Rules for American Football
Table of Contents
- A Brief History and Aim of Playing
- Starting a Match and Duration of Play
- Players and Equipment
- General Rules and Regulations
- Penalties, Fouls, and Misconduct
- Scoring (how to score points)
- Officiating and Role of the Officials
- Winning the Game
Note: The Official Playing Rules of the National Football League contain 18 rules categories in 89 pages. This is a summary of all the rules of American Football taken from the current NFL Rule Book [PDF] terms and rulings.
American Football Rules Explained
In fact, the popular sport of American Football is widely played in the United Kingdom as well. By demystifying the elements of the complex NFL laws, this guide will help you figure out how the game plays out.
So, let’s kick things off:
Besides the United States, football American style or Gridiron, is played in many countries worldwide. Some of its ardent followers and players compare basic American Football rules to a ‘chess match with shoulder pads’.
The annual Super Bowl is a worthy contender as the sport’s most famous event, inside and outside the USA. It is a competition played out every year to millions of fans – including non-Americans.
In Case you’re wondering:
Gridiron football is one of the biggest and most popular sports in North America. The National Football League is immensely competitive and mighty lucrative for its professional players.
Grasping the fundamentals of American Football basics is not always easy. But, let’s begin by stating that any of these three rule books govern and dictate the finer points of the game.
- NFL Rule Book (American Professional National Football League)
- NCAA Rule Book (the National Collegiate Athletic Association outlines the rules for college football)
- High School Football Rules (Adapted for younger players)
Note: All three codified law books cover every possible eventuality of American Football rules and regulations.
British American Football Association
The BAFA sanctions various formats of the game around Great Britain. Their rules provide governance over the contact and non-contact variants in the sport.
So, here’s the deal:
We summarized the most important rules and essential tactics for all newcomers to the game. It’s the ideal start for those who want to get a regulation snapshot of how to play American Football for beginners in the United Kingdom.
NFL United Kingdom Playbook
The UK hosts several NFL fixtures each football season. Read an article about the year NFL UK Playbook features a roll out by Heinz Yellow Mustard.
A Brief History of American Football
In fact, the origins and history of American football trace back to the earliest versions of association football and rugby football. Both originate, in various forms, from games played in Britain around the mid-19th century
Several major divergences produced the game as we know it today. We can thank Walter Camp, a Yale University and Hopkins School graduate, for the most notable of rules changes. In fact, many still consider him as being the ‘Father of American Football’.
And the rule changes?
The key changes he introduced were the legalisation of blocking tactics, the down-and-distance rules, and the line of scrimmage.
A more modern game saw a further introduction of the forward pass around the late 19th century. College football became very popular. It grew to be a dominant variance of the sport played in United States from the beginning of the 20th century.
College football traditions (bowl games) started attracting a national audiences. Nowadays, they still command a widespread appeal throughout North America.
Aim of Playing American Football Game
Like most other ball sports, there is one simple goal or objective to playing American Football games. Each team aims to score more points than their opponents do in the allotted game duration.
The team with possession of the ball (the offense) attempt to advance it down the pitch in phases of play (called downs). Their ultimate aim is to get the ball into the ‘end zone’ to score points from a touchdown.
There are several ways to achieve a touchdown. Players can run with the ball until they get tackled, or they can throw it down field to one of their teammates.
If the pace is a little too fast the section listing 10 basic rules of American Football will slow things down.
American Football Starting Lineup
The match referee will organise a coin toss with the team captains three minutes before the start of the game. As a rule, the visiting team will call the toss by choosing ‘heads or tails’.
Being the winner of the coin toss means you can choose to begin play for the first half or for the second half. Being the losing captain of the coin toss means your team would get the remaining options.
The choices are:
- To take the kick off and start the game or to receive the kickoff at the beginning instead.
- To choose an end of the field to defend for the first quarter. Teams will switch directions when the first quarter ends and again at the end of the third quarter.
Note: USA Today states the team winning the coin toss will defer their choice to the beginning of the second half more than 90% of the time in college games.
The Kickoff Formation
A phase of play begins when the team is in formation with seven players standing on the line of scrimmage. The line of scrimmage is a ‘movