The Rules of Football: Your Ultimate Guide to the Game


A football sitting on a tee.

American football is one of the most popular and most-watched sports in the entire world. It originally evolved from the game of rugby back in the late-1800s and has seen its fair share of rule changes since then. The game we see today is far different from what it used to be.

So, what is the objective of football?

The objective of football is to score more points than your opponent in the allotted time, which mostly comes from touchdowns and field goals. The offense is tasked with moving the ball via running and passing, while the defense is tasked with stifling the offense and forcing turnovers.

Of course, there’s much more than meets the eye when it comes to a football game. From top to bottom, football is a well-thought-out game with a wide range of rules and regulations to maintain integrity, fairness, and excitement. Don’t worry, we’re going to teach you everything you need to know about the game of football.

The Football Field

A typical football field is made up of two end zones located at the end of the field, two goalposts located on the end of the end zone, a sideline on each side of the field, and a variety of hash marks, yard lines, numbers, and other markings located throughout the inside of the field.

The field is 120 yards long from end zone to end zone and 53⅓ yards wide from sideline to sideline. Each end zone is 10 yards deep, which means the length from one goal line to the other goal line is a total of 100 yards — also known as the field of play.

Each hash mark equals one yard. There’s a longer line (yard line) every five yards, and numbers on the field every 10 yards. The middle of the field, where the logo of the home team is found, is marked by the 50-yard line. All hash marks, lines, and numbers are painted white.

There’s a designated broken white line six feet outside the sideline where coaches and substitute players are allowed to stand. The player benches are located six feet outside that broken white line and are found on each sideline — this way, the teams are properly separated.

Some teams feature natural grass, while other teams feature artificial turf. Players normally have their preference of playing surface, but there’s no real standard for what a team must offer.

Scoring in Football

One of the most important things in football is scoring. The more a team scores, the higher chance they have of winning the game. Although it’s primarily the offense’s responsibility to score the ball, the defense has several opportunities to score as well.

A touchdown, which is technically worth six points, is the best way to score and can be accomplished by the offense or defense. The team that scores a touchdown will have an opportunity for an extra point kick or a two-point conversion. If they can’t score a touchdown and are close enough to the goalpost, they can attempt a field goal for three points.

The defense can also pin the offense in their own end zone for a safety, which is worth two points. Don’t worry, we’ll explain each way to score in more detail below.

What Is a Touchdown in Football?

A college football player scores a touchdown.

When the offense is driving down the field, their main objective is scoring a touchdown. Each touchdown scored is worth six points, the highest of any scoring play. It also gives the team an opportunity at one or two more points via an extra point or two-point conversion, respectively.

According to the official NFL rulebook, there are several scenarios that dictate whether a play is a touchdown or not. Let’s take a closer look:

  • A runner advances into the endzone with the ball on, above, or behind the plane of the opponent’s goal line
  • An airborne runner possesses a ball that’s on, above, or behind the plane of the opponent’s goal line with at least some part of the ball passing over or inside the pylon
  • The ball touches the pylon after contact by the opponent, so long as no part of the player’s body strikes the ground beforehand (except their hand or foot)
  • A player that’s inbounds either catches or recovers a ball that is on, above, or behind the opponent’s goal line
  • The referee awards a team a touchdown after being denied one due to a play that’s deemed unfair

On offense, touchdowns can be scored by either running or passing (catching) the ball and it’ll count as six points either way. While most touchdowns are scored on offense, the defense can score a touchdown via an interception or fumble. Defensive touchdowns are worth six points.

What Is an Extra Point in Football?

When a touchdown is scored, either on offense or defense, the scoring team is awarded an extra opportunity to score an additional one or two points. Also known as a try, an extra point is worth one point and a two-point conversion is worth two points.

The scoring team gets to decide which one they want to attempt. If they decide to attempt an extra point, also known as a try-kick, the ball is placed anywhere on the 15-yard line and the kicker must kick the ball through the goalposts. If successful, the touchdown is worth seven points.

If the try-kick is unsuccessful, the touchdown is only worth six points. This can come back and play a major role in the outcome of a game. 

What Is a Two-Point Conversion?

Much like we described above, a team that scores a touchdown will have the choice of kicking an extra point or attempting a two-point conversion. The two-point conversion, also known as a try-by-pass or run, is worth an additional two points.

