A Beginner's Guide to Football

The Basic Rules and Players in Every Football Game

Quarterback handing off football to running back
David Madison/Getty Images

Football can be a confusing sport at first, but it is actually fairly easy to understand when explained properly. With that in mind, we'll take you through the very basics of football you need to watch and enjoy a game. 

If you don't know your tight end from your end zone or want a better understanding of the West Coast offense or the Cover Two, we can help you out.

The Fundamentals of Football

In American football, two teams of eleven players each take to a 120-yard field with the ultimate goal of scoring points via a touchdown or field goal. That is the entire game in a nutshell, but it is more complex than that. 

For example, unlike basketball, the same players do not take both defensive and offensive roles. There are separate teams filled with players that are specialists in each.

When a team has control of the ball, their offense takes the field, including the quarterback, halfback, receivers, tight ends, and the center. On the flip side, the defense takes over when the opposing team is trying to score. This is when the defensive and nose tackles and linebackers are called up.

Some players make an appearance only for specific plays and they make up the special teams. These positions include the punter, place kicker, kick returner, and long snapper who most often play when the football is being kicked.

Strategy and Game Play

Football is all about getting the ball as far down the field as quickly as possible. Sure, at times it can feel like the game is running slow, but there's a lot of strategies involved.

Essentially, each time an offensive team takes control of the ball they get four "downs" to try and advance the ball at least 10 yards toward the goal. Each time the center passes the quarterback the ball, it is a down. Once they reach that 10-yard mark, the downs start over with a first down and this can play out slowly or quickly all the way toward the goal.

If they don't make those 10 yards, the other team gets the ball. However, you'll often see teams punt the ball downfield on the fourth down unless they're really close to getting another first down.

To advance the ball, the offensive team will use a series of well-coordinated plays and formations, starting at the line of scrimmage.

  • Running plays are those in which the quarterback or halfback runs toward the goal with the ball in hand.
  • Passing plays occur when the quarterback throws the ball to another player, often a wide receiver or tight end. 
  • In the midst of all that, the offensive tackles and guards try to block the defensive players from tackling the player with the ball.

The defense also has its strategies that direct players where to stand on the field and who to target one the ball is snapped. The defensive linemen are among the biggest on the field, but they must also be quick. They take up formations that are meant to counteract the offensive team's formation, giving them the fastest route to the players who might get the ball.

If a defensive player happens to tackle the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage, that is called a sack.

During any play, either team can be called for any number of penalties. Among the most common are illegal formations, a delay of game, ineligible receiver downfield, false starts and holding.

What Is the Red Zone?

During a football game, you'll often hear announcers mention "the red zone." This is the final twenty yards to the goal and is where strategy really comes into play. Do you pass or run the ball into the end zone? This is the question coaches must answer many times during a game.

The Referees on the Field

All of this back and forth in a football game is overseen by the officials. They are on the field to enforce the rules and ensure everything goes as smoothly as possible and they often have tough calls to make.

The referee is the lead official, the umpire oversees the line of scrimmage, and you'll typically find five other officials watching other parts of the field. This may vary depending on the league and officials in the NFL and college football may have a few extra rules to enforce.