Football 101: The Rules
The football field is 120 yards (360 feet) long and 160 feet wide. It is bounded all around by the out-of-bounds markers, or sidelines. On each end of the field, there are 10-yard end zones. The beginning boundary line of each end zone is called the goal line. The goal line is actually in the end zone. A player with the ball in his possession scores a touchdown when the ball is on, above, or over the goal line. This makes the actual playing field 100 yards long. The field is marked in 5-yard intervals by yard lines that extend the width of the field. In between there yard lines are hash marks located at 1-yard intervals. These markings make it easy to determine field position, gain, and penalty yardage.
The home team must have 36 balls available for testing with a pressure gauge by the referee two hours prior to the starting time of the game to meet with League requirements. Twelve new footballs, sealed in a special box and shipped by the manufacturer, will be opened in the officials' locker room two hours prior to the starting time of the game. These balls are to be specially marked with the letter "k" and used exclusively for the kicking game.
There are 22 players on the field during a game – 11 on each team. Only 11 men per team can be on the field at the snap or it is a penalty. Unlimited substitution is permitted, but players may only enter the field when the ball is dead. Players being substituted must leave the field quickly or face a possible unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Players not in the game must be out of bounds on their own side before a snap or kick.
Within three minutes of kickoff, the captains from each team and the referee meet at the center of the field for the coin toss. The coin toss determines in which position each team will begin - kicking or receiving. The referee flips the coin and the captain of the visiting team will call heads or tails while the coin is in the air. The winner of the toss can choose to either kick off or to receive the kickoff and which goal they will defend. Most teams, without fail, will choose to receive the kickoff. First possession means first chance to score. The referee will then announce the winning team's choice and which goal the receiving team will be defending. If a game ends in a tie (other than a preseason game) a coin toss is used at the beginning of sudden-death overtime to determine possession.
Each stadium has an official game clock. If it stops or is operating incorrectly, the line judge becomes the official timekeeper. There are four periods in the game of football called quarters. In professional football, each of these four periods contains 15 minutes of actual playing time. The game contains a 15-minute intermission after the second quarter called halftime. There are two play clocks, one at each end of the field. The play clock begins counting down from 40 when the referee places the ball and blows his whistle. The offense is given 40 seconds to put the ball in play or they will receive a penalty for delay of game. The play clock is set at only 25 seconds after a time out, change of possession, measurement, or other administrative delays. The same delay of game penalty applies to the 25 second setting. The game clock continues to run throughout the game unless the clock is stopped. The game clocks stops for the following:
• The ball goes out of bounds
• A team or an official calls timeout
• A forward pass is incomplete
• The ball is dead in or beyond an end zone
• The play comes to an end after a penalty flag is thrown
• A player makes a fair catch (only on kickoffs)
• A player is injured
Two Minute Warning
When there are two minutes remaining at the end of a half, the referee calls time-out and gives the two-minute warning. The clock may run a bit under two minutes because the clock can't be stopped while a play is in motion. If a kickoff occurs during the last two minutes, the clock doesn't start until the ball is touched by a player while it's inbounds. Normally, the clock starts as soon as the ball is kicked. Another "special" feature of the final two minutes of a half is that, during this time, an injury time-out is a charged time-out. At any other time in the game, a time-out isn't charged for an injured player.
Each team is allowed 3 time-outs in each half. During all periods of play except for the final two minutes of each half, an injury time-out isn't charged to a team. An injury time-out is a charged time-out during the final two minutes of each half. If a team has used all it's time-outs before the final two minutes, they are allowed one injury time-out. Each subsequent injury time-out is a penalty for a 5-yard loss.
The kickoff is a special type but it has to be a place kick. The kickoff is used to put the ball in play from the kicking team's 30-yard line at the beginning of each half, after a field goal, and after a conversion attempt. All players on the kicking team must be behind the ball when it's kicked, and all the players on the receiving team must be at least 10 yards away. Once the kick has gone 10 yards, or been touched by the receiving team, it's a free ball and can be recovered by either team. The kicking team can't advance the ball after recovery, but where they recover the ball will determine where the receiving team starts their play. If the kick doesn't go 10 yards, it's a 5-yard penalty against the kicking team unless a player on the receiving team touches it. If it goes out of bounds before reaching the goal line, the receiving team takes the ball at the spot where the ball went out.
