The Complete Beginners Guide To American Football

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: February 12, 2024

American football is a team sport played on a rectangular grass or turf surface called a football field. There are a total of 22 players on the field at all times.

These players make contact with each other to tackle the player with the football. American football is more than physical contact and big hits in organized chaos.

As one of the more complicated sports globally, American football has many rules, positions, and equipment that make it unique.

In this article, we will break down American football and how the game is played.

American Football Equipment

Every football player, by rule, must wear the proper equipment to play. The referees check the equipment before the game to ensure the player has the necessary pads to meet the guidelines.

These are the mandatory pieces of equipment that all players must wear during a football game.

Helmet

Football Helmet - Learn American Football

The first and most noticeable piece of equipment is the helmet. The hard plastic helmet is a word to protect the face and skull from hard hits.

Helmets are worn to fit the player’s head, and the facemask is often adjusted based on the player’s position. For example, wide receivers need more of an open-face mask to catch the football.

On the other hand, the offensive lineman will have a closed-style face mask to protect their face from hands and fingers.

Before helmets, football players used to wear leather caps. These leather caps did not protect against impact, often resulting in players dying on the field.

The facemask then revolutionized how players protected their faces.

Discover the evolution of player safety in our exploration of Football Face Mask Innovation.

From traditional designs to cutting-edge technologies, this article showcases the advancements in face mask engineering.

Shoulder Pads

Shoulder Pads - Learn American Football

Shoulder pads are another noticeable piece of equipment for a football player. The shoulder pads are a hard piece of plastic that secures tightly underneath the armpits.

Shoulder pads help protect the shoulders, as well as the breastplate. These pads help protect against any contact made at the chest cavity and below the neck.

Girdle

The girdle is worn under the game pants to protect these areas starting with the hips and tailbone. The girdle holds three pads: 2 hip pads and a tailbone pad. These girdles are specially designed to help protect both hips and the tailbone.

Players used to have to put their pads in a girdle. However, most common girdles have pads that are pre-built in them.

Girdles help reduce direct impact hits on both the hip and tail bones.

Pants With Pads

Football game pants - learn American football

Over the girdle, football pants are worn with slots for pads to be placed. Inside of the pants, thigh pads and knee pads are placed.

Thigh pads are often thick, bulky pads that help absorb direct impact from other players. The knee pads are also worn to protect players from contact with the knee area.

Football Cleats

Football game cleats - learn American football

While cleats aren’t mandatory for players to play football, they’re highly encouraged. Surfaces like turf and grass can be slippery as the weather changes throughout a football season.

Football cleats help secure traction into the ground as players maneuver around the football field.

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Uniform Numbers

Over-the-shoulder pads and football jerseys are worn on game day. These football jerseys are made of a soft nylon material with numbers on the front and back.

Football numbers are essential, as players must fall into a certain number page based on their position. This helps the referees determine who can catch the football and who can’t.

Here are the rulings for football numbers:

  • 1-19: Quarterback, Kicker, Punter, Wide Receiver, Running Back
  • 20-29: Running Back, Cornerback, Safety
  • 30-39: Running Back, Cornerback, Safety
  • 40-49: Running Back, Tight End, Cornerback, Safety
  • 50-59: Offensive Line, Defensive Line, Linebacker
  • 60-69: Offensive Line, Defensive Line
  • 70-79: Offensive Line, Defensive Line
  • 80-89: Wide Receiver, Tight End
  • 90-99: Defensive Line, Linebacker

Field Dimensions

The football field is played on grass or turf surfaces, measured in yards. Below is a complete diagram of how a football field measures out.

Football Field
Field DimensionsYards
Length Of Full Field120
Distance From End Zone To End Zone100
Wide Of Field53.3
Size Of Each End Zone10

The small lines above the numbers that extend the field’s length are called hash marks. These hash marks get closer together the older the player gets. For younger players, they are set at 17.8 yards apart from the sideline.

The distance between end zone to end zone will consistently stay at 100 yards, no matter what level.

Rules Of The Game

Football is one of the more complicated sports because it has 22 players and a complex set of rules.

The game is broken up into four quarters. The time of the quarters depends on what league you’re playing. In the NFL, they use 15-minute quarters.

American football has 3 phases, offense, defense, and special teams. The offense is in charge of scoring touchdowns and field goals. The defense ensures the offense doesn’t score, and special teams are used to change field positions.

Each team has four chances to get 10 yards. These “chances” are also called “downs.” The offense must get 10 yards to get a new set of downs. The offense will repeat this process until they score points.

