The Rules of American Football

American Football can be very confusing. It can seem particularly baffling to non-Americans who have not grown up surrounded by references to the game. It is understandable that a game in which commentators frequently use bizarre phrases such as "roughing the snapper" and "hiking the ball" should seem alien to an outsider. However, while trying to understand every regulation of the sport can be time consuming and frustrating, the basics are relatively easy to grasp.

One of the first things a newcomer should learn about American Football is that the game rests on the principle that the offensive team must try to cover a 10 yard section of the field in four or fewer "downs" (or "plays"). If they are unsuccessful, possession of the ball will be lost to the other team. Both inside and outside the United States, the rules which govern the finer points of the game are dictated by one of three rule books:

  • The NFL Rulebook – The rules of the NFL, the American professional league.
  • The NCAA Rulebook – Outlines the rules for college football.
  • High School Football rules – The rules are adapted slightly for younger players.

These rule books are extensive, and cover every possible eventuality. A summary of the most important rules is provided below for those who want to get an idea of what playing American Football involves in its entirety.

The field

An American Football field is 100 yards long and 160 yards wide. The field is divided into strips by white lines, which are marked every 10 yards. Numbers indicating the number of yards left to cover before reaching the goal line are also painted onto the field so that players can tell at a glance how much further their team must advance for a touchdown. One yard hash marks are also used to mark the intervals between each line. The ’50 yard line’ runs down the middle of the field, and indicates that there is 50 yards of ground between the line and each end zone.

The areas at each end of the field which begin with the ‘zero-line’ are called the ‘end zones’. When a player successfully touches the ball down in the end zone of the opposing team, he scores a touchdown for his team.

The sidelines and end-lines border the field. If a player or the ball goes outside the perimeter outlined by these borders, they are considered "out-of-bounds".

Match Procedure

Each team has eleven players on the field at any one time, although football teams can have as many as 50 players. Specialised offensive, defensive and specialist players are employed by each team, and are brought onto the field for a particular play.

Before the beginning of each game, the referee tosses a coin to determine which team will be given the choice of taking first possession of the ball or choosing which end of the field will be their end-zone for the first half. It is unusual for a team not to choose first possession of the ball. After half-time, the team which lost the toss will be given possession of the ball (assuming that they were not awarded it by the opposing team in the first half).

At the end of the first and third quarters, the teams switch ends to equalise any advantages or disadvantages associated with either end of the field.

Each team is entitled to three ‘time-outs’ for every half. During a time-out, team mates discuss their strategy for their next plays. These are usually worked out and practised before the game and there will usually be a verbal signal, typically shouted out by the quarterback, so that players know when to act.

Games last for one hour, and this time is divided up into four fifteen minute quarters. In practice, however, a game will last for around three hours, as the clock is stopped when the offensive team runs a passing play and pass is not completed, the player carries the ball out of bounds and during time-outs. Half-time lasts for twelve minutes and is held after the second quarter.

Players should be ready to begin the next play within forty seconds of the end of the last one. The back judge monitors the time taken between plays and deliberate time-wasting is punished with a penalty.

The ball is a similar shape to a Rugby ball, and is generally made from leather. It weighs approximately 400 grams.

Game Officials

During a professional game, several game officials are likely to be on the field at the same time. The referee has the final word in decisions and is the superior of other officials, including:

  • The Umpire – Primarily responsible for spotting the ball at the beginning of plays.
  • The Head Linesman – Responsible for the chains used to verify how many yards a team has covered during a play. He is also responsible for counting how many downs a team has used, and how many they have left.
  • The Line Judge – Responsible for time keeping and helping the Linesman to set up the line of scrimmage.
  • The Back Judge – Responsible for monitoring the duration of time outs and half-time.
  • The Field Judge – Tends to stand towards the rear of the field and makes sure players are in-bounds. The field judge will primarily supervise the defensive players who are often placed "deep", a fair distance away from the rest of the players.
  • The Side Judge – Also responsible for ensuring players remain in-bounds and supervising play on his side of the field.

The Players

NFL teams are permitted to have 53 players on their team. Professional teams are therefore likely to have more than one player who can play each position. The players which comprise a football team are likely to be primarily offensive or defensive players, along with a number of specialist players for particular plays.