When a team has the ball, it has four downs to gain 10 yards or score. Most often on the fourth-down, the team with the ball will opt to punt to put the other team further down the field rather then give the ball up on downs and possibly give the team really good field position. Only the two end men on the punting team can go beyond the line of scrimmage before the ball is kicked. An end man is the player who is farthest from center on either side of the field. If any other player crosses the line of scrimmage before the kick, he’s ineligible downfield. If a punt is blocked, it’s a loose ball and either team can recover and run with it. The kicking team still has to advance the ball enough to gain its first-down yardage to retain possession. If a member of the kicking team recovers the ball behind the line of scrimmage, the receiving team takes over on downs. Once the kick crosses the line of scrimmage, it’s considered a punt. The kicking team cannot recover the ball, or even touch it, before a player on the receiving team has touched it. The penalty for an “illegal touch” rules that the ball is dead at the point of contact and possession goes to the receiving team at this spot. The punter is protected from defensive contact. If a defender makes light contact with the punter, the foul is running into the kicker. More violent contact is called roughing the kicker.
Player Position at Snap
The placement of the ball marks the line of scrimmage. This “line” running straight on both sides of the ball dictates all player position. The offensive team must have at least seven players on the line of scrimmage and any player, except the quarterback, who isn’t on the line, has to be at least 1-yard behind it. Any player out of the described position gets a penalty called illegal formation. The neutral zone is an area, the length of the ball, between the offensive and defensive lines. If a defender enters the neutral zone and makes contact with an offensive player before the snap, he is charged with encroachment. If a player is in the neutral zone when the ball is snapped, he is offside. The only exception to this rule is the center position, who is allowed to be over his own line as long as he’s not over the defense’s line – marked by the front tip of the football. One offensive player can be in motion at the snap but only if he’s 1-yard or more behind the line of scrimmage and is moving laterally or backwards away from the line. Forward movement, or movement by two or more offensive players, is called illegal motion.
False Start is a penalty committed only by the offensive team. The rule is that no player on the offensive team can make a movement that looks like the start of a play before the ball is snapped. In other words, they can’t even twitch. The most common call for this is when the offensive linemen flinches or rocks back from his stance to get into a pass protection position. The quarterback will also be called if he in any way tries to pull the defense offside by jerking his head or yelling “Hut” louder than normal. A punter will be called if he holds out his hands to catch the ball and then pulls them back as if he’s catching the ball when in reality it hasn’t been snapped. In other words, once an offensive lineman has taken his position, he can no longer move before the snap. Backs and receivers are allowed to shift to new positions, but they have to be set for at least one second before the snap.
When a team takes possession of the ball, it has four downs on which to gain ten yards or score. If the team fails on fourth down, the ball is awarded to the other team. This is called losing the ball on downs. Yards are taken away as long as the ball moves forward through running or passing. Yards can be added to the count if there are penalties, sacks, or tackles for losses behind the line of scrimmage.
Out of Bounds
A runner is out of bounds if he is touching a sideline or endline. The ball is out of bounds under the same rules. A receiver must catch the ball and have clear possession of it with both feet inbounds. If he is pushed out of bounds while in the air and would have come down inbounds under normal circumstances, it is ruled a complete pass and the ball is spotted where the completion would have taken place.
Spotting the Ball
The ball is usually spotted at the point it reached when the player is ruled down. It is the position of the ball, not any part of the player’s body, that determines where the ball is spotted. A player is ruled down when any part of his body except his hands or feet touch the ground after coming into contact with a defensive player. He is also ruled down if he falls and makes no effort to advance the ball, if he goes out of bounds, if his forward progress is stopped by defending players even though he may not fall to the ground, or if he slides feet first as a signal declaring himself down. This is most often done by the running quarterback to avoid injury. If a loose ball goes out of bounds, it’s usually spotted at the point where it crossed the sideline. A fumbled ball that goes out of bounds is spotted at the point of the fumble.
