NFL 101: Beginner’s Guide on How the NFL Works

History

This past year, the National Football League played through its centennial season – 100 years prior, the American Professional Football Association was born. That wasn’t the true start of professional football, though. The true beginning came on November 12, 1892 when William “Pudge” Hefllinger became the first professional football player of all time as he was paid $500 dollars (about $14,000 now) to appear in a game for the Allegheny Athletic Association.

Fast forward 28 years and the American Professional Football Association was founded by teams from Ohio, Indiana, New York, and Illinois. Teams from Chicago and Detroit would later join that year. Teams were charged $100 for membership but no team ever paid it. Jim Thorpe, a legendary football talent, was elected president. In 1921, the Green Bay Packers were formed by John Clair of the Acme Packing Company. In 1922, the Chicago Staleys became the Chicago Bears and the American Professional Football Association became the National Football League.

The NFL wasn’t the NFL as we know it quite yet, though. It only fielded 18 teams starting in 1922 and many modern teams had not arrived to the scene yet. The New York Giants were introduced in 1925, as then owners Tim Mara and Billy Gibson won a bid for just $500. At this time, college football was bigger than the NFL – an impossibility in today’s world. Harold “Red” Grange was the superstar of his generation, dominating at the University of Illinois. However, in the middle of the NFL’s season, the Chicago Bears signed Red Grange to a contract. A then-record crowd of 36,000 people gathered to watch Grange and the Bears take on the Chicago Cardinals in what wound up being a scoreless tie.

First Playoff Game in 1932

The NFL played its first playoff game in 1932 at Chicago Stadium between the Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans as the two teams were tied for first place. At that point, the league only had eight teams in it as many had folded. In the first dozen years of the NFL’s existence, over 40 teams joined and quickly dropped out or went out of business – it was a constant turnstile of franchises. In 1939, the NFL televised its first game ever on NBC between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Eagles. Unfortunately, from 1933 to 1946 the NFL did not allow any black athletes to compete – this rule was started by Washington Redskins owner George Marshall and ended by the Rams when they moved to California for the first time.

Divisions Formed in 1950

aflThe NFL would undergo several structural changes over the years. In 1950, it established conferences and divisions for the first time – eastern divisions would be in the American Conference and western divisions would be in the National Conference. This was adjusted and tinkered with many times over the years. In 1960, the NFL gained a rival organization as the American Football League (AFL) was formed with eight teams. In 1967, the first championship between the NFL and AFL was played between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs. This was later known as the first-ever Super Bowl; the Packers prevailed by a final score of 35-10.

NFL & AFL Merge in 1970

nfllogoIn 1970, the NFL and AFL agreed to merge their leagues, becoming the National Football Conference and American Football Conference under the NFL. That began the NFL as we know it today, as teams would be added, reorganize, and relocated over the years. Each season saw more and more fans at games and watching on TV as the NFL became a multi-billion dollar industry and the biggest consumer entertainment product in the United States. The 2010s have seen more of a focus on growing the game internationally as the league has more fans, and money, than ever before.

Cheat Sheet

Teams: 32

Players on Each Team (Roster): 53

Players on Field at a Time: 11 for each team on offense, defense, and special teams

Field Dimensions: 100 yards in length, 53 yards in width

Length of Game: 60 minutes

Game Format: Game is split into 15-minute quarters and two 30-minute halves

Game Clock: There are 15 minutes in each quarter of play. From the time of the end of each play, the offensive team has 40 seconds to snap the ball for the following play. If they are unable to snap the ball in that amount of time, then they will be issued a delay of game penalty.

game clock

Basic Play: Team A kicks the ball off to Team B. Team B’s offense then has the football and has four downs to pick up ten yards to reset the number of downs – this is known as picking up the first down. The Center position on Team B hikes the ball (passes the ball between his legs to another player, which is usually the Quarterback) to start each play. The Quarterback can then throw or pass the ball to a teammate on offense. If the team gains 10 yards in 4 downs, the team receives another set of four downs and this continues if they continue to gain first downs. If Team’s offense does not gain a first down in the first 3 downs, the offense may try again on 4th down or punt (kick) the ball to the other team or attempt to kick a field goal.