The most important player on a football team is arguably the Quarterback. The Quarterback is usually responsible for leading other players on the field and calling out plays on the advice of the coach. It is usually the Quarterback who hands off the ball to the Receivers or Running Backs, who then run or pass to advance the ball.

It is the task of the offensive linemen to block for the Quarterback and Running Backs; that is, to try to protect them from the defensive players on the opposing team. Linemen are usually amongst the largest players on the team. The line is comprised of the Centre who, predictably, occupies the centre position in the line and is typically responsible for beginning a play with ‘the snap’; the Left and Right Guards who stand on either side of him; the Tackles; and, finally, the Receivers, who stand on the furthermost point of each end of the line.

Meanwhile, the Defensive Linemen will try to thwart the efforts of the offensive linemen as they try to block for their Quarterback. It is their job to bring down the Quarterback before he can hand the ball off or attempt to advance the ball himself. They are supported in this task by around five linebackers.

The Cornerbacks are positioned to prevent the Receivers and Running Backs from catching the ball. They attempt to "pick-off" or intercept the ball as it is thrown to these players by the Quarterback. Long passes are discouraged by the presence of the Safeties, who stand apart from the rest of the players to prevent the offense making longer passes in order to bypass the defence.

There are also a number of specialist players on a football team, including the Place-kicker whose main function is to take kick-offs, including kicking the ball to the other team after a field goal or touchdown. The Place-kicker is also likely to be skilled at kicking field goals. The Punter is also used to kick the ball in the event that a team is on its fourth down and it seems unlikely that they will be able to progress further.

Downs

Downs, or plays, are the cornerstone of American Football. To put it at its simplest, the offensive team has four plays in which to advance ten yards. Plays usually end when a player is tackled or falls and is declared to be ‘down’. A player is down as soon as a part of his body other than his hand or foot touches the ground. For example, if a team covers five yards whilst it is on offense, and two of its players have been tackled, they have five yards to go when they begin their ‘third down.’ If they are successful in completing the full ten yards within four plays, they are once again on their ‘first down’ and will have another four plays to cover the next ten yards.

Plays are usually carefully worked out and practised before the game. This is one of the reasons a good coach is such a vital element of a successful football team; a coach who works out innovative plays which will catch the other team off guard and secures his players an advantage can make all the difference to the outcome of the game. Plays are usually begun by a verbal signal from the quarterback so that all players know when to act. It is for this reason that players often shout seemingly cryptic messages at each other or count aloud ("One Mississippi, Two Mississippi"…etc) during play.

There are several types of plays in the main and the offensive team will attempt variations on these fundamentals. The rushing play involves a player receiving the ball and running (or ‘rushing’) with it while his team mates try to break through the defensive team’s formation so the player can cover as much ground as possible, or go for a touchdown if he is very close to the end-zone, before being tackled. When commentators discuss how many yards a player has ‘rushed for’ they are referring to how many yards the player has covered in plays of this type. An alternative to the rushing play, is the so-called ‘passing play’ in which the quarter-back ‘hands the ball off’ to another player, who may choose to rush or pass again to another player.

The system of downs also accounts for one of the more confusing aspects of the game for the uninitiated – why a team would ever consider it to be advantageous to kick the ball to the opposing team. In most sports, it would seem counter-intuitive to make a calculated decision to hand possession to the other team. However, it is this strategy which often makes the most sense in American Football.

Imagine that the members of the offensive team had already been tackled three times (and were thus about to begin their fourth down), but still had too much ground to cover to believe that they could successfully cover their full ten yards without the ball carrier being tackled. Imagine also that the offensive team is too far away from the end zone to consider attempting a field goal. In this circumstance, when it seems clear that they are about to lose possession of the ball, the best the offensive team can hope for is to make it more difficult for the opposing team to score once they have the ball. The offensive team may therefore choose to kick the ball down the field to an opponent in order to increase the distance the team will need to cover in order to score a touchdown or field goal.