The defense must make a tackle by putting the offensive player on the ground. This is how all plays end, with a tackle.

A tackle is counted by getting the player who has the ball to the ground or their knees. Once a tackle is made, the referee will blow the whistle for the play to end.

The play ends when:

  • The player running with the football is tackled
  • One team scores
  • The player running with the football steps out of bounds
  • The quarterback throws an incomplete pass
  • A touchback occurs

If the offense fails to get 10 yards on the four downs, they will give the ball to the other team and try to defend against their offense.

Football is all about strategy, ensuring each down has its own strategy. For instance, football coaches will plan for down and distances:

  • 1st and 10
  • 2nd and 8
  • 3rd and 3
  • 4th and 1

When watching football, it’s important to look at the down and the distance to determine what play the coach may call. Football players will try to score a touchdown on every play.

Penalties In American Football

To keep the game fair, the referees will keep track of the clock, blow the whistle when a player is tackled, and throw a penalty flag if there are any penalties.

Each referee can throw a yellow flag on the ground, which signals that the referee has identified a penalty. After the play is over, the referee will call the penalty and assess the result. Penalties often result in negative yards for the offense or defense.

For example, if the offense gets a 5-yard penalty instead of 1st and 10, it will be 1st and 15. Football is a game of mistakes, and the team that often gets the least amount of penalties will usually win the game.

Penalties on defense are pretty standard. The defense must not grab, hold, or grab any part of the opponent’s facemask. If they do, it will result in a penalty, and a flag will be thrown.

Offensive penalties are similar to defensive penalties. The basis of penalties is to ensure no offensive or defensive player can gain any advantage by grabbing or holding a defender, lining up in the proper spots, and ensuring no unnecessary roughness.

Here is a list of common defensive and offensive penalties:

Blocking Below The Waist: An illegal block made below the waistline.

Block In The Back: All blocks in football must be made from the front.

Chop Block: Occurs when one player is blocking high, then another player blocks low, causing the player to fall.

Clipping: Blocking a player below the waist and from behind

Delay Of Game: When one play ends, another one starts. Offenses need to snap the ball before the play clock expires

See the difference between encroachment, offsides, and neutral zone infractions.

Holding: Grabbing another player’s jersey to block them or restrict them from catching the football.

Pass Interference: Restricting the offensive or defensive player from catching the football.

Roughing The Passer/Kicker: Contact the quarterback/kicker/punter after the ball leaves its hand or foot.

Unsportsmanlike Conduct: This is called when a player is endangering another player or taunting the opponent.

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Scoring In American Football

A touchdown is scored by crossing the goal line. The goal line is the thick white stripe at the start of the end zone. If an offensive player successfully scores a touchdown, they will be awarded points.

The main goal of the offense is to score a touchdown. The scoring in football is broken down into points. Here is a list of all the ways an offense and defense can score points:

PointsNameScoring Definition
6TouchdownWhen a player running with the football crosses the goal line, they will be awarded 6 points
1Extra Point (After A Touchdown)After a touchdown is scored, the offense can kick a field goal for 1 point.
2Two-Point ConversionAfter scoring a touchdown, the offense can run another play for 2 points.
3Field GoalInstead of scoring a touchdown, the offense can kick the ball through the field goal posts for 3 points.
2SafetyAfter scoring a touchdown, the team can run another play for 2 points.

Positions In American Football

Each team has 11 players on the field at all times. Each player on the field ranges from larger, taller players to smaller, faster players.

Quarterback

The quarterback is one of the most important players on the field. They are the player that lines up directly behind the center.

The quarterback will hand the ball off to another player or throw the ball down the field. This player needs to handle pressure, as all 11 players on the defense will tackle him.

NFL quarterbacks include players like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers.

Running Back

The running backs are often aligned directly behind the quarterback. This player’s primary responsibility is to run the football.

running back american football
via palpinmedia

Running backs often get tackled a lot and require physical and mental toughness. They must run in the middle, where all the bigger players are, and the outside, where the speedy defensive players are.

NFL running backs include Ezekiel Elliot, Christian McCaffery, and Alvin Kamara.

Wide Receiver

Wide receivers are players that line up wide to the outside. These players are responsible for catching a football thrown by the quarterbacks.

wide receivers american foootball

In today’s game, teams often throw the football 50+ times. This means wide receivers need to be fast and have good hands. Wide receivers are often taller, faster players that can track down the football thrown by the quarterback.

Wide receivers in the NFL include Julio Jones, Larry Fitzgerald, and Odell Beckham Jr.