If the team decides to attempt a two-point conversion, the ball is placed anywhere on the two-yard line. The team runs one play and can either run or pass the ball. If they legally get the ball in the end zone (like scoring a TD), the touchdown is worth eight points.

In the event the two-point conversion is unsuccessful, the scoring team is only awarded six points. Two-point conversions are much rarer than a try-kick (extra point). 

Field Goals

A college football player attempts a field goal.

If the offensive team is unable to score a touchdown during their possession, they still have a chance to put points on the board via a field goal. A field goal is generally attempted on fourth down and requires the kicker to kick the ball through the goalposts.

Several conditions must be met when kicking a successful field goal, according to the NFL rulebook:

  • The kick must be taken from on or behind the line of scrimmage or spot of a fair catch
  • Once kicked, the ball can’t touch the ground or another player of the offensive team before passing through the goalposts
  • The entire ball has to pass through the vertical plane of the goalposts
  • If the ball returns through the goalposts without touching a player, object, or the ground, it’s unsuccessful

If a field goal is successful, the offensive team is awarded three points — which isn’t as good as a touchdown, but it’s better than nothing. If the field goal is unsuccessful, it counts as a turnover on downs, and the defensive team is awarded possession of the ball at the line of scrimmage.

In the event a team is too far away from the goalpost to attempt a field goal, they can either choose to go for it on fourth down and risk a turnover on downs or give up possession of the ball by punting it away.

Safeties

While most points are scored by the offensive team in football, there are several ways the defense can score — including a safety. Safeties are quite rare in today’s game, but they happen every now and then. When they happen, they provide a game-changing momentum shift.

Several situations could result in a safety:

  • The offensive team commits a foul in their own end zone
  • The defense recovers a loose ball behind their opponent’s goal line
  • The ball is sent out of bounds behind an opponent’s goal line

If any of these three conditions are met, the referee will signal for a safety and the defensive team will get two points. The defense is also awarded possession of the ball via a punt, dropkick, or place kick from the offense’s 20-yard line. It’s a win-win for the defensive team.

Pick-6

Another way a defensive team can score is via a pick-6, which is more common than a safety, but still difficult to achieve. Quite simply, a pick-6 is when the defensive team intercepts the ball and returns the interception for a touchdown. Any player on the defense can earn one.

Much like a safety, a pick-6 is a potential game-changing play and can completely shift the momentum from one team to the next. With that said, it’s a more rewarding play because it’s worth six points (plus an extra point or two-point conversion) since it’s considered a touchdown.

Unlike a safety, the scoring team has to kick the ball off to the opposing team after the points are awarded — meaning the team that threw the interception will get the ball back immediately. It probably will, however, mess with the quarterback’s mind and cause him to play less aggressively on the next drive.

Game Length

A pile at the line of scrimmage.

A football game is split up into four 15-minute quarters for a total of 60 minutes (one hour) of game time. With that said, the average football game is 3 hours and 12 minutes long from start to finish and can take anywhere between two hours and seven hours in certain cases.

That might seem like a huge gap, but there are several reasons for this. For example, the game clock frequently stops and starts throughout the game due to penalties, scores, timeouts, injuries, replays, technical difficulties, pre-game, post-game, halftime, and commercial breaks. When the game clock stops, that time isn’t counted.

Games can also take a long time to finish if the offenses focus their efforts on passing overrunning. After a running play, the game clock doesn’t stop counting down (if a player is tackled inbounds), but it does stop after an incomplete pass. You also have to think about how much of the play clock is used before the snap.

Many people think football games take too long and it’s something the league has worked hard to correct. For example, they’ve tried to limit the number of commercial breaks, but they can’t do this too much since it accounts for a large part of their in-season revenue. For now, a game with one hour of actual action will have to take several hours to complete.

Timeouts

Timeouts play an integral role in the game of football today. They not only allow a team to rest its players, but they give coaches an opportunity to run through their strategy in-between plays, stop the play clock when it’s close to running out, and potentially ice the kicker before they kick.

Each team is given three timeouts per half and they can call a timeout at any moment in the game. They don’t have to use all three timeouts each half, but any unused timeouts won’t carry over to the next half. A timeout generally lasts around two minutes before play resumes.

Most timeouts are called late in the first or second half when the game tightens and each play is crucial. They can be called by a coach or a player that’s on the field at that given time. That means players on the sidelines aren’t allowed to call a timeout, just the coach.

