Football 101 - The Basics of Beginning a Football Game

American football line of scrimmage, ground view
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Prior to the start of each football game, the captains from each team and the head referee meet at the center of the field for the coin toss. In the NFL, the captain is a team-appointed position that designates certain players as leaders on and off of the playing field. Teams are allowed to name up to six players as captains.

The team that wins the coin toss has the option of starting the game by kicking the ball to the opposing team or receiving the kickoff themselves. After the team that won the coin loss selects to kick or receive, the other team has the opportunity to pick which goal they would like to defend. The team that kicks off to start the game will receive the ball at the start of the second half.

Type of Kicks

The game officially begins when one of the teams kicks the ball off to the other. In the NFL, teams kick the ball from their own 35-yard line.

Onside Kick: A common variation of a traditional kick is an onside kick, where the kicking team will kick the ball a short distance in an attempt to regain possession of the ball. On a kickoff, once the ball has traveled ten total yards it is a live ball and can be picked up for possession by either team.

Squib Kick:  A low, bouncing kick is called a squib kick. Although a squib kick typically gives the receiving team better field position than a regular kick, a squib kick is sometimes used to avoid giving up a potentially long return, as well as to use up a valuable amount of clock time.


The receiving team must catch the ball and try to advance it as far back toward the kicking team as possible, or if the kickoff advances for enough, the receiving team can elect for a touchback, which occurs when a kickoff or punt enters the end zone and is not advanced beyond the goal line by a player of the receiving team. In this situation, the receiving team gets the ball to start their drive on their own twenty-yard line. A fair catch may also occur, in which a player on the receiving team literally waves his arms, and in turns waives his entitlement to attempt a return run, but he then cannot be touched by the kicking team. This helps to avoid fumbles in certain situations.

If a touchback is not taken, then the kickoff play ends when the player with the ball is knocked to the ground (tackled), or makes it all the way to the kicking team's ​end zone for a touchdown. The spot where the kick returner was tackled becomes the line of scrimmage, and this is where the offense will begin their possession. The line of scrimmage is a term for the place the ball is spotted before a play is run. Once this starting point is established, the offensive squad of the receiving team will come in and try to move the ball toward the opposition's end zone.

Returning the Kick

On a kickoff, the receiving team sets up on the opponent’s 45-yard line. There are typically a couple players positioned deep around the goal line that will be responsible for catching the kick and the return. After catching the kick, these players will try to make it as far upfield as they can before being tackled or forced out of bounds. The other players on the receiving team that are not returning the kick are used as blockers.


Penalties are in place for various infractions on the kickoff, such as a player violating his position restrictions prior to the kick (5-yard penalty), or if the ball goes out of bounds before touching a player (20 yards or placed at receiving team's 40-yard line, whichever is farther).