If the offense can work their way down the field and reach the end zone with the ball in their hands, they are awarded a touchdown (worth 6 points). If the defense forces a player to run out of bounds or forces the ball to hit the ground, the play is over and the next down begins. If Team A’s defense catches the football (interception), they gain possession for Team B’s offense. If an offensive player drops the ball (fumble) before he is considered down (out of bounds or his knee or elbow touch the ground, a defensive player may pick up the ball and run towards their endzone.

Rosters

We’ll discuss NFL rules and procedures soon, but first, it’s important to understand the specific players that make up each football roster. Each team starts 11 offensive players and 11 defensive players with a handful of special teams players seeing the field on specific plays (more on that later). The following are the various positions in football:

Offense Positions

Quarterbacks (QB): receive the football from the center and throw it to pass-catchers, main decision-maker for the offense

Running Backs (RB): take the ball from the quarterback in the “backfield” and carry it up the field, also known as a Half-Back (HB)

Fullbacks (FB): less common in the modern NFL but help with blocking for running backs or protecting quarterbacks

Wide Receivers (WR): downfield pass-catchers, responsible for receiving the ball from the quarterback on passes

Tight Ends (TE): typically bigger than wide receivers, can serve as pass-catchers or assist the offensive line as blockers in the run/pass game

Offensive Tackles (OT): each team has a right tackle and a left tackle, they line up on the ends of the offensive line and protect the quarterback against “pass rushers” or block defenders to open up holes for running backs

Offensive Guards (OG): each team has a right guard and left guard, they line up on the interior of the offensive line inside of each of the tackles and on either side of the center, they serve similar a similar role to tackles

Center (C): each team starts one center that “snaps” the ball to the quarterback at the beginning of each play and helps with run and pass blocking

Common Offense Formations

I FormationThis is known as an I formation because the quarterback, running back, and fullback (or in this case, two running backs) are lined up in a straight line behind the center. This formation is in what is known as 21-personnel – two running backs, one tight end, and two receivers. This is a commonly used formation near the red zone because it provides more protection in the middle of the field. Teams typically run the ball out of an I formation, but this can also be a great formation to try play-action passing out of because the defenders will crowd the line of scrimmage and not anticipate a pass being thrown against them.i formation

Spread FormationThis is known as a spread formation and it’s pretty much the diametric opposite of I formation. The offense spreads the defense out by lining up four wide receivers, or in this case three wide receivers and one tight end, out wide of the line of scrimmage. Sean McVay, the Rams’ head coach, kicked off a league-wide revolution towards spread offense being utilized on a majority of sets. This is commonly known as 11 personnel because there’s one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers on the field. It’s much more common for teams to pass out of spread formations, but delayed handoffs and pitches can work great as well due to the extra spacing on the field.spread formation

Single Back FormationThis formation is very similar to the spread formation, in that there are three receivers split out wide. However, it varies in the sense that the tight end is basically acting as a 6th offensive linemen, playing on the line of scrimmage and contributing to the run game. You could also see a second tight end instead of one of the receivers here for maximum blocking for the running back. The key difference between this and I formation is that there’s only one running back in the backfield.single back set

Defense Positions

Defensive Tackles (DT): each team starts one or two defensive tackles depending on whether they are running a 3-4 or 4-3 front; defensive tackles are some of the biggest players on the field and specialize in clogging the middle of the field to defend against running backs, although some are also fast enough to get to the quarterback

Defensive Ends (DE): these players line up on either side of the defensive tackle(s) and either set the edge of the defense against the running back or work to get around the offensive tackles to put pressure on the opposing quarterback

Outside Linebackers (OLB): in 3-4 defenses, outside linebackers are crucial as the players who put pressure on the quarterback on the edge of the defense in the “pass rush”

Inside Linebackers (ILB): 3-4 defenses have two inside linebackers while 4-3 defenses have three linebackers serving a variety of roles; inside linebackers are often the leader of the defense, responsible for calling out adjustments, stopping the run game, and defending the middle of the field

