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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. Use this breakdown to improve your football knowledge and learn more about the rules for football

The Positions

Before you can fully grasp what referees and analysts are talking about on TV, it’s best to learn the positions on offense and defense—and what they do. In a standard game, the offense is made up of 11 players in different positions trying to score with the ball, while the defense includes 11 players trying to stop the offense from moving down the field. 

Offensive positions include: 

  • 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.  

Defensive positions include:

  • 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. 

The Objective of the Game 

Football is played on a 100-yard field that the offense must move down by passing or running the ball to get into the “end zone” and score a touchdown. Where the offense starts is usually determined by the ball being kicked to them by the other team. From there, they have four tries (called downs) to move the ball 10 or more yards forward until they score. Each try starts with players lined up opposite each other, with the ball in the center’s hands, creating an area known as the line of scrimmage. Every time the offense successfully gains the ten or more yards needed, they get a new set of four downs. Penalties, violations of the game’s rulebook, add or subtract yards to each down or start a new set of downs altogether, depending on the call. 

The Most Common Calls

With knowledge of positions and objectives, fans know the essentials, but it can all still get confusing when penalties come into play. What’s most important to know is that if an offensive player commits a penalty, yards are added to the ten yards needed to get a new set of downs, and if a defensive player commits a penalty, yards are subtracted and sometimes a new set of downs is rewarded to the offense. These penalties will be noted by flags that referees throw onto the field. Here’s a breakdown of the eight penalties enforced over 100 times at the professional level in 2021 and how they affect play: 

  • Holding: When an offensive or defensive player affects their opponent’s movement by grabbing them. (Ten yards added or five yards subtracted)
  • False Start: When a player on the offensive line moves before the center begins to hand the ball to the quarterback, or if a wide receiver, running back, or tight end moves past the offensive line before the handoff. (Five yards added)
  • Pass Interference: When a pass is thrown, offensive and defensive players cannot try to stop one another from catching the ball by holding or pushing each other out of the way significantly. (Five yards if offensive. A new set of downs and the ball moved to where the penalty occurred if defensive) 
  • Delay of Game: If the offense fails to start their play within the 40 seconds provided. (Five yards added) 
  • Offside: If the offense or defense moves beyond where the football is before a play starts. (Five yards added or subtracted) 
  • Roughing the Passer/Kicker: Defensive players aren’t allowed to hit the offense’s quarterback or kicker after they release the ball. (15 yards subtracted) 
  • Unnecessary Roughness: Occurs when any physical contact is deemed unnecessary, such as if a player is hit after they’ve run out of bounds. (15 yards added or subtracted, plus a new set of downs if defensive) 
  • Neutral Zone Infraction: The football creates a line from sideline to sideline known as the “neutral zone” before a play begins. An infraction occurs when a defensive player causes an offensive player to move through that line before the ball is handed to the quarterback. (Five yards subtracted)

Avoid a Party Penalty

Now that you know 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: