Here's Your All Inclusive Guide to Understanding Football

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If you haven’t noticed, we are currently about halfway through another season on NFL football. Some collegiettes genuinely enjoy football, while others only care about the free coffee they get from Dunkin when the Patriots win. If you fall into the second group, hopefully you’re able to avoid watching football games altogether- if you don’t enjoy a sport, why watch it! However, if your friends or boyfriends are football fans, you might get dragged into watching a game or two. Playoffs will be starting next month, which means Sunday night viewing parties that you won't want to miss! When you go to school in New England, it’s impossible to avoid the hard core Patriots fans who will openly judge you for not understanding the game. Well don’t worry collegiettes, we at Her Campus realize that the rules of football can be kind of hard to grasp. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of everything you need to know about watching football. Read this and we guarantee you’ll be able to follow the next game you tune into.


Let’s start off easy: each team has an offense and a defense. The offense of Team A tries to score points, while the defense of Team B tries to prevent them from doing so. After each drive (we’ll talk about what that is later!), the players leave the field. At this point, we bring out the offense of Team B, which tries to score, while the defense of Team A tries to stop them.

Each offense and defense has 11 players. This means that at any time, there are exactly 22 people on the field.

This is different from sports such as soccer, where Team A’s offense and defense would be on the field at the same time. In football, the offense and defense of one team never play at the same time.

There are essentially four groups of players:

Team A Offense

Team A Defense

Team B Offence

Team B Defense

There is always one offensive group and one defensive group from each team on the field at a time.



The position you’ll hear about the most is the quarterback. He’s the guy that throws the ball. Think: Tom Brady.

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This is arguably the most important player. Each team has one starting quarterback, and at least one backup. Tom Brady is a starting quarterback- he plays each game, and is probably the only quarterback the Patriots will use during the game. The backup quarterback is there in case Brady gets injured or cannot/ should not play for any reason.

PSA: This is the backup quarterback for the Patriots, Jimmy Garoppolo. You may never see him play, BUT he is super attractive. You're welcome

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The quarterback is really easy to identify. He’s the guys who starts each play (we’ll explain that, too) holding the ball. He either throws it to someone, or hands it to someone. He also has a little green sticker on the back of his helmet.

So if there’s one guy that throws the ball, there naturally have to be people who catch the ball! These people are called running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends. They catch the football, run the football down the field, and get touchdowns. Think: Julian Edelman (left), Rob Gronkowski (right). While there are differences between these three positions, what’s really important to remember is that they’re all on offense, and that they try to get touchdowns.

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Also on the offensive line are guards and tackles. They protect the quarterback, and try to make sure no one gets in the way of the guy holding the football.  


Defense is where you have the defensive line, linebackers, defensive backs, etc. Again, each position does slightly different things. Their main purpose is to stop the other team’s offense from scoring points. They try to tackle the quarterback so he can’t throw the ball. They also try to prevent catches from being completed, and tackle the guy running with the football so he doesn’t get any closer to scoring.


There are five ways to score points in a football game.

1. Touchdown- 6 point. This is when a receiver gets the football into the other team’s end zone. The end zone is the colored area at either end of the field. In the photo below, the blue and red zones are both end zones. The ball can either be caught in the end zone, or run into the end zone. One end zone belongs to Team A, and the other belongs to Team B. They switch after halftime (the break halfway through the game).

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FYI, touchdowns can only be made by the offense. In sports like hockey, if player from Team A hits the puck into the net of their own team by accident, Team B will get a point. This is not the case in football. If the quarterback of Team A throws the football into the end zone and a player from Team B catches it, no one gets points.   

2. Field Goal- 3 points. This is what a team will do if they are close to the end zone, but aren’t able to get a touchdown. To get a field goal, the football must be kicked through the goal post. Each team has a designated placekicker whose job it is to kick the ball. These are easier to make than touchdowns, but are worth half the points.

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3. Point After Touchdown- 1 point. After each touchdown, the team has the opportunity to gain a seventh point. The kicker stands 15 yards away and has to kick the ball through the goal, just like when he attempts a field goal. This is relatively easy to do, and they almost always get this extra point. Obviously everything would be simpler if a touchdown was just worth seven points- don’t ask us why it isn’t.

4. Two Point Conversion- 2 points. This can be done instead of attempting a one point kick after a touchdown. For the extra point, the offense can stand two yards away and try to run or throw the ball into the end zone, as if they were scoring another touchdown. This is much more difficult than the one point kick, and is rarely done.

5. Safety- 2 points. This happens when the ball carrier is tackled in his own end zone. For example, if Tom Brady was tackled while holding the football and standing in the Patriot’s end zone, the other team would then receive two points. Again, this rarely happens.

The most important things to remember are that touchdowns are most important (six points), the extra point is almost always made after a touchdown, and field goals are worth three points.   