In addition to timeouts called by the coaches and players, the referees will also call for TV timeouts throughout the game. Due to commercial breaks and revenue streams, the NFL requires 16 TV timeouts per game – eight in each half. It’s the producer’s job to figure out when the TV timeouts are called.

Teams

A football game consists of two teams — a home team and away team — that play head-to-head against one another. These teams are made up of players, a head coach, defensive coordinator, offensive coordinator, special teams coordinator, position coaches, strength coaches, and scouts.

While the players and coaches are responsible for the in-game play, each team also has a front office and ownership group that’s responsible for putting the team, contracts, sales, marketing, and more together. It’s important that everyone in the organization is on the same page.

As far as the players and coaches are concerned, they’re broken up into three core units — the offense, defense, and special teams. Each unit has unique responsibilities that contribute to the success of the team. Any kink in the armor can result in a loss when game day rolls around.

In the NFL, a team consists of 53 roster players (47 of which suit up for a game) and 12 practice squad players. Teams are allowed up to 90 players during the offseason and training camp but must cut that roster down to the 53-player maximum by the start of the regular season.

Of the 53 roster players, a typical roster consists of 24 offensive players (quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive linemen), 26 defensive players (defensive linemen, linebackers, cornerbacks, safeties), and 3 specialty players (kicker, punter, long snapper).

Only 11 offensive players are allowed on the field at once, as well as 11 defensive players on the opposite team. There will never be more than 22 players on the field at once, otherwise, a penalty will get called.

Offense in Football

A college football running back looks to run the ball up field.

When a team has possession of the ball, their offense heads on the field. Their main goal is to drive down the field and either score a touchdown or put their team in position for a field goal try. The last thing they want is to turn the ball over, whether it’s via a fumble, interception, or punt.

There are 11 offensive players on the field at once, made up of the quarterback, running backs, receivers, and offensive line. Let’s take a closer look at all the different offensive positions:

  • Quarterback – the most important player on a football team, the quarterback is the leader of the offense. They primarily throw the ball to receivers or hand it off to running backs, but can also run it themselves.
  • Running Backs – this group of players consists of both running backs and fullbacks. Their primary job is to run the ball, but are also tasked with blocking the quarterback and catching the ball when thrown to.
  • Receivers – this group of players consists of both wide receivers and tight ends. Their primary job is to catch the ball when thrown to, but also block and run the ball in rarer situations.
  • Offensive Line – the offensive line’s primary job is blocking for the quarterback when in pass protection and blocking for the running back in run protection. The group consists of the center, two guards, and two tackles.

The offense has four downs to either get a first down or score a touchdown or field goal before they turn the ball over on downs. If they get a first down, they get an additional four downs. On fourth down, they can either go for it and risk turning it over, or punt the ball and put the opponent in a tough field position.

When driving down the field, the offense can move the ball in one of three ways — passing the ball, running the ball, or forcing a penalty on the defense. Let’s take a closer look:

  • Running Plays – the most prominent running plays include the dive, off-tackle run, quarterback sneak, sweep, trap, counter, draw, bootleg, end around, reverse, and option.
  • Passing Plays – the most prominent passing plays (receiver routes) include the flag, flat, corner, post, go, screen, swing, out, play action, comeback, cross, slant, curl, hook, and fly.
  • Penalties – there are a number of defensive penalties that result in the offense gaining yardage or an automatic first down, which we’ll go into more depth below.

The quarterback is given a play to run by the head coach or offensive coordinator. He relays that play to the rest of the offense in the huddle, but that play is subject to change via an audible — which is called by the quarterback after he sees how the defense lines up.

Defense in Football

When the opponent has possession of the ball, the other team sends their defense on the field to protect the end zone. Their main goal is to force the offense to turn the ball over or punt. The last thing the defense wants to do is allow the offense to score a touchdown or a field goal.

