Stripped down football for sports morons?

I never cared about football, or any other team sport, but I’ve been watching Friday night lights, and now I want to know a little bit more.

I googled, and I found various simplified rules, but they weren’t really as simple as I want. Anyone want to take a shot at stripping the basics down to their barest essentials? Like whats with “downs”,when can you do a field goal what is that two point thing after a touchdown? I just want to know the real basic basic scoring and movement…I know that the rulebook has 100 pages in it and it can get crazy complex…

Also: do the uniforms always change colors for some reason? i got very confused when the team was blue one week and white the next???

Football’s like a board game; it’s played in turns. Each turn is divided up into four downs. If you just got the ball, it’s first down and you get to either try a running play or a passing play to move towards the other team’s goal line. You get four downs to move forward ten yards or more in total. If you do that, you get another turn - first down again. If you don’t do it, the other team gets it, which is why on fourth down, which is your last chance, a lot of times the team with the ball will just kick it as far as they can down the field, so when the other team gets it they’ll have farther to go before they can score a touchdown. The game goes back and forth - your four downs, my four downs, your four downs, with teams racking up as many points as they can during their turns.

You can try a field goal whenever you want, and that’s worth three points if you get it, but realistically nobody can kick one farther than about fifty yards with any consistency. Generally you’ll see a team try a field goal for three points when they’re pretty close to the end zone, but not that close, and they’ve reached fourth down (so if they don’t kick it and they don’t gain enough yards, they risk losing the ball to the other team without getting any points).

You also have a choice after you score a touchdown: you can kick a really short field goal for one extra point, or you can try to run one more play from right outside the end zone for two points if you get it into the end zone again. The touchdown is worth six points, and the field goal option is worth one, for a total of seven (they call that field goal an “extra point,” for obvious reasons), and if you “go for two” you can potentially get a total of eight points for the touchdown plus the two-point conversion.

The different uniform colors denote home and away, so that it’s obvious who is who when, for instance, one team that wears blue and white plays against another team that wears blue and white.

Your team gets four ‘tries’ to move the ball ten-plus yards toward the other team’s end zone.

So it’ll be First And Ten when you get possession – and if you run the ball ten-plus yards, or hand it to a guy who runs it ten-plus yards, or throw it likewise, you promptly start over with a new First And Ten. (You only moved it three yards? It’s now Second And Seven. You then move it six yards? It’s now Third And One. You then drop back and get tackled? Ooh, bad move; it’s now Fourth And Eight.)

If you don’t finally hit that tenth yard on the 4th down, the other team takes over where you failed – which is why teams usually kick it away on 4th down.

On any given down – but the odds of making it from farther back than the fifty-yard line don’t look so hot. And since you’ll be snapping the ball back a ways, to give the kicker time before tacklers charge him, you’ll probably at least want to be on the other team’s thirty-five yard line or so.

A risky alternative to the much easier one-extra-point-after-a-touchdown kick. It’s pretty much like trying to score a second short-range touchdown.

Six points for a touchdown (and then go for the easy one or the hard two), three for a field goal, two for a safety (tackling a ball-carrier in his own end zone, say).

If the line of scrimmage is the 50, add 7 yards for the spot and 10 yards for the endzone, and you’d have a 67 yard attempt. The NFL record for longest field goal is 63 yards. Most teams aren’t going to try a field goal until the line of scrimmage is at the 35 or closer.

You can try to kick a field goal anytime you like. The problem is a field goal is only worth three points but a touchdown is worth six points. So a team doesn’t try for a field goal unless it feels it can’t make a touchdown on this possession.

Also, if you make a touchdown, you can try for either an extra point or a conversion for bonus points. And extra point is when you kick the football between the goal posts and it’s worth one more point - with NFL kickers extra points are virtually automatic. A conversion is when you pass or run the ball into the end zone - it’s harder to do but it’s worth two points.

Thank you all… If I may, let me feed back to you what I believe I understand:

When it is your turn at offense (Your turn to move the ball to the touchdown area) You have to gain at least 10 yards in four plays in order to retain the ball. You can gain those yards by holding the ball and attempting to move toward your goal while holding it, or throwing the ball to somebody was already covered that distance and they have to catch it. Or you can kick it.

Assuming you are successful at gaining 10 yards or more you have to gain another 10 yards or more in four plays as above.

If you succeed in throwing or holding and carrying the ball into your touchdown area, you may try to jam Past a line of bodies only a few feet outside the endzone area to get an extra two points, sort of like a mini running touchdown, or a field goal.