Cornerbacks (CB): these players will line up against wide receivers in the passing game in either man-to-man coverage (1-on-1 against a receiver) or in a zone formation where they cover a specific part of the field

Free Safety (FS): free safeties are often the “center fielder”; they prevent big plays from occurring and assist cornerbacks in pass coverage in the deeper third of the field

Strong Safety (SS): strong safeties have much more versatility in where they line up on the field, contributing to the pass rush, pass coverage, and run defense; they will often line up “in the box” or with the linebackers as an extra defender closer to the line of scrimmage

Defense Formations

There are several nuances to each defensive formation that you see below, but the basic idea is that a 3-4 defense will line up with 3 defensive linemen and 4 linebackers while a 4-3 defense will line up with 4 defensive linemen and 3 linebackers; most teams use a combination of both schemes

3-4 Defense Formation

3-4 defenses feature three defensive linemen (one defensive tackle and two defensive ends) alongside four linebackers (two outside and two inside). To break it down further, linebackers are often referred to the Will (weakside), Sam (strongside), Mike (middle), and Jack. The Jack is not present in 4-3 defenses and replaces what would have been an additional down lineman. The Jack is a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid (i.e. Von Miller) and rushes the passer or the running back on pretty much every play.

3-4 defense

4-3 Defense Formation

In a 4-3 defense, the Jack linebacker is replaced with an additional defensive lineman (in this case a defensive tackle). The Mike linebacker still lines up in the middle and the Will/Sam linebackers will fill a variety of roles. In this formation, the OLB #9 is the Sam linebacker because the opposing team’s tight end is lined up on the line of scrimmage on his side. TE #38 is more of a slot receiver in this formation and his off-alignment will allow OLB #47 an easier path to the quarterback – this is the Will.

4-3 defense

Kicking Positions

Kickers (K): typically the most utilized member of the special teams, kickers are responsible for two things: (1) they kick-off at the beginning of each half or after a scoring play, (2) they attempt to kick the ball through the goalposts on field-goal attempts.

Punters (P): these players are utilized as specialists on fourth-down plays when the offense cannot convert the first down and decides to punt the ball away, more on this later

Returners (KR/PR): each team has kick and punt returners, sometimes the same player, who receives the ball on kickoffs or punts and attempts to gain extra yardage for the offense

Long Snappers (LS): on field goal attempts and punts, the special teams will use a long snapper which can snap the ball further than the center usually does

Gunners: on special teams defense, the gunners are the players who run downfield and attempt to tackle the returner; special teams players are almost always players who fill other positions on the team as well

Kicking Formations

Kickoff Formationkickoff

This is the formation you will see either to start the first or second half or immediately following a score by the kicking team (the black team here). Alongside the kicker will be 10 players who are known as the gunners – these players are some of the fastest runners or hardest hitters on the roster and typically won’t be heavily relied upon as starters on defense or offense. The receiving team will have two returners back on either side – in this case, WR #12 and #38. One of those returners will catch the football and attempt to run it upfield while the rest of his special teams teammates attempt to block the gunners and create space for him.

Field Goal Formationfield goal formation

If the offensive team is unable to convert by the fourth down, they will often attempt a field goal (if in range). Here, we see the kicking team lining up from about the 18-yard line to kick a field goal. This is also where the extra point or PAT is attempted from. The kicker (#4) is responsible for kicking the ball through the uprights while his teammate, the punter (#3), holds the ball for him. This can also commonly be the backup quarterback on the roster. The rest of the players on the field for the kicking team are responsible for blocking the opposing players while they attempt to get around or over the line of scrimmage to block the kick. If they successfully block the kick, they have an opportunity to run downfield with the football if they can catch it before it touches the ground.

Punting Formationpunting

Punt coverage is very different from kickoff coverage, as you can see from this picture. The players are much more crowded at the line of scrimmage as this takes place as a normal offensive snap would – with players within a few feet of each other at the time of the snap. It’s rare for any players other than the punt returner to be set up downfield as the returning team will attempt to crowd the line of scrimmage to try to block the punt. The punting team will leave several players on the line of scrimmage to protect the punter and give him time to boot the ball downfield.

