A Complete In-Depth Guide to Understanding the Rules of American Football
As with any sport, when new fans begin watching professional football, it can very often feel that there is a vast number of specific rules and esoteric regulations that make it impossible to follow the action. While the die-hard fans play armchair referee, screaming at the officials like they could do better, the uninitiated fans have their hands full simply keeping up with the flow of the game.
For a new fan, one of the most important things that you can do to improve your NFL football viewing experience is to learn the rules of the game, making it easier to follow along and track what’s going on.
But for those fans interested in taking their fandom to the next level and placing wagers on NFL games, a thorough and complete understanding of the rules is one of the most important tools in the gambling toolbox. Whether you are placing your very first wager or have been gambling on the NFL for years, there is always room to grow one’s knowledge of the game’s rules and regulations.
For the new or inexperienced gambler, this will surely make sense: It’s intuitive that a more well-developed knowledge of how the game is officiated would help inform gambling decisions.
But older, more veteran gamblers are more likely to scoff at this, believing that they already know all the ins and outs of the game, and that they already possess as full an understanding of the NFL rulebook as the officials themselves. For these self-proclaimed pros, we would offer the following two examples of how a deeper understanding of NFL rules and regulations can improve a gambler’s odds of winning big.
First and foremost, an understanding of the NFL’s rules and regulations can keep gamblers from being blindsided by rare in-game situations that can impact the score or outcome of the game.
For example, let’s say that in the 2017 NFC divisional round of the playoffs, an unlucky gambler placed an in-game bet that the halftime score of the Dallas-Green Bay game would end up below 36 points. With the Packers’ up 21–3, their defense shutting down the Cowboys’ offense, it seemed a pretty safe bet at the time.
But when the Cowboys’ offense came surging back, all of the sudden the total score before halftime had climbed to 34 points, with the Cowboys scoring 10 quick points. And when the Cowboys then received a Packers punt on their own 38-yard line in the waning seconds of the half, a little-known rule could have thrown a serious wrench in the unlucky gambler’s under bet.
Even though Dallas did not take advantage of the opportunity, the team nonetheless had the option to try the rare “Fair Catch Free Kick.”
Specifically, the rule states that after any fair catch – even after time has expired in the half or in the game – the receiving team may elect to take an extra snap and try a field goal attempt – no tee allowed, and no defensive pressure – from the spot of the fair catch. Green Bay certainly knew about the rule, as they tried a fair catch free kick of their own in 2008.
In this way, the experienced gambler would have known that the possibility for a fair catch free kick just before halftime could have easily tacked on another three points, even with no time remaining on the clock, ruining that 34-point “over” bet and turning a profit into a loss.
But for those veteran gamblers who still aren’t convinced that it’s valuable to understand as much as possible about the NFL rulebook, take for instance the hybrid safety position.
Let’s say that instead of an in-game over-under bet, a gambler instead places a preseason futures bet about which team is going to win a particular division. Let’s say that there were two teams who were almost neck and neck in the running to win the division, but this unlucky gambler chose to select the team that drafted a big, stout middle linebacker with their first-round selection, rather than their division rival, who had selected a scrawny linebacker converted from safety in college.
While of course a team’s needs are determined by a large number of different factors, nonetheless it’s important to note that in this imaginary bet, the gambler’s decision-making ability was compromised by a lack of understanding of the rulebook.
In today’s NFL, with new rules providing increasing amounts of protection to wide receivers running routes over the middle of the field, teams can often receive a great advantage from having a player on the field both stout enough to plug up the run and also quick enough to cover a receiver down the field.
The reason for this is that when this “hybrid safety” defensive back is on the field, it keeps the defense from needing to substitute; they would otherwise need to sometimes take off the quick defensive back who could cover the wide receiver in order to bring in the stout linebacker who could help stop the run.
And of course, when an opposing offense can either force a team to substitute (and try to catch them offsides) or keep a team from substituting (and try to catch them in an unfavorable personnel package), that offense gains an advantage that can prove to be significant, especially in a game of inches like the NFL.
But if our imaginary gambler didn’t understand how the rules for substitution, down-field passing, and defensive contact had evolved over the last few years, that gambler would be completely unable to intelligently evaluate the team who had drafted a hybrid safety in the first round, and decide whether they were more likely to win the division than another team.
With these examples, it becomes clear that even experienced gamblers stand to gain from learning about the NFL’s rules and regulations. In a venture with margins as tight as NFL gambling, even the very slightest advantage can mean the difference between big winnings and big losses.
For this reason, below you will find a full explanation of not only the general gameplay rules, explaining how the game is played, but also details on each penalty enforced in the NFL. New fans and gamblers will find important terms of the game in bold, and veteran gamblers will find interesting tidbits marked in the “DID YOU KNOW?” sections.
General Gameplay Rules
The very first things that new fans should understand about the game of football is that it’s not strictly speaking played with the feet, which is why it’s most precise to refer to the sport as “American Football.” In most other countries of the world, the word “football” refers to what Americans call “soccer,” in which the use of the hands is forbidden in most game situations.
With this qualification having been given, we can then start talking about the general objective of American Football. The object of the game is to move the football (an oblong, brown leather ball with white laces) from the point at which it is received (which can be any point on the playing field) to a distant point called the end zone (which forms the lattermost 10-yard section on either end of the field).
It’s that simple!
Of course, the details get considerably more complicated, but in the end the game of football is simply about throwing, carrying, or kicking the ball down the field to score points, much the same as international football, rugby, and other similar ball games. And like these other sports, whichever team ends up with more points at the end of the game wins.
With this idea of the overall goal of the game in mind, let’s begin looking more specifically at the way football is played, including the timing of games, what it means to possess the football and how this is accomplished, substitution and specialization, and finally the ways in which a team may score points.
An NFL football game is 60 minutes in length, giving rise to the common phrase you will hear that a team “played a full 60-minute game,” or else failed to do so. By this what is meant is that the team was (or wasn’t) able to play well for the entire duration of the game. In real time, these 60 minutes during which the game clock is running can stretch over a period generally lasting between three and four hours.
The 60 minutes of game time are divided into four 15-minute quarters, which in turn are divided into two halves. A 12-minute halftime period separates the first half from the second half, and both the end of the first half and the end of the game (which is to say, the end of the 2nd quarter and the end of the 4th quarter) are preceded by what is called a two-minute warning; an official stoppage of play.
All NFL football games end after these 60 minutes save if the score is tied, in which case the game goes into an overtime period. An overtime period may last a full 15 minutes, and if the score remains tied at the end of this 5th period, the game ends in a tie during the regular 16-game NFL season.
During the postseason, (another name for the NFLPlayoffs) a winner must be established to determine the next round’s playoff matchup, and so additional overtime periods are added until a winner is established.
According to current NFL rules, the winner in the overtime period is simply the first team to gain a go-ahead score, once both teams have had a chance to possess the ball.
But while NFL games can end in a variety of ways – after four quarters, after an overtime, after multiple overtimes (in the playoffs) – they always start out the exact same way.
First, there is a coin toss, where the referee flips a coin and the captains of the visiting team choose ‘heads’ or ‘tails.’ If the visiting team correctly guesses the outcome of the coin toss, they win the ability to choose whether they would like to receive the ball at the start of the game, or allow the home team to receive the ball at the start of the game (and thus receive the ball at the start of the second half).
If the visiting time incorrectly guesses the outcome of the coin toss, the choice of whether to receive the ball goes to the home team. After one team or the other makes this decision, the remaining team then gets to decide which side of the field they would like to defend, with the understanding that the two teams switch sides each quarter (to equalize the effects of wind, weather, ground conditions, and any other factors that might affect one side of the field more than the other side).
After these decisions have been made of which team will start with the ball and which end zone that team will be defending, the game begins! The 60 minutes of game time are divided into a series of plays, which defines each individual instance in which each team sends 11 men onto the field, and the football becomes “alive,” or a live ball. After each play ends, the football once again becomes a dead ball.
One of the most confusing things for beginners who are just getting acclimated to American Football is the stoppages of game time: When they happen, why they happen, and so on.
Without understanding whether or not the clock is stopped or should be stopped, and whether or not the football is a live ball or a dead ball, new fans can often feel that they are losing the flow of the game, not knowing if a particular moment is important to pay attention to or if the action is not meaningful because it is occurring during a stoppage of game time or a transitional moment.