Much like the offense, there are 11 defensive players on the field at one time. It’s made up of the defensive line, linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties. Let’s take a closer look at each position group:

  • Defensive Line – the defensive line is made up of defensive ends, defensive tackles, and nose tackles. They’re responsible for clogging up the lanes to limit the running back’s ability to find a hole, as well as pressuring the quarterback in hopes of a sack.
  • Linebackers – the linebackers are versatile in what they can do on the football field. They’re asked to blitz the quarterback, they’re responsible for gaps in the run game, and they drop in coverage. The middle linebacker is the defensive leader and play-caller.
  • Cornerbacks – there are generally two cornerbacks on the field each play and their primary responsibility is covering the top-two offensive receivers. Some schemes call for a third cornerback, called the nickelback, to cover the slot receiver.
  • Safeties – there are usually two safeties on the field each play and they’re known as the last line of defense. The free safety is responsible for helping the cornerbacks, while the strong safety is responsible for helping limit the run game.

There are a number of different defensive schemes and coverage options a team runs throughout the game. While most teams like to run the same scheme all game long, certain situations call for scheme changes and require the coach and players to get creative mid-game.

Let’s take a look at some of the most popular defensive schemes and coverage options in today’s game:

  • 4-3 Defense – the 4-3 defensive scheme consists of two defensive ends, two defensive tackles, a middle linebacker, and two outside linebackers. With more defensive linemen, the defense can send more pressure at the quarterback.
  • 3-4 Defense – the 3-4 defensive scheme consists of two defensive ends, one nose tackle, two inside linebackers, and two outside linebackers. It’s better against the pass, but you can still send pressure at the quarterback by blitzing with a linebacker.
  • 5-2 Defense – the 5-2 defensive scheme consists of two defensive ends, two defensive tackles, a nose tackle, and two linebackers. Sometimes the coach will have two of the linebackers act as linemen. It’s very effective against the run.
  • Zone Coverage – in zone coverage, also known as zone defense, the defenders are assigned to a certain zone (or area) of the field. Each defender is responsible for any offensive player that enters their zone. When done right, it’s effective against the pass.
  • Man Coverage – in man coverage, also known as man defense, the defenders are assigned to a specific offensive player. Each defender is responsible for guarding that player. When done right, it can be effective against the pass or run.
  • Goal Line Defense – also known as the 6-3 defensive scheme, goal-line defense is a situational scheme that’s most effective when the offense is lined up near the goal-line. There are six defensive linemen and two linebackers, making it effective against runs.

The defense is tasked with trying to figure out what the offense is doing before they do it. They can get a good idea of this once they see the offense line up, but they need to be prepared for audibles and have to think on the fly often. That’s where quality communication comes in handy.

Special Teams in Football

Special teams players are some of the most overlooked players in all of football, but they’re just as important as anyone else. To be successful, they need a quality special teams unit. They put your offense in good positions and the opponent in tough positions.

The special teams unit is made up of both offensive and defensive players. Simply put, it consists of any player that’s on the field during a kick or punt. Any position can earn a role on special teams, but it’s usually reserved for those that don’t get a lot of opportunities elsewhere.

Let’s take a look at some of the most prominent special teams players on the roster:

  • Kicker – also known as a placekicker, the kicker is responsible for kickoffs, field goals, and extra points. Some kickers are versatile enough to also handle punt duties.
  • Punter – the punter is responsible for punting the ball when the offense fails to advance down the field. They receive the snap directly from the long snapper.
  • Long Snapper – a long snapper is responsible for snapping the ball long distances. They snap the ball 15 yards for a punt and 7-8 yards for field goals and extra points.
  • Returners – also known as return specialists, these players are responsible for catching and returning kicks and punts. Quality returners put the offense in a good position.
  • Gunners – there are normally two gunners on the field at once, one on each sideline. They’re responsible for chasing down returners and tackling them as soon as possible.
  • Jammers – there are normally two jammers on the field at once and they line up in front of the two gunners. Their main responsibility is blocking the gunners.

In addition to the players listed above, there are also a number of other players involved in punts, kickoffs, and extra points — such as the holder for the kicker, the upbacks that block for the punter, and the rest of the players that either block or tackle the opposing team.

Kickoffs

The kickoff of a college football game.

Also known as a free kick, kickoffs occur at the start of every game, the start of the second half, and after every scoring play (touchdown, field goal, or safety). The purpose of a kickoff is to put the ball in play when changing possession after a scoring play or the start of each half.

The kicker or punter is responsible for kicking the ball into play during a kickoff. They use a manufactured tee to keep the ball in place before the kick. If the ball falls off the tee (due to wind or rain) the kicker is allowed to put it back on. If it falls off again, a player holds the ball in place. The tee is not used when kicking the ball off after a safety.

