. I like that in the pros the number ranges indicate the positions. That is helpful when spotting single players from the team.

  • NornsMercy profile image

    Chace 

    6 years ago from Charlotte, NC

    Awesome hub! :) Great layout and I love the tables. My mother needs to read this because she loves football but has no idea how it works... I think she just watches it for the dudes, lol!

  • aud99 profile image

    Audrey 

    6 years ago

    I can never understand American football. I can understand Australian football though. I think that is simpler in terms of the rules. Now, if I'm confused about the game, I know where to read up on it!

  • profile image

    Tara 

    6 years ago

    Loved it! Lets play ball! The kids and I enjoyed learning about the different positions. I will keep this close by when the season starts..

  • CarlySullens profile imageAUTHOR

    Carly Sullens 

    6 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

    Thank You MsDora. When I was a little girl my dad was my interpreter. I asked a lot of questions, but it helped make the game more exciting because I could understand what I was cheering for.

  • MsDora profile image

    Dora Weithers 

    6 years ago from The Caribbean

    I had no idea about the jersey numbers. As a rule, I only watch the game if I'm with an interpreter. This is having lived in the US for most of my life. You did a very good job in explanations. Another HOB? Great job!

  • CarlySullens profile imageAUTHOR

    Carly Sullens 

    6 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

    pmarinov, I am glad it helps. Thank you for voting up and sharing.

  • pmarinov profile image

    Blogger at Best 

    6 years ago from Detroit MI

    Very detailed and well written hub!

    Thank you, this hub will be very helpful to people outside the US who are just getting into the American Football world.

    Voted up and useful!

  • Ericdierker profile image

    Eric Dierker 

    6 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

    I go through it a couple of times a year as my better half's family comes where there is no such thing, but they can see it on satellite.

  • CarlySullens profile imageAUTHOR

    Carly Sullens 

    6 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

    Thank you Eric. It did take some time. I hope it would be useful to those who are trying to understand this amazing sport.

  • Ericdierker profile image

    Eric Dierker 

    6 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

    Just wonderful. Well done -- this took some work. I like it!

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