Starting a play and the line of scrimmage

Each play begins with the players getting into formation on the line of scrimmage. This is an imaginary line which moves constantly during the game, depending upon where play is to begin. Its exact position will be determined by game officials, usually on the basis of where the last play ended. At the beginning of a play, the team which is on offense will line up their players on the side of the line of scrimmage closest to their own end zone. The rules dictate that at least seven players must stand on the line, and are not permitted to move until play has begun.

One player, usually the centre, then stands on the line and passes the ball back between his legs to a team mate, often the quarterback. This is known as the snap, and is often known colloquially as "hiking the ball." The offensive team then attempts to complete its planned play, as the team on defense does its best to thwart them.

Play ends when a player is successfully downed, and the line of scrimmage will move to the place where play ended for the beginning of the next play. In addition to a tackle, the ball can also go ‘dead’ (meaning that the play is terminated) if a player ‘fumbles’ the ball, meaning that he drops it accidentally without intervention from the opposing team. A play can also end after an ‘incomplete pass’, which occurs when the ball hits the ground before it can be caught by the intended player, or if the ball goes ‘out of bounds’ by touching the sideline or endline.

Another common way to end a play is by scoring, when play is restarted by the scoring team kicking the ball down the field to the opposing team. More unusually, a play is also ended when the ball (or ball-carrier!) hits a goal post, or when a player who receives a kicked ball from the opposite team in his own end-zone signals that he wants to make a fair catch. Game officials are responsible for ‘spotting’ the ball at a new location, dictated by the rulebook, when the play ends.

Scoring

A touchdown is worth six points and is awarded when a player successfully carries the ball into the end-zone of the opposing team. Once a player has scored a touchdown, he is faced with a choice: try for one extra point by attempting to kick the ball over the crossbar which lies between the goal posts; or, less commonly, try for two extra points by trying to advance the ball into the end-zone again (the ball is placed initially on the 2-yard line if this option is taken).

It is unusual to opt for the 2-point option, as it is very difficult for a player to make it to the end-zone without being tackled by an opponent. This option is usually only taken in very close games when the extra point might make a difference to the eventual outcome.

A field goal is worth three points and is awarded when the ball is kicked over the cross-bar from the field. Field goals are less common than touchdowns because teams prefer to make touchdowns, which are worth more points. A player will usually only decide to attempt a field goal when he is close enough to the goal posts to have a good chance of succeeding, and when a touchdown seems unfeasible due to time restrictions. A field goal might also be attempted if a team has a lot of ground to cover in only one or two downs, and it seems unrealistic that they will continue to hold possession of the ball.

A Safety is worth two points and is awarded to the opposite team if a player is downed, or causes the ball to go out of bounds, whilst he his standing in his own end zone. The only exception is if the ball was kicked to the player in question and he raises his hand to signal that he was going to take a fair catch and make a touchback (meaning that no player can tackle him, his team will retain possession and play will resume from the 20 yard line). Points are rarely awarded in this way.

Penalties

In American Football, a player who is determined by game officials to have committed an illegal action incurs a five, ten or fifteen yard penalty on behalf of his team, and the down is replayed. The rules try to ensure that the penalty is appropriate to the offence committed; a minor offence is usually punished by a five yard penalty, whereas some aggressive actions committed by defensive players will result in the opposition being awarded a first down. When a penalty is declared, the ball is spotted in the appropriate place by game officials, and play resumes.

Common penalties include:

  • Delay of Game – Deliberately wasting time between plays is illegal.
  • Illegal Blocking – There are rules regarding how players can be tackled. A player cannot, for example, be tackled from below their knees (fifteen yards) or from behind above their waist (five yards)
  • Roughing the kicker/snapper – ‘Roughing’ is a phrase used to describe illegal and aggressive tackling. Someone who ‘roughs’ a player preparing to kick the ball, or the player who is holding the ball for that player, is punished severely (the offense is given a first down). Similarly, ‘roughing the snapper’ before play begins is illegal because the player (usually the Centre) has not had a chance to re-orient himself and is therefore vulnerable.
  • Encroachment – A penalty committed by defensive players. This involves crossing the line of scrimmage before the snap which begins a play (five yards).
  • Facemask – Players are not permitted to grab the face mask of another play to bring him down. If done deliberately, a fifteen yard penalty is usually incurred.