Use of Arms, Hands, and Body
A runner is allowed to use his arms and hands to ward off tacklers, but no other offensive player can grab an opponent or encircle part of his body with his arms. This is called offensive holding and is a penalty. A blocker can block below the knees as long as he is front of the person he is blocking. A penalty called an illegal chop block occurs if one offensive player is blocking a defender, and a second offensive player hits him below the knees. Blocking from behind and below the waist is clipping and is a penalty. A defensive player is allowed to tackle the runner and a potential runner who has faked having the ball and is pretending to run with it. He can’t tackle anyone else, but he is allowed to use his hands and arms to fend off someone who’s trying to block him. If a player users a slap to the head or a blow with a forearm, or other really aggressive tactics, they are penalized for a personal foul. Defensive holding is called when a defensive player grabs a receiver or any part of his clothing to keep him from breaking away.
A forward pass can be thrown only on a play from scrimmage and it must be thrown from behind the line of scrimmage. Only one forward pass can be thrown during a play. Example – the quarterback can’t throw a pass, have it deflected back to him, and then pass it again. This is called an illegal forward pass. A defender is allowed to contact a receiver only once, within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. More than once, or more than 5 yards downfield, results in illegal contact. Interference can be called after the pass has left the quarterback’s hand. If a defender tackles, pushes, or holds a receiver before he’s touched the ball, it’s defensive pass interference. Offensive pass interference is called when the receiver uses his hands to “push off” on a defender to make a play for the ball. If a ball is clearly uncatchable, pass interference is not called. If the quarterback, while in the pocket, throws the ball away simply to avoid a sack, this is called intentional grounding. If he’s out of the pocket, he is allowed to throw the ball away. Out of the pocket means beyond the original position of the tight end or offensive tackle if there is no tight end on that side of the field. A quarterback CAN throw the ball to the ground to stop the clock without calling a time-out. He has to do this immediately following the snap from center and it has to be forward and down. This will result in the loss of a down.
An interception occurs when a quarterback throws a forward pass to a receiver but it is caught by a member of the opposing team. Possession reverts to the team that caught the ball at the point of the interception or at the point where the ball carrier is tackled.
Any pass that doesn’t go forward is considered a backwards pass by NFL rules. But almost all fans and analysts call these passes a lateral. Any number of laterals can be thrown by any number of players on any play. The most common type of play using a lateral is where the quarterback tosses the ball to another back rather than hand it off to him. Also, the quarterback can lateral the ball to a receiver who is behind the line of scrimmage and then that receiver can throw a forward pass to an eligible receiver down the field. This is an example of a “trick play” and is fun to watch. If a lateral isn’t caught, it’s treated as a fumble (see below). The ball is live and can be picked up and advanced by either team.
A fumble occurs when a player has control of the ball, but loses control of it by dropping it before a play is whistled dead. When a fumble occurs, any player can recover the ball and advance it for their team. If a fumble goes out of bounds, the ball belongs to the team that had last possession. When a player fumbles on fourth down, he’s the only offensive player who can recover and then advance the ball. If the fumble goes forward and one of his teammates recovers it, the ball will come back to the spot where the ball was fumbled. This rule was added to prevent a player from fumbling on purpose if he didn’t make the first down in the hope that a teammate would recover it and advance it for the necessary yardage.
A kick receiver can signal a fair catch by raising a hand over his head and waving it from side to side while the ball is in the air. Players on the kicking team are then not allowed to touch him and he is not allowed to run with the ball after catching it. However, if the ball touches the ground first or if it hits a member of the kicking team first, the receiver can then run with the ball. Even if a receiver doesn’t signal a fair catch, he has to be given a chance to catch the ball. If he is hit or tackled before that chance, or if he’s hit after signaling a fair catch, the penalty is interfering with a fair catch. After giving the fair catch signal, the receiver can only step forward to maintain his balance. Any attempt to advance the ball after a fair catch signal is considered delay of game.
Two points are scored for the opposing team when the ball is dead in that team’s own end zone by fault of a player on that team. Examples of a safety are:
• Blocked punt goes out of the kicking team’s end zone.
• Ball carrier retreats from the field of play into his own end zone and is tackled.
• Offensive team commits a foul and spot of enforcement put the ball behind its own goal line.
• Player on receiving team misses a punt and, in trying to get the ball, forces the ball into the end zone where it goes out of bounds or is recovered by a member of the receiving team in the end zone.
A touchback is different from a safety in that it is the opposing team that caused the ball to be dead in the other team’s end zone. After a touchback, the ball is placed and put in play on the offense’s 20-yard line.