If the kickoff is happening to start the game, start the second half, after a touchdown, or after a field goal, the ball is placed on the kicking team’s 35-yard line — also known as the kickoff restraining line. For a safety kick, the ball is placed on the 20-yard line, instead. The receiving team must be a minimum of 10 yards from the kicking team’s restraining line.

When lining up, all the players on the kicking team (minus the kicker) must remain no more than one yard behind the restraining line. There must be five players on each side of the kicker before the ball is kicked. Once kicked, the players have to be inbounds and stay behind the ball.

As for the receiving team, they must have eight players between the restraining line and the 15-yard line. They must stay in bounds. Once the ball is caught by a returner, they can advance up the field until they’re tackled. They can also elect to kneel if the ball is caught in the end zone, which automatically places the ball at the 25-yard line (called a touchback).

If the kicking team kicks the ball out of bounds before it reaches the end zone, a 25-yard penalty is given to the kicking team or the ball is placed at the 40-yard line (whichever is farther). If the ball goes out of bounds in or outside the end zone, it results in a touchback.

Penalties

Penalties in football play a major role in keeping the game fair, safe, and just for the teams and players involved. The penalties have evolved through the years and continue to evolve to this day. Every year, the league reviews the game and looks for ways to improve it for all involved.

Most penalties result in a loss of yards, a loss of a down, or a combination of both. For the most part, a penalty is either a 5, 10, or 15-yard penalty, with the exception of a few. The referees are responsible for detecting and enforcing these penalties, though they aren’t always perfect.

Some penalties are called exclusively on the offense, some are called exclusively on the defense, and some can be called on either the offense or defense. Don’t worry, we’re going to detail the different penalties on each side of the ball (and the punishments) below.

Offensive Penalties

A penalty on the offense can be catastrophic to the offense’s ability to drive the ball down the field. They usually result in a loss of yards and can also result in a loss of a down. Knowing the different penalties that can be called on the offensive is important for each player on the team.

Let’s take a look at some of the penalties that can be called exclusively on the offense:

PenaltyDescriptionPunishment
Offensive HoldingAn offensive player holds a defensive player10 yards
False StartAn offensive player crosses the line of scrimmage too early or moves before the ball is snapped5 yards
Too Many Men in the HuddleHaving more than 11 players in the huddle for more than 3 seconds5 yards
Illegal Forward HandoffAn offensive player hands the ball off to a teammate that’s in front of them after receiving a forward pass5 yards
Illegal Forward PassOffensive player passes the ball to a teammate that’s in front of them after receiving a forward pass, or the ball is thrown after the player already crosses the line of scrimmage5 yards and loss of down
Illegal MotionMore than one player is moving parallel or lateral to the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped, or a player is moving toward the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped5 yards
Illegal Touching of a KickA member of the kicking team touches the ball before it travels past the 10-yard restraining line, or the ball is touched by a player that stepped out of bounds before touching the ball5 yards and repeat kick or spot of the foul
Illegal Touching of a PassA receiver catches the ball after running out of bounds and back inbounds, or a lineman that’s deemed ineligible catches a ball5 yards and loss of down
Ineligible Downfield KickA member of the kicking team crosses the line of scrimmage before a kick5 yards
Ineligible Downfield PassAn ineligible receiver is too far past the line of scrimmage before a pass is thrown or caught5 yards
Intentional GroundingWhen the quarterback throws the ball outside of the tackle box that doesn’t pass the line of scrimmage or is thrown to an area where no receiver is present10 yards and loss of down
Invalid Fair Catch SignalA returner doesn’t fully lift his hand over his head when signaling a fair catch during a kick5 yards
Kick Catch InterferenceA member of the kicking team makes contact with the returner before the returner has a chance to catch the ball15 yards

These are some of the most-called offensive penalties, though some are more common than others. In certain cases, the referees give players some leeway, but not if the penalty seriously impacts the play in question. At the end of the day, referees do their best to stay consistent.

Defensive Penalties

Defensive penalties can make it extremely hard for the defense to limit the offense’s ability to drive down the field. This is especially true when the defense is called for a penalty on third or fourth down. It can negate all the hard work they’ve done on that drive and keep the defense on the field longer than anticipated, leading to tired players.

