American Football Rules

Football player

Every sport takes a bit of getting used to, but some are a little easier than others to understand. Even those who are apathetic towards athletic games tend to know that the aim of soccer is to kick the ball into the net and the purpose of rugby is to place to the ball over the opposition’s try-line. American Football can be considered a Frankenstein-like concoction of the two, governed by its own chunky rulebook.

It’s true that the USA’s most treasured sport isn’t necessarily the easiest of games to pick up and comprehend if you weren’t brought up in an NFL-infatuated household. It doesn’t induce quite as much head scratching as Australian Rules Football, but it does have more intricacies than the classic type of football (soccer) that’s played all over the rest of the world. Indeed, if you’re not familiar with the ins and outs of American Football, following a match on television can seem as complicated as attempting to solve a Rubik’s cube. Here, we try to break everything down for you into layman’s terms. Have this handy guide by your side next time you tune in to watch the NFL and you should begin to get a good idea of what’s going on.

The Aim

Let’s start simple. The aim of the game of American Football is to move the football (which is actually carried by the players, not kicked along the ground) to the end of the field. At each end of the field is a rectangular-shaped box called the end-zone. When a team manages to carry the ball into the end-zone, they score what is called a touchdown. A player does not have to place the ball on the ground to score a touchdown – all they need to do is have both hands on the ball and be inside the end-zone. A touchdown is worth six points, and naturally, the team with the most points at the end of the game wins.

There are more ways to score points other than touchdowns, but we’ll discuss this a little later. First, we’ll talk a bit about the football field and who is actually on it during a game of American Football.

Teams & Players


Each team has eleven players on the field – so 11 v 11 and 22 players in total. Most teams will have large squads that consist of attacking players (the offense) and defensive players (the defence). When a side has possession of the ball, the attacking team will be on the field. When the side does not have possession of the ball, the defensive team will be on the field. Players tend to have very specific roles in American football, and we’ll take a look at these roles a little later after discussing a bit about the football field.

An American Football field measures 120 yards in length (110 metres) and 53 yards in width (48 metres). Players must remain within the field of play by staying inside the sidelines (that surround the field) and the end-lines (which are the points at which the end zones end). If the ball is carried outside of these lines, the ball is considered to be “out of bounds”.

The length of the field is separated by marked white lines every 10 yards. Players can also tell how far they are up the field by looking at the yard numbers painted onto the field. “Hash marks” (every one yard) also mark the intervals between each line. There is also a big line down the centre of the field known as the “50 yard line”, which shows players that there is 50 yards between that point and the end zone. Finally, at each end of the field are, of course, the goalposts and end zones – and these are the areas the players need to carry the ball inside in order to score the touchdowns.


A game of American football is played out over the course of four fifteen-minute quarters – amounting to sixty minutes (one hour) of total game time. Games often last a lot longer than this, as each team is entitled to six two-minute time-outs each during the match (three in each half). We’ve broken all the timings of American Football down for you in bullet point form to make it easier to digest.

  • Quarter 1 – 15 minutes
  • Intermission – 2 minutes
  • Quarter 2 – 15 minutes
  • Timeouts – Total of 12 minutes if all are used
  • Half-time – 12 minutes
  • Quarter 3 – 15 minutes
  • Intermission – 2 minutes
  • Quarter 4 – 15 minutes
  • Timeouts – Total of 12 minutes if all are used
  • Total time – Average NFL game lasts 3 hours and 12 minutes (including commercials)

If the scores are tied in American Football when the final whistle sounds, a 5 minute overtime period will be initiated (where additional timeouts – which may vary in number depending on the type of competition e.g. college, NFL – will be given to each side).

Plays, Scoring and Points

Game plans

Now that you’ve got to grips with what the field looks like and how long a typical game of American Football tends to last, we can start to look at the specific ways in which the game is played and how points are scored. This is where it tends to get a little tricky, so we’ll be as simple as we possibly can.

Of course, you already know the big rule: get into the end zone and you’ve scored a touchdown. Now we’ll talk about the journey to that end zone.

The very first thing to attempt to understand is ‘downs’. Every time a team is in possession of the ball, they must attempt to move it towards the end zone – either by throwing it to a teammate inside the end zone or running through to the end zone with the ball in hand. The defensive team will do everything they can to stop them. The offensive team have four chances to get up the field before they are forced to hand over the ball to the defensive side. These chances are called “downs”. When a player is tackled or the ball goes loose, a down is called by the referee and the players set up again ready for the next play. To avoid handing over the ball on the fourth down, a team will often kick the ball as far as they can downfield. This forces the opposition to have to come from further down the field when they do get the ball back. If the team in possession manages to advance up the field by at least 10 yards, the downs reset and go back the first down.