Unlike International Football, NFL games feature very frequent stoppages of play:
The clock stops after each quarter;
The clock stops at the two-minute warning before the end of 2nd and 4th quarter;
The clock stops after each score (to be explained in the “Scoring” section below);
The clock stops every time there is a change of possession (to be explained in the “Gameplay” section below;
The clock stops if a team throws an incomplete pass, when a ball is thrown but hits the ground;
The clock stops if a player touches the out-of-bounds line while in possession of the football;
The clock stops if there is a foul and the officials must announce and enforce the penalty;
The clock stops if there was a questionable call (or a scoring play or turnover) meriting instant replay;
The clock stops if there is an injured player;
The clock stops if the officials must measure the spot of the football.
In addition, each team is awarded three timeouts per half (six total per game), which they may use at almost any time throughout the game in order to stop the clock. These may be used for strategic game purposes, to reset themselves, to talk things over, to prevent themselves from making a costly mistake, or even to “ice” an opposing player and make them nervous about the play that will follow the timeout.
Finally, the clock will also stop when a coach uses what is called a “Coach’s Challenge”; a red flag that a coach may throw onto the field to ask the officials to reconsider a judgment that they had made.
But despite all of these stoppages of play, for which American Football is known, it’s important to note that there are also rules and regulations in place to maintain an appropriately fast pace. For example, each offensive play utilizes what is called the “play clock,” which is separate from the overall game clock that counts down the 15-minute quarters. This play clock keeps offenses from wasting time.
Possessing the Football
In addition to understanding the timing of the game, (including how much time is left in the game, whether or not the game action is using time or occurring during a stoppage, and other important factors), another fundamental lens by which fans view the game of football is what is termed possession.
Possession of the football is what fans are referring to when they ask simple questions about a given game, such as “whose ball is it?” or “who’s on offense?”
Specifically, what is meant by the idea of “possession” goes back to the overarching goal of the game that we mentioned above. A team’s goal is to throw, run, and kick the football down the field towards the end zone in order to score points, and the only way in which they are able to accomplish this goal is by first being in possession of the football.
Here’s an example:
Imagine two players, standing in the middle of the field. Whichever player holds the ball tries to move towards the other player’s end zone, to score. This is the idea behind offense. The player without the ball, of course, tries to prevent the opponent from reaching his own end zone. This is the idea behind defense.
(Simultaneously, of course, the player “on defense” also tries to take away the football from the player on offense, so that the player on defense can go on the attack and try to score points of his own.)
This simple two-person version is no different from real-life NFL football; the game simply becomes more complex with 11 players trying to accomplish this goal in concert instead of just one. When a team gains possession of the football, they have gained the opportunity to bring 11 players on the field who specialize in “offense” in order to try and score.
While there are several different ways to gain possession of the football that we will explain in due time, the simplest way to take possession is during the first play of the game, (or the first play of the second half), in a play called a kickoff.
As we explained above, once the coin toss procedure determines which team is set to receive the ball, and on which side of the field they will receive it, the first play of the game sees the receiving team send out what is conveniently called a “receiving unit”, which features one or more players who are specialists in this area, referred to as a “kick returner.”
The simplest and most commonly seen outcome of this opening play is that a specialist called a kicker strikes the ball with his foot off a small plastic tee, and the football travels high in the air into the waiting arms of the kick returner, who stands in the end zone that his team has elected to defend. In a procedure known as a touchback, the returner can go down on one knee, electing to take the ball out to the 25-yard line rather than run the ball out of the end zone and try and move it down the field.
This kickoff procedure happens at the start of the game, at the start of the second half, and also happens after most all scoring plays. A kickoff is always preceded by a stoppage in play, and always indicates a change of possession.
The second-most common way for a team to gain possession of the football is also a type of play in which the football is kicked: a punt. A punt functions similarly to a kickoff in that the receiving team has a returner back waiting to field the kick, and the kicking team has a specialist (called a punter), to send the ball down the field. The difference is that instead of kicking the ball off a tee, the punter receives a long-distance snap from the long-snapper and drops the ball from chest-height to kick it.
Once a team gains possession (for example, after the game’s opening kickoff), they start off “on offense.” Their opportunity to score points (called a “drive,” or a “possession”) is then separated into individual plays, each of which is referred to as a “down”.
A down begins when the ball is lifted off the ground or “snapped” (or, on free kicks, the moment the kicker’s foot touches the football and sends it into the air), at which point the football is immediately considered a “live ball.” The play ends when the ball becomes “dead,” or a “dead ball.”
There are various ways the football can become dead:
When the football player carrying the football is “downed”, meaning tackled or otherwise stopped, the football becomes a dead ball.
When the football is thrown but not caught, hitting the ground in what is called an incomplete pass, the football becomes a dead ball.
When the football or a player carrying the football goes out of bounds, the football becomes a dead ball.
When the football touches the goalpost on a throw, the football becomes a dead ball.
When either team scores, the football becomes a dead ball.
When the team receiving a punt declares a procedure known as a “fair catch,” in which they elect not to move the ball forward in exchange for not being hit, the football becomes a dead ball.
When the team receiving a punt does not touch the punted ball, and it rolls to a stop of its own accord, the football becomes a dead ball.
When the team receiving a punt does not touch the punted ball, and the kicking team picks the ball up, the football becomes a dead ball.
When the touchback procedure described above takes place, as soon as the returner’s knee touches the ground the football becomes a dead ball.
When the ball is snapped and the player receiving the ball immediately takes a knee, at any place on the field, the football becomes a dead ball.
Finally, in an oddly specific circumstance, when an offensive player loses possession of the football (a fumble), and the fumble is recovered by the offense during either a fourth-down play or during any play after the two-minute warning, the football becomes a dead ball.
From the time that the ball is either snapped or kicked into the air on a kickoff, the football is “live” until one of the above outcomes takes place.
And this is important, because while the primary long-term objective of the game is to score points, the primary short-term objective is to “maintain possession” of the football on offense. It’s impossible to score points by moving the football down the field if you don’t first have possession of the football.
In this way, possessing the football (which can be quantified as the number of “possessions” or the “time of possession”, meaning the aggregated duration of a team’s possessions), is one of the primary aims of the game. Every moment of every game – 100% of the time – a team is either trying to gain possession of the football, or is trying to maintain possession of the football.
And importantly, the team that does not possess the football is not the only thing acting against a team’s ability to possess the football. In addition, every time a team gains possession, the rules state that their possession is only allowed to last four downs, with a “down” referring once again to the time that elapses from the time the ball is snapped and becomes a live ball up until the time it becomes a dead ball, after any of the outcomes listed above take place.
Each of the four downs is referred to just as one would expect: First down, second down, third down, and fourth down.
The team’s immediate goal during these four opportunities with the football is to move the football ten yards down the field, a constantly changing line demarcated on the field using orange markers on either side of the field and shown on television as a yellow line. If the team succeeds in moving the ball 10 yards, and successfully makes it past the “first down line”, they are awarded another four downs.
However, if the team fails to accomplish this goal (of gaining a “first down”), their drive is immediately ended, and possession is given back to the other team in a situation termed a turnover on downs.
To go back to our simple image of football as a one-on-one game, what this would look like would be if the player who held the football at midfield tried four separate times to push the opposing player towards that player’s end zone, but was rebuffed four times. After the fourth try, the player holding the football would simply hand the ball to his opponent, giving them a possession to try and score.
The immanent loss of possession that accompanies each drive (a kind of “four tries and you’re out” policy) is the primary reason why teams elect to punt – to willingly give the ball back to the other team.
To once again return to our one-on-one game, what this would mean is that after trying to move the ball three times and failing three times, instead of trying a fourth time, the player would instead punt the ball far down the field, pushing back his opponent and making it more difficult for them to travel the entire length of the field and score.
This simple idea – that it is more difficult to move the ball a long distance than it is to move the ball a short distance – is the basic idea behind field position, or what is sometimes called “the field position game.”
If a team believes that it will be unable to gain the yards necessary to get a first down, and thus believes that they will have to cede possession back to the other team one way or another, that team will oftentimes elect to push back the other team and make it more difficult for them to score points, ensuring that the team has a slim chance to score rather than risking a turnover on downs.
The reason for this is that it’s generally less risky to intentionally give your opponent a difficult possession, in which they are unlikely to score, than it is to risk losing the possession on a turnover on downs and giving them the football where they have a much shorter distance to travel in order to score.