Since until recently I always believed that a touchdown was worth seven points, I am assuming that it is virtually automatic to go for the field goal and it’s almost always good, correct?

Also, why do you call that mini touchdown post touchdown a “conversion”?

Okay now, about turns: if you fail to get your 10 yards the other team gets the ball. But from what you say I assume they don’t start at their 50 yard line, they start as far back as wherever you got to? So if the offensive team manages to move the ball to within 5 yards of their end zone but fail to move it over into the end zone, the other team has to start 95 yards away from their end zone?

And what is it legal way to “steal” the ball from the other team? I understand that if you drop the ball, or pass it and your player doesn’t catch it, the other team can grab it and then they have the ball, But is it legal when tackling to actually reach into the other players arms and try to wrestle the ball from his hands?

And I used to think that it was the quarterback’s job to do the running into the end zone, but I think I understand now that the quarterback does the passing to the person who’s expected to do the running and get tackled that’s the running back? Or can it be anybody? And I guess plays are elaborate or simple preplanned arrangements of who’s going to run and what direction and pass to whom and they have code names and the quarterback or? uses the special name to say which elaborate play we’re going to do? And I think the idea is to always mix it up so that different people are running in different directions and taking out the other team who expect you to do something differently?

It’s not technically called a field goal but a “Point After Touchdown” or PAT or extra point.

It’s virtually automatic in the NFL and in top tier college football. But “virtually” is not absolute. Teams miss on occasion. And it happens more frequently at lower levels.

That’s just what it’s called. You convert on the attempt.

It depends on how they get the ball. There are a number of ways, of which I’ll list a few here.

  1. You fail on 4 straight attempts. The other team gets the ball where the ball was last spotted by officials.

  2. The team recovers a turnover. A turnover can be a recovered fumble or interception. In this case, they get they ball where the recovering player is downed (the recovering player might also get into the endzone and score a touchdown).

  3. If a team fails to advance 10 yards in 3 attempts, they will often punt the ball on 4th down. A punt is a kick. The team will kick the ball down the field. The other team receives the ball and can attempt to return it. They get the ball wherever the punt returner is downed (or the returner might score a touchdown).

On a pass play, if you catch the ball BEFORE IT HITS THE GROUND, your team gets possession of it.

Otherwise, if the ball carrier loses possession of the ball (even if it subsequently hits the ground), you can pick it up and get possession of the ball.

And yes, you can attempt to take the ball from the ball carrier by force or tricks (excepting things like clubbing them over the head or whatever). And players are routinely coached to do so. But it’s pretty difficult. And you have to pop the ball out before the ball carrier is downed, i.e. you have to keep them standing while you try. It’s easier to just down them.

The QB can keep the ball and run into the endzone. That’s fine.

Or they can pass the ball to an eligible receiver (there are rules about “eligible” and “ineligible” receivers but they’re a bit technical), who proceeds into the end zone or catches it in the endzone.

Or they can hand the ball off to a runner (usually the running back but can be a player in another position) who tries to run it in.

Like any sort of game, tactics matter. Some teams have very simplified playbooks. Others have extremely elaborate playbooks.

At lower levels, playcalls now often come from the sidelines. At high levels, it’s common for the QB to call plays, often from a short list pre-approved by the coaches. The QB can also “audible” which means changing the play call at the line of scrimmage immediately before the play starts.

Every player theoretically knows their assignment on a given play, but that assignment might also include some responsibility to improvise, especially if the play breaks down based on what the defense is doing.

ETA: Oh, and on punts or kickoffs, if the ball is downed in the endzone or goes out past the the endzone, the receiving team gets the ball at the 20 or 25 yardline (depends on whether or not you are in college/NFL and if it’s a punt or kickoff). So, there’s value in punters who can precisely kick the ball to inside the 5 yard line without the ball going into the endzone. If the punt is outside the field of play laterally, the ball is placed where the ball goes out of bounds.

It’s called a conversion dating back to older versions of the sport. There are a few weird linguistic quirks like that which don’t have any particular reason to be the terms we use; they just are.





It’s just lingo. You get one try to get 2 points after a touchdown by crossing the goal line. You can successfully convert that try into 2 points, or you can fail.

They commonly call gaining the 10th yard on 3rd or 4th down a “conversion”. E.g. “The Bears converted on 4th and 1 for a new set of downs”

Yes, the defensive team gets the ball wherever they tackle you on 4th down. Because where you are on the field is so important, teams almost always opt to kick (“punt”) the ball on 4th down and gain ~40 yards in field position before giving it back instead of risking failing on 4th down. There is much debate on what conditions are optimal to take this risk from statisticians, but that’s advanced stuff.