How to Get a Touchdown

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The most confusing thing about football for many people is how the process of getting a touchdown actually works. Allow us to break it down for you.

Let’s say it’s time for the Team A offense to take the field. Any time an offense is on the field, their ultimate goal is to get a touchdown. A drive is the time between when Team A offense gets the ball to the time they have to hand it back to Team B offense. Except for special circumstances, each drive begins with a member of the defending team kicking the football down the field- they are trying to get the football as far away from their end zone as possible. This is called a punt. A member of the offense will then try to catch the ball, and do his best to bring is closer to the end zone before he is tackled. Wherever the ball stops is where the offense will start their drive from.

The offense wants to move as much towards the end zone as possible, because that means they are closer to getting a touchdown. They have to move forward at LEAST 10 yards (the field is 100 yards). They have four chances to move 10 yards. These chances are called “downs”. If they cannot move the ball forward 10 yards or more after four downs, they lose the ball and the other team’s offense comes on the field.

Let’s run through a couple of scenarios to help this make better sense. The offense always starts off on a first down. If the quarterback throws the ball and it is caught 10 yards away, then they get another first down (yay!). This means they 1. Move forward to the spot where the ball was caught, and 2. Get another four chances to move an additional 10 yards. If the offense keeps moving 10 yards or more, then they will keep getting first downs, and will move closer to the end zone. This puts them in the position to score.

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Now let’s pretend the offense doesn’t move the ball 10 yards forward. Let’s say the receiver only gets six yards away before he is tackled. This is now second down. The offense moves to the spot where the ball was stopped, and now has to try to move the ball at least four yards forward (10 yards – the 6 they already moved = 4 left to go). If they get the four yards, then it is first down again. If they get less than that, say two yards, then they will still have two left (4 yards – the 2 they got = 2 more needed). Now it is third down. If they move at least two yards, they will get another first down and get to try for another 10 yards. However, let’s say the receiver drops the ball and doesn’t move forward any yards. Now it is fourth down. There are a couple different things that can be done on a fourth down, which we will explain below.  

Fourth Downs  

One the fourth down, the offense can try to move the remaining yards for a first down. They might try this if they are very close to a first down- ex. only inches away. However, if they fail to get the first down then they lose the ability to get points or punt the ball. If they are close to the end zone, they will most likely attempt a field goal. If they are too far away then the offense will most likely punt the ball (kick it away from their end zone). The other team will return it, and their offense will take the field. Team A’s offense will sit down and wait for their next turn, when it will begin all over again.


Another thing that gets confusing is penalties. You know that there is a penalty when the referee throws a yellow flag down on the field. This means that a player did something wrong, or broke some sort of rule. The referee will tell us which player it was, and what they did wrong. There are a LOT of things players can get penalized for. It can be overwhelming, even if you regularly watch football.

One penalty you hear about a lot is pass interference, which is “when a player interferes with an eligible receiver's ability to make a fair attempt to catch a forward pass” (thanks, Wikipedia). This means that a player on the defense did something wrong when trying to stop a player on the offence from catching the ball. This will be a penalty on the defense team.

Holding is another common penalty, and can be against either the offense or defense. This means a player grabbed onto someone from the other team to block whatever they are attempting to do.

False starts happen a lot as well, and means that a player on either offense or defense moved too soon before a play began.

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A yellow flag on the field means bad news for one of the teams. If a player on the opposing team is the one who did something wrong, then his team will be penalized. This is good for your team! Your team might be able to move closer to the end zone, or have another chance to throw the ball. If the penalty is against your team, however, that is bad. That means one of your players did something wrong, and you will probably lose some of the yards you previously gained.

Some of the rules in football are weird and complicated. Sometimes the referees talk about penalties and no one knows what’s going on. Don’t worry about it. There’s no need to try to memorize all of the possible penalties and their repercussions. Just remember that a penalty against you is bad, and a penalty against your opponent is good.     

Other Information

Below are some facts and terminology you might want to keep in mind!

-        A “sack” is what it’s called when a quarterback gets tackled before he is able to throw the ball.

-        There are four 15 minute quarters in each game. After the second quarter there is a 15 minute break for halftime.

-        A “play” is what each attempt for a down is referred to.

-        A “drive” consists of all the plays a team makes between the time they get the ball to the time they either score or have to give the ball back to the other team.  

-        An “interception” means that the quarterback from Team A threw the ball and someone from Team B caught it. This mean that the ball now belongs to Team B.

-        The yellow lines you see on the field are only visible on your TV. They represent how far away the team is from a first down. As the team moves forward, the yellow lines do as well. They are not painted on the field. 

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So there you have it, everything you need to know about football! Think we missed something? Leave your remaining questions in the comments section below.