Rules Of American Football – Beginners Guide

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: March 6, 2024

American football can be a complicated game for those unfamiliar with it. In this article, we’ll show you everything you need to know, including the rules of American Football.

By the end of this article, you will better understand and watch football on TV with no confusion or misunderstanding of the game. Whether you’re watching an NFL game or a college football game, these rules will help.

Let’s get started.

American Football Rules

Before we talk about the rules, first, we need to show you the playing surface that football players play on.

Football games are played on grass or artificial turf surfaces. This all depends on what the athletic administration decides to play on. There are no requirements.

The Football Field

American football is played on a field that is 120 yards in length and 53.3 yards in width. This is standard for all American football fields, no matter if it’s professional or youth football.

The field measures 100 yards in length from one goal line to the other goal line. Each endzone is 10 yards, so from the back of the endzone to the other back of the endzone is 120 yards.

Football fields were first measured initially in feet. This means football fields were 360 feet by 160 feet.

The measurements were then converted to yards, which means all of the numbers got divided by 3 (3 feet in 1 yard). This is why it is 53.3 yards when talking about the width.

Players On The Field

There are 22 football players on the field at all times. 11 on the offense and 11 on the defense. Teams may choose to have fewer players but not have more than 11.

If any team has more than 11 players, it will result in a penalty.

Learn more about the individual players on the field and their positions here.

Coin Toss

Every game starts with a coin toss. Both teams will elect “captains” to meet at midfield with the referees. From here, the referee will flip a coin in the air.

The away team will call “heads” or “tails” while the coin is in the air. If it lands on the side that the away team called, they will decide what to do to start the game. The four options are:

  • Kick
  • Receive
  • Defer
  • Defend A Zone

The team that wins the coin toss will have the option to choose one of the four options.

Game Rules

Football is played in quarters. Professional and college teams will play 4, 15-minute quarters. In the middle of the game, there will be a halftime where the two teams will go back to their locker room to rest and strategize.

Youth and high school teams play 4, 12 minute quarters with a halftime as well.

At the end of the second quarter, teams will go to their locker room for halftime. This is a break in the game where players can rest and coaches can adjust.

The team with the winning score at the end of the four quarters will win the game.

Kickoff & Kick Return

One team will kick the football to start the game, and one team will receive the football. Whoever kicks to start the game will receive it at the start of the second half.

Kickoff teams are required to line up in a straight line, with the kicker in the middle. From here, the kicker will kick the ball off of a tee to the kick return team.

The kick return team will then try to return the ball for as many yards as possible.

Once the kick return team player is tackled, both the offense and defense will come on the field.

Downs In Football

American football rules are based on the offense successfully or unsuccessfully moving the ball past the 10-yard marker.

There will be chains and a down marker on the sideline that looks like this.

Offenses have four downs (opportunities) to move the ball 10 yards. If they successfully move the football 10 yards, they will have four more downs to move the ball another 10 yards. They repeat this until the ball crosses the goal line.

If the offense does not move the ball 10 yards in 4 downs, the other team’s offense will come on the field to try to score points.

Learn more about the downs in football here.

Moving The Football Down The Field

For the offense to move the football, they will either run or pass it.

Running the football is easier, as the quarterback will hand the ball off to another player. They will try to gain as many yards as possible before they are tackled.

The other option is to pass the football. This means the quarterback will throw the football through the air to another offensive player.

Each time a player runs or catches the football, they try to score a touchdown.

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Offensive Team Scoring

The offensive team will line up against the defending team and try to score in different ways. The offense is the attacking team in football and will try to win their team the game.

At the end of the game, the team with the most points wins. If the score is tied, they will go into overtime.

Below, we will show you how to score points in football.

Scoring A Touchdown

A touchdown in football is worth 6 points. Offenses in football will try to score as many touchdowns as possible while they have possession of the football. The main goal of football is to score touchdowns.

A player on the offense (or defense) must control the football and get the entire ball past the goal line to score a touchdown in football. The goal line is the thick white stripe at the endzone’s start.

When an offensive player crosses the goal line, the referee will put his hands in the air to signal a touchdown like this.

After a touchdown is scored, teams can kick a field goal or go for a two-point conversion.

It’s common to see a team kick a field goal, which means they will kick the ball off the ground and between the field goal post. The team that scored a touchdown will be awarded one point if successful.