For this reason, teams almost always punt the football away to the other team on fourth down, unless the team that reaches fourth down is in a position to score on that down.
In turn, this gives an archetypal pattern to each down, based on risk. Risk of losing possession of the football increases as downs go on:
First Down: The least risky down, because if you don’t succeed in gaining any yards, you still have two or three more opportunities. It’s possible, then, to “take a shot,” which is to say attempt a play that is difficult to convert, such as a long passing play. Alternatively, in order to give yourself a shorter distance to cover in the ensuing two downs, you could try a safe, easily-converted play such as a running play up the middle. You are unlikely to gain more than 4 of the 10 required yards, but you are also unlikely to turn the ball over.
Second Down: If a high-risk, high-reward first down play succeeded and went for more than 10 yards, then another first down is immediately awarded, and the team stays in the low-risk zone of first down. However, if the first down play failed, or gained only a few yards, the primary goal of second down can often be to make things easier on third down, by putting yourself in a position where you can run a low-risk play in order to bring yourself another first down.
Third Down: If the goal of second down was accomplished, then the ideal situation is that a team has only one or two more yards to gain in order to win another set of downs, a situation referred to as “third and short.” In this situation, an offense may try a variety of different tactics to gain the few yards remaining. However, if first and second down were unsuccessful, it’s possible that a team finds themselves in “third and long”: In this situation, the defending team knows full well that the offense must gain 7, 8, or more yards in order to gain a first down, and thus the offense becomes more predictable in which tactics they might employ.
Fourth Down: If the team fails to gain a new first down on any of the preceding three downs, they will most often punt on fourth down. If they choose to try again to either gain a first down or to score points (via a field goal, to be explained in the “Scoring” section below), there is always the risk that if they do not succeed in gaining that first down or scoring, they will automatically give the ball away to the other team at the exact spot where they failed to convert the fourth down.
In this way, the general strategy on each down depends on the outcomes of the previous down(s), in a simplistic example of what is known as situational football. This is the reason why the primary pieces of information a fan needs to know to follow along in a game includes both which team has possession as well as the down & distance of that possession (which down of the four is next, and how many yards must the team travel in order to convert the next first down).
After generating enough new first downs, moving the football down the field in the process, a team will find themselves with less than 20 yards remaining until the end zone: This twenty-yard space is referred to as the red zone.
When the team moves the ball ten more yards, and has 10 yards or less remaining until they cross the goal line, they are said to have “goal to go”, and each down is no longer referred to by the number of yards remaining until the next first down (e.g. “second and goal” instead of “second and seven”).
Once the team crosses the goal line, which is to say that it moves the ball into the end zone (a touchdown), or kicks the ball through the uprights (a field goal), that team earns points for having done so (as will be explained in the “Scoring” section below), and possession returns to the other team via a kickoff.
However, while the goal of an offense is to end each of its possessions with a score – whether a touchdown or a field goal – more often, a given possession (or “drive”) will end in one of the following ways:
A punt (the most common outcome)
A missed field goal (which gives the other team possession immediately)
An interception (in which a defensive player catches a pass intended for an offensive player)
A fumble (in which a defensive player picks up a live ball dropped by an offensive player)
A turnover on downs (following a failed fourth down conversion)
A safety (in which the offense is stopped inside of their own end zone, and subsequently punts the ball to the other team in a unique kicking situation called a “free kick”)
It’s important to note that while the term “turnover” generally refers to either fumbles or interceptions (plays in which a defensive player physically takes the ball away from the offense, yielding the term “takeaway”), any of the above situations (other than a punt) could be considered a turnover, because possession has been unwillingly ceded to the other team.
After any of these things happen, the other team’s offense immediately takes over at the place where they received the ball, and the next possession for the opposite team begins. In this way, a football game proceeds, with both teams taking turns possessing the football and trying to score.
Substitution and Specialization
As we mentioned above, the football is entered into play in one of two ways: by a snap into the hands of a skill player, or off the foot of the kicker in a kickoff or free kick. We also stated that the intervening period between the ball becoming “live” and ultimately becoming a dead ball once again is called a “play”.
It’s important to note, however, that there is a difference between a “play” and a “down,” the latter of which refers more specifically the four game situations that we explained above, in which a team’s offense attempts to move the ball down the field and either score points or generate another set of downs.
The difference is that while every offensive down is a play, not every single play of the game is an offensive down.
In fact, there is generally somewhere between 100 to 200 or more plays in an individual 60-minute football game, but roughly 10-30 of these offensive plays will not involve the offense at all.
This is one reason why you will often hear the term “plays from scrimmage.” What this refers to is the line of scrimmage, which is an area on the field that corresponds to the position of the dead ball when it is snapped into play.
When the football is placed on the ground by an official, (at the time being a dead ball), it is automatically protected from being taken by the other team and moved. Until the football is snapped into the game and becomes a live ball, the team who is not in possession of the ball has no right to touch it, or even to be near it.
Specifically, there is an imaginary space that extends the length of the football and crosses from one sideline to the other, called the neutral zone. This line of détente forms the zone in which both teams are unable to enter. One each side of this 11-inch space, each team draws an imaginary line called a line of scrimmage that they are unable to cross, protecting the integrity of the neutral zone.
There is only one person who is allowed to put a hand into the neutral zone in order to put the football into play, and that is the person snapping the football. Whenever the ball is taken from the neutral zone at the line of scrimmage and snapped into play, it is an offensive down. If there was no snap (such as on a free kick), then it is a play in the game that is not an offensive down.
The reason we stress this distinction between when a play occurs and when there are transitions between plays, between an offensive down and a play that is not an offensive down, and particularly transitions between possessions, is because many new fans often misunderstand the reason why the game features so many transition moments.
And why it’s so important that there is a brief pause between every play and between every down – even if the game clock continues to run – is because it allows for substitution, which is one of the most fundamental core concepts in the game.
Unlike many other sports, American Football features frequent substitutions throughout the game. In the NFL, the vast majority of individual plays feature at least one player who substitutes into the game for another player. Sometimes, an entire 11-player unit will come off the field while a separate 11-player unit comes on, a process that happens anywhere from 10-50 times in a game.
This pattern of what is called free substitution contrasts sharply with International Football, in which substitutions are infrequent and announced plainly. In American Football, substitutions are so frequent and necessary that it generally goes unannounced and unnoticed, many times being covered over by commercial breaks.
As a result of the allowance of free substitution in the game, which is to say substitution without limitation or penalty, the game has become increasingly specialized.
In previous eras, professional American Football looked very similar to the game played in backyards by school children: Participants played in all game situations without stopping, and generally resembled each other in body type and skill set. When players must stay on the field in all situations, and cannot substitute, those players necessarily must be well-suited to perform many roles.
In today’s NFL, the exact opposite has come to pass: Each player has a very unique skill set, and in most cases a player is brought into the game only in very specific situations.
Generally speaking, there are four levels of specialization in the NFL today: specialization by unit, specialization by position group, specialization by position, and individual specialization within a position. The particularly skill set a player provides across each of these levels of specialization defines their value in a given game situation.
At the broadest level, there are three units: offense, defense, and special teams. Let’s go through each of these three units and define the position groups that comprise the unit.
An offense is separated into four distinct position groups:
The smallest position group in the game, the group consists of only a single position, and the most important position in the game at that. The QB is the most valuable (and generally the highest paid) player on the team, and takes responsibility as one of the primary faces of the franchise, communicating with the media along with the head coach after games. The quarterback is responsible for receiving every single offensive snap of the game, and distributes the ball either by throwing or handing it to another offensive player. Before the ball is snapped, the quarterback receives information from members of the coaching staff on the sideline concerning the plan (or “play”) that the offense will attempt to execute in that particular game situation. He then communicates this information to the rest of the offense in the huddle before the snap, and is occasionally responsible for changing or modifying the play according to his discretion, as he surveys the arrangement of the players on the field and tries to predict whether or not the play that the team has drawn up will be successful. For this reason, the quarterback needs to be not only highly skilled physically, but also mentally skilled.
