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How to Understand American Football: A Primer

I love watching American football at the collegiate and professional levels.

How Does Football Work?

The goal of this article is to teach the basics of American football to anyone who doesn't know the game. I have written this from the perspective of what you see and hear on TV. For a person new to the game of American football, the TV announcers may as well be speaking in a foreign tongue. This article will make it fun for you to watch a game. It will also save you from that lousy feeling of being an outsider when watching a game with friends or family. Once you know the basics, you can then learn as you go. Maybe, just maybe, you can learn to love this wonderful game. I'm not writing this for the wives of football fans. I have met many women whose knowledge of football exceeds mine. I'm writing this for anyone who just wants to get to know the game of American football. Canadian football is also similar to American football.

This article will not go into the differences between the pro teams in the NFL (National Football League) and college and high school football. There are differences, but it isn't necessary for a newcomer to know them.

American football is not to be confused with the great worldwide game of soccer, which is also known as football, or futball, or futbol. With all deference to our soccer friends, they are correct in saying that American football isn't really football, because, with a few exceptions, the game is not played with one's feet. Our soccer friends are correct. American football really shouldn't be called football. But it is, and it's not going to change.

The Object of the Game

Like any team sport, the object of football is to score more points than your opponent during the time allocated. I told you this article was about basics.

The Football Field

The field is exactly 120 yards long, which includes 10 yards on either side for the end zones (described later). It is 160 feet wide. At the end of the field are, appropriately enough, end lines also known as goal lines. The horizontal stripes across the field are called yard lines. They are placed every five yards. The idea here is to give players, and fans, an idea of where they are on the field. The yard lines are marked every 10 feet, so there is a 10, 20, 30, 40, and the 50-yard line, which is the middle of the field of play. They then go back down: 40, 30, 20, and 10. Hash marks are those short lines (one yard in length) that are marked between the yard lines as a further aid in telling where you are.

Offense and Defense

The team that "has the ball" or "has possession" is known as the offense. Their job is to move the football down the field and score. The job of the defense is to prevent the offense from scoring. Simple as that.

The Players

Each side can have 11 players on the field. The offense is led by the quarterback, who may be described as the field manager. He usually gets the ball right after it is "snapped" by a guy called a center. The folks who line up in a straight line on either side of the ball are known as linemen. The others are "backs."

Offensive Football Positions

  • Center: This player starts the play by snapping the ball to the quarterback. They have to call blocking assignments and block defensive players.
  • Offensive guard: These offensive linemen block on passing and running plays. They could leave their position to block for a player running the ball.
  • Offensive tackle: These linemen play outside the guards to block on running and passing plays. The tackle on the opposite of the quarterback's throwing arm is assigned to cover their blind side since the QB will typically have their back to that side.
  • Quarterback: This is the most critical offensive player. Their main responsibility is to get the ball down the field, usually by making a forward pass. They can also run the ball or hand it to an eligible carrier.
  • Running back: These players get handed the ball from the QB to execute a rushing play. They can also serve as blockers if a passing play is made.
  • Wide receiver: These quick players try to find an opening in the field where they can get a pass from the quarterback. They can occasionally block if a rushing play is called.
  • Tight end: This is a hybrid role that serves as an offensive linemen as well as a wide receiver. Tight ends typically block, but they can serve as eligible receivers on passing plays.

Defensive Football Positions

  • Defensive tackle: These players are at the center of the defensive line. Their main goal is to attack the passer and prevent rushing plays.
  • Defensive end: These players are located outside the defensive tackles. Their objective is to attack the passer and stop running plays. They usually try to prevent rushing plays near the edges of the line of scrimmage.
  • Middle linebacker: This linebacker is often regarded as the quarterback of the defense. They are the ones that call defensive plays. They have to stop running backs who break through the defensive line, offer coverage for passing plays, and rush the quarterback during a blitz.
  • Outside linebacker: The role of the outside linebacker can vary based on the situation. They can cover tight ends and running backs on passing plays, cover a running back on rushing plays, or rush a quarterback.
  • Cornerback: These are quick defensive players that cover wide receivers. Their goal is to swat or intercept a pass. In a rushing play, they will try to direct a runner into the linebackers.
  • Safety: These players are the last line of defense. They cover receivers in the backfield.