Gameplay

Now that you know the basics of NFL roster construction, we can dive into some basic gameplay. To help you better understand how an NFL play works, I’m including a sample video of one of my favorite plays from the past few seasons – a 97-yard touchdown scored by JuJu Smith-Schuster.

This was a 1st & 10 play (meaning the offense was on it’s first down or attempt and was 10 yards away from another first down). The Steelers lined up with the football at their own 3-yard line. You can see receivers lined up on either side of the offensive line – they’re out wide which is why they’re known as “wide” receivers. Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger lines up “under center” to simulate the play being a handoff to the running back, who is lined up behind him. Instead, he throws the ball to an open JuJu Smith-Schuster, who catches it at about the 30-yard line. Smith-Schuster was able to beat the cornerback who was guarding him in man defense, and he also beat the Broncos’ free safety (playing defense in the center of the field) as he made is way to the end zone for a 97-yard touchdown.

Here’s another sample play that helps illustrate what can happen on a turnover:

The Eagles lined up with the football at the Ravens’ 1-yard line (more like 1-inch line by my estimation) and looked to punch the football into the end zone on 2nd & goal. When the distance to the end zone is less than the distance to a 1st down would have been, the down and distance is replaced by down and goal. Instead of a run play that may have been easy from short range, the Eagles try what is called a play-action pass – a fake run that ideally opens up space for pass-catchers after defenders are caught out of position. Ed Reed, the Ravens’ safety who is one of the best defenders of all time, reads the play perfectly and “intercepts” the pass, meaning he catches the football intended for the receiver. As he caught it in the end zone, he had the option of taking a knee and allowing the Ravens to start their next play from their own 25-yard line. Instead, he takes off and runs the football into the opposing team’s end zone. This is known as a “pick-six” as it is an interception or a pick that results in six points for the defensive team. Reed ran a total of 107 yards on this play, making it the longest pick-six in NFL history.

Here’s one more play, this time an attempted field goal, which helps illustrate what special teams look like. If you’re a Bears fan, I apologize in advance:

This will be forever known as the “double doink”. In a playoff game against the Eagles, the Bears found themselves down by 1 point with 10 seconds remaining at about the 25-yard line. Bears’ kicker Cody Parkey attempted what would have been the game-winning field goal, but unfortunately for Bears fans everywhere, it hit the uprights twice on its way out. Had he successfully kicked the ball through the uprights, Parkey would have earned his team three points and the Bears would have likely won the game 18-16. Had this field goal been blocked, an Eagles’ player could have attempted to run it back to their own end zone – this functions similarly to a blocked punt, like this one.

Here’s an example of how a punt can go wrong:

On this play, the Patriots were able to get to the Bills’ punter before he was able to successfully punt away the football. Longtime Patriots special-teams ace Matthew Slater scooped the ball up off the floor and ran it back into the end zone to earn six points for his team. The football is “live” after a blocked put, meaning either team can scoop it up and gain possession – however, the Bills would have had to pick up the first down to keep position since this was a fourth-down play.

Finally here’s one of the most unbelievable punt return touchdowns of all time. Former Steelers’ receiver Antonio Brown was able to catch the football and run it all the way into the Bengals’ end zone to earn six points for his team. This possibility is why many teams will opt to have their punter punt the ball out of bounds – unlike on kickoffs, if a punt travels out of bounds then the opposing team will begin their drive from the spot of the field where the ball went out of bounds.

 

Coaching

Each NFL team employs a number of coaches to control various facets of the game. Every team has a head coach who oversees the entire team’s actions as well as an offensive and defensive coordinator who handle proceedings on a particular side of the field. Sometimes the head coach serves as the offensive/defensive coordinator in addition to their head coach duties – Bill Belichick (New England Patriots), Doug Pederson (Philadelphia Eagles), Kliff Kingsbury (Arizona Cardinals), and Kyle Shanahan (San Francisco 49ers) are the current examples of this.