Still with us?

Right, so when a team is close to the end zone, they will attempt to pass it to a player waiting in that part of the field. If that player catches the ball whilst they’re in the end zone, the team scores a touchdown. On other occasions, a team will simply try to charge over into the end zone without passing the ball at all. A touchdown is awarded with 6 points. After scoring a touchdown, the team is given a choice: they can either kick the ball through the goalposts (which gives them 1 point) or try to run the ball into the end zone again (which gives them 2 points). The choice the team takes often depends on the scoreline at the time.

Sometimes, going for the touchdown isn’t necessarily the best option. Another way to score points is via a field goal. If the team in possession are a little too far away from the end zone and have run out of downs (and don’t feel they can move another 10 yards to reset the down count), they’ll often attempt a field goal – which is the act of kicking the ball through the goalposts. field goals are worth 3 points.

If a defensive team manages to tackle a player who is in possession in his own end zone – the defensive team is awarded 2 points. This is called ‘safety’.

Offense vs Defense

50 yard line

Offense is attack. Defence is what is says on the tin. When a team is in possession of the football they are the offensive side. They are the defensive side when the ball is in the hands of the opposition.

The offensive players in an American Football team are as follows:

  • Quarterback: Kind of the equivalent to the scrum-half in rugby or the striker in soccer, the quarterback is the guy every kid wants to be growing up. They are often the standout player, the leader of the team, and are always instrumental in how well the team plays during the match. During each play, the quarterback is the player who receives the ball from the centre. The quarterback then chooses to either charge forward with the ball, pick out a pass to a teammate ahead of him, or hand the ball off the running back.
  • Centre: The Centre is the player who “snaps” (passes) the ball to the quarterback when play begins. Every time a down is called, it is the centre who tosses the ball back to the quarterback – who then dictates where the ball ends up.
  • Running Back: The running back is often a fast player who is responsible for running as far up the field as possible. The quarterback will choose to pass the ball to the running back if they spot an opening or gap in the defensive line for the speedy running back to dash into.
  • Fullback: A fullback is the player who guards the running back in his charge forward and is also responsible for protecting the quarterback by ensuring his passes are not blocked by the defence.
  • Wide Receiver: The wide receiver is a player who is responsible for trying to find open space on the field and catch the ball from the quarterback. Wide receivers need to be both smart and speedy in order to find space on a crowded field.
  • Tight End: A tight end player is responsible for attempting to receive the ball up the field but also block the defensive line.
  • Left Guard: The left guard stands to the left of the quarterback and protects him and/or the ball carrier during a play.
  • Right Guard: The right guard stands to the right of the quarterback and protects him and/or the ball carrier during a play.
  • Left Tackle: The left tackle stands to the left on the outer region of the offensive line.
  • Right Tackle: The right tackle stands to the left on the outer region of the offensive line.

When a team is defending, the coach sends out the defensive group of players. These include:

  • Defensive Tackle Team: The defensive tackle team are the two players responsible for preventing any members of the offensive team from running through with the ball.
  • Defensive End Team: The defensive end team are the outer two members of the defensive line. This pair of players attempt to tackle whoever is carrying the ball in the offensive team – pushing the players out of bounds where possible.
  • Linebackers: Most teams have three to four linebackers. These players stand behind the defence and are responsible for defending the run and the pass. They have a reputation for being the very best tacklers on the team.
  • Safety: The safety players are the players who sit furthest back and act as the final line of defence against the attack.
  • Cornerback: Cornerbacks are the players on the wide parts of the field who tend to try and prevent the wide receivers from catching the ball or making ground.

The Officials

Given the complex, busy, rough and tumble nature of American Football, a number of officials are required to keep the game in check. These include:

  • Umpire: The umpire is the person in charge of ensuring the beginning of plays/downs are executed legally.
  • Head Linesman: The head linesman is responsible for counting all the downs and verifying how many yards an offensive team has gained.
  • Line Judge: The line judge is the person with the stopwatch keeping track of time.
  • The Back Judge: The back judge aids the line judge with timekeeping by monitoring the duration of timeouts and ensuring halftime does not spill over the twelve-minute mark.
  • The Field Judge: The field judge stands at the end of the pitch and is in charge of determining whether players are in bounds or out of bounds.
  • The Side Judge: The side judge is another official responsible for determining whether players are out of bounds or not, standing on the side of the pitch.

So there you have it: a beginner’s guide to the rules of American Football. We hope you found all of the above useful and now know all the essential bits about the USA’s most beloved sport.