Also, your scenario is one of the common ones where a team DOES choose to not kick on 4th down. Because the opponent having to go 95 yards is a safe bet against, teams will occasionally gamble and try for 7 points instead of settling for 3.

One nuance that’s not been explicitly explained here is the 2 types of kicks the offense has to choose from. They can punt, which is a kick teams generally use to gain ~40 yards of field position when they are a long ways from the end zone (where touchdowns are scored) or they can kick a field goal. Field goals can net 3 points if they are successful, but they come with risk since if they miss the defense gets the ball where it was kicked which is the equivalent of getting tackkled on 4th down.

Generally this inflection point occurs when the offense is on the 35 yard line of the opponent (35 yards from the end zone they are moving towards) because the chances of success decrease quickly outside of that range. A failure from the 45 yard line is the difference between the opponent having to go 55 yards for a TD (or 20 yards for a likely field goal attempt) versus a punt which means they likely have to go 90 yards (55 yards for a FG).

You can steal it at any time during a play. The play is over when 1 of 3 things occur, the ball falls to the ground following a pass, the runner holding the ball is forced too the ground or the runner holding the ball goes out of bounds. So long as none of those 3 conditions is met, the defense can (and will) make every attempt to take the ball out of the runners hands or catch a thrown ball.

Gets a little complicated here. Anyone on the offense (or defense if they steal it) can run the ball into the end zone. Quarterback, running back, receiver and even the blockers. Only designated receivers can go down field and catch passes, there are only allowed to be 6 of them (including the QB, who usually doesn’t but legally is allowed to) and they must be positioned in certain ways by rule.

Plays are almost never “simple”, even simple looking plays have 11 people doing very specific coordinated tasks. Placement, timing, technique and power are critical.

Also, plays at the NFL and College level are almost never fixed. Within each play many players have choices to make in a split second based on a set of tactics. Each man’s tactics are specifically defined so that everyone on offense can predict what everyone else is doing on a given play when a defense does something unpredictable (which is their job).

Fundamentally your idea is right, the coach is trying to get players running to spaces where the defense isn’t expecting them or doesn’t have enough people in that space to counteract the move. Because defenses are smart this is very difficult to do with a static plan, hence the players running have to adapt to where the defense moves to based on their own tactics.

There’s a famous boxing quote: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” This is very true during a football play. The “punch in the mouth” is the first move the defense makes that you either weren’t prepared for or when they over match one of your players. From there speed, skill and improvisation takes over. Often these coordinated plans don’t necessarily have a specific outcome in mind, they are simply an attempt to put your talented people in position to do something athletic against a defense at a disadvantage.

You didn’t ask, but let me attempt to explain some of the nomenclature for certain offensive roles. This is very football-geek stuff, but it might be interesting and provide a little context for you.

Many moons ago when football was in it’s infancy, the “forward pass” was a rarely used novelty and was even illegal when the game first evolved from rugby. At this time there was no specialized player whose job it was to throw the ball.

However, there were “quarterbacks” at this time. There were also “halfbacks” and “fullbacks”. “Backs” were named because they lined up behind the line of scrimmage, in other words back off the line. Quarter, half and full described how far off the line they were. There were 4 such positions and all 4 were primarily runners of different sizes and speeds. The “quarter back” was lined up right behind the linemen, the half back was lined up 1-2 yards behind the line and full back was lined up 3-4 yards behind the line.

The strategy at the time was about how you placed these runners, who blocked and who got the ball. Most of the misdirection was focused on not letting the defense know who had the ball and which way the play was designed to go.

As the forward pass was legalized and the strategy evolved to exploit it, there became a need to have a man who was good at throwing it. This guy always lined up closest to the line and because the terminology was already in use he became the quarterback, eventually that role become almost exclusively a passer.

Today the terms quarterback and fullback have evolved very different meanings than what they had originally, and the term halfback is essentially dead and has been replaced by the more general term running back which more generically describes the role. 100 years ago the roles of the halfback and the fullback were essentially the inverse of what they are today.

Someone very briefly mentioned it in another post but I wanted to reiterate, one way of scoring is by way of a safety.

There are two types of safeties. One of them is essentially never going to happen (although they have happened in college football, one as recently as a couple years ago), which is worth one point.