Let’s take a look at some of the penalties that are called exclusively on the defense:

PenaltyDescriptionPunishment
Defensive HoldingA defensive player illegally holds an offensive player5 yards and an automatic first down
OffsidesA defensive player is on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage as the ball is snapped5 yards
Pass InterferenceWhen the ball is in the air during a pass play and a defensive player makes illegal contact with the player attempting to catch the ballSpot of the foul and an automatic first down
Too Many Men On the FieldThe defense has more than 11 players on the field when the ball is snapped5 yards
EncroachmentA defensive player crosses the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped and makes contact with an offensive player5 yards
Leaping (NCAA)A defensive player jumps over the offensive line when attempting to block a kick15 yards and an automatic first down
LeverageA defensive player jumps over the offensive line when attempting to block a kick15 yards and an automatic first down
Illegal ContactA defensive player grabs or holds a receiver more than five yards past the line of scrimmage5 yards and an automatic first down
Neutral Zone InfractionA defensive player crosses the neutral zone and causes an offensive play to commit a false start5 yards
Roughing the KickerA defensive player makes illegal or excessive contact with the kicker’s plant leg or contacts the kicker when both of their feet are on the ground15 yards and an automatic first down
Roughing the PasserA defensive player makes illegal or excessive contact with the quarterback after the ball is thrown15 yards and an automatic first down
Running Into the KickerA defensive player makes illegal contact with the kicker’s kicking leg or prevents the kicker from returning both feet to the ground5 yards
Kickoff Out of BoundsA ball is kicked out of bounds in the field of play before a player touches it on a kickoff30 yards or spot of the ball out of bounds

Defensive penalties are usually much more severe than offensive penalties. They can truly change the momentum of the offense and are often game-changing penalties. That’s why coaches stress the importance of defensive players playing ‘by the books’ throughout the game.

Offensive & Defensive Penalties

While there are plenty of penalties that are exclusive to either the defense or offense, there is also a wide range of penalties that can be called on both sides of the ball. These penalties come with a range of punishments and can be just as game-changing as any other penalty.

Let’s take a look at some of the more common penalties that can be called on both the offense and defense:

PenaltyDescriptionPunishment
Delay of GameThe offense fails to snap the ball before the play clock expires, spikes the ball out of play, or a defensive player remains on top of a runner for an extended amount of time5 yards
Chop BlockOne player blocks another player below the thigh, while a teammate block that same player above the waist15 yards
ClippingA player blocks someone from behind and below the waist15 yards
Delay of KickoffThe kicking team fails to kick the ball before the play clock expires or the receiving team takes too long to assemble5 yards
DisqualificationA player is disqualified from the game due to an unnecessary penalty15 yards and ejection
Equipment ViolationA player wears illegal or inappropriate equipment, or fails to wear the required equipment5 yards (not wearing) / 15 yards (illegal equipment)
FacemaskTwisting, turning, pushing, pulling, or illegally controlling another player’s facemask15 yards
Illegal Blindside BlockA player blocks another player with forcible contact while running toward or parallel to his own end line15 yards
Illegal Block in the BackA player illegally blocks another player in the back and above the waist10 yards
Horse CollarA player tackles another player via their collar or shoulder pads15 yards and an automatic first down
(if on the defense)
Use of HelmetA player initiates contact with another player by using their helmet15 yards an automatic first down
(if on the defense)
Illegal BattingA player bats a loose ball toward the end zone to another player when in the end zone, or to another player during a backward pass10 yards
Illegal Use of HandsA player initiates forcible contact with another player’s head or neck with the hand10 yards
Illegal Crackback BlockWhen a player in motion is running parallel to the line of scrimmage and makes illegal contact with another player after the snap15 yards
Illegal FormationWhen an offensive unit is in an illegal formation prior to or during the snap5 yards
Illegal CutA player blocks another player below the waist more than five yards past the line of scrimmage15 yards
Illegal Peel BackA player blocks or tackles another player that’s moving towards their end zone from behind or from the side15 yards
Illegal SubstitutionA substitution by either team that results in them having more players than necessary, or a team substitutes when they’re not allowed to5 yards
Illegal ShiftMore than one offensive player is illegally shifting before the snap5 yards
Illegal KickIllegally kicking a loose ball or a ball that’s in possession of another player10 yards
Illegal WedgeTwo or more players line up less than two yards apart and link with each other by locking arms to reduce the gaps for another player15 yards
Low BlockA low block that occurs during a kicking play or change of possession play15 yards
Offside on Free KickWhen a player on the kicking team passes the ball before it is kicked5 yards
Player Out of Bounds on KickA player runs out of bounds and then back inbounds to make a play during a kick5 yards
Sideline InfractionA player or coach on the sideline is standing or running in the restricted areaWarning for the first offense, 5 yards on the second offense, 15 yards on the third offense, disqualification after that
TauntingA player taunts another player via flagrant acts and unnecessary language15 years and an automatic first down
(if on the defense)
TrippingIllegally tripping another player to impede them from doing their job on the field10 yards and an automatic first down
(if on the defense)
Unnecessary RoughnessA player uses illegal or unnecessary contact to tackle or block another player15 yards and an automatic first down
(if on the defense)
Unsportsmanlike ConductAny prohibited act that goes against the general rule of sportsmanship15 yards and an automatic first down
(if on the defense)