The offensive line group consists of a set of three positions who comprise a line of five consecutive players that begin each offensive play lined up along the line of scrimmage. The center is the middlemost member of the unit, who snaps (or “hikes”) the ball to the quarterback. Two offensive guards flank the center on either side, a left guard and a right guard. Finally, two offensive tackles flank the two guards in turn, a left tackle, who gains the distinction and the challenge of protecting the quarterback’s blind spot (as right-handed quarterbacks generally have their backs turned to players coming from their left), and a right tackle on the opposite side. The offensive linemen are usually the heaviest players on the team, often weighing between 300 and 350 pounds. The unit has two functions: pass blocking and run blocking. When pass blocking, offensive linemen generally stand up and immediately move backward, forming a loose semicircle or pocket of protection around the quarterback in order to give him time to survey the field and throw the football. When run blocking, the O-linemen will generally move forward or move laterally in order to push forward the opposing players across from them so that a player on their team may run the football forward behind them.
The wide receiver unit (often called the receiving corps) has as its primary function to run down the field and catch the footballs thrown by the quarterback. There are several different positions that comprise the unit, including most broadly wide receivers and tight ends, who are usually bigger and slower than wide receivers. Inside of the wide receiver position, a team will generally have some taller, lankier receivers who are sometimes referred to as wideouts because they line up at the widest distance out from the center of the field, and the team will also have some smaller, quicker receivers who can be referred to as slot receivers because they line up in the slot between the wideouts and the offensive line. Most often, wideouts will stay closer to the outside of the field, catching passes close to the sidelines, and will generally run a longer distance down the field. Conversely, slot receivers will often catch passes at shorter distances and closer to the middle of the field. The quarterback and the wide receivers are the two units responsible for executing the passing game (or passing offense) for a team, an essential part of moving the ball down the field.
The running back position group consists of several distinct positions that are unified by the fact that they all line up behind the offensive line, an area that is referred to as the backfield. For this reason, a team may also refer to its running backs unit as “the backfield” when they mean to say the individual players that generally line up in this area. The function of the running back position group is to execute the run game (also the rushing offense), which is when a running back receives the football from the quarterback in some fashion (usually a handoff, but it may also be a or pitch or shovel pass or screen pass), and subsequently takes the ball and runs forward (“north-south”) or laterally (“east-west”) behind blockers that are trying to keep opposing defenders from tackling them. These blockers include offensive linemen and others. Much in the same way as wide receivers, running backs can often be generally divided into two groups based on size: Bigger, bulkier backs (sometimes called “north-south runners”) are often relied on to gain short chunks of yardage even when there are many people trying to stop them, whereas smaller, quicker backs (sometimes called “east-west runners”) are less likely to push a pile forward, but are also more likely to break away in open space using their speed.
In addition, there are a number of individual positions falling into these position groups that were not mentioned above that can fulfill multiple roles simultaneously.
For example, a fullback is a member of the backfield (the running back unit) that can sometimes function as a running back, carrying the ball out of the backfield and running it forward or even receiving a pass like a wide receiver, but more often acts like a smaller, faster offensive lineman, proceeding through one of the holes opened up by the linemen in front of the running back to provide another blocker.
And if the fullback position can be thought of as a hybrid of the offensive line and running back positions, then it’s similarly possible to think about the tight end position as a hybrid of the offensive line and wide receiver positions.
Tight ends are generally bigger and taller than wide receivers, but faster and lighter than linemen. In some situations, the primary function of the tight end is to act as a slot receiver or even a wideout, lining up closer to the out-of-bounds line to catch passes as a wide receiver would, particularly down the middle of the field. But tight ends can also line up tighter to the end of the offensive line (hence the name) and stay on the line to block opposing defenders.
In this way, we see that while there are four primary functions on the offense – the quarterback, offensive line, wide receiver, and running back position groups – there are nearly infinite variations among these roles. In addition to positions like fullback and tight end, which are multifaceted by their very nature, it is not uncommon to see a quarterback or wide receiver acting as a running back, or a running back (or less often an offensive lineman) acting as a wide receiver. It’s even possible (though exceptionally rare) for a quarterback to act as a wide receiver.
One of the lessons we learn from breaking down the offensive position groups in this way is that while it’s certainly true that the NFL has become increasingly specialized, both between units and position groups and even within positions, this movement towards specialization simultaneously places a greater premium on versatility: As in any field, when an individual is extremely qualified to accomplish more than one highly specialized task, they become uniquely valuable to the endeavor in question.
We see this same pattern of extreme specialization with a value on versatility on the defensive side of the ball: Much like the offense, there are a few set functions with hybrid positions between them.
The defensive linemen are the “big men” of the defense, and they line up on the defensive line of scrimmage with only the 11-inch neutral zone separating them from the opposing offensive line. The battle “in the trenches” between the defensive line and the offensive line is waged on essentially every single offensive down, with the defensive line trying either to tackle the ball carrier as quickly as possible (on running plays) or to put pressure on the quarterback before he throws the ball so as to disrupt his throwing motion and prevent him from completing the pass. In both cases, an exemplary play from a defensive lineman comes when the ball carrier is tackled behind the line of scrimmage, yielding a net loss in yardage for the offense. This is referred to as a tackle for loss in both cases, but is designated a sack when the quarterback is tackled while still carrying the ball. The defensive lineman position group is separated into interior lineman, including a nose tackle who lines up on the nose of the football (across from the center) and defensive tackles who flank him, as well linemen on the exterior, generally referred to as defensive ends. The defensive end position is generally thought to be a hybrid between the defensive line position and the linebacker position, described next.
The linebacker position group is the second line of defense behind the D-Line; their purview is the back end of “the box”, the imaginary space extending from the span of the defensive line along the line of scrimmage back roughly 10 yards towards the defending team’s end zone. Like the defensive line, the linebackers (or “backers”) are often responsible for stopping running backs, rushing against offensive linemen to try and sack the quarterback, and facing off against blockers. For this, they must be big and strong like the defensive linemen. However, as they are also sometimes responsible for matching up with big wide receivers that catch passes in the box, they must be faster than linemen, and are therefore generally smaller. The number of different linebackers and the names that they go by changes depending on the defensive scheme: Two very common schemes are referred to as the “4-3”, which consists of four defensive linemen and three linebackers, and the opposing “3-4”, which features three defensive linemen and four linebackers. For example, if there are three linemen on the field, there would naturally be one in the middle (the “middle linebacker”) and two flanking him. However, if there are four linebackers sharing the same space, it makes more sense to refer to the two middlemost backers as “inside linebackers” and the other two as “outside linebackers.”
The easiest way to think of the cornerback position group is to consider them as being diametrically opposed to the wide receivers. Much in the same way that the defensive line matches up with the offensive line in form and function, and the linebacking corps matches up with the offensive backfield in form and function, the cornerbacks (or “corners”) are responsible for lining up directly across from the wide receivers, running with them over the length of the field, and preventing them from catching passes. Therefore, the form (body type) and function (skillset) of a cornerback is generally similar to that of a wide receiver. Along these same lines, cornerbacks specialize in being an outside corner (to match up against wideouts) or a slot corner (to match up against slot receivers and tight ends). Outside corners are generally quicker and longer than slot corners, who in turn are helped most by being bigger and stronger. In addition, given the fact that slot corners line up closer to the middle of the field, they are also more likely to be required to tackle a running back, as running plays rarely end up moving all the way to the outside edges of the field where the outside cornerbacks line up. This is another reason why slot corners generally must be bigger than outside corners.
The safety position group is the last line of defense – literally and figuratively. The safeties line up the farthest back of anyone on the field, and are ultimately responsible for tackling any ball carrier of any size or shape who happens to make it through all of the earlier lines of defense. Generally speaking, there are two primary divisions of the safety position: the strong safety and the free safety. The strong safety generally plays closer to the line of scrimmage and is often bigger than the free safety, being called on more often to “crash the box” and rush down to assist in the run game. Whereas the free safety is generally called on more often to act in pass coverage (running with a wide receiver to keep him from catching the ball) and for this reason is often smaller and quicker. A more accurate (albeit more complex) way of considering the difference between the strong and free safety is based on the way they line up against the offense: the strong safety lines up on the “strong side” of the offense, which means the side that has an extra receiver, tight end, or back. The free safety, then, lines up on the other side, and matches up against the quarterback.
In the same way that offensive players displayed versatility by performing multiple different functions, so too do defensive players. Oftentimes, the versatility comes in a corresponding fashion.
For example, a running back displays versatility by being both big and strong enough to break tackles and run people over, and simultaneously being fast and skillful enough to catch passes out of the backfield and run past defenders. In the same way, a linebacker that matches up against this versatile running back can display versatility of his own by being big and strong enough to tackle the big and strong running back when he carries the ball, but also fast and skillful enough to cover the fast and skillful running back when he catches a pass.
