So you want to watch some football (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a likely 4-part series in which I attempt to provide an introductory overview to American football.  {If you missed Part 1, you can catch it here.}

Now that we’ve got some of the basics down, let’s discuss some game play basics.

The Field
The field is 100 yards long, plus two  10-yard long endzones.  The field is measured in yards, and is marked in 5-yard increments, with the numbers appearing every 10 yards.

The endzone is where teams score touchdowns, and the goalposts or uprights are the back of the endzone, and are used to kick field goals (and PATs, if we’re getting technical).  The 50-yard line divides the field, and dictates which side of the field the team is on – this is best illustrated with an example.

Looking at the above field, let’s say Team A starts at the 30-yard line on the right side, and are moving left to try to get into the left endzone.  They are said to be on the Team A 30-yard line; they are also in Team A’s territory.  Once they cross the 50-yard line, they are on Team B’s yard lines and in Team B’s territory.

Moving the Ball & The All-Important Down
Teams can move the ball one of two ways: by throwing it (passing) or running with it (rushing).  Moving the ball revolves around the concept of downs.  While a team’s ultimate goal is to score, their intermediate goal is to get first downs.  Getting a first down involves moving the ball 10 yards from where it started (this starting yardline is known as the line of scrimmage, and this line moves with each first down).

When a team moves the ball 10 yards, they get a first down and a new set of downs.  Getting a first down is also referred to as moving the chains.  A set of downs is four chances to move the ball 10 yards.  Each chance is also called a down (that’s not confusing at all!).

The “first down” term is used for two things: getting a first down (moving the ball 10 yards) and the first down play (the first attempt to get a first down).  When watching football, you’ll hear announcers talk about the downs according to their down number and the number of yards left to move the ball 10 yards.  Broadcasts typically display this information near the score as well as overlay it on the field for viewers at home.

For example, most first downs start out as first-and-ten (unless there’s a penalty, which I’ll get to later).  If on the first down, the ball is moved 3 yards, then the play becomes second-and-seven – it’s the second attempt with 7 yards left.  If on the second down, the ball is moved 4 yards, then the play becomes third-and-three.

Now, while the team has four tries to move the ball, teams typically do not go for it on fourth down.  The reason for this is because if they fail to pick up the yards needed for the first down, their opponent gets the ball on whatever yard line they were last at.  Instead, you will typically see teams punt on fourth down to move their opponent back to a less desirable field position.

There are two basic ways to score: a touchdown (worth 6 points) and a field goal (worth 3 points).  A touchdown results when a team moves the ball into the endzone, either by passing or rushing.  There are two orange pylons that mark the beginning of the endzone; the ball only has to break the plane of the endzone – meaning go over the imaginary line at the front of the endzone – to be counted as a touchdown.  A field goal is when a team kicks the ball through the uprights.

There is also the point after attempt (PAT), which is typically just called a field goal as well.  The point-after attempt is just a field goal that is kicked after a team scores a touchdown, and is worth 1 point.

A team can also go for what is called a two-point conversion, where instead of trying to kick a point-after field goal, they try to score another touchdown.  If they are successful, they get 2 points.  You don’t see these all the time – teams typically go for two at the end of a game when the game is close and they need 8 points to tie.

The other way a team can score is with a safety, which is occurs when the team who doesn’t have possession scores.  A safety is worth 2 points and can be scored a number of ways (you can see them all on Wikipedia), but they all have to do with teams (generally) bungling plays in their own end zone.  The one type of safety that everyone probably knows is when the quarterback gets sacked in his own end zone.  Safeties are somewhat rare.

Now you should have enough to be able to follow the team and watch the ball move up and down the field.  The next installment will go over timing, penalties, players, and any other miscellaneous bits I’ve forgotten.

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