'American football in Tel-Aviv, Israel' photo (c) 2008, RonAlmog - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Love it or hate it, football is a part of every American.  From the high school stadium, to the college tailgates and Superbowl parties, it is embedded in our culture.  Learning the basics and some of the intricacies of the sport can make it more enjoyable and can help you feel welcome in an overwhelming, amped up environment.  Rules, players, coaches, strategy, and talking points are summarized and explained below. 

BASIC OBJECTIVE: Run ball into opponent’s end zone and kickball through uprights to score more points than opposing team.

POINTS: 6 points for running ball into end zone with a chance from the 2 or 3 yard line for either one extra point by kicking ball through goal posts or 2 extra points for running it into end zone (2-point-conversion).  Teams get 3 points for kicking a ball through goal posts any other time.  2 points for the defensive team if ball dies (down ends) in offensive team’s end zone (scoring this way is called a safety).

BASIC SET UP: 2 teams of 11 players on a field that is around 120 yards long and 53.3 yards wide with 10 yard end zones and goal posts at either end.

DURATION: Four 15 minute quarters totaling one hour of active play. However, due to clock stoppages for various time-outs, out-of-bounds, penalties, challenges to rulings, and possession changes, the game usually lasts well over 3 hours.


  • The team in possession has four chances (called downs) to advance the ball at least 10 yards down the field.
  • A down ends when player with ball is tackled (knee touches ground) or run out of bounds (ball or player touches or goes over sideline). The ball is placed where the last down ended.  A down also ends when the ball is thrown out of bounds or a pass hits the ground before being touched. In those cases, the ball starts at the previous line of scrimmage.
  • They keep going until they do not make at least 10 yards in 4 downs, in which case the other team gains possession.
  • They may move the ball by running with the ball or by throwing it.  The offense can only throw it forward once per down and it must be done behind the line of scrimmage.  They may, however, throw the ball laterally or backwards an unlimited number of times in a down.
  • The line of scrimmage is where the ball is placed at the beginning of a down and where the two teams line up against each other.  If a player moves over line of scrimmage before the snap, a penalty is called.
  • The ref will throw a flag if they see a penalty, and then their hat if they see another.
  • Offensively, players cannot hold another player while blocking, shove off of a defensive player, move offsides,
  • Defensively, players cannot interfere with a pass (mess with receiver before ball arrives), rough the passer (hit, tackle, player after he released the ball), roughing the kicker (hitting kicker while leg is still in the air), spear a player (hit by driving his head into player), pulling face mask, or move offsides.
  • If a penalty is called, yards are either advanced or detracted from line of scrimmage.  Sometimes, a team will deny a penalty because the advantage is better in accepting the outcome of the down (for instance, if a defensive holding foul is called, which is a five yard penalty, but the offense threw a pass resulting in a 20 yard gain, the offense would opt to


  • National Football League (NFL)- truthfully, the only one that really matters.  Is broken into eastern and western conferences.
  • Canadian Football League (CFL)


  • Past- Jim Brown, Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, Dick Butkis, Joe Namath, Ronnie Lott, Red Grange, Emmitt Smith,
    Ray Lewis, Barry Sanders, Joe Greene, Reggie White, Johnny Unitas,
  • Present-  Offensive: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Eli Manning,  Tony Romo, Joe Flacco, Arian Foster, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Calvin Johnson, Matt Forte, Jamaal Charles, Andre Johnson, Jimmy Graham, Larry Fitzgerald, Rob Gronkowski, Julio Jones, Roddy White, Adrian Peterson, Antonio Gates Defensive: Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, Champ Bailey, Julius Peppers, Justin Tuck, Justin Smith, Brian Orakpo, Demarcus Ware, Darrelle Revis, Ed Reed, Ndamukong Suh, Brian Urlacher, Patrick Willis, Clay Matthews, Troy Palamalu, Charles Woodsen


  • Coaches: George Halas, Vince Lombardi, Nick Saban, Don Shula, Chuck Noll, John Madden, Bill Walsh, Paul Bear Bryant, Bill Belichick
  • NFL Commissioner: Roger Goodell