Special Team Positions

  • Kicker: These players kick the ball that is being held by a placeholder. They kick during a kickoff or a field goal attempt.
  • Kickoff specialist: These are kickers that exclusively kick for kickoffs. They typically don't have the talent to reliably score field goals.
  • Punter: These are kickers that punt the ball after a snap. They do this when they want to give the ball to the defensive team and want to send it far down the field.
  • Holder: This is the player that holds the ball for a kicker. They require good hands to take a snap to start a play.
  • Long snapper: This is a specialized center that can snap the ball to a holder for a kickoff. They have to throw the ball further than what is seen in normal offensive plays.
  • Kick returner: This player catches a kickoff and runs the ball back. They are usually a wide receiver or cornerback since the position requires speed.
The football commitee meeting

The football commitee meeting

The Huddle

This is like a committee meeting where the committee chairman, the quarterback, tells his teammates what play they are going to use. Most teams "call in" a play from the coach, but some quarterbacks, such as Peyton Manning during most of his career, call the play. Plays have crazy scrambled names, such as "23 skidoo brown on three." This may mean that the quarterback will hand the ball to a certain player, who will run to the right (because brown may be a codeword for right) between two linemen. "On three" means that the ball will be "snapped" on the quarterback's count of three.

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The Snap

When the center gets the ball to the quarterback, this is known as "the snap." If the quarterback is "lined up under the center," he is right behind and actually touching the center. The center then puts the ball right into the quarterback's hands. A "shotgun formation" means that the quarterback is lined up a few feet behind the center, who snaps it over that distance to the waiting hands of the quarterback. Centers see the world from an upside-down and backward position. The count usually sounds like: "hut one, hut two, hut three." The count is designed to be simple and easy for the players to hear because the fans in the stadium may be screaming.

End Zone

This is the area at either end of the field where the scoring gets done (except for a field goal, which I will discuss later). The end zone is 10 yards deep and runs the width of the field. If a player runs into the end zone or catches a pass in the end zone, he scores a touchdown.


Downs are the basic arithmetic of American football. The team that has possession (the offense) gets four tries to move forward 10 yards and get a "first down," and thereby keep possession of the ball. Say, for example, that the New York Giants are playing the Washington Commanders, and the Giants take possession of the ball on their own 36-yard line. They have to advance the ball 10 yards to the 46-yard line in order to keep possession. If they do so, the Giants get another four downs to move the ball another 10 yards, at least to the 44-yard line (46 to the 50 is four yards, and then it counts down from the 50 to the 44). The Giants would then be in their opponents "territory." An announcer would likely say, "The Giants have the ball in Washington territory on the 44-yard line."

Fourth Down

This down deserves special mention because understanding it will enhance your enjoyment of the game. Say the offense hasn't moved the ball 10 yards yet, and it's now fourth down. Big deal? Yes, this is a very big deal. The offense can try to accumulate the remaining yards to get a first down, but it's risky. There are two big factors here. First, if the offense has been pushed back and has actually lost ground on its set of downs, say it's fourth (down) and 18, it is a long shot to get that many yards in one play. The other big factor in a fourth down situation is field position. Let's say you're on the 20-yard line on your opponent's end of the field (your opponent's territory). If you don't get a first down, your opponent takes possession. They only have to move the ball 20 yards to score, which is a scary situation. So what do you do? See the next section.


On a fourth down, to keep the opponent from an easy path to a possible score, the offense will choose to punt. The ball gets snapped to a skilled punter, who will kick the ball as far downfield as possible. The punting team then tries to tackle the opposing player who catches the punt before he gains much yardage. Often, when the guy about to catch a punt sees a bunch of opposing players charging at him, he will call for a fair catch by raising his right hand. If he does so, nobody is allowed to tackle him, and the ball is spotted where he caught it. Okay, so you didn't get a first down in your four attempts, but at least a good punt may give your opponent a long way to score. This is when you hear the announcer say something like, "The Giants left themselves with great field position with that punt."


There are four ways to score in American football.

  • Touchdown: If a player runs into or catches the ball in the end zone, he scores a touchdown (and typically performs a dance). This is worth six points.
  • Conversion: Nothing is really being converted, but that's what it's called. The typical conversion is a kick, also known as the "point after touchdown" (PAT) or just a "point after." Because the ball is placed or "spotted" on the two-yard line, this is a very easy kick and almost always succeeds unless there is a problem with the snap. The kicker must kick the ball over the horizontal crossbar and between the two upright bars. This field goal will be worth one point. The touchdown scoring team can also opt for a two-point conversion by running or passing into the end zone. This is much riskier than a kick, so it's seldom attempted unless it's late in the game. That one extra point can mean the difference between winning and losing.
  • Field goal: This action is performed the same way as a point after touchdown, but a successful kick is three points. A field goal is usually attempted on a fourth down because a kick is less risky than a pass or run, especially if there is a long way to the goal line. The longest field goal was 66 yards.
  • Safety: A safety is a two-point score that occurs when the defense tackles an offensive player with the ball in his own end zone. It's the only way that the defense can score points.