Oftentimes a head coach will have had experience coaching a particular side of the ball in the NFL and employ a coordinator alongside them to handle every facet of the other side of the ball. A perfect example is Vic Fangio on the Denver Broncos – he’s had many years of defensive coaching experience and employs Pat Shurmur as the offensive coordinator. Play-calling duties can either all fall on the head coach, all on the coordinators, or a mix of the two. NFL teams also employ special teams coordinators, one of the unheralded positions in all of the sports world. John Harbaugh previously served in this position.

NFL teams will also employ a variety of positional coaches to serve as the head of a particular position group. Several current big-name NFL head coaches such as Bill Belichick, John Harbaugh, Mike McCarthy, and Mike Tomlin, as well as all-time greats Bill Walsh, Vince Lombardi, Bill Parcells, and Mike Ditka, enjoyed long careers as position coaches prior to becoming head coaches. Some of the best position coaches in the NFL currently include Bret Bielema (defensive line coach, Patriots), Shane Waldron (passing game coordinator, Rams), Kris Richard (defensive backs coach, Cowboys), and Dan Campbell (tight ends coach, Saints).

Scoring Summary

Touchdown: When an offense is able to get the football into the end zone, they score a touchdown. Touchdowns are worth 6 points and are always the ultimate goal for every team on every offensive drive.

touchdown

Point After Try (PAT): After the offense scores a touchdown, they will usually bring out their kicker and special teams players to attempt a kick from the 15-yard line. This makes it a 33-yard attempt (snap goes back 8 yards, 15 yards until the end zone, the end zone is 10 yards deep).

Two-Point Conversion: After the offense scores a touchdown, they can also attempt a two-point conversion on which they can attempt to get the football into the end zone another time from the 2-yard line. This is much harder than it might seem – the success rate is around 40-55%.

Field Goals: If an NFL team cannot convert a first-down within their set of downs, they can also choose to attempt a field goal try on fourth down. In this play, the kicker will attempt to kick the football through the uprights with the help of his long-snapper, holder, and 9 blockers (including the long-snapper). If the kicker is successful, the offense will earn 3 points. If not, the opposing team will take over possession of the ball from the spot where the kick was attempted. 

Safety: If a defense is able to tackle an offensive ball carrier behind his own goal line, they earn two points for their team. This will either happen as the defense tackles the running back behind the line of scrimmage or as the quarterback is taken down with a sack. After a safety occurs, the team that scored points on the safety will receive the ball on a free kick which occurs from the opposing team’s 20-yard line. This is a dropkick instead of the typical kickoff which is held by a holder.

 

Rules

Gaining a full understanding of the rules of football is likely the biggest obstacle to learning the game as a beginner. The NFL has a complex and long rulebook – in fact, there’s a 92-page PDF you can download from their official site. I’m going to break it down to the basics here:

Field Dimensions: NFL games are played on fields that are 100 yards in length and 53 yards in width. Each set of “downs” occurs over a 10-yard chunk of space. The end zone is a 10-yard set of space on either end of the field – if the offense reaches this spot, it counts as a touchdown. In the back of the end zone are goalposts – each is 10 feet high and 18 feet, 6 inches wide. 

Timing: NFL games are played over the duration of 60 minutes, which are split into four quarters. At the beginning of the two halves, a kickoff will occur. To determine which team receives this kickoff, a coin toss will occur at the beginning of every game. The winner of this coin toss can determine whether it would prefer to receive the opening kickoff or “defer” to the second half – there are strategic benefits to either option. If the game is tied in score after the four quarters an overtime period will occur. 

Timeouts/Play Clock: Each team gets three timeouts in each half which they can use at any point during the half. Unused timeouts from the first half do not carry over to the second half. Each half also has a 2-minute warning with 2 minutes remaining in the half in which the clock is automatically stopped. There is also a play clock on every down which lasts 40 seconds timed from the end of the previous down. The game clock is automatically stopped if there is an incompletion or a player runs out of bounds, but the play clock is always running.

First Downs: Each time the offense has the ball, they have four tries or “downs” to gain 10 yards. If it successfully gains 10 yards, it earns a “first down” and another set of four downs. If the offense reaches fourth down, it will usually punt (kick) the ball away to force the opposing team to begin their drive from worse field position. If an offense attempts to convert on fourth down and fails, a turnover on downs occurs where the opposing team takes over at that exact spot on the field.

