Understanding football rules, strategy and terminology undoubtedly enhances the pleasure of watching the game. With this in mind, here’s a look at some key points related to this very popular sport, and simple explanations of relevant terms.

The field

The football field (colloquially referred to as the gridiron) is 360 feet long and 160 feet wide. End lines are those at the ends of the field and sidelines are those at each side. Ten yards from, and parallel to the end lines are the goal lines.

The area bounded by the goal lines and the sidelines is called the field of play, and the areas bounded by all the above lines are known as the end zones.


At five-yard intervals and parallel to the goal lines, the field of play is marked by yard lines.

A centrally placed horizontal crossbar, ten feet above the ground, is located in the plane above the crossbar.

There are two goal posts, one in each end zone. Along with the crossbar, they resemble a big letter H.

The ball

According to NFL (National Football League) rules, the ball must be a “Wilson.” (Does this remind you of the name of Tom Hanks’s companion in the movie “Castaway”?) The ball must also be shaped like an elongated sphere and weigh 14 to 15 ounces.


Here are selected words and phrases, along with their meaning, which you will hear again and again when listening to football commentary.

  • A ball in play (or live ball) is one that’s legally snapped or free kicked (explanations to follow).
  • A dead ball, by contrast, is one that’s not in play.
  • A fumble is any act (other than a legal kick or a pass) that results in the loss of player possession.
  • A down (or play) is a period of action that begins when the ball is put in play and ends when the ball is next dead.
  • A field goal is one in which the kicker boots the ball through the goal post uprights without its touching either the ground or any of his fellow players on the offensive team. The kicked
  • ball must travel between the uprights and above the crossbar.
  • A free kick is one that puts the b all in play to start a free kick down.
  • A foul is any infraction of a playing rule.
  • A kickoff is a free kick used to put the ball in play (a) at start of the first and third periods; (b) after each try, and (c) after a successful field goal.
  • A punt is a kick made by a kicker who drops the ball and kicks while it is in flight.
  • A safety, broadly speaking, is the situation in which the ball is dead on or behind a team’s own goal line.
  • A snap describes the action of the center passing the ball backward through his legs to the quarterback.
  • A touchback is the situation in which a ball is dead on or behind a team’s own goal line, provided the impetus came from an opponent, and provided it is not a touchdown. (Impetus is
  • the action of a player which gives momentum to the ball and sends it in touch, for example, while the ball is loose and touches anything on or behind the goal line).
  • A touchdown is the situation in which any part of the ball, legally in possession of a player inbounds, is on, above, or behind the opponent’s goal line (plane), provided it is not a touchback.
Team composition

A football game is played by two teams of 11 players each. Each team chooses a captain, who is its sole representative in all communications with officials.

Players are required to wear numerals on their jerseys, and these are in accord with their playing position. For example, quarterbacks, placekickers and punters’ numbers are between 1 and 19 and linebackers’ between 50 and 59, provided these numbers are available.

Each team is composed of an offense, a defense and a special teams unit. The job of the offense is to move the ball down the field through the opposing team’s territory and across the goal line. The job of the defense is to prevent the opponents’ offense from moving the ball toward their goal. The special teams are used for kickoffs and punt returns (kicking plays).

The game

A coin toss, which marks the beginning of a game, decides which team will kick off. For this, the ball is set on a kicking tee on the 30-yard line of the team performing the kickoff. The object of the game is, of course, to score more points than the opposing team (see the section on “scoring”).

Once the game has started, the offense has four downs to go ten yards. If successful, it receives another set of four downs. If it fails after three tries, it usually punts the ball on the fourth down. The other team then begins its own set of four downs.

Game timing

A typical football game lasts 60 minutes. It is divided into four 15-minute quarters, with two-minute intervals between each. During these intervals, playing rules continue to be in force. There’s also a 12-minute intermission between the second and third quarters, during which play is suspended and the teams may leave the field.


  • Touchdown 6 points
  • Field goal 3 points
  • Safety 2 points
  • Successful try after touchdown 1 or 2 points

You’ve probably seen football officials using certain hand and arm gestures during a game. Here are some examples and their meanings.

Both arms extended straight above the head signifies a touchdown, field goal or successful try.

Both arms lifted to shoulder level, elbows flexed and fingertips tapping both shoulders indicates that a ball was illegally touched or kicked.

The grasping of one wrist, the other hand open and facing forward and held in front of the chest signals the illegal use of hands, arms or body.

Both hands held behind the head means the loss of a down.

Both arms stretched out sideways, at shoulder level, with the palms down, signifies unsportsmanlike conduct.

The above is, understandable, only a summary of some aspects of a football game intended to enlighten novice fans. Veteran enthusiasts, however, may still find it a useful review. But no matter which category you fit into, you’ll discover that the more you know about America’s best-loved sport, the more you’ll enjoy and appreciate it.