  1. Offensive Line- These guys are relatively easy to identify.  They are pretty much always the five guys lined up on the line of scrimmage.  The center (C) is on the football and snaps it back to QB.On either side of him are the right and left guards (RG, LG) who block the defensive line from getting to the QB. They don’t touch the ball.Outside of the guards are the right and left tackles (RT, LT) who act as a barrier to ball carriers and also don’t touch the ball.
  2. Tight Ends– Line up on offensive line. They look muscular and stocky. They can carry the ball or act like linemen and block for those behind them.
  3. Wide Receivers- Line up on sidelines. They specialize in catching passes and running them down the field. Sometimes they block for other offensive players near them.
  4. Running Backs- Line up behind offensive line somewhere near quarter back. Depending on the play, there could be 1-3 of these players on the field. When this is the case the positions are further distinguished. The one running with the ball is generally the halfback (aka tailback). The one who generally blocks is the fullback.
  5. Quarter Back- Lines up behind center. After he receives the ball, he will hand it off, pass it, run it, or get tackled. He’s calling the plays and reading them in action so he takes a lot of responsibility in a team’s success or failure.
  1. Defensive Linemen- Line up opposite offensive line. 3-6 players who try to occupy offensive line so that linebackers can get through and tackle.
  2. Linebackers- Line up behind defensive line. They may rush quarterbacks, tackle running backs and tight ends, or cover receivers.
  3. Defensive Backs- Line up deeper than linebackers as last line of defense. They are further classified into cornerbacks and safeties. They cover receivers and try to stop completions.  Cornerbacks are usually short, quick, and agile. Safeties line up about 10-15 yards behind line of scrimmage in front of tight end (if they’re strong safety, as in strong side) or somewhat behind the play with an eye on the quarterback and long pass (if they’re free safety.)
  • SPECIAL TEAMS: punters,  kickers, snappers, holders, and returners. Mostly self explanatory there.


*Note: there are gazillions of plays that players memorize, rehearse, and execute both offensively and defensively. This is why football players hate their sport. We don’t have to memorize them, but there are a few basic line ups that are helpful to recognize because they’re so commonly used, and you can anticipate their aim.

No matter what, 7 offensive players must line up on the line of scrimmage. The rest can be anywhere. These are just a few examples of lineups you’ll see variations of in most games.

Pro-Set has many options, I-formation allows running back to carry with lots of coverage, Wishbone gives a tricky triple option, and Shotgun allows QB a secure pocket to find an open receiver.

  • Pro Set: common base line up.  Features wide receivers on each outside wing, and namely two running backs lined up side by side behind quarter back.  This is good because it’s difficult for a defense to read where the ball will be played, and therefore spreads the defense.
  • I-formation: Just like Pro Set, but the running backs line up one behind the other.  This way, the deepest running back is more protected, has a screen or a dummy in front of him, and can run the ball forward.
  • Wishbone:  Standard offensive line with either 1 or 2 tight ends and wide receivers. Wishbone gets its name because there are three running backs behind the QB. One stands directly behind him, and the two others are just off to that running back’s sides. It looks on paper like a wishbone…kinda.
  • Shotgun: a little vulnerable, and more offensive line up.  Three wide receivers, the traditional 5 offensive linemen plus a tight end, a quarter back, and a running back of some sort. Teams are likely looking to throw the ball.


  • Rushing: running with the ball
  • Blitz: defense tackles quarterback
  • Touchback: when the ball goes out-of-bounds in opponent’s end zone (commonly seen in kickoffs when the kicker punts the ball into or out of the end zone.
  • Double Option/Triple Option: when a defensive player must make a choice between covering two/three offensive players who may have the ball.
  • Clipping: a penalty. when a defensive player tackles an offensive player below the waist from behind.
  • Safety: 2 points scored by defensive team when offensive team loses ball in their own end zone.


  • Well timed pass, great catch, awesome defense (if they’re not giving up yardage or are covering passes well), great tackle, nice footwork, etc…
  • Playing more offensive/defensive: see formations. The more men in the offensive line, the more defensively they’re playing.
  • Things you can yell at the ref for: complete/incomplete passes when a player maybe had ball (these are commonly   debatable calls), calling too many penalties, favoring one side (if he is), looking stupid.
  • Anything you notice about how a team is playing really.  If you watch the game and observe critically, you can’t go too wrong.


  • “Touchdown….Called it.” Again, calling something as it’s happening is no great feat.
  • Criticizing players/coaches on your team for strategy.  For some reason football fans are the worst at this.  Support your team and recognize their prowess. You are no way a superior strategist or athlete to anyone on that field, and they’re playing for you.  Be sure to support them to the end.
  • Anything the announcer just said.
  • Please refer to general guidelines of what not to say during sports.


  • Strategy: Though it’s difficult to weed through and recognize sometimes, the game is all about strategy.  Each play requires in depth knowledge of roles, positions, and plays and awareness of a changing field.
  • Highlights! They have some of the most exciting highlights.  In those few seconds between the snap and the stoppage, some of the world’s top athletes are showing off their incredible bursts of strength and athleticism.  Just watch them jump.
  • Muscles: Select positions are like pictures from an anatomy textbook.  These guys are unbelievably fit.
  • Entertainment and hype: football is more and more about entertainment value and commercialism.  As a result, flashing lights, outrageous halftimes, funny commercials, and dazzling promotions vie for our attention. And that’s kinda fun.
  • Touch down celebrations: these are always good to pull out when you need to announce your own victory.