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Fan's Guide to Football, Page 2 of 5: The Essentials

football player1- History & Object of the Game
2- The Essentials (Offense & Defense, Scoring, etc.)
3- Fouls
4- Field Diagram & Positions
5- Glossary of Football Terms

The Essentials

Game Length

A football game is divided into four 12- to 15-minute quarters, depending on the level. A game clock counts down the time left in each quarter and temporarily stops when a player throws an incomplete pass or runs out-of-bounds. Additionally, a play clock counts down the time that the offense has to start the next play after the end of a play. With the clock stopping after certain plays and the breaks between quarters, a football game typically lasts about two hours. If the score is tied at the end of play, professional teams play an extra period called “sudden death,” in which the first team to score wins. Alternatively, high school and college games provide each team a possession to attempt to score. If the score remains tied after both attempts, the process is repeated.

Start of the Game

At the start of each half and after points are scored, a “kickoff” signals the start of action. Teams line up on opposing sides of the field and the “kicking team” kicks the ball to the “receiving team.” If the ball is kicked into the end zone, the receiving team may decide on a touchback, otherwise it must run the ball up the field as far as possible, while trying to avoid being tackled. The return ends where the player with the ball is tackled or goes out of bounds; the team then goes on the offensive in pursuit of points.


At the start of each possession, the offense receives four downs, or chances, to score points (touchdown or field goal), or to advance the ball 10 yards and receive a first down, which gives the offense another set of four downs. The center starts each play by snapping the ball to the quarterback. The quarterback advances the ball by executing a “passing play” or a “running play.” During a passing play, the quarterback throws the ball to a receiver, who runs a predetermined “route” to become open for passes; during a running play, the quarterback either runs the ball himself or hands the ball to a running back, who runs plays that exploit holes created by blockers.

Each play starts from the line of scrimmage, and a new line is established where the previous play ended. Failure to score or advance the ball 10 yards in four downs results in a change of possession. When scoring or achieving a first down seems doubtful on a fourth down, the offense often elects to punt the ball to the opposing team so that the opponent does not start its possession with good “field position.”


The mission of the defense is to prevent the opposition from scoring. One method is to stop the offense from gaining 10 yards on the first three downs and force a punt on fourth down. On running plays, the defense attempts stop the run; on passing plays, it rushes and blitzes the quarterback to put pressure on him, and “covers” receivers to stop them from receiving passes. The defense ends each down by tackling the ball carrier, forcing the player out of bounds, or causing an incomplete pass. The defense can also gain possession of the ball by creating a “turnover.” A turnover occurs when a defender recovers a fumble or catches a pass for an interception.

Defenses are either man-to-man or zone coverage. In man-to-man coverage, players match up with specific receivers; in zone coverage, defenders cover a certain area of the field and cover players entering their area.



Points are accumulated in four ways:

Touchdown: (six points) Possession of the ball in the opponent’s end zone is a touchdown.

Extra point(s): (one or two points) An attempt for additional points follows a touchdown. Most often an extra-point kick through the goalposts for one point, but sometimes a two-point conversion by running or passing the ball into the opponent’s end zone.

Field goal: (three points) A kick that passes over the crossbar and between the opponent’s goalposts during a field goal attempt.

Safety: (two points) The defense can score two points by tackling the opposition in its own end zone or forcing the ball out of the end zone.



In the early years of football, little equipment was used besides the ball. However, in an effort to prevent injuries, protective equipment has increased. Football equipment now includes: a football; helmet; mouth guard; neck roll; shoulder, knee, hip, thigh, and elbow pads; flank jacket; jersey; pants; and cleats.

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