The other more common safety, which happens in the NFL on some occaision (it even happened in the super bowl a year or two back) is when a team is in possession of the ball and gets tackled while in their OWN end zone. This results in 2 points for the team that did the tackling. Most often this occurs when a team has punted, gotten the ball very close to the their own endzone, and then on the next play, after the snap the QB has the ball in their own endzone and gets sacked/tackled.
Another point: People have talked about punts and how it’s very routine for teams to punt on 4th down so that they don’t leave the other team with an advantageous position on the field. There is a somewhat uncommon play called a fake punt where the offensive team lines up as if they are about to punt, but actually ends up trying to make the yardage required for a first down. The Houston Texans pulled one of these off a few weeks ago successfully, but they are quite rare. They are typically only carried out by a team that is down by a few touchdowns and really needs to score. Fake punts are usually predictable because of this, and have fairly low rate of success.

Another uncommonly used tactic but one that is important to know about is the onside kick. This is performed after a team has scored a touchdown. Usually, they kick the ball as far down the field as possible to the other team. During an onside kick, however, they kick the ball only a short minimum distance in order to try and recover it before the other team can get the ball. If successful, this allows them to score another touchdown relatively easily. However, there is a minimum distance an onside kick must travel, and the success rate is very very low. It’s a last-ditch type move when you have no other hope of winning.

Amazing how complicated it gets… I used to do my impression of football, that’s hard to put across in writing, but it boiled down to “huddlehudddlehuddle…OOMph!..huddlehuddlehuddle…OOMPH…”

One thing I’m stumbling on… what is considered a team’s OWN endzone: the one they are trying to to score in, or the one they are defending agains the other team scoring in?

By the way, did any of you guys watch Friday Night Lights? I resisted it SO hard when my friend was telling me about it… “HATE HATE HATE FOOTBALL! HATE FOOTBALL CULTURE! GAH!” But it was a very good show and really made it much clearer and more palatable to delve into that small town Football Is Everything mentality…

The one they are defending (and note that teams switch playing direction after every quarter).

You haven’t even scratched the surface of how complicated it gets. Football has the most complicated rulebook of the major sports, by far. Keep in mind there are also important differences between NFL, college, and high school rules.

For what it’s worth, factor in the tight end: he’s almost, but not quite, big and strong enough to make it as a blocker. And he’s almost, but not quite, swift and sure-handed enough to pull his weight catching passes and running with 'em. So on any given down, there’s not much to see: he’s just another lineman, or just another receiver. But the invisible mess-with-their-heads point is that the other team never knows which role he’ll be playing.

(Sometimes an offense puts a whopping three tight ends out there, which – again, yes, if this is the down where all three just block while the quarterback runs the ball, it doesn’t look like much; if anything, it looks like a bunch of half-assed would-be tacklers somehow failed to slip past a bunch of not-too-formidable blockers. Thing is, those defenders figured Yeah, I Could Try Twice As Hard To Slip Past Him, But I Think He’s Really Just PRETENDING To Block And WANTS Me To Slip Past So He’ll Be Wide Open To Catch A Pass, Which Is Why I’ll Tentatively Stick With Him Instead.)

On the other side of the equation, consider the Shutdown Corner: so damn good at keeping passes away from X that folks simply don’t pass to X, instead passing to Y or handing off to Z for the duration. So you see lots of running plays, and a spectacular interception by the guy covering Y, and – the guy covering X? Why would you notice the guy covering X? Neither he nor X did anything interesting the whole time you were watching.

On passes, there are two kinds of pass, the forward pass and the lateral. In a forward pass, the ball ends up further down the field than where it was thrown from. You can only make one forward pass per play, and it has to start from behind the line of scrimmage (the place where the ball officially was at the start of play). In a lateral, the ball moves backwards relative to where it was thrown from (though usually only slightly; it’s mostly sideways, hence the name). Anyone with the ball can make a lateral pass at any time, though it’s not an often-used tactic.

You might have also heard of a “Hail Mary pass”. That’s a pass that’s so long, you have time to pray a full Hail Mary while it’s in the air. If it works, you can score a touchdown from clear at the other end of the field, but it’s really unlikely to work. It’s a desperation move, when you’ve only got a few seconds left in the game (or less desperately, in the half), and just need that one touchdown.

Friday Night Lights was a great show. You might want to read the book it was based on. Very interesting read.

To answer your last question, teams have home uniforms and away uniforms. The home team chooses to wear either the dark or the white uniform, and the visitor has to wear the opposite. Sometimes there are alternate or throwback uniforms as well.