Kickoff: At the beginning of every half of play, or immediately following scored points, one team will kick off to the other team from the defense’s 35-yard line to switch possession – this is one of the biggest parts of a kicker’s job. On the opposing team, a kick returner will attempt to catch the ball and run it back up the field. Where he is tackled is where his team will begin their offensive drive. If the returner takes a knee, his team will start from the spot where his knee touched the field. If the ball is kicked through the end zone, the returner’s team will start from the 25-yard line (formerly the 20-yard line). If the ball is kicked into the end zone, the returner can take a knee and accept the ball at the 25-yard line or run out of the end zone and attempt to pick up additional yardage. If the kicking team kicks the ball out of bounds then the opposing team automatically gets the ball at the 40-yard line, so it’s important for them to not do that.

Turnovers: A turnover will occur when a defender takes possession of the football away from the opposing team. This can either take place on a fumble or interception. A fumble occurs when the offensive ball carrier loses possession of the football before being tackled to the ground. An interception occurs when a defensive player catches a thrown football that the quarterback intended to be passed to an offensive teammate. After a turnover, the defensive team becomes the offense and the player with possession of the football can attempt to reach the end zone for 6 points. The opposing offense will take over possession wherever their defensive player is tackled.

Overtime: When the two competing NFL teams are tied at the end of regulation time (60 minutes, 4 quarters) they will play a 10-minute overtime period. Before overtime, a coin toss will occur which determines which team receives the ball to start overtime. Each team must possess or have the opportunity to possess the football unless the team with possession first scores a touchdown on their drive. If the team with possession first scores a field goal, the other team will have the opportunity to match their 3 points (or win with a touchdown). If the team with possession first does not score a touchdown, sudden death scoring comes into play where the next team to score wins the game. Each team gets two timeouts during overtime. If the score of the game is still tied after overtime, the game will end in a tie.

 

Penalties

The NFL has a system that allows it to discipline teams in-game for not following particular rules – penalties. The penalty structure has seen a lot of criticism in recent years for inconsistent calls by referees. These are the most common penalties which will occur during any given game:

Holding: This is easily the most common penalty in football and a constant source of frustration for football fans as it is very subjective. Holding can occur on both offensive and defensive players. 

  • Offensive Holding: When an offensive player grabs/tackles/holds a defensive player in such a way that prevents them from tackling the ball carrier. Penalty – 10 yards. 
  • Defensive Holding: When a defensive player grabs/tackles/holds an offensive player other than the ball carrier. Penalty – 5 yards, automatic first down.

False Start: This occurs when an offensive player makes a quick, abrupt movement before the snap of the ball. This can often cause an opposing defensive player to jump offsides which is why it needs to be penalized. The penalty for a false start is 5 yards.

Encroachment: This is when a defensive player encroaches the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped, making contact with an opponent. The penalty for encroachment is 5 yards.

Offsides: This occurs if, when the ball is snapped, any part of a player’s body is beyond the line of scrimmage. The penalty for holding is 5 yards. Also known as neutral zone infraction.

Pass Interference: When the quarterback has attempted a pass and the ball is still in the air if there is illegal contact between the offensive/defensive players it is pass interference.

  • Offensive Pass Interference: When an offensive player pushes away a defensive player before making a play on the ball, restricting his ability to defend the pass. Penalty – 10 yards, replay down.
  • Defensive Pass Interference: When a defensive player pushes away an offensive player before making a play on the ball, restricting his ability to make the catch. Penalty – the spot of the foul, automatic first down.

Unnecessary Roughness: This is a personal foul that is designed to protect players who are in a defenseless position from being hit. This is often called for helmet-to-helmet contact. Penalty – 15 yards, automatic first down.

Horse Collar Tackle: When a defender tackles an offensive player by grabbing inside their shoulder pads or jersey from behind and pulling them down. Penalty – 15 yards, automatic first down.

Face Mask: When a player grabs inside the face mask of another player when attempting to block or tackle. Penalty – 15 yards, automatic first down.

Roughing the Kicker/Punter: When a defensive player makes contact with the kicker/punter (unless the defensive player has touched the ball before contact). Penalty – 15 yards, automatic first down.

