Basic Rules of American Football

Basic Rules of American Football (Quick Beginner’s Guide)

American football has woven itself into the very fabric of the United States, emerging not just as a sport, but as a cultural phenomenon. Rooted in the late 19th century, its evolution has created traditions, gatherings, and even specific days devoted to game-watching.

If you’re new to the sport and wondering about the hype, this guide will walk you through its basic rules.

Key Takeaways

  • Objective of the Game: Score more points than your opponent by carrying or passing the ball into their end zone or by kicking it through their goal posts.
  • Game Progression: Football is played in four 15-minute quarters, with teams having four tries (“downs”) to move the ball 10 yards forward.
  • Scoring: The primary methods are touchdowns (6 points), field goals (3 points), and safeties (2 points), with additional options after touchdowns.

The Objective of the Game

At its core, the game’s objective is simple: score more points than your opponent within the game’s duration. This is achieved by carrying or passing the ball into the opposing team’s end zone or kicking it through their goal posts.

The Playing Field

American Football Field

Imagine a large rectangular field, 120 yards in length (including two 10-yard end zones) and 53 and 1/3 yards in width.

  • End zones: These are scoring areas at each end of the field.
  • Goal posts: Uprights located at the back of each end zone.
  • Yard lines: These are marked every 5 yards across the field’s width, aiding in determining the ball’s position.
  • Sidelines and end lines: These boundary lines mark the outer edges of the field.

The Teams

Each team comprises 11 players on the field at any given time, divided into three main units:

  1. Offense: This unit has the ball and aims to score. Key positions include the Quarterback (the team’s main strategist and ball thrower), Running Backs, Wide Receivers, and the Offensive Line.
  2. Defense: Tasked with stopping the offense from scoring. Comprises the Defensive Line, Linebackers, and the Secondary.
  3. Special Teams: Players specialized in kicking, punting, and returning the ball.

Starting the Game

The game begins with a coin toss to decide which team will receive the ball first. The other team then performs a kickoff from their own 35-yard line, launching the ball toward the receiving team.


Here’s where the real excitement lies:

  • Touchdown (6 points): Achieved when a player carries or catches the ball in the opponent’s end zone.
    • Extra Point: After a touchdown, teams have the option to kick the ball through the goalposts for an additional point or attempt a two-point conversion (trying to get the ball into the end zone again from a short distance).
  • Field Goal (3 points): Scored by kicking the ball through the opponent’s goalposts.
  • Safety (2 points): This occurs when the offensive team is tackled with the ball in their own end zone.

Game Progression

A game consists of four 15-minute quarters. Clock stoppages occur for various reasons, like when a pass is incomplete or a player goes out of bounds.

  • Play Clock: Teams have 40 seconds between plays (same in both NFL and NCAA).
  • Timeouts: Each team gets three timeouts per half, allowing them to stop the clock and strategize.

Downs and Moving the Ball

The offense has four tries, or “downs,” to move the ball 10 yards forward. If successful, they earn a new set of downs.

If they don’t achieve this after the third down, they usually choose to punt the ball to the other team on fourth down or attempt a field goal, depending on their position on the field.

Penalties and Foul Play

Rules violations result in penalties. Common ones include:

  • Holding: Illegally restraining an opponent.
  • Offsides: A player moves across the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped.
  • Pass Interference: Illegally preventing a player from catching a pass.
  • Personal Foul: A dead ball penalty that is often caused by a player hitting another player illegally.

Penalties can lead to yardage loss or gain and might require the down to be replayed.

Game Conclusions

After four quarters, the team with the most points wins. In the case of a tie, an overtime period is played to determine the winner.

Popular American Football Events

While every game has its charm, a few stand out:

  • The Super Bowl: The championship game of the NFL season. It’s one of the most watched events of the year in the US.
  • College football playoffs: Where the best college teams compete for the title.
  • Pro Bowl: A matchup of the season’s best players, divided by conference but not by team.


With this guide, you’re now equipped to dive into the exhilarating world of American football. Whether you’re a future fan, player, or just curious, the sport promises thrilling moments and deep-rooted traditions.

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