Football 101: Understanding Down and Distance

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Understanding down and distance is probably the biggest key to understanding football. Here's an easy explanation of down and distance for football newbies.

Down and Distance Basics

Basically, a down is a play. From the time the ball is snapped (put into play), to the time the play is whistled over by the officials, is considered one down.

A team's offense is given four downs (plays) to move ten yards toward the opponent's end zone.

Distance is the number of yards a team needs to get a new set of four downs.

If they make the ten yards needed within four downs, they are given a new set of downs. This is called getting a first down.

If they don't make it the required ten yards, the other team's offense takes possession of the ball.

An Example

The first play of a series is called first-and-ten because it is the first down and ten yards are needed to receive a new set of four downs.

Suppose on the first play, the team on offense picks up three yards. The next play would then be second-and-seven because it is the second play of the set and they still need seven yards to get the first down.

If they were to pick up six yards on the second play it would leave them one yard shy of the first down marker, therefore setting up a third-and-one situation. Third-and-one because it would be the third play of the series and they would still need one yard to get a first down.

If the team with the ball can pick up one yard or more on the third-down play, then they will be given a first down, which means they get to start all over with a new set of four downs.

A team can continue moving the football down the field as long as they continue to pick up first downs.

Fourth-Down Strategies

If a team fails to gain the required yardage on third down, several things could happen on fourth down:

  • A team can elect to "go for it" on fourth down and try to pick up the remaining yardage, but they run the risk of turning the ball over to the other team if they do not get to the first down marker. If they do not get the required yardage, the other team takes possession of the ball at the spot of the last tackle and now has four downs to move ten yards back in the other direction.
  • The majority of the time, teams will elect to "punt" the ball away on fourth down. A punt is simply a form of kicking the ball that gives possession of the ball to the other team but also pushes them back considerably farther away from the end zone.
  • Another option is to kick a field goal. If a team feels they are close enough to kick the ball between the upright bars of the goal post in their opponent's end zone, they may attempt a field goal, which is worth three points when converted successfully.

After a Score

After a team scores via a touchdown or field goal, they must, in turn, kick off to the other team, and the process begins all over again.