Tight End

Tight ends are a mix between an offensive lineman and a wide receiver. The tight end is big enough to play offensive line and has the athleticism of a wide receiver.

These players often block but can also catch passes in a run play. They are used strategically by each coach.

Popular tight ends in the NFL are Travis Kelce, Rob Gronkowski, and George Kittle.

Offensive Line

The offensive line is equally as important as the quarterback. Offensive linemen protect the quarterback and block defensive players for the running backs.

These players are often the largest players on the field. The offensive line is made up of 5 players, the center, two offensive guards, and two offensive tackles.

Popular offensive linemen in the NFL are Trent Brown, Tyrone Smith, and Lane Johnson.

The defense is responsible for stopping the offense. Not only does it take tough players, but it also takes discipline and hard-working players to execute a defensive game plan.

Defensive Line

Like the offensive line, the defensive line is the biggest player on the defense. Their responsibility is to stop the run and attack the quarterback when he drops back to pass.

Contact from a defensive lineman happens as soon as the ball is snapped, so they must be quick to react and play physically.

NFL defensive linemen include Von Miller, Joey Bosa, and Chandler Jones.

Linebackers

Linebackers in the NFL are often the toughest players on the field. They are the defense captains responsible for calling out the defensive plays.

They are also responsible for tackling running backs when they run and covering receivers and tight ends when the offense passes.

Popular linebackers in the NFL include Sean Lee, Bobby Wagner, and Dont’a Hightower.

Defensive Backs

The last defensive position is the defensive back. These players are often the fastest on the field because they need to cover the speedy wide receivers.

Defensive backs are often the most athletic, as they need to work backward, forwards, and side to side.

Popular defensive backs in the NFL are Jamal Adams, Joe Haden & Stephon Gilmore.

Special Teams

The 3rd and final part of the game is the special teams. Special teams control field position and score 3 points with a field goal.

Kickoff

Every game starts with a kickoff. The kickoff is when a player puts the ball on a tee and kicks it as far as possible.

The kickoff receiving team will catch the football and run it back as far as possible. After the player is tackled, both the offense and defense will come onto the field.

Punt

The first special teams unit is the punt team. Teams will elect to punt the football to change field position.

For example, if the offense is in a situation where it is 4th down, instead of trying to get the first down, they will punt the football. Punting the football is when a player holds the football in their hand and kicks the ball as far as possible.

Field Goal

There are large yellow field goalposts at the end of each football field. A team can line up to kick a field goal worth 3 points.

The process includes a player holding the football, placing it on a tee or the ground, and another player kicking the football. Field goals are often kicked on 4th down or at the end of a game.

How Many American Football Leagues Exist?

In America, there are four main American football leagues for all ages.

National Football League

The most popular league in the world is the National Football League (also known as the NFL).

The NFL has 32 teams that compete to win the Super Bowl at the end of the year.

College Football

Widely popular in America, college football is played on Saturday and has some of the oldest rivalries to date. College football typically draws crowds of over 60,000+, the largest being 110,000.

College football is played between college students who are 18-22 years old.

High School Football

High school football is played on Friday nights and features high school students aged 14-18. These players play under the lights, which bred the term “Friday Night Lights” to be popular.

Students who stand out on the football field as a high school player will be recruited to play college football.

Youth Football

Youth football draws players who are 7-12 years old. These leagues may range from flag football leagues to full contact. It all depends on the town and what they offer.

Youth football is all about teaching kids how to play the game safely and ultimately fall in love with it as they get to high school.

Frequently Asked Questions

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Guide To American Football Recap

Learn more about football rules in the articles below.

How Long Is a Football Field? Field Dimensions Explained

How Many Points Is A Touchdown Worth In Football?

How Many Football Players On A Football Team? Learn The Players

Football can be a complicated sport when trying to digest it all at once. We recommend focusing on the offense, defense, and special teams to start. Once you begin to understand the format of the game, then try to learn the positions.

These rules apply to NFL levels, college football, high school football, and youth football.

Football is a fast-paced sport that involves both strategy and speed to score points.

Let’s keep learning! Our learning center is packed with information regarding techniques, schemes, and more!

If you’re looking for more in-depth breakdowns & coaching resources, visit our coaching resource page here.

About the author 

Chris Haddad

Chris Haddad is the founder of vIQtory Sports & high school coach for over 12+ years. He has been featured as an authority on Hudl, Bleacher Report and countless other football-centric platforms. Chris continues to study and provide valuable content for those looking to learn more about the game of football.

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