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Football Guide: What Do All Those Calls Mean?

50 yard line at the football field with bright lights

Football season is here, and that means it’s time for wings and watch parties. With over 16 million Americans watching football every year, spectating the sport is a favorite weekend pastime in many households, but the game might be confusing for some. Wondering how to understand football for beginners? Use this breakdown to learn what to know about football and the rules for football

What to Know About Football: Football Game Basics & How Long Are Football Games? 

Professional American football is played in four 15-minute quarters with a halftime intermission. Over the 60 minutes of game time, two teams compete on a rectangular, 100-yard grass or turf field with a leather, oval-shaped ball. At each end of the field is an end zone that teams try to cross into to score. The game’s goal is simple: stop the other team from scoring points, and score as many as you can. 

Football Objective

The game begins with a coin toss. The team that wins the coin toss can choose to have the ball kicked to them by their opponent and play on offense, or kick the ball and start on defense. After the opening kickoff, the defensive team must attempt to tackle the player with the ball and prevent them from scoring.

If that player is tackled before scoring, the offense has four tries (called downs) to move the ball ten or more yards forward until they reach their end zone. Each attempt starts with players lined up opposite each other with the ball in between them, creating the line of scrimmage. When the offense successfully gains ten or more yards, they get a new set of four downs. This continues until a team gets the following: 

  • Touchdown (6 points): An offensive player runs or passes the ball into their end zone. 
  • Extra Point (1 point): A team’s kicker kicks the ball through a goalpost behind their end zone after a touchdown. 
  • Field Goal (3 points): A kicker kicks the football through their goalpost from wherever the last play ended. 
  • Safety (2 points): A player gets tackled inside their own end zone.

Going to a tailgate before a football game? Check out these 14 tailgating hacks that'll make you feel like a winner! 

Football Positions & How Many Players Are on a Football Team?

Both teams put a group of 11 players on the field for every play. One group, the offense, tries to score with the ball, while the other, the defense, tries to stop the offense from moving down the field and scoring. Here’s the breakdown of who’s who:

Offensive Positions: 

  • Quarterback. The play-caller who “snaps” the ball with the center, then throws or hands it off to other offensive players, the quarterback can also run with the ball themselves.
  • Running backs. Players at this position can run with the ball after a handoff, catch a pass, or block for other players.
  • Fullbacks. They tend to act as a bigger version of running backs, performing the same functions, but primarily blocking. 
  • Wide receivers. The main pass catchers, they also sometimes block or take a handoff.
  • Tight ends. These players act as receivers and offensive linemen, catching passes and blocking for others.
  • The offensive line. This is a group of five bigger, stronger players at the positions of the left guard, left tackle, center, right guard, and right tackle. They work together to block the defense from getting to the other players on offense.  

man leaning over with football on field

Defensive Positions:

  • The defensive line. Three or four players who line up opposite the offensive line act as the first line of defense after the offense snaps the ball. This usually includes two defensive ends and one or two defensive tackles.  
  • Linebackers. As their name suggests, they help the defensive line. Usually, there are three or four of these players on the field each play, trying to get past the offensive line and tackle the quarterback to get a “sack” or stop players carrying the ball. 
  • Cornerback. They primarily defend wide receivers, trying to stop them from catching the ball or tackle them if they do. Cornerbacks, and any other defensive players, can also catch the ball themselves, which is a play called an interception. 
  • Safety. Usually the last line of defense, these players have a variety of responsibilities, but they primarily defend pass catchers. 

Special Teams Positions: 

Unless one team loses the football, every possession ends with a special teams play. All special teams plays involve some sort of kick, with each team attempting a kick, returning a kick, or defending the kick attempt or return. These plays involve the below positions: 

  • Kicker: Does the kickoff or kicks the ball to score a field goal. 
  • Punter: Kicks the ball to the opposing team when theirs is too far away to attempt a field goal. 
  • Kick/Punt Returner: Catches the ball on a kickoff or punt to gain yards or score a touchdown. 
  • Gunner: Tries to tackle the returner. 
  • Blocker: Blocks the opposing team’s gunners. 

man watching football game holding football on couch

Basketball is another beloved American sport. Want to learn more? Check out our basketball guide for beginners. 

All Football Rules & Penalties 

There are always seven officials on the field who call out infractions to rules, called penalties, by throwing out a yellow flag. Each penalty carries a specific punishment that makes the distance needed to score a touchdown larger or smaller, depending on who is at fault. Want to learn the rules of football? Here’s a breakdown of the seven penalties enforced over 100 times at the professional level in 2021 and how they affect play: 

  • Holding (+10 yards for offense; -5 yards for defense): An offensive or defensive player affects their opponent’s movement by using their hands or arms instead of their body. 
  • False Start (+5 yards): An offensive player moves before the ball is snapped to the quarterback. 
  • Pass Interference (-5 yards for offense; new set of downs & ball placement for defense): An offensive or defensive player stops one another from catching the ball by holding or pushing significantly. 
  • Delay of Game (+5 yards): The offense fails to start their play within 40 seconds. 
  • Offside (+5 for offense; -5 for defense): The offense or defense moves beyond the football before a play starts.
  • Roughing the Passer/Kicker (-15 yards): A defensive player hits the offense’s quarterback or kicker after they release the ball. 
  • Unnecessary Roughness (+/- 15 yards; new set of downs for defense): Any physical contact deemed unnecessary.

football on football field with stands

Rules for Football Beginners: How to Avoid a Party Penalty

Now that you know what to know about football and the rules of American football, show off your skills with a party full of delicious game-day snacks. Football and chicken wings are synonymous with one another. To prevent your next game get-together from being flagged by guests, stock up your snacks with wings using our recipe: 

air-fryer hot wings recipe

How to Understand Football For Beginners FAQs

1. Why is a safety called a safety in football?

A safety is called a safety because they score using a safer strategy. 

2. What is the line in football? 

The line, or the line of scrimmage, is an imaginary line spanning sideline to sideline that divides the two teams before each play. 

3. What does first and 10 mean in football?

In football, first and 10 means that it's the first down, and the team needs to gain 10 yards to keep the ball.

4. How many plays are there in football?

Overall, there are hundreds of football plays. However, on average, 75-100 plays occur during a football game. 

5. What is a stop in football? 

A stop is when a defensive player tackles an offensive player with the ball. 

6. How many people are on the field in football?

Each team has 11 players on the football field at a time for a total of 22 players. 

7. What does a safety mean in football?

Safeties are the last line of defense in football. They usually defend pass catchers. 

8. What does a penalty mean in football?

In football, a penalty happens when a player breaks a rule. 

9. What does a cornerback do in football?

A cornerback defends wide receivers and tries to stop them from catching the ball. Cornerbacks can also catch the ball themselves with an interception.