Key Plays

An NFL playbook, the document that players must memorize, can be as long as 800 pages. Because the purpose of this article is to simplify football and give you the basics, I will not go over all of the variations of plays possible. But there are certain plays that you will hear the announcer discuss, and it helps to be aware of them.

  • Draw Play. When the play starts, it looks like it's going to be a pass play. The quarterback takes the snap from center and runs back to throw. Instead of passing, he hands the ball off to a running back. It's called a draw because it "draws" the defending lineman in to tackle the quarterback only to find he doesn't have the ball. The idea is for the running back to drive past the onrushing defenders who are after the quarterback.
  • Play-Action Pass. This is the opposite of a draw play. It should be called a fake run because that's what it is. When the quarterback takes the snap, he fakes a handoff to a running back charging toward the line. While the defenders are trying to tackle the guy who they think has the ball, the field beyond the line of scrimmage is opened up for the quarterback to pass the ball.
  • Flea Flicker. This is a variation of the play-action pass. The quarterback gets the snap and hands off or tosses the ball to a running back. The running back then tosses the ball back to the quarterback who attempts a pass play. This is a very risky play, and it can often result in a turnover.
  • Quarterback Sneak. This play is attempted when there is a very short distance to the first down line or the goal line. The quarterback takes the snap and attempts to lunge over the line. It isn't an easy play because defensive linemen expect a sneak play when the distance is short.


A game will usually have a team commit some type of violation of the rules. When this happens, the referees will call a penalty. A penalty will typically cost the offending team some yardage. A penalty against a defending team will usually give their opponent an automatic first down. There are dozens of penalties in the game, so here are just a few of the common ones.

  • Delay of game: This refers to any action that delays the game. This can happen when you fail to snap the ball before the play clock hits zero, or when you spike a ball after a play.
  • Face mask: This occurs when a player grabs or pulls on a face mask.
  • False start: This is when an offensive player moves before a snap and the start of a play.
  • Holding: This is when you grab or pull a player that is not the ball carrier.
  • Pass interference: This is when contact is made with an intended receiver after the ball is thrown but before contact with the ball is made.
  • Personal foul: This refers to any kind of unnecessary roughness.
  • Roughing the passer: This is when the defense continues to try to hit the passer after the ball is thrown.

How Does the NFL and Playoffs Work?

The NFL is divided into two conferences, the American Football Conference and National Football Conference. Each conference is made up of 16 teams, so there are 32 teams in total. Each conference is divided up into four divisions; East, West, North, and South. Each team plays 17 games in the regular season.

NFL Postseason

Seven teams will get into the playoffs based on their record in the regular season. In each conference, there will be four division champions. These are the teams with the best record in their respective division. There will also be three wild card teams. These are the teams with the next best winning records in the conference.

The first round of the postseason will be the wild card playoffs. This will see the three wild card teams play against the division champions seeded two through four. The winners will go on into the divisional playoffs. The number one seeded division champion will get a bye into the divisional playoffs. The winners of that round will go into the conference championship game. The winners of that game will go to the Super Bowl.

Now You Know

Football is a fascinating game. It is based not only on athletics but on strategy. Knowing the basics of the game makes for a fun experience. You can now impress your friends after a play by saying, "He should have called a play-action pass."

© 2012 Russ Moran - The Write Stuff


Lukas on July 24, 2020:

helpful article for newbies

Anne Harrison from Australia on September 25, 2015:

Great article - and congratulations on HOTD! As an Australian, I've never understood American football, completely different from our own games (I think it's all the protective gear!). Many thanks for enlightening me

Thomas F. Wuthrich from Michigan on September 25, 2015:

A terrific outline of the basics! SusanSales is correct, but the mistake in the Fourth Down paragraph is easily corrected.