Similarly, a position that has recently come into vogue in the NFL is known as the “hybrid safety” position – a player who is quick and intelligent enough to play safety and to assist in coverage against wide receivers, but also strong and physical enough to come down into the box and play some combination of slot corner and outside linebacker, blitzing the quarterback (rushing at him to try and sack him) or stopping the run.
In this way, we see that both on offense and on defense, players make their mark by being versatile enough to excel at several functions simultaneously.
But not only can players perform several functions within their own position on offense and defense, they can also demonstrate their value to the team by performing additional functions on the third unit of the team: the special teams unit.
Whereas each team’s offense can take the field somewhere between 40 and 80 times per game, for something like 75% of the total snaps in the game, across both teams, there are also roughly 10-30 plays per game referred to as “special teams” plays. Specifically, this refers to the game’s kicks: plays including the field goal, punt, and kickoff, which were described above, as well as the little-used free kick.
In order to accomplish these special plays, a special teams unit is assembled including the following position groups:
While of course we have been saying throughout this entire section that every position in the NFL is highly specialized, there is an additional set of 3-4 players who are explicitly referred to as “specialists.” These players include the kicker, (also called the “placekicker”) who is responsible for booting both kickoffs and field goals (and extra points and free kicks); the punter, who is responsible exclusively for punts but can also act as the holder on field goals and extra points; and finally the long snapper, who sends the ball 5-10 yards behind him in an accurate spiral to either the holder or the punter. Specialists are often joked to have among the cushiest jobs in the world, because they are generally paid as much (if not more) as many of the other positions in the game, and yet they may appear in as few as 4-6% of the total snaps occurring over the duration of the season. Despite the low volume of snaps however, there is no diminishing the role of the specialists: Mistakes in the kicking game are generally among the most costly of any mistakes in the game.
On any kickoff and punt, there are two functions for which the fastest players on the field are well-suited. First, and most obviously, it makes sense that the fastest player on the receiving team should be the person catching the ball (the returner or return specialist), so that they can try and run the ball past would-be tacklers. Second, it makes sense that the fastest player on the kicking team should be the person trying to chase down the returner (a position called the gunner). On punts, if the gunner is able to reach the punt returner before he catches the ball, he is almost guaranteed to call for a fair catch, rather than risk being immediately hit by the gunner as soon as he catches the ball and thus potentially losing the ball. As this is the desired outcome for the punting team, it is advantageous for them to have a punter who kicks the ball very far and very high, so that the ball has a long enough hangtime for the gunner to reach the kick returner before he catches the ball. In order to help prevent this preferred outcome from happening, the opposite (receiving) team generally employs a jammer to hit or “jam” the gunner as they start running, to keep them from reaching the returner as quickly as they would otherwise.
On kickoffs and punts, in addition to the speedy players who are responsible for both returning the ball and trying to stop the returner, there are also a great mass of slower players that clog up the middle of the field. On the receiving end, these players try to push the members of the kicking team out of the way to create lanes for the returner to run through, much the same as an offensive running play. Conversely, for the kicking team, coverage personnel aim to try and plug up the holes so that the returner runs into his own players and is eventually tackled by the members of the kicking team, or else to spring and tackle the returner if opportunity arises. As kickoffs and punts are among the most dangerous plays in the game, with large men flying towards each other at high speeds over long distances with the explicit intention to ram into each other and create piles and traffic jams, the NFL has instigated rules for how coverage personnel may run and interact with each other, including disallowing multi-person wedges to form in the same style as the children’s game “red rover.”
Finally, while there are no blockers on kickoffs because there is no snap, field goals, extra points, and punts all feature down linemen who are responsible for providing the kicker or punter time to go through his kicking motion without being interfered with, as well as opposing players who intentionally try to push the line forward in order to block the kick or the punt. This battle in the trenches is exactly like the battle between the offensive and defensive line on offensive downs, but on a slightly larger scale, as generally there are an additional two players blocking on the line in punts, and two more than this for field goals and extra points. While blocked field goals, extra points, and punts are rare, they are very important when they do happen, primarily because they can swing momentum widely in the direction of the blocking team. As will be explained below in the “Fouls and Penalties” section, there are limitations on what actions blockers may perform when attempting to block field goals, extra points, and punts: a blocker may not make contact with the kicker or punter’s exposed kicking leg, he may not receive a boost from a fellow player or jump off of another player, and (according to a recent rule change) he may not jump over the opposite line in order to block the kick or punt.
In this way, we see that the ability for NFL teams to freely substitute both individual players into and out of the game between plays, as well as to substitute entire 11-man units into and out of the game, has allowed American Football to become incredibly specialized.
While in the old days, players used to appear in every single snap of the game, there are now positions so specialized that a player may only end up appearing in something like 4-6% of the total snaps in a season despite being paid as much (or more) than players who receive a much higher volume of snaps.
We mentioned above that the objective of the game of American Football is to score points, and specifically to end the game with more points than your opponent.
Now that we’ve learned how the game is timed, the way in which it is broken down into individual plays that are separated by frequent stoppages, the specific downs that subdivide a team’s possession, and the specialized position groups that a team will substitute into the game during stoppages of play, we can now take a specific look at the different ways in which a team scores points.
Before we get specific, though, let’s think broadly about the idea of scoring. Put simply, each team has a zone at the end of the field (the “end zone”) which also features a large set of yellow goalposts. Much like rugby, a team can score by running the ball all the way down the field into the end zone; much like soccer, a team can score by kicking the ball into a small, designated space (between the goal posts).
Thus, in simplest terms, a player scores points if they simply move forward past the goal line while holding a live football.
The first question you might ask is what constitutes “the goal line?” How do you know whether you’ve crossed it or not? The goal line is an imaginary two-dimensional plane rising into the air perpendicular to the ground at the front edge of the thick white line that spans between the two pylons, short orange foam posts on either side of the field that demarcate the end zone.
If any part of the football crosses this imaginary plane – even just one inch of the tip of the football – while the ball carrier has possession of the ball, they are declared to have scored.
In this context, of course, the next question to ask would be the following: how do you know if the ball carrier has possession of the football? When does possession begin and end? As we explained above, the football is live for the entire duration of the play, from the time it is snapped or kicked into play to the time that it becomes a dead ball.
As we explained above, the football can become a dead ball in a variety of ways, and when the football becomes dead while a ball carrier is in possession of the ball, his possession ends, preventing him from scoring. However, there are also ways in which a ball carrier may lose possession of the football without the ball becoming a dead ball.
Let’s review the ways in which a ball carrier’s possession may be stopped by the defense, in order to understand the conditions that must be present for a team to score.
First, and most commonly, a ball carrier’s possession is ended when they are down, (or “downed”). As soon as an offensive player begins holding the ball (and is thus “in possession of” the football), the objective of the defense is to immediately “down” the player, meaning to bring him to the ground. There are various ways that a player can be downed.
The usual way to down a player is to tackle the runner, which means forcibly causing any part of the runner’s body other than the hands or feet to touch the ground while he is in possession of the football.
A runner is also automatically downed if any part of his body (including a hand or most commonly a foot) touches the white sideline or any space beyond the line.
Alternatively, even if the player running with the football does not touch the ground or the out of bounds area, if the player’s forward progress is stopped because of his contact with another player, and there is no chance that the player will once again resume making forward progress, an official has the discretion to make a judgment call and declare the player down.
These three forms of downing a ball carrier – by a tackle, by going out of bounds, and by stopping forward progress – are the most common means of stopping a runner, such as a running back or wide receiver.
However, it’s important to remember that while a running back or a wide receiver attempts to carry the football and score on many offensive snaps, the quarterback must first receive the ball in order to distribute it. Thus, the QB handles the football on every single snap, and therefore many more offensive downs end as a result of the quarterback being downed than a running back or wide receiver.
And there are several special ways in which a quarterback may be downed. A quarterback is “sacked” when he is tackled behind the line of scrimmage, which once again defines the line at which the ball is snapped. This results in a net loss of yards for the offense: a sack that occurs 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage on first down, for a loss of 5 yards, would mean that the offense, instead of needing to travel 10 yards downfield for a first down, now must travel 15 yards.
Importantly, when a quarterback is tackled in the backfield, (behind the line of scrimmage), it is termed a sack, but when any other player holding the football (such as a running back) is tackled behind the line of scrimmage, it is referred to as a tackle for loss (or TFL).
