If you’re a newcomer to football, North America’s most-watched team sport, you may b puzzled by some words you hear a sports announcer use. This is because football has a language of its own. Some of these terms were explained in an earlier article on this site.

Here now is a simplified overview of the game to help you understand it better, and so get the maximum possible pleasure from it.

The Field

A regulation football field is 100 yards (91meters) long and 53.5 yards (49 meters) wide. At both ends, white lines mark the end zones. A thick white line markd the borders of the entire field. Many other white lines, parallel to the end zones, cross the field at 5-yard intervals. These are crisscrossed by what are known as hash marks, parallel to the sidelines.

At the back of each end zone, in the middle, is a 10-foot vertical goal post.

The players

At any given time, there are eleven players on the field in each team. One team is ‘on offense’, which means it has the ball and is trying to score points. It does so by moving the ball closer to the other team’s end zone. The team without the ball is ‘on defense’ and is trying to prevent the opposing team from scoring points.

To a novice watching football players running back and forth on the field, and yet others running onto the field between plays, it may seem like chaos. But there’s method to this apparent madness! Each player, in fact, has an assigned role.

The offense

The director of the offensive unit is the quarterback. He is part of the offensive backfield which includes running backs, fullbacks and halfbacks.
The offensive unit also includes offensive lineman (the center guards, tackles and tight ends).

The defense

When the opposing team is in possession of the ball, the defensive unit comes onto the field. This unit is made up of: defensive linemen, linebackers and the secondary (also called the defensive backfield).
Apart from the offense and defense, a third unit, called special teams, completes a professional football team.

Special teams

As the name implies, these players come onto the field in special circumstances. They are players assigned to the kicking or receiving units on a kickoff or punt, or players assigned to blocking or kicking units, on a field goal for example.

Identifying the players

As someone new to the sport, you may have difficulty keeping track of the various players on the field. There are a number of ways to identify who is playing which position. One is to look at the number on their jerseys.

The NFL (National Football League) has guidelines whereby uniform numbers relate to a player’s usual position. For instance, quarterbacks and punters have numbers between 1 and 19, and wide receivers (an offensive team’s main ball carriers) and tight ends have to wear numbers between 80 and 89, provided these have not been assigned already.

Sometimes body types can give a clue. For example, offensive guards, tackles and defensive linemen tend to be very big and bulky, with tremendous upper-body strength.

The game

A football game is essentially a struggle for territory. The object is to score points by taking the ball into the opponent’s end zone. The winning team is the one with the higher number of points at the end of the game.

The game starts with a coin toss in which the winner decides how to begin the game. Then comes the kickoff, after which the game is in progress.

Length of game

Playing time is divided into four quarters, each lasting 15 minutes. At the game’s midpoint, there’s 12-minute halftime during which the teams return to their locker rooms. When halftime is over, the teams defend the opposite end zone.

The officials

Professional football games have seven officials: a referee, an umpire, a linesman, a back judge, field judge, line judge and a side judge. Of these, it’s the referee who usually has the last word. Officials ensure that the rules of the game are followed.


The above is just a brief and much-simplified version of a game that has been compared to chess. There is, understandably, a great deal more to the sport than a short article can possibly cover. With repeated watching and studying of the game, however, what now seems complex and confusing will eventually become clear. And with this clarity will come increased enjoyment.3