The NFL for Rookies – Basic Gameplay and Scoring

Understanding basic gameplay and scoring are essential if you ever want to enjoy a game in the NFL. Unlike Americans, Brits aren’t brought up with the sport and find it confusing and hard to follow what’s going on. Here we break down the basic rules of gameplay and give you some understanding of how points are scored.

The Field

Gameplay takes place on the American Football Gridiron
The field, unlike association football, is of a uniform size no matter which stadium you are in

A football field is 53-⅓-yards wide by 120-yards long. The final 10-yards on each end is referred to as the end zone (see diagram). Teams consist of eleven players on the field at a time per team. The team in possession of the ball is called the offence while the team without it is called the defence. The basic aim of the game is to advance the ball towards the other team’s endzone while on offence. The defences aim is to stop them. 

Basic Gameplay – Starting the Game

The game begins with the kick-off
Kick-off – the ball is kicked into opposition territory (often right out of the end zone). Possession is then passed to the other team

A few minutes before each game, a coin toss is conducted to determine which team will receive possession of the ball first (with the other receiving it to start the second half). Each game begins with a kick-off. One team places the football on a tee at their own 35-yard line and a designated player (named the kicker) runs up and kicks the ball down the field to the other team. Upon receiving the ball, the other team (now the offence) attempts to advance as far as possible before being tackled. 

Starting a Play

Gameplay begins with the snap from the line of scrimmage
The person with the ball in his hands (the Centre) ‘snaps’ (throws or passes) the ball between his legs to the quarterback to start a play

Before most plays, both teams will come together in a circle (called a huddle) where a designated player (on offence this is almost always the quarterback) relays to the other players what the play-call (the plan of action to advance the ball) is for the upcoming gameplay. The play-call dictates what the tactics and formation will be for the attempted play. Usually, a coach will decide which play to run. However, in certain situations, a quarterback can decide a play on his own.

After the huddle is over, the offence lines up in their formation as dictated by the play-call. The defence then responds with their own formation to counter the offence.

Gameplay begins when a designated player (the centre) snaps the ball to the quarterback. The ‘snap’ is when the centre passes the ball between his legs to the quarterback, who is standing behind him.

Advancing the Ball

Denver and Indianapolis QB - Peyton Manning
The quarterback is the driving force behind any team and Peyton Manning (pictured) was one of the best

As mentioned above, the goal of the offence is to advance the ball down the field. This can be done is one of three ways:

  1. Running the ball: this is where a player (either a quarterback or another player that he hands the ball to) attempts to run as far as he can before being tackled or pushed out of bounds. 
  2. Passing the ball: this is where the quarterback (or in rare instances another player), attempts to throw the ball to a teammate down the field. If the ball is caught, the player then advances as far as he can. However, if the ball should hit the ground before being caught, it is called an incomplete pass and the play is over.
  3. Penalties: these are certain fouls/infractions committed by the defence. All penalties come with a designated yardage total attached to them and the ball is then moved down the field the corresponding amount. 

Basic Gameplay – Series of Downs

The offence is limited in how many attempts they have to advance the ball down the field. Upon gaining possession of the ball, a team is given four plays (these plays are called downs: i.e. the first attempt is called 1st down, while the second attempt is called 2nd down etc). With these four plays, they must advance at least ten yards in order to keep the ball. If they fail to do so, the ball is given to the other team. If the ten yards are gained, the downs reset to one (1st down) and the process begins again.

You will often hear this ten-yard success referred to as ‘Moving the chains’.

There are literally two men holding a ten-yard length of chain on the sidelines. One stands at the point where the ball is positioned prior to the snap and the other stands ten-yard upfield. They are called onto the field at times where a close measure is needed.

Close calls are determined by the chains to see if the ball reached the yardage needed to gain a first-down

Fourth Down Options

When a team on offence reaches fourth down, they have three options:

Gain the Yards Needed
  • Attempt to gain the yards necessary for a 1st down (colloquially known as “going for it”). The offence runs a normal play where they run or pass to try to get the 1st down. If they succeed, they keep the ball with a new set of downs. However, failure to gain the yards necessary results in the ball being given to the other team at the spot where the previous play ended. This is a high risk/high reward option.
Punt the Ball
  • Punting the ball: instead of running a 4th down-play, a team will snap the ball back to a player called ‘the punter‘, who kicks the ball by swinging his leg up to meet the ball as he drops it in front of him (similar to a goalkeepers kick from his hands in Association Football.) The other team can try to catch the ball and advance it before it lands; otherwise, they start their possession where the ball goes out of bounds or where it stops rolling.
Field Goal Attempt
  • Kick a Field Goal: if the offence is close enough to the other teams end zone, they can attempt a field goal. This is where the ball is snapped back about seven to eight yards to a player who quickly places it on the ground using one finger to hold it upright. Then the kicker runs up and kicks the ball in an attempt to put the ball through the uprights/goalposts and above the horizontal crossbar at the end of the field (in a similar fashion to a conversion or a penalty kick in rugby). 

The distance required on fourth-down plus the game score determines which of these options a coach takes. Gameplay decisions that coaches live or die by.

Gameplay masters, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady
Don’t let appearances deceive you. Bill Belichick has been the most successful head coach in the modern era of the NFL

Once you’re fully acquainted with the basic rules, we would recommend learning more complexities as you watch games. For those who don’t want to wait, here is the full NFL 2020 rulebook.

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