Another way that a quarterback can be responsible for downing the football is by throwing an incomplete pass, which is to say throwing the football down the field towards any player who is acting as a receiver, only to find the pass hit the ground or go out of bounds before being caught.
While incomplete passes are most often unintentional, it’s also sometimes the case that the quarterback will throw the ball to the ground or throw the ball out of bounds in order to keep from being sacked. The reason for this is that while an incomplete pass involves a loss of down, it is not penalized by any loss of yardage, whereas a sack, by definition, always means some yardage is lost.
Incomplete passes also stop the clock, which is the reason why quarterbacks will sometimes perform what is referred to as a spike.
To spike the ball, the quarterback receives the snap from the center and immediately throws it to the ground in front of him, stopping the clock instantly. This also downs the football; it is a dead ball immediately after being spiked.
In this way, we see that quarterbacks can down the football by throwing it. They also have two additional ways of downing themselves – while they are in possession of the football.
The first is by sliding feet first while they are running forward (past the line of scrimmage), a maneuver known as a scramble. By sliding with the feet first, they are making it known to both defenders and officials that they are “giving themselves up:” they are down by rule as soon as they start to slide, without even needing to be touched. Thus, it would be unnecessary and injurious for defenders to hit them as they are sliding, and this is disallowed by officials (see the “Fouls and Penalties” section below).
Quarterbacks can also intentionally down themselves by dropping down on one knee immediately after the ball is snapped (also called a “kneel-down” or “taking a knee”), a maneuver that is similar in nature to a spike but with one key exception: When the QB spikes the ball, the clock stops; when the QB takes a knee, the clock continues to run.
This is why the kneel-down procedure is done almost exclusively at the end of the half or at the end of the game in order to run out the clock. This is also the reason why the specific formation of offensive players employed during a kneel-down is also sometimes called the “victory formation” when it is used at the end of a game, because a team would not run out the clock unless they were about to win.
These ways described above are the only ways a player can become downed while he is in possession of a live football; when he is downed, the ball becomes dead, and he can no longer try to score.
In being downed, the player’s personal possession of the football ends, but the team retains possession, unless the player downed had just failed to score or reach a new first down while the team was on fourth down, in which case there would be a turnover on downs, as was described above, and possession would return to the opposite team.
However, in the same fashion as a turnover on downs, there are two other ways in which a player may lose possession of the football both for himself and for his team, called generally turnovers.
The idea behind a turnover is that the offense unintentionally gives the ball away without having scored (thus an offensive turnover is often called a “giveaway”), while the defense intentionally takes the ball away from the opposing offense, keeping them from scoring (thus a defensive turnover is often called a “takeaway”).
In this way, every turnover is simultaneously a giveaway and a takeaway; by extension, a turnover is a very good thing for the team receiving the ball, and a very bad thing for the team losing the ball.
The essence of a turnover is that the offensive player who was carrying the ball has physically let the ball out of his hands, by accident, thereby losing possession of the ball, after which point it ended up in the hands of a member of the opposite team. When this situation occurs for any player who is simply holding the football, it is termed a fumble.
However, we must remember that while the quarterback could easily lose possession of the football by accident while he is holding the ball behind the line of scrimmage, preparing to pass, (and this situation is so common it has its own name – the sack fumble), the quarterback also willingly lets the ball out of his hands frequently throughout the game in a pass, sometimes up to 60 times per game.
It stands to reason, then that some of these passes would end up in the hands of the other team.
In fact, as soon as the ball flies out of the quarterback’s hand in a pass (which is defined operationally as the ball being released from the hand while the arm is going forward), it is a live ball until it touches the ground and becomes an incomplete pass. While it is in the air, no matter how many players it touches, it is a live ball that can be caught by any player on both teams.
If a player on the defense catches the ball that the quarterback throws, the opposite team gains possession of the football; this type of turnover is called an interception.
NOTE: It’s also important to remember that football kicked off a tee is a live ball, and may be picked up by either team to gain possession. This is why teams perform what is called an onside kick, a special short kickoff designed to give the kicking team a chance to recover possession. This is not referred to as a turnover, but is another way that a team may capture a live ball.
In this way, we now see what exactly is required to score points in American Football: any player who possesses a live football (via a typical offensive play, due to a turnover, or after a kick) must either cross the goal line without being downed or losing possession, or else must kick the ball through the uprights on a kicking play.
It’s that simple! These two basic scoring procedure occur in various different game situations, with each of the three units on a football team having their own specific opportunities to score. Depending on the game situation, the scoring procedure is valued with a differing amount of points.
On offense, there are four ways to score points. Let’s take a look at each, arranged by point value from highest to lowest:
A touchdown is the most valuable scoring play in the game, worth 6 points. In today’s NFL, touchdowns are scored a disproportionate amount of time by passing the ball vs. running. In a passing play, a player may catch the ball anywhere on the field and run it into the end zone; when running, a player may receive the ball anywhere on the field and run it into the end zone in the same way. However, a player may also catch the ball inside of the end zone to score a touchdown: So long as they possess the football and touch two feet or one knee inside the end zone, it is a touchdown. The moment the ball passes the plane of the goal line or the player catching the ball establishes possession, it is a touchdown, the ball is dead, and the clock stops. Scoring a touchdown is the primary goal of every offensive possession, and the success of a drive (and by extension an offense) is often measured by the rate at which touchdowns are scored relative to the number of opportunities. It is especially important that a team be able to convert their drive into a touchdown when they are inside the red zone (the last twenty yards of the field preceding the goal line). Whenever a team scores a touchdown – whether on offense or otherwise – that team is awarded the opportunity to gain additional points, either via an extra point or a two-point conversion (both described below).
A field goal refers to a specific play that is executed by the special teams unit, but is run during an offensive down. As described above, the play consists of a snap from the long-snapper to the holder (often the team’s punter), who holds the ball upright on the ground with the laces pointed towards the direction of the target. The field goal kicker (or “placekicker”) then takes a few steps forward and strikes the ball with his foot, sending it towards the goal posts (or “uprights”). If the ball passes between the two vertical posts and over the bottom horizontal post, the field goal is successful, and three points are awarded. Field goal attempts (or “tries”) are almost exclusively performed on fourth down for the following reason: after every field goal attempt, regardless of whether the kick is made or lost, possession is immediately given to the other team. Therefore, it is generally advantageous to wait until fourth down to try a field goal (when the risk of a lost possession is already present), and to use all available preceding downs to either try for another first down or at least to move the ball closer, such that it will be a shorter try for the kicker. Depending on the spot on the field where the offensive drive sputters and reaches fourth down, a kicker may be called upon to kick the ball anywhere from 15 yards (on the goal line) to the NFL record distance of 64 yards.
As the name states, a two-point conversion is worth 2 points, and is one of the two options for extra points available to a team after they score a touchdown. After electing to attempt a two-point conversion, the ball is placed on the 2-yard line, and the offense is given one down to try and get the ball into the end zone in the same way they would a touchdown. While the two-point conversion attempt does offer the possibility of twice as many points as an extra point, it is also a much riskier proposition. Historically, the two-point conversion has a success rate around roughly 48%. For this reason, the two-point conversion is quite rare, and generally only used in situations when a team is trailing by a large number of points and needs as many points as possible to climb back into the game. Alternatively, there are some game situations in which an additional two points would help a team, but only one point would make no difference. For example, if a team trailed by two points despite having just scored a touchdown, and there was no time left on the clock, even after successfully kicking an extra point, the team would still lose by 1 point. For a less dramatic example, if a team is down 16–21, and then scores the go-ahead touchdown to lead the game 22–21, an additional two points means that the team could not lose if the other team scored a field goal as time expired, whereas there is no difference (in this regard) between leading by 1 or 2 points.
As was described immediately above, an extra point “try” (also called a “PAT”; Point After Touchdown) follows a touchdown much more often than a two-point conversion. In practical terms, the extra point attempt looks no different than a field goal kicked from the 15-yard line. For most of the Super Bowl era of the NFL, the extra point attempt was snapped from the 2-yard line, making it what is colloquially termed a “chip shot” – an especially close and easily-converted field goal. Indeed, the conversion rate for extra points was roughly 99%. However, in recent years the NFL tried and eventually settled on the 28-yard field goal attempt as less automatic and more exciting, adding a sense of drama to a play that was essentially superfluous. Correspondingly, the conversion rate for extra points has decreased to roughly 95%, making the decision-making process a little more difficult for NFL coaches and incentivizing the more-exciting two-point conversion attempt. Despite the change, however, the extra point remained ubiquitous: This is illustrated by the fact that it is customary parlance to refer to a touchdown as being worth 7 points despite the fact that it is only worth 6, because of how frequently that 7th point is tacked on immediately afterwards in the extra point try.
