Pic - The NFL at Wembley

NFL at Wembley
Credit: Carl Hagan

The Basic Rules of American Football

Read this Article if you have no clue what's going on.

Maybe you've been invited to a Super Bowl party, or round to a friend's house to watch the game.  Or maybe you just fancy seeing what all the fuss is about.  The good news is, it's not Rocket Science... or Cricket.  Read on for the bare bones of the sport,  noting that these are very simple scenarios and other crazy stuff may happen, depending on how daring a team is.

  •  Two 11 aside teams take it in turns to try to get the "Football" from one side of the field to the other. Hoping to either finish in the End Zone for 6 points, or kick the football through the posts for a Field Goal for 3 points.
  • The pitch, (The Field) is 100 yards long, and divided into 1 yard segments.  
  • Each team of 53 players is split into three parts... Offense, Defence, and special teams. 

When one team has the ball, their Offense will be on the field.  Offensive players specialise in getting the ball to the other team's End Zone for the score. 

The opposition will have their Defence on the field.  The Defence has players with different skills, specialising in stopping the other team from progressing down the field and scoring.

  • When the  offensive team loses the ball, their Offense will leave the field, and be replaced by their Defence.  The other team will swap their Defence for Offense.
  • How the Offence moves the ball up the field:

As stated earlier the field is made up of 100 yards, which are the lines you see drawn across the field. There are solid white lines every five yards, and small dashes along the sidelines and in rows going up the middle of the field. These are Hash Marks, and are all 1 yard apart.

Generally the Offense will start with the football on or around their own 20 yard line.  The graphics on-screen will show which yard line the ball is on.   You will also see a graphic on the screen showing something like 1st & 10, or 3rd & 4.

The Offense has 4 attempts, (called Downs,) to move the ball 10 yards down the field.   So on their first attempt you will see 1st and 10... It's their 1st attempt and they have 10 yards to go. 

If they don't progress at all on that 1st attempt,  then they will go to their 2nd Down, and still have 10 yards to go... So the graphic will show 2nd and 10.

on their 2nd attempt, if they now move the ball 5 yards down the field before the Defence tackles the ball carrier, then they still have 5 yards to go, and they move on to their 3rd attempt... 3rd and 5.

Lets say that then on their 3rd attempt, they  move the ball another 8 yards before getting tackled.  Then they've got more than the 5 yards they needed, so they get another 4 attempts to move the ball another 10 yards.  So it's 1st and 10 again, but they're further down the field.  If they keep getting ten yards or more down the field in 4 attempts, then they keep getting another set of 4 Downs until they get into the End Zone and score.

If at any point the offense don't get the 10 yards in 4 downs, the ball goes to the other team... But:

If they are on their fourth down, they have a number of choices to make.  Generally, if they are miles away from the End Zone, it would be too risky to try again to get the First Down.  Because if they fail, the other team will get the ball where it is, and that would be quite close to the offenses End Zone, making it easier for the other team to score.  So in this situation the Offense would go off, and the Special Teams would come on.

Special Teams will then kick the ball as far as they can, backing the other team up close to their End Zone, where they will get the ball, but have a long way to go to score.

Now let's back it up to the Offense being on 4th Down (Their last attempt.)  Now instead of them being miles away from scoring, lets say they are approx 20 yards from the End Zone.  Again usually, depending on tactics and the circumstances, the Offense would go off and the Special Teams would come on.  Then they would try to kick it through the Goal posts to get 3 points.  Not as good as a Touchdown for 6, but less risky.

Let's back it up again and say it's 4th Down and 1, with 1 yard to the End Zone.  So the offense just has to move the ball 1 yard to get 6 points, and if they fail, the other team would get the ball on that same 1 yard line, but going the other way. 

The Offense would then generally go for it.  Trying to get that 1 yard for 6 points, as there's very little to lose.

  • Special Teams are usually used for any play that involves kicking the ball. Maybe they should have called it the Kicking team. 

Kicking situations are usually Punts, Field Goals, or Kick offs.  Any time a team scores, there's a kickoff, where they kick it to the other team so that the opposition can have a go at trying to score.


New York Jets vs Miami Dolphins

Wembley 2015

Jets vs Dolphins
Credit: Carl Hagan



You may notice as you're watching the game, that the Offense only really has three downs to make the 10 yards, as there will usually be a kick either to score, or back the other team up on the 4th Down.


It's 6 points for a Touchdown (getting the ball into the End Zone.) 

After scoring a Touchdown, the scoring team can choose to either kick it through the posts for an extra point, or...they  can run one more play from close to the End Zone trying to get the ball in again for an extra two points.

Kicking it is easier than trying to get it into the End Zone again.  

A  Field Goal (kicking through the posts) is Three points.

 So as you can see there's a few ways to score with differing value. The Head Coach will choose what to do based on risk and reward. It's like a game of chess with very strong and fast chess pieces, and one head coach trying to outwit the other. 

These are the very basic rules, and once you can follow this, you'll at least be able to enjoy the game.