Officiating

To ensure fairness, several referees officiate each football game. They’re responsible for calling penalties and ensuring the rules are being followed by both teams. It’s very important that they keep an unbiased and just view of each game.

Let’s take a look at the positioning and responsibilities of each referee in a football game, according to the NFL rule book:

  • Referee – stands on the right side of the offensive backfield, 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage. They communicate the fouls, maintain the pace of the game, count the number of players on the field, and determine first downs.
  • Umpire – stands on the left side of the offensive backfield, 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Reviews players’ equipment, determines who has possession after a fumble, directly engages with players, and marks off the penalty yardage.
  • Down Judge – stands on the line of scrimmage, usually on the left side of the field. They oversee the line of scrimmage, direct the chain crew, watch for offsides, rules on sideline plays (on their side), and informs the referee of what down it is.
  • Line Judge – stands on the line of scrimmage, usually on the right side of the field. They watch for offside, rules on plays near the sideline (on their side), determines when someone is out of bounds or not, and rules on plays in their vicinity.
  • Field Judge – stands 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage in the defensive backfield, on the same side as the line judge. They watch the wide receivers and those guarding them, as well as pay attention to the sideline for out-of-bounds plays.
  • Side Judge – stands 25 yards behind the line of scrimmage in the defensive backfield, on the same side as the down judge. Serves as the timekeeper, watches receivers and those guarding them, signals the end of the quarter, and watches for out of bounds.
  • Back Judge – stands 30 yards behind the line of scrimmage and starts between the hash marks in the defensive backfield. Manages the play clock, responsible for all TV breaks, looks for holding by the offense, and watches for primary threats of foul.

There are times when referees might disagree on a call, at which point they’ll debate it and come to a conclusion on what happens next. In the event of a replay, the referees hold no weight in what happens. Instead, the call comes from the replay officials, who collaborate with the Senior VP of Officiating and Vice President of Instant Replay in New York.

Overtime

The overtime period was added to the NFL’s list of rules in 1974. It takes effect when two teams are tied after the end of regulation, which is the end of the fourth quarter. After a three-minute intermission, a coin toss determines who gets possession of the ball and one 10-minute period begins.

In most cases, both teams will get at least one opportunity to possess the ball. The only exception to that is when a touchdown is scored on the first possession of overtime. If that happens, there will be no extra-point try. If that doesn’t happen, then both teams enter sudden death play (first to score a point wins).

Each team gets two timeouts and only the officials can initiate an instant replay — not the coaches. In the event no one scores after the 10-minute period comes to an end, the game ends in a tie. The last time this happened was Sept. 27, 2020, between the Philadelphia Eagles and Cincinnati Bengals.

In the postseason, overtime rules are a bit different. Each team gets three timeouts and they’ll play as many overtime periods as it takes to determine a winner — there will be no tie. A two-minute intermission will follow the end of an overtime period.

Replay

The instant replay in the NFL is aimed at ensuring a fair game at all times, giving coaches the opportunity to challenge a play they believe was called incorrectly. Since no referee is perfect and plays happen in the blink of an eye, it’s possible that the referee could make the wrong call.

The most common plays that receive an instant replay are pass completions, whether a runner breaks the plane or not, and incomplete passes. These plays accounted for 173 of 364 reviews in 2020. For reference, there were a total of 40,032 plays in total throughout the 2020 season.