Another option is for the offense to run another play. This is called a two-point conversion. If successful, the scoring team will be awarded two points.

The other way for an offense to score points in football is by kicking a field goal before they score a touchdown. If the offense kicks a successful field goal, it will be worth 3 points.

Scoring A Field Goal

If the offense moves the ball into the defense’s territory but runs into a situation where it’s fourth down, they may elect to kick a field goal.

A field goal before a touchdown is scored worth 3 points but only worth one point after a touchdown (as noted above).

A team may line up to kick a field goal at any point during the game. If the ball is successfully kicked through the uprights, the referee will put his hands in the air, signaling the attempt is good. Three points will be awarded to the kicking team.

These are the two ways that an offense can score points.

Defensive Team Scoring

While the defensive team is trying to prevent the offense from scoring a touchdown or a field goal, they can also score points for their team.


The defense can intercept the pass from the quarterback anytime the ball is in the air. If they successfully catch it, the defense’s offense will come on the field once their defensive player is tackled.

If the defensive player intercepts the ball and doesn’t get tackled, he can score 6 points for his team. This is also known as a pick 6.

Fumble Recovery

Teams who like to run the football may have the ball stripped or taken from a defensive player. When the ball is on the ground (or taken), the defense can pick it up and score a touchdown for six points. If they get tackled, then the offense will take the field.

This is known as a turnover.


A safety is a unique way to score points in football. It happens when the defense tackles a ball carrier in the offense’s own endzone.

The defense is awarded 2 points, and the other team will have to kick the ball to them on the kickoff.

If you want to learn more about the safety, we recommend you check out this article which covers scoring a safety.

Overtime Rules

In the rare case of a tie game, teams will go into overtime.

There are two overtimes in football for professional, college & high school teams.

Learn more about the overtime rules and view our complete library of rules here.

Penalties In Football

Football is organized chaos. Teams are physically battling each other for leverage and positioning. Tackles are being made and missed.

To keep players from being too aggressive, football has penalties. Penalties are identified in football by the yellow flags thrown on the ground. If the referee sees a penalty, they will throw their flag on the ground at any point in time.

Offensive Penalties

Most of the penalties you see during the game will be on offense. One of the more common penalties in football, on offense, is holding. This occurs when an offensive player holds the jersey or equipment and impedes the defensive player from making a tackle.

Learn more about legal and illegal blocks in football here.

Offensive players must also remain still until the ball is snapped. Only one player can move, but it will be a penalty if more than one player moves.

Here is a complete list of penalties and referee signals to help you learn more about offensive penalties.

Defensive Penalties

Regarding defensive penalties, most of the penalties are unnecessary roughness, not lining up correctly, or not allowing the offensive player a fair chance at catching the football.

One of the most common defensive penalties is pass interference. This means the defensive player prevented the offensive player from catching the football.

Players need to be able to line up properly not to get flagged; this means they need to line up on their side of the football and not go past the line of scrimmage.

Learn more about offsides, neutral zone infractions, and encroachment here.

Like the offense, the defense cannot hold a wide receiver or running back without the football. Facemasks can also not be grabbed, as safety is the primary concern in football.

Learn more about referee signals on defense here.

Positions In Football

There are many positions in football. All of these positions have specific roles and responsibilities.

Some players can run and catch the football; others cannot. Knowing what each player does, such as the quarterback, is important to help you better understand how the game is played.

We’ve made a complete guide on positions on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. View the positions guide here.

View the complete guide on how to understand football here.

Keep Learning

If you want a more white-gloved football learning experience, we recommend our Ultimate Football Guide To Football.

Below are articles to help you learn more about the rules of football.

Difference Between Legal & Illegal Blocks In Football

Illegal Contact With Wide Receivers Explained

What Is A Flag In Football? Penalty Flags Explained

Can A Football Game End On A Penalty?

Football Overtime Rules: NFL Vs. College/High School

Understanding the 5 Yard Contact Rule In The NFL

Learn Offsides, Neutral Zone Infraction, and Encroachment

Complete Guide To Referee Signals In American Football

What Is A Safety In Football? Explained

American football rules can be complicated when you try to learn them all simultaneously. We recommend you go through each part of this blog and piece together the game for yourself.

We have some great resources available to help you learn acceleratedly.

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.