As a kid, I loved watching football on TV but I didn’t quite understand all the rules. I knew what the first down marker was but I didn’t understand how the officials were able to paint the yellow lines on the field so quickly. I eventually learned that the yellow lines on TV were to help the viewers know where a team had to progress to earn a first down.
So, what is a down in football?
A down in football begins with the snap of the ball and ends when the player with the ball is tackled, goes out of bounds, takes a knee or spikes the ball. Each team has four downs/opportunities to go 10 yards to earn a first down. Some defensive penalties automatically award a new set of downs.
If you’re interested in learning more about the down system in American football and the strategy involved, I encourage you to continue reading.
How Do Downs Work in Football?
Each time a team gains possession of the football, they have four downs to gain 10 yards to earn a first down. This process is then repeated until a field goal is kicked, the ball is brought into the end zone, a turnover takes place or the ball is punted away.
As mentioned previously, a down begins with the snap of the ball and ends when a player is downed. To be considered downed, a body part other than the hands or feet needs to touch the ground.
If a player with the ball is touched by a defender and makes contact with the ground, they’re down. Players with the ball who fall on their own accord without being touched by the defensive team aren’t considered down and can get up and continue progressing downfield.
You will often hear announcers on TV saying “1st and 10”, “3rd and 3” etc. With this, the announcers are denoting the current down and the number of yards the team has to go to earn a new set of four downs. If the ball is really close to the first down marker, the number of yards may be replaced by inches.
If someone says it’s “2nd and goal”, this means it’s second down and that the team has two options within their set of four downs – score a touchdown by crossing the goal line (entering the end zone) or kick the ball for a field goal.
When an offensive penalty is committed, the down will be replayed but the offensive team will get backed up, requiring more yardage to be gained for a first down. When a defensive penalty is committed, the yardage the offensive team has to gain for a new set of four downs decreases.
Some defensive penalties such as holding, pass interference and roughing the passer award the offensive team with a new set of four downs.
If a team doesn’t earn a new set of downs, they’ll likely punt the ball or kick the ball for a field goal on fourth down. Field position dictates which option a team chooses.
A team may elect to go for it on fourth down if only a yard or two is needed for a first down, the team is near the goal line/end zone or if the team is deep into the opponent’s side of the field.
Teams will rarely elect to go for it on fourth down when the ball is on their side of the field because turning the ball over would result in a prime scoring opportunity for the other team.
To move the ball down the field and earn a new set of four downs, teams can either run or pass the ball 10 yards. Both options have their merits and the correct option usually depends on the distance of the first down. Teams will gain a first down every 10 yards they progress within their set of downs until they’re within 10 yards of the goal line.
When watching American football on TV, the yellow lines denote how far the offensive team needs to go to earn a first down. These lines are pretty accurate but aren’t official.
The first down marker is the official spot a team needs to reach to earn a new set of four downs. If a player is downed near the first down marker, the chain crew may come out to determine if a first down was earned.
What Is a Chain Crew in American Football?
First downs are located 10 yards away from the spot of the ball at the beginning of each set of downs. When a first down is earned, the next first down is located 10 yards away from that spot.
There are two rods/sticks on the sidelines that give players a visual representation of the line of scrimmage and the first down location.
These sticks are usually orange so they can be easily identified by players. The sticks are also connected by a 10-yard chain, which indicates the number of yards needed to obtain a first down. The group that is responsible for manning these sticks is called the “chain crew” or “chain gang”.
The chain crew is typically composed of three members. Two of the members hold the sticks and are called the “rod men”. One of these rod men is known as the “rear rod” and holds the stick where the set of downs began.
The rear rod stays stationary until a first down is earned or possession changes.
The other rodman holds the stick 10 yards from where the set of downs began. Like the first rod man, he doesn’t move unless a first down is earned or possession changes.
The third member of the chain crew is the “box man” and their job is to hold a marker at the line of scrimmage that indicates the current down. Each play, the box man moves to the line of scrimmage and adjusts the marker to the current down by adjusting the marker’s side lever.
When needed, the crew will come onto the field and assist the referees with measurements when the ball is downed near the first down stick. The crew doesn’t make any calls themselves but will move as needed based on the referee’s decisions.
What Is Down by Contact?
Down by contact occurs when the player with the ball is touched by the opposing team and then makes contact with the ground with any body part other than their hands or feet. A runner can use their hands to touch the ground for balance purposes.
If a runner is contacted by the opposing team and touches the ground in the aforementioned way, the runner is down at that spot. Runners who make contact with the ground but aren’t touched by the defending team aren’t down by contact.
Players are also down by contact if forward progress is declared. Referees might blow the play dead if a runner is tied up by a defender(s) and is no longer gaining yardage.
Quarterbacks are also considered down by contact when they take a knee behind the line of scrimmage. The same goes for players who give themselves up by sliding. In both these instances, the ball is down where the player first made contact with the ground.
Football Clock Management 101
There’s a lot of strategy that goes into play calling. Coaches have to weigh the current down, how far away the first down is and the strengths and weaknesses of their team, as well as the defensive team.
Running the ball is effective if a team is trying to gain a couple of yards for a last-second field goal or is trying to run out the clock. Run plays are also called more often in short-yardage situations.
Passing plays are more likely to be called when there’s little time on the clock and the offensive team needs to move far downfield. Pass plays are also great for picking up yardage while managing the clock.
Balls can be quickly thrown to receivers near the sidelines to limit the amount of time that runs off the clock. Receivers can do this by running out of bounds shortly after catching the ball.
Quarterbacks may also down themselves by taking a knee behind the line of scrimmage to keep the clock running. You will often see this in the NFL when a team is ahead and the other team doesn’t have enough timeouts to prevent the game from ending.
Additionally, quarterbacks can spike the ball to kill the clock. You will often see this in the NFL when a team is rushing to the line and there are only a couple seconds left in the game. The purpose of spiking the ball is usually to set up for a last-second field goal or one last pass.