These four means by which an offense scores points accounts for most of the total points scored in an NFL game, and by extension most of the total points scored across all games throughout the duration of the season.
However, touchdowns, field goals, extra points, and two-points conversions are not the only ways that a team can score points. In addition, the defensive players have the opportunity to score in the following ways:
Interception Return for a Touchdown:
When a defender catches a ball thrown by the opposing quarterback in open space, he will most often try to advance the ball as far forward as possible, and can sometimes advance the ball all the way to the end zone for a touchdown. As soon as the interception is made, possession immediately switches to the intercepting team, who is thus “on offense” despite the fact that their defense is on the field.
Fumble Return for a Touchdown:
Similar to an interception return, when a defender gains possession of the football after a fumble by the offense, he has the opportunity to advance the ball as far as possible – if he is able – and can potentially advance the ball all the way into the end zone for a touchdown. Possession switches to the recovering team immediately in the same way as in an interception.
In one of the more unique game situations, if an offensive player downs the football inside their own end zone (or the ball rolls out of the back of the end zone after having been possessed by the offense), two points are awarded to the defense. This also occurs if the offense commits a foul in their own end zone. The most common situation leading to a safety is that a quarterback is sacked in the end zone, or a running back is unable to move the ball out of the end zone and tackled. To add insult to injury, after the safety occurs and the defense is awarded two points, the offense must punt the ball back to the defense in a free kick procedure.
Defensive Two-point Conversion:
In another effort to add some drama to the extra point play, the NFL recently ruled that if a defensive player gains possession of the football during a two-point conversion play or an extra point via a turnover in the former or a blocked kick, in the latter, that defender gains two points if he is able to run the ball back to the opposite end zone and cross the goal line. While rare, several high-profile cases of a defensive two-point conversion have been seen in recent years, even some that changed the outcome of games.
In this way, we see that despite the fact that offenses are responsible for the majority of the points scored in an NFL game, any player on the defense (or the offense) has the potential to score points at any time, due to the irregular circumstances following turnovers. With safeties, too, the defense has an opportunity to score points simply by making an exemplary defensive play.
In the same way, it is also possible for special teams players to score points. Let’s take a look at the possible ways in which this might happen:
Field Goal/Extra Point:
As we described above, field goals take place during an offensive down, but are handled by the special teams unit. Similarly, though extra points follow a touchdown, the same field goal unit must come on the field in order to execute the play. In this way, despite the fact that kickers are specialists, they are also responsible for a high percentage of a team’s scoring. In fact, it is not uncommon for long-tenured kickers to hold the franchise record for most points scored by an individual player over the course of their career, and even possible (as was the case with the 2016/17 Baltimore Ravens) for a team’s kicker to be responsible for more points than their quarterback over the course of an individual season.
Kickoff/Punt Return for a Touchdown:
When the football is kicked or punted to the opposing team and caught by a returner in space, it is always possible that the returner will carry the football all the way down the field “to the house,” which is to say into the opposite end zone for a touchdown. Though rare, at least a dozen times over the course of an NFL season a returner will manage to run the entire length of the field and score a touchdown, earning points for his team in one of the quickest ways possible.
The free kick, though very rarely used, is a way to gain an advantage over the opposing team after time has expired. The free kick rule states that after any fair catch, the team has the option to attempt a three-point kick from the spot of the fair catch, with no pressure from the opposing team (like a kickoff) and the ball held in place by a holder (like a field goal). Importantly, teams may attempt a free kick even after time has expired in the half or in the game, which is often when it is felt safe to attempt. The rarity of a team getting a fair catch as time expires after a short enough punt to merit the attempt accounts for the rarity of free kick attempts in the NFL.
Among the absolute rarest and most little-known ways to score points in the entire NFL is a special teams play called the drop kick. A drop kick is simply an alternative means of kicking a field goal or extra point, a vestigial play from an earlier age of football in which the ball was more rounded. The player simply drops the ball on the ground and kicks it off the bounce; to date the only successful example of a drop kick in the history of the Super Bowl era was on Doug Flutie’s last play in the NFL, in 2006.
This concludes our exhaustive review of the various ways in which NFL teams may score points. As we said in opening, whichever team is able to score more points wins the game, and as was made clear by our look at the various scoring methods, the ability to maintain possession of the football and keep from turning the ball over is paramount to a team’s ability to score.
Fouls and Penalties
Given the abundance of rules and regulations that we describe in the preceding sections, it’s a fair question to ask what happens when any of these rules are broken.
Though the terms “foul” and “penalty” are often mistakenly used interchangeably, the idea behind NFL officiating is that when a player, coach, or any other party performs an act that is illegal or goes against the league’s rules or policies, they have committed a foul, and due to the fact that they have committed this foul, they must receive a penalty that is equal to their act.
The officiating of fouls and the adjudication of penalties is where the NFL exercises its authority both to enforce the fairness and equality of the game, keeping the integrity of the game intact and preventing one team or another from having an unfair advantage (such as could be set up intentionally by gamblers trying to fix the game), as well as also to maintain player safety.
When the referee (the head of the officiating crew for a game) or any other official notices a foul occurring, he or she marks the fact that a foul occurred by throwing a yellow flag towards the general vicinity of the infraction. This is why fans watching the game will often hear broadcasters announce that there was “a flag on the play,” indicating that a foul occurred.
If the official has already thrown his or her flag and notices that another foul has occurred on the same play, a small bean bag is sometimes thrown, or else a hat.
Regardless of who notices the foul and throws the flag, however, the referee is ultimately the one responsible for fielding the reports of the other officials, resolving conflicting reports between officials, and reporting the foul that had occurred and its associated penalty to the players, coaches, and fans via hand signals as well as a wireless microphone connected to the stadium PA system.
Most often, the penalties leveraged by the officiating crew involve losses of yardage, (moving the team backwards towards their own end zone instead of advancing them forwards towards the opposing end zone), especially when the infraction in question is minor and not relevant to player safety.
Other minor fouls (especially against the defense) may merit the penalty of an automatic first down, regardless of the team’s forward progress, or the loss of a down (especially against the offense). If a team is so close to their own end zone that there are too few yards remaining for the officials to levy the appropriate penalty yardage, a team may be moved half the distance to the goal; if the infraction occurs in the end zone, the defense may be awarded a safety.
As part of the process of noting fouls and assessing penalties, the referee communicates with the head coach of the team who was infracted upon, and said coach has the option to either accept or decline most penalties, depending on what is more advantageous to them.
In many cases, the head coach would want to accept the penalty, so that the opposing team is moved back or the coaches team is moved forward. However, in other situations, a coach might prefer to have a team lose a down and be faced with a fourth down situation rather than lose yardage and gain another opportunity before fourth down.
Other times, when both teams commit fouls on the same play that carry penalties of comparable weight, the two penalties can offset, meaning that neither penalty is enforced, and the down is replayed.
In serious cases, fouls that involve player safety (also called “personal fouls”) can be penalized with a player being ejected from the game, and are even sometimes followed by the issuance of a fine from the league after the game ends.
However, serious fouls of this nature are uncommon in the NFL. At the same time, minor infractions are so common, in fact, that it’s often said that certain fouls (such as holding, explained below) occur on every single offensive down in a game. It simply becomes a question of whether or not an official happened to notice.
Players at all positions are constantly toeing the line of what is a foul and what isn’t, in order to be as competitive as possible. However, serious, intentional fouls – particularly those that purposefully try to injure another player – are very rare in the NFL, considering the number of opportunities a player has to commit such an act.
Let’s not take a brief look at all of the different fouls that occur in NFL games, and their accompanying penalties. For our purposes, we will refer to “offensive fouls” as those committed by the team possessing the football, which could be an offensive unit or, as the case may be, could also be a defensive unit that has taken possession after a turnover, or even a special teams unit.
Offensive Fouls and Penalties
Delay of Game: 5 yards. Generally assessed when a quarterback fails to snap the ball before the play clock has expired, but can also be assessed when a player spikes the ball on a regular down or otherwise impedes the officiating crew from keeping up the pace of gameplay.
