Silver Chips Online

Football for fools

A guide to American football

By Anshul Sood, Online Sports Editor
February 3, 2008
Whether or not you enjoy football, you've definitely heard of the Super Bowl, the biggest sporting event in America. Here you won't find a preview of the game, but instead a guide to the basics of football so you won't be in the dark while the rest of the nation is glued to big-screen televisions.

There are two ways to advance the ball: the run and the pass.

The Run

The run is when the quarterback hands the ball off to a running back, who carries the ball forward as far as he can before being tackled. Quarterbacks and receivers are also allowed to run the ball. However, if the runner loses possession of the football before he is considered tackled or "down" (usually when his knee hits the ground), it is considered a fumble. A fumbled ball is a "live" ball that any player may pick up. If a defender picks it up and retains possession of it until he is tackled, the ball is turned over from the offense to the defense.

The Pass

The other method of moving the ball is passing it, usually via the quarterback. The ball may only be thrown forward once per play and the player must be behind the line of scrimmage when he throws the ball. If the ball is caught by a receiver or tight end, or in some cases a running back, before the football hits the ground, the pass is considered complete. After a complete pass, the receiver is the ball carrier and basically becomes a runner as mentioned above. If the ball hits the ground before being caught or is caught by a player who is out of bounds at the time, it is considered an incomplete pass and the play is dead without movement of the ball. If a defender catches a pass instead of a receiver, it is an interception and the defender may run the ball towards his end zone. After he is tackled, the defense now has possession of the ball.

Backward passes or "laterals" may be executed as many times as necessary. A lateral is a pass is not thrown forward but laterally, or backwards. Laterals can occur beyond the line of scrimmage between any two players. A completed lateral does not mean the team cannot pass the ball that play, but the pass must still originate from behind the line of scrimmage. However, if a lateral hits the ground, it is not an incomplete pass. The ball is still live and the rules of a fumble apply.

The only way to win a football game is to score more points than the opponent. There are three ways in which a team can score and each way gives a different amount of points. After each score, the scoring team kicks off to the other team, except for a safety.

Touchdowns: six points

The best way to score is through a touchdown. In a touchdown, the player with the ball crosses the goal line into the end zone towards which his team is progressing. The player himself does not have to cross, the ball only has to "break the plane of the goal line" while in his possession.

A touchdown results in six points, but also provides an opportunity for more. After a touchdown, the ball is placed two yards from the goal line. From here, the offense has one more play. They can kick a field goal (see below) to get one extra point or score another touchdown, but this time for two extra points. If the ball is turned over during this extra attempt, the play is ruled dead and the defense cannot advance the ball.

Field Goals: three points

A field goal involves the offense kicking the ball through the uprights of the goalposts at the ends of the fields. To kick a field goal, the ball is snapped seven yards to a holder, who is on his knees. The holder places the ball's tip on the ground so it is vertical. The kicker is a few steps behind the holder. The kicker then runs up and tries to kick the ball through the uprights. If it goes through, then the team is awarded three points.

The defense may try to block a field goal, though it is difficult because on a field goal the kicking team usually lines up with nine offensive linemen and a field goal kick occurs in a very short time. There is not usually enough time for the defense to get passed the offensive line to block the kick. A blocked kick is a live ball and the rules of a fumble apply. Punts may also be blocked and the same rules of a live ball apply.

Safeties: two points

The last way to score is on defense. When an offensive player with the ball is tackled inside his own end zone or steps out the back of his own end zone, then a safety is called. A safety awards the defensive team with two points, in addition to possession of the ball. After a safety, the offensive team must punt the ball from their own 30-yard line to the defensive team, where the rules of a kickoff apply.

With so many more complex rules to the game, official referees throw a yellow flag onto the field when a penalty occurs. Because there are so many penalties, only a few of the most comm will be discussed here.

False Start

A false start is when an offensive player, particularly an offensive linemen or tight end, makes a jerk or movement after lining up but prior to the ball being snapped. The ball is moved back five yards, but the down remains the same and the same team maintains possession.


An offsides penalty is called when a defensive player crosses the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped. However, if a defensive player jumped offsides due to a false start on the offense, the false start is called not the offsides. Offsides results in a gain of five yards for the offense. This penalty may result in a first down for the offense if it boosts them to beyond the needed 10 yards.

Pass Interference

A pass interference is called when a player restricts another player from catching a ball while it is in the air. This may be from the player holding another player's arm or tackling the opposition before he catches the ball. If a defender commits pass interference, the ball is placed at the yard line where the foul occurred and the offense is granted an automatic first down. If an offensive player commits pass interference, then the ball is moved back 10 yards but the down remains the same.


Each player's helmet has a facemask on it that is off-limits to other players. If he does, a facemask penalty is called. If the player inadvertently grabbed the facemask, then the penalty is only five yards. But if the player grabbed and pulled on the facemask, the penalty is 15 yards. Both offensive and defensive players can be called for these penalties.