American Football games are divided into four 15-minute quarters, separated by a 12-minute break at half-time. There are also 2-minute breaks at the end of the first and third quarters as teams change ends of the field after every 15 minutes of play. At the end of the first and third quarters, the team with the ball retains possession heading into the following quarter. That is not the case before half-time. The second half starts with a kickoff in the same way as the game began in the first quarter. The clock stops at the end of incomplete passing plays, when a player goes out of bounds, or when a penalty is called. The clock starts again when the ball is re-spotted by an official.
Substitution and Specialisation
In American Football, there is unlimited free substitution of players; a team can change any number of players in the time between plays throughout the game. As a result players have become specialised, with each one having a set role. Each team has 3 separate units: the Offence, those players who are on the field when the team has possession of the ball; the Defence, players who line up to stop the other team’s Offence; and Special Teams that only come in on kicking situations (punts, field goals, and kickoffs). Only 11 players are on the field from one team at any one time.
The aim of the game is to score more points than the opposition.
How is this done?
Although American Football teams typically have many more players than Rugby teams or other sports teams, only 11 players from each side are allowed on the field at one time. One team has the ball and tries to score, the other team tries to stop them. Advancing the ball, scoring and changes of possession are outlined below.
Advancing the ball
Advancing the ball in American Football is similar to the six-tackle rule in Rugby League. The team that has possession of the ball (the Offence) has four attempts, called downs, to advance the ball 10 yards towards their opponent’s (the Defence’s) end zone (or into it!). When the offense gains 10 yards, it gets a first down, which means the team has another set of four downs to gain yet another 10 yards or score with. If the offense fails to gain a first down (10 yards) after 4 downs, it loses possession of the ball. The beginning of a set of downs (the first play in a “Drive”) is first and ten or 1-10. If the Offence gains 5 yards on that play, the next play would be second and five (showing that the Offence has five yards to go for a new first down, not that it has moved five yards).
If on that play the Offence gained two more yards, it would be third and three for the following play. If the Offence had lost yards on second and five (a Quarterback getting sacked for 6 yards for example) it would be third and eleven. Except at the beginning of halves and after scores (when there is a kickoff), the ball is always put into play by a snap (where the Centre swiftly moves the ball back through his legs into the Quarterback’s hands, the speed of the movement gives it the name snap).
Players can then advance the ball in two ways:
- By running with the ball, also known as rushing. The Quarterback can hand the ball to Running back; this is known as a hand off.
- By throwing the ball to a teammate, known as a forward pass or as passing the football. The forward pass is a key factor distinguishing American Football from other football sports. The Offence can throw the ball forward only once on a play and only from behind the line of scrimmage. The ball can be thrown, pitched, or tossed sideways or backwards at any time. This last type of pass is known as a lateral (like passing from player to player in both codes of Rugby) and is less common.
What are the key rules on passing plays?
- There may only be one forward pass per play.
- A Receiver who has been forced off the pitch by a defender cannot catch the pass as he runs back onto the field.
- Receivers must have control of the football and get both feet down in the field of play to have completed a catch.
- Defenders can touch Receivers and tight ends within the first 5 yards of the line but any contact after that is deemed illegal and will result in a penalty.
- The Quarterback must be behind the line of scrimmage to attempt a pass.
- Team mates are allowed to block opposing defenders to protect the Quarterback as he passes down field and to create running room for a receiver after he catches the ball
What are the key rules on running plays?
- A running back can complete as many lateral passes (as in rugby) as he likes, although this is considered a risky act in the NFL.
- Team mates are allowed to block opposing defenders to create running lanes for a ball carrier, but they cannot block defenders in the back or from behind.
- When a quarterback runs beyond the line of scrimmage it is considered a running play and he can no longer throw a forward pass.
A down ends, and the ball becomes “dead”, after any of the following:
- The player with the ball is forced to the ground (tackled) or has his forward progress halted by members of the other team (as determined by an official).
- A forward pass flies out of bounds or touches the ground before it is caught. This is known as an incomplete pass. The ball is returned to the most recent line of scrimmage for the next down.
- The ball or the player with the ball goes beyond the dimensions of the field (out of bounds).
- A team scores.
Officials blow a whistle to notify all players that the down is over.
Change of possession
The Offence maintains possession of the ball unless one of the following things happens:
- The team fails to get a first down i.e., they fail to move the ball forward at least 10 yards in four downs. The defensive team takes over the ball at the spot where the 4th-down play ends. A change of possession in this manner is commonly called a turnover on downs.
- The Offence scores a touchdown or field goal. The team that scored then kicks the ball to the other team in a special play called a kickoff.
- The Offence punts the ball to the defense. A punt is a kick in which a player drops the ball and kicks it before it hits the ground. Punts are nearly always made on fourth down, when the offensive team does not want to risk giving up the ball to the other team at its current spot on the field (through a failed attempt to make a first down) and feels it is too far from the other team’s goal posts to attempt a field goal.
- A defensive player catches a forward pass. This is called an interception, and the player who makes the interception can run with the ball until he is tackled or forced out of bounds or scores.
- An offensive player drops the ball (a fumble) and a defensive player picks it up. As with interceptions, a player recovering a fumble can run with the ball until tackled or forced out of bounds. Lost fumbles and interceptions are together known as turnovers.
- The offensive team misses a field goal attempt. The defensive team gets the ball at the spot where the previous play began (or, in the NFL, at the spot of the kick). If the unsuccessful kick was attempted from within 20 yards of the end zone, the other team gets the ball at its own 20-yard line (that is, 20 yards from the end zone).
- An offensive ball carrier is tackled, forced out of bounds, loses the ball out of bounds, or commits certain penalties, in his own end zone. This fairly rare occurrence is called a safety.
A team scores points by the following plays:
- A touchdown (TD) is worth 6 points. It is scored when a player runs the ball into or catches a pass in his opponent’s end zone. A touchdown is like a try in Rugby with the major difference being that a try requires the player to place the ball on the ground, whereas in American Football a player simplyhas to have possession of the ball in the end zone
- After a touchdown, the scoring team attempts a conversion (which is also like the conversion in Rugby). The ball is placed at the other team’s 3-yard line (the 2-yard line in the NFL). The team can attempt to kick it over the crossbar and through the goal posts in the manner of a field goal for 1 point (an extra point or point after touchdown (PAT), or run or pass it into the end zone in the manner of touchdown for 2 points (a two-point conversion).
- A field goal (FG) is worth 3 points, and it is scored by kicking the ball over the crossbar and through the goal posts. Field goals may be placekicked (kicked when the ball is held vertically against the ground by a teammate) or drop-kicked (extremely uncommon in the modern game, with only two successes in the last 60 years). A field goal is usually attempted on fourth down instead of a punt when the ball is close to the opponent’s goal line, or, when there is little or no time left to otherwise score.
- A safety is worth 2 points. A safety is scored by the Defence when the offensive player in possession of the ball is forced back into his own end zone and is tackled there, fumbles the ball out of his end zone, has a kick blocked out of his end zone or commits certain penalties in his end zone.