SusanSaies on September 25, 2015:

Excuse me, but there appears to be a very big error in this Hub of the Day. In the section on Fourth Down, the writer states that being on the 20 yard line in your opponents territory is a dangerous place to be! No, no, no...this is a great place to be, because the team in that position can kick a field goal and get 3 points. What the writer surely meant to say that 4th down on your own territory is dangerous, not your opponent's territory. That's the situation where if you don't make 1st down, the opponent takes possession of the ball right there, and has only 20 yards to for a touchdown.

I'm really surprised that whoever chose this hub for Hub of the Day didn't notice this very important mistake.

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on September 25, 2015:

I've sort of understood the game for a long time, now, and what I find annoying is how they can turn a game that is supposed to last an hour (4 quarters of 15 minutes each) into a 3 or 4 hour marathon with all their time-outs, challenges, and so forth.

Your explanations are very good for newcomers to the sport, but one term you called a "quarterback sneak," my circle (and some announcers I've heard) also call it a "quarterback keeper." Minor difference, I'm sure.

Also, an explanation of the term "offsides" would be helpful.

Well done, even though I'm not a big sports fan. Congratulations on HOTD!

Russ Moran - The Write Stuff (author) from Long Island, New York on September 25, 2015:

So true, it's definitely "football" but it's a great sport

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on September 25, 2015:

Very interesting description of the game and the entire processes involved in it. The basic difference is that it is not played with your feet. That is quite funny seeing the name of the sport.

Thanks for sharing all this wonderful knowledge.

Russ Moran - The Write Stuff (author) from Long Island, New York on September 25, 2015:

Thanks for you comment, Sunshine.

Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on September 25, 2015:

Excellent educational article about football. Thank you for my learning lesson of the day! :)

Russ Moran - The Write Stuff (author) from Long Island, New York on September 25, 2015:

Thanks Susan. Glad you enjoyed it. Tis the season.

Russ Moran - The Write Stuff (author) from Long Island, New York on September 25, 2015:

Thanks Kristen.

Susan Deppner from Arkansas USA on September 25, 2015:

Most of what I know about football I learned from my sons - and I'm glad I did. We've made some great game-day memories through the years. I've never really understood a safety, but I guess it really is as simple as you describe it here. Thanks for a great beginner's guide and congrats on HOTD honors today!

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on September 25, 2015:

Great hub on football, Russ. It's clearly well detailed on how football games work. Congrats on HOTD!

Russ Moran - The Write Stuff (author) from Long Island, New York on November 29, 2014:

Thanks Larry

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on November 28, 2014:

Great article. A good breakdown of the basics to those new to the sport.

rfmoran on September 10, 2014:

Thanks Katya. The game is more fun when you understand the rules.

Katya Drake from Wisconsin on September 10, 2014:

I love football and I am so excited that it is football season!!! I have some friends who do not understand the game and this article breaks it down well for them. Very well written!

Russ Moran - The Write Stuff (author) from Long Island, New York on December 08, 2012:

Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Eric Cramer from Chicagoland on December 08, 2012:

I love football! Very well written Hub. Voted up!

Russ Moran - The Write Stuff (author) from Long Island, New York on November 15, 2012:

Just think Alocsin. Now you can proudly host a super bowl party

Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on November 15, 2012:

The game has been a total mystery to me, since I spent most of my childhood in another country. Thanks for covering the basics. Voting this Up and Useful.

Drew Breezzy from somewhere in my mind on November 07, 2012:

Explain a pick 6! My female friends think that is a beer reference.

Russ Moran - The Write Stuff (author) from Long Island, New York on October 19, 2012:

Thanks Linda. Remember, when in doubt just say "The quarterback should have called a play action pass."

Linda Chechar from Arizona on October 19, 2012:

I think I know the basics of football, but that's enough considering I only having a passing interest in the game. (At least I know when to clap and cheer!) Thanks for shedding some light on the subject! I lived in South America for three years and didn't understand the intricacies of futbol (soccer). I can only imagine what they would think about American football!

JP Carlos from Quezon CIty, Phlippines on October 16, 2012:

I'm from the Philippines and Basketball is seems to be a top team game here. After the success of our soccer team in many international games, it is increasing its fan base. As for Americal football, I'm begging to enjoy the game. My Aunt from California keeps on ranting about this game so I decided to watch one. It's crazy! You really need to be fit to play this game. I appreciate the quick reference guide to the game. It makes it a lot more interesting now that I know what's happening. :)

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 16, 2012:

I do love the game but I wonder what someone from Europe thinks of it. Notice you didn't try to explain the Wildcat or Triple Option Offenses...LOL....good job my friend!

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