The Basics : Game Play

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Today, it’s all about game play.

And game play all starts with the kickoff.

Two things can happen here:

Kickoffs occur at the beginning of every new possession (excluding turnovers, when the ball is played from the spot where the turnover ended). You might hear a new possession being called a new “drive” – they’re the same thing.

The ball is placed on a tee on the Defense’s 30-yard line, and a Placekicker (not the other Kicker, who kicks field goals and extra points) kicks the ball to the awaiting Offense. Of note: the Offensive players on the field at this time are part of the Special Teams Unit, and they may or may not also play for the Offensive Unit. (Example: The Chicago Bears’ Devin Hester is the best Special Teams returner in the league, but they’ve also tried to utilize him in their Offense as a Wide Receiver.) Wherever the returner (“return man”) is stopped is where the Offense begins their drive.


If the ball is caught in the Offensive team’s end zone, the player who caught it can either try to run it out of the end zone and get as much yardage as possible before being tackled or he can chose to kneel down in the end zone, an action called a “touchback.” This results in the ball being placed on the Offense’s 20-yard line.

Next, downs!

Once the Offense starts their drive, they have FOUR chances, called “downs,” to move the ball 10 yards from where they started (this place is called “the line of scrimmage”).

Each play is then calculated by what chance (down) the Offense is on and how many yards they have left until they reach 10 yards total.

Once they reach or exceed the 10 yards in one set of downs, they get a new set – four more chances to move the ball 10 more yards.

[Example: On the first play, the quarterback hands the ball off to the running back, who runs three yards past the line of scrimmage. When the teams line up for the next play, the count will be “Second Down and Seven” because it’s their second chance and they have seven yards left to go to get to ten yards total.]

Third down is when life gets tense. Let’s say it’s 3rd and 3 – meaning that it’s the third chance and they have 3 yards left to go to get to 10 total – and the ball is on the Defense’s 30-yard line. The Offense runs a play but only gets 2 yards instead of the 3 they need for a new set of downs. It’s now 4th and 1. (The time when hairs turn gray.) The Offense has three options:

1. “Go for it” on 4th down and try to get the one yard they need. However, if they don’t get the yard, they turn the ball over to the Defense right where it is on the field, which would put the Defense in excellent position for the next drive.

2. Try a field goal. The field goal counts as a play, which counts as the 4th down. It would be a long shot because about 17 yards are added to the total distance (to account for the 10 yards of the end zone and 7 yards to the line of scrimmage – don’t worry about any of that). If the Kicker makes the field goal, awesome. If not, the other team gets the ball at the line of scrimmage.

3. Punt the ball. This means that they’re just kicking it off from where the ball currently is and the other team returns it.

So to review: plays occur in a set of four downs that repeat until the end result is a score, a punt, or a turnover.

Luckily, because of the magic of technology, figuring out this whole “down” situation is easier than ever. There is usually a bright electronic line drawn on the field that signifies how far a team has to go until they earn 10 yards and a new set of downs. Not that you need any help from technology, since you are well on your way to becoming a Football Knowledge All Star.