Instant replays are either initiated by the head coach via a red challenge flag or the replay official. Head coaches get two challenges per game, with a third challenge being rewarded if the first two are successful. The official initiates reviews after the two-minute warning, and on all scoring plays and turnovers.

There are several people responsible for making sure the final decision is the right decision — the referee, those inside the stadium replay booth, and senior officials in Art McNally GameDay Central in New York. All three sides take a close look at the play and give their thoughts on a decision.

The final decision is made by a senior designated member of the officiating department. Once a decision is made, the referee announces it on the field. In total, this process takes an average of 2 minutes and 26 seconds.

Rule Changes Over Time

The NFL is intent on continuing to evolve the game as much as possible to ensure players get a fair shake and an exciting game for the fans. With that said, the game we see today is a far different game than what fans saw back in 1920 when the NFL held their first games.

Back then, quarterbacks weren’t allowed to pass unless they were five yards behind the line of scrimmage, teams couldn’t throw more than once during a series of downs, teams weren’t allowed to substitute, communication from the sidelines was prohibited, and grabbing a player’s facemask was legal.

Today, the NFL has a distinct process in place for changing the rules and they happen every single year. The Competition Committee is responsible for spearheading these changes, but they take a consensus-oriented approach to ensure rule changes are agreed upon by the masses.

The Competition Committee is a nine-member group of team executives and head coaches that act as a conduit for these changes. It includes Rich McKay (Atlanta Falcons), John Mara (New York Giants), Stephen Jones (Dallas Cowboys), Mark Murphy (Green Bay Packers), Ozzie Newsome (Baltimore Ravens), Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh Steelers), John Elway (Denver Broncos), Sean Payton (New Orleans Saints), and Ron Rivera (Washington Football Team).

Some of the rules that have seen the most changes include kickoffs, instant replays, extra point attempts, penalties, overtime periods, tackling, and illegal contact. There is also a world of rule changes that are intended to protect the health and safety of players, especially since football can be quite a violent and aggressive game.

College Football Rules

A college football player catches the ball.

In many ways, college football rules mimic those that are seen in the NFL. This is important because college players are groomed to one day compete at the professional level. With that said, there are some key differences between college football and professional football rules.

Let’s take a look at some of the major differences:

  • College football players only need one foot inbounds for a complete pass.
  • The ball is placed on the three-yard line for two-point conversions in college football.
  • There is no such thing as a two-minute warning in college football.
  • If a college football player trips or falls, they’re automatically ruled down, whether there was contact or not.
  • College football defenses are penalized 10 yards and a repeat of down for defensive holding.
  • The game clock stops running after a first down in college football.
  • There are no ties in college football. Overtime periods give each team a chance to possess the ball. Whoever scores more points after their possession wins.

Other differences between college football and professional football include roster sizes, stadium sizes, hash marks (40 yards apart in college football), and pass interference calls (15-yard penalty). The way the playoffs and championship work is much different in college football, as well.

High School Football Rules

High school football rules allow for a much different game than in the NFL. Most of the rule differences are intended to make the game safer for teenagers but also allow for young players to learn the game more easily. At the end of the day, it’s still the football we’ve all grown to love.

Let’s take a look at some of the major differences between high school football and professional football:

  • High school football games are split up into four, 12-minute quarters.
  • Ball carriers are announced down when their body (except hands and feet) touch the ground.
  • When a ball is fumbled, the recovering team can’t advance the ball. Instead, the ball is dead at the spot of recovery.
  • High school football players only need one foot inbounds for a complete pass.
  • Goalposts are 23’4’’ wide and rise up to 20’ high.
  • Hash marks are only 53’4’’ from each sideline (closer to the sideline than NFL).

In addition to those rule differences, you’ll also see way more two-position players in high school football. For example, you might see a quarterback that also plays safety or an offensive lineman that also plays on the defensive line. This is non-existent in professional football.

Youth Football Rules

Youth football rules are much different than high school, the NCAA, and the NFL. Games are still split up into four quarters, but each quarter is just 8 minutes long. Youth football games also feature a 25-second play clock, instead of a 40-second play clock.

While most NCAA games are played on Saturday, NFL games are played on Sunday, and high school games are played on Friday, most youth football games are on the weekends. With that said, youth football rules vary by region and there’s no true standard for how they’re played.

Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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