• During a kickoff, a receiver catches the ball in the end zone and downs the ball by going down on one knee.
• An opposing team member intercepts the ball behind the goal line and is tackled in the end zone.
• A player fumbles the ball in the opponent’s end zone and the ball either goes out of bounds or is recovered by the opposing team.
If a player from the kicking team recovers the ball in the end zone after a kickoff, it is a touchdown.
If a player runs with the ball, catches a pass, or recovers a loose ball while in the opposition’s end zone, it’s a touchdown. Six points are awarded to the team that scores the touchdown. Since any of the lines surrounding the outside of the field are considered out of bounds, a receiver who catches the ball in the end zone must have both feet inside the lines when he takes possession in order for it to be called a touchdown. The goal line has an indefinite extension above the field called the “plane of the goal line”. If the ball touches or crosses that plane while in possession of a player, a touchdown is awarded.
Most of the rules that go with punting also go with a field goal. In the official rule book, both kicks are covered under the heading “Scrimmage Kick”. The main difference is that with a field goal, there is an attempt to score points. No kicking tee is allowed on a field goal attempt. For the kick to count for points, the ball must pass over the crossbar and between the outer edges of the goal posts. The cross bar is 10 feet above the ground and is 18 feet, 6 inches wide. Although the goal posts are 30 feet high, they are considered to extend indefinitely above the playing field so the ball may be kicked higher than 30 feet, as long as it is “between” the goal posts, it is a good kick. If the field goal attempt is successful it is worth three points. These kicks can be blocked, but there are restrictions on how. Defenders who line up within 1 yard of the line of scrimmage can leap to block the kick, but players who line up farther back are not allowed to take a running leap. Players are also not allowed to jump or stand on one another, and a defender can’t leap up to block the ball just as it’s about to pass over the crossbar. Both the holder and the kicker are protected from defensive contact after the kick.
This term comes from way back when football was still basically rugby and touchdowns didn’t count except to give a team a free kick at goal. If the kick was successful, the touchdown was then converted into a score – a “conversion”. As time went on, the value of a touchdown increased and the value of the conversion decreased until it eventually became just an “extra point”. In 1958, the 2-point conversion was introduced into college football. The 2-point conversion, scored by running or passing into the end zone from the 3-yard line is still part of college football. It was adopted for use into the NFL during the 1994 season. In pro football, the conversion, or point after touchdown (PAT) is worth 1 point. The ball is put in play on the opposition’s 2-yard line unless there has been a penalty on a previous attempt. Once the attempt has failed, the ball is dead in pro football and it’s time for a kickoff. In college football, the ball remains alive and the defensive team can score. If an extra point kick is blocked, the defense can run it back for 1 point. If a 2-point conversion attempt is fumbled or intercepted, the defense can run it back for 2 points. Although a kick is almost always performed in pro football after a touchdown, they can also opt to score two points on a run or a pass. On a PAT attempt, if the holder fumbles the ball, or if the kick is blocked, any player on the kicking team can recover and carry it into the end zone for two points. All the rules that apply on any play from scrimmage also apply on the two point attempt.
Sudden death is the system used to determine the winner of a game in the event of a tie score at the end of regulation play of all NFL games. The team that scores first during overtime play is the winner and game automatically ends up any score – safety, field goal, or touchdown. At the end of regular play, the referee will toss a coin at the center of the field with the same rules used in the pregame toss. The captain of the visiting team calls the toss prior to the coin being flipped. There will be a 3-minute intermission at the end of the game and then play will continue in 15-minute periods or until there is a score. There is a 2-minute intermission between each 15-minute sudden death period. Standard rules apply during the play of sudden death overtime.
Protection of the Quarterback
One the quarterback has thrown the ball, he is protected from defenders. A defender can run into the quarterback only if he was coming towards him before the ball was released and only if his momentum carries him into the quarterback and his contact his non-forceful. Any use of force, such as grabbing him and throwing him to the ground, is considered roughing the passer. A defender is also not allowed to deliberately roll into a quarterback’s legs or to tackle him from the knees down unless he’s been blocked to the ground himself. Then, he can grab the quarterback’s legs to tackle him. The quarterback is also protected from having defenders pile on him before he throws the ball. If one defender has the quarterback so that he can bring him down if he wanted to, the referee will stop the play.