False Start: 5 yards and no loss of down. Any player on the offense moving before the snap, after having lined up. Includes movements made by the quarterback meant to bait defenders.
Offensive Holding: 10 yards and replay of down. One of the most common fouls committed in the NFL; grasping or pulling on another player for too long to impede their progress, or bringing them to the ground.
Illegal Batting: 10 yards. Batting a loose ball or a ball in possession with the hands in order to advance the football forward.
Blocking Below the Waist: 15 yards. Often confused with a chop block.
Block in the Back: 10 yards. A block on a player who has their back turned.
Chop Block: 15 yards. A block aimed at the knees of a player who is already occupying the block of another player.
Clipping: 15 yards. Falling onto the back of a non-ball carrier.
Illegal Formation: 5 yards. Fewer than 7 players lining up on the line of scrimmage. Also assessed if eligible receivers are not the rightmost and leftmost players on the line of scrimmage.
Illegal Forward Pass: 5 yards. Forward pass thrown past line of scrimmage after an earlier forward pass on the same play, or a forward pass thrown after a change of possession.
Illegal Hands to the Face: 10 yards. Pushing or hitting the head or helmet of a defending player with the hands.
Illegal Motion: 5 yards. Moving forward at the time of the snap; similar to a false start, but occurring immediately after the snap rather than before the snap.
DID YOU KNOW?
It is technically possible for an offensive player to commit an “Offsides” foul, though this is quite rare because such an action would usually be called Illegal Motion; otherwise, the act would generally end up being referred to as “lining up in the neutral zone.”
Illegal Shift: 5 yards. A player who is not in motion but not set before the snap; otherwise, multiple players in motion at the snap. Alternately put, all 11 players must be motionless for one full second before the snap.
Illegal Substitution: 5 yards. Having more than 11 players in the huddle for a period of 3-5 seconds.
Illegal Touching: 5 yards and a loss of down. A forward pass touches an offensive linemen before a receiver or a defensive player touches the football.
Illegal Use of Hands: 10 yards. Generally called for hands to the face, though also included are several other minor illegalities.
Ineligible Receiver Downfield: 5 yards. Any offensive lineman being past line of scrimmage prior to a forward pass.
Intentional Grounding: 10 yards or spot of foul; defensive is awarded a safety in end zone. The QB throwing the football while inside the pocket to an area where there is no eligible receiver within a reasonable distance in order to avoid a sack. In addition to the penalty, the defense is awarded a sack.
Offensive Pass Interference: 10 yards. An offensive player making inappropriate contact such as pulling, tugging, or pushing off of a defender while the football is in the air.
Personal Foul: 15 yards; potential ejection if a foul is particularly flagrant. Actions under this umbrella include piling on a downed ball carrier, otherwise violent contact with an opponent who is not near the action of the play, and any other actions designated as “unnecessary roughness.”
Too Many Men: 5 yards. More than 11 men on the field either before or during a play. In addition, once a player goes out of bounds, that player is out for the play and cannot come back in.
DID YOU KNOW?:
Despite being penalized for having too many men on the field, it is legal (though ill-advised) to have too few men on the field. However, if a team starts with fewer than 11 men on the field for a play, it is illegal to then bring on additional players during the snap.
Defensive Fouls and Penalties
Defensive Pass Interference: Ball placed at the spot of the foul (or the 1-yard line if foul occurred in the end zone); automatic first down. A defender making inappropriate contact with a wide receiver including pulling, tugging, grasping, or otherwise impeding a receiver’s ability to make the catch before the arrival of the football.
Delay of Game: 5 yards. Hindering the offense from taking a quick snap, among other actions that impede the referee’s ability to maintain the pace of gameplay.
Encroachment: 5 yards. Making contact across the line of scrimmage with an offensive player before the snap.
Face Mask: 15 yards and automatic first down. Grabbing the face mask and intentionally pulling or twisting.
Helmet to Helmet: 15 yards; possible fine or suspension depending on severity. Making contact with the helmet to the helmet of a player on the offense.
Defensive Holding: 5 yards; automatic first down. Grasping or pulling another player and impeding them from making forward progress for an inappropriate length of time.
Horse-collar Tackle: 15 yards; automatic first down. Grabbing inside the ball carrier’s shoulder pads or jersey and yanking them down to the ground. Does not apply to pulling a player down by the hair.
Illegal Contact: 5 yards, automatic first down. Significant contact with a receiver after they’ve advanced five yards past the line of scrimmage, while the quarterback was still in the pocket with the ball in his hands.
DID YOU KNOW?:
This rule, enacted in 1978, is believed to be one of the primary reasons why the NFL has shifted so much towards passing offense in recent decades. With receivers more able to run reliable routes without fear of significant contact, passing success rates improved.
Illegal Hands to the Face: 5 yards; automatic first down. Pushing or hitting the head or helmet of an offensive player with the hands.
Illegal Substitution: 5 yards. Any player beyond the 11 allowed failing to leave the playing field before the offense snaps the ball.
DID YOU KNOW?:
If the offense begins to run a play while an illegal substitution is taking place, the officials do not stop the play from occurring. This means that an offense has what is referred to as a “free play:” If they succeed in accomplishing the goal of the play, they can decline the penalty and move on; if they fail, they can simply accept the penalty and replay the down.
Illegal Use of Hands: 10 yards. Generally called for the use of hands to the face, though several other minor infractions are covered under this rule.
Leaping: 15 yards; automatic first down. Unsportsmanlike conduct in which a player leaps over the line.
Leverage: 15 yards; automatic first down. Unsportsmanlike conduct in which a player receives a push or boost off of another player.
Neutral Zone Infraction: 5 yards. A defensive player moves into the neutral zone, causing an offensive player to false start, though the defensive player does not touch anyone.
DID YOU KNOW?:
While offensive players are required to remain motionless immediately before the snap and are very limited in the movements they can make, defensive players can move freely. If a defender moves into the neutral zone but resets himself before the snap, there is no foul and no penalty enforced.
Offsides: 5 yards. A defender crossing the offensive line of scrimmage before the snap.
Personal Foul: 15 yards; potential ejection if a foul is particularly flagrant. Actions under this umbrella include piling on a downed ball carrier, otherwise violent contact with an opponent who is not near the action of the play, and any other actions designated as “unnecessary roughness.”
Roughing the Passer: 15 yards; automatic first down. A personal foul under the “unnecessary roughness” umbrella, including infractions such as taking down the passer with a hit below the knees, leveraging a hit on the quarterback well after the throwing motion had been completed, and others.
Spearing: 15 yards; automatic first down. Leading with the helmet violently when attempting to tackle another player.
Too Many Men: 5 yards. More than 11 men on the field either before or during a play. In addition, once a player goes out of bounds, that player is out for the play and cannot come back in.
Tripping: 10 yards; automatic first down. Extending the foot in order to intentionally trip an offensive player.
Other Fouls and Penalties
Illegal Kick: 15 yards. Kicking the ball on a non-kicking play, as well as a multi-bounce drop kick.
Illegal Kickoff: The football goes out of bounds without touching anyone before crossing the goal line. Either the receiving team gets the ball on their own 40-yard line, or they get the ball wherever it went out of bounds, depending on which is more advantageous.
Illegal Touching: 5 yards. Touching of the football on a kickoff by a member of the kicking team before the football travels 10 yards. Almost exclusively seen during on an onside kick.
DID YOU KNOW?:
If a player on the receiving team touches the ball first, any player may recover the live football regardless of how far it has traveled.
Running into the Kicker: 5 yards. Touching of the kicker while he is undergoing his kicking motion.
Roughing the Kicker: 15 yards; automatic first down. Significant contact to the vulnerable extended kicking leg of the kicker while he is undergoing his kicking motion.
Roughing the Snapper: 15 yards; automatic first down. Significant contact to the snapper while he is exposed after undergoing his snapping motion.
Sideline Infraction: Penalty enforced at the discretion of official. A coach coming onto the on the field; general unruly behavior.
Too Many Men: 5 yards. More than 11 men on the field either before or during a play. In addition, once a player goes out of bounds, that player is out for the play and cannot come back in.
Unsportsmanlike Conduct: 15 yards, potential expulsion depending on severity. Any number of different unsportsmanlike behaviors penalized at the discretion of officials against players, coaches or even fans, including verbally abusing officials, protracted taunting, or, since 2004 in the NFL, any “prolonged and premeditated celebrations” by players.