Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland

What is American Football?


Football is an explosive game which is great to both play and watch. Even if you are a newcomer to the sport of American football, by following these five simple golden rules you can understand the basics of this great game.

The Basics

  • Teams score 6 points for a touchdown, 3 points for a field goal and, after a touchdown, can kick for one extra point or pass or run for two extra points.
  • Teams advance the ball down the field in a series of set-piece plays (called ‘downs’). The play ends when the ball-carrier is tackled to the ground, goes out of bounds, or if a forward pass hits the ground.
  • Teams have to gain at least 10 yards in 4 plays to keep possession and earn a new set of 4 downs. If a team gains 4 yards on its first down, they would then be facing 2nd and 6 (2nd down and 6 yards to go to make the required 10).
  • On each play teams can choose to run (by handing the ball off to a running back) or pass (the quarterback throws to a receiver). On fourth down teams will usually try to kick a field goal or punt the ball away if they don’t think that they can gain enough yards for a first down. Otherwise, they have to surrender possession of the ball to the opposition at the place of the end of the play.
  • Players on the offensive team (the team with the ball) can protect the player with the ball by blocking opposing tacklers. Defenders can use their hands to push or pull opponents out of the way to get to the ball carrier. Only the ball carrier can actually be tackled and pulled to the ground.

Key rules on passing plays:

  • There may only be one forward pass per play
  • A forward pass cannot be thrown once the ball has gone forward of its starting spot.
  • Team mates are allowed to block opposing defenders to protect the quarterback but cannot grasp with their hands or encircle with their arms.
  • Defenders can try to disrupt receivers with open hands (put not hold them) until the ball is thrown. After this any intentional contact is deemed illegal and will result in a ‘pass interference’ penalty.
  • Defenders can also attempt to catch the ball themselves. This is call an ‘interception’.
  • Receivers must have control of the football and get at least one foot in the field of play to have completed a ‘catch’.

Key rules on running plays:

  • A player running with the ball can complete as many backward passes (as in rugby) as they like, although this is considered risky as, unlike rugby, players not in possession of the ball can be blocked.
  • Team mates are allowed to block opposing defenders to create running lanes for a ball carrier. However, they cannot block defenders in the back or from behind.
  • When a quarterback runs beyond the line of scrimmage (the start point of the ball) it is considered a running play and they can no longer throw a forward pass.

For the non-contact version of the game, there are no kicking plays and players are not allowed to block opponents. To make a tackle, a ‘flag’ is pulled from the ball carriers belt.

Learn more about the game, the players, the positions, with NFL360, part of the Locker Room activities on the home page.


End zone – the end zone is a 10-yard section stretching the width of the field at both ends of the playing field. A player entering the end zone whilst in possession of the football scores a touchdown, as does a player who catches the ball from a forward pass whilst in the end zone.

Fumbles and incomplete passes – a fumble occurs when the ball carrier or a passer drops the ball on the ground. Any player can recover the ball by diving on it or they can pick it up and run with it. The team that recovers the fumble gets possession of the football. It is not a fumble when a pass receiver drops a catch. This is called an ‘incomplete pass’. A fumble only occurs when the ball is dropped after the player has gained full control of the football.

Interception – an aggressive defense can regain possession of the ball for their offense by catching (intercepting) passes meant for players on the other team

Fumble recoveries and interceptions (known as turnovers) can be run back into the opposing team’s end zone for touchdowns.

Line of scrimmage - an imaginary line crossing the width of the field, beyond which a team cannot cross until the next play has begun. Its location is based on the spot where the ball is placed after the end of the most recent play.

Touchdown – the act of scoring in the end zone, either via running into end zone or by catching the ball whilst in the end zone.