Delay of Game: If the offense/defense performs an action which causes the play clock to extend past the 40-second play clock. Penalty – 5 yards.

Intentional Grounding: When a quarterback is under pressure from the defense and in danger of giving up a sack, they may choose to throw the ball away. If they throw the ball in an area where there is not a receiver in the immediate vicinity, it is intentional grounding. Penalty – 10 yards, loss of down.

Glossary

The following is some of the most typical jargon you will hear associated with the NFL:

Backfield: The area behind the line of scrimmage where the quarterback, fullback, and running back line up.

Down: On each NFL drive, the offense will have four opportunities to earn a first down. These opportunities are known as downs and will be labeled first down, second down, third down, and fourth down. 

Drive: A series of plays for an NFL offense is known as a drive. Drives will end in either a touchdown, field goal, safety, turnover, turnover on downs, or punt.

End Zone: The 10-yard strip at the end of either side of the 100-yard field is known as the end zone. This is where the offense is attempting to go with the football, if you get inside the end zone you score a touchdown.

Extra Point: After the offense scores a touchdown, they have an opportunity to tack on an extra point by kicking the ball through the goalpost from 33 yards away.

Fair Catch: If a kick/punt returner waves his hand in the air on a kick/punt, he is signaling for a fair catch. This means that his offense will start their drive wherever he catches the ball and the opposing players are not permitted to make contact with him.

Field Goal: If an offense is not able to score a touchdown and gets stuck on fourth down, they may try a field goal attempt which is a kick through the uprights from their current position. Field goal position for most teams starts at around the opposing team’s 35-yard line (35 yards + 10 yards in end zone = 45-yard attempt).

First Down: On an offensive series, the offense will usually need to pick up a series of first downs to move the ball downfield (unless they get one big touchdown at the beginning of the drive). The first down marker is set up 10 yards away from the spot of the ball when the series began or when the last first down was acquired.

Free Kick: After a team gives up a safety, they will also have to kick the ball to the other team from their 20-yard line on what is known as a dropkick (the kicker starts with the ball in his hands).

Fumble: If an offensive player with possession of the ball drops it or has it knocked out of his hands, the offense will risk losing possession on the fumble. 

Handoff: This occurs when the quarterback hands the football to the running back behind the line of scrimmage. Running plays can also occur on swing passes and tosses.

Hash Marks: These are the white markers in the grass that help the players, officials, and fans have a better idea of where the football is in relation to the entire field.

Huddle: When the offense comes together to discuss strategy prior to the snap of the football, they are going into a huddle. Many teams will run no-huddle offense for stretches to keep defenders tired and on their toes.

Incompletion: When a quarterback attempts to throw the football to his receiver and the pass is not completed, it is known as an incompletion.

Interception: This occurs when a defender is able to catch or “pick off” the quarterback’s attempted pass and gain possession for his team’s offense.

Kickoff: This occurs when a team kicks the ball off either at the beginning of the first or second half or immediately following a score by the kicking team.

Line of Scrimmage: The imaginary line where the football is spotted and the offensive line lines up against the defensive line is known as the line of scrimmage.

Muffed Punt/Kick: When the punt/kick returner is unable to complete the catch of the football on the punt/kick, it is not an incompletion – rather, it practically acts as a fumble. The ball is live and possession can be regained by the kicking team.

Punt: If an offense is unable to gain a first down on their first three downs and is not in field goal range, they have two options – attempt the conversion on fourth down and risk a turnover on downs or punt the ball away and force the other team to start with worse field position. Teams never seek out to punt the ball on an offensive drive, but that doesn’t make it a bad play.

Red Zone: The area of the field 20 yards away from the defense’s end zone is known as the red zone. As the offense gets closer to scoring range, the field shrinks and the defense compresses. This makes red zone play-calling more restricted and offenses rely on strength/power more often.

Return: After a kick/punt, the player who catches the ball from mid-air and attempts to gain yardage is known as the returner. The yardage he is able to pick up is known as the return.

Sack: This occurs when the quarterback is “tackled” behind the line of scrimmage, usually resulting in a major loss of yardage for the offense. This is the ultimate goal for every pass rusher in football.

Safety: When an offensive ball carrier is tackled in their own end zone, this results in two points for the defensive team as well as possession of the ball for their offense. 

Secondary: The group of defenders who line up deeper in the field and typically line up against pass-catchers is known as the secondary – cornerbacks and safeties.

Snap: Each offensive play is known as a snap as it starts with the snap of the football from the center to the quarterback.

Special Teams: This is the third facet of the game beyond offense and defense which refers to anything involving kicking, punting, etc.

Touchdown: If a player is able to get the ball into the opposing end zone, they earn six points for their team – a touchdown.

Turnover on Downs: If the offensive team is unable to gain a first down on any of their four downs, the drive results in a turnover on downs – the defensive team regains possession of the football at the spot on the field where that fourth-down play ended.

 

FAQ

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Frequently Asked Questions

Who Owns the NFL?

There is no one owner of the NFL. Instead, it is a coalition of different business entities – 32 teams that are each owned by a different individual or group. Some well-known NFL owners are Jerry Jones (Dallas Cowboys), Robert Kraft (New England Patriots), and John Mara/Steve Tisch (New York Giants).

What Team Has the Most Wins in NFL History?

The Chicago Bears, one of the NFL’s oldest franchises, has the most wins in NFL history with 761. The Green Bay Packers (743), New York Giants (692), Pittsburgh Steelers (628), and Washington Redskins (600) round out the top five. The Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots are tied for the most Super Bowl wins with six each. The San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys each have five, and the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants each have four.

What is the Rooney Rule?

The Rooney Rule is unique to the NFL and it requires teams to interview candidates who belong to ethnic minorities for their head coaching and senior football operation jobs. It was first established in 2003 and credited to Dan Rooney, the former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and former chairman of the NFL’s diversity committee. The Rooney Rule does not dictate any hiring quotas, only interview quotas, and is an example of affirmative action.

Can NFL Players and Coaches be Traded?

NFL players can be traded from team to team, and often are, with a trade deadline taking place in late October to maintain roster integrity for the playoffs. NFL coaches can be traded for draft picks or players, although it is a far less common occurrence. Some notable coaches who have been traded in the past include Bill Belichick (Jets to the Patriots), Jon Gruden (Raiders to the Buccaneers), Herm Edwards (Jets to Chiefs), and Mike Holmgren (Packers to Seahawks).

Is the NFL More Profitable than the NBA?

In the 2018-2019 season, the NFL grossed $15 billion across its 32 teams while the NBA grossed just under $9 billion for its 30 teams.

What is the Minimum Salary in the NFL?

The minimum salary in the NFL is dependent on how many years the player has been in the league. The following is the minimum for each number of years: rookie – $495,00; 1 year – $570,000; 2 years – $645,000; 3 years – $720,000; 4-6 years – $806,000; 7-9 years – $930,000; 10+ years – $1,030,000.

What is the Average Salary in the NFL?

The median salary in the NFL is around $860,000 while the average is around $2 million. However, this is highly dependent on the position they play as the average salary for quarterbacks is $5.75 million (median $1.1 million) while the average for running backs is $1.02 million (median $630,000).

Do NBA Players or NFL Players Make More Money?

The average NBA player salary was $7.7 million for the 2019-2020 season, much more than the $2 million average for the NFL. However, this is slightly misleading – the NFL has two more teams and 45+ more players per team under payroll so the gross salary for the NFL is much higher.

How Does NFL Free Agency Work?

The NFL has its free agency period in March during which players who are no longer under contract with their former teams have the opportunity to sign a contract with whatever team they choose. NFL teams must stay under a salary cap for their payments for all players – this number fluctuates every year – and also above a certain minimum number.

  
What's up, I'm Jacob. I grew up watching Peyton Manning play and stuck with the Broncos after he retired. I'm also probably the only Clippers fan you'll ever meet. I'm from Southern California but I'm a junior at the University of Michigan studying sport management. Beyond my passion for sports I play guitar, grill a mean rib eye, and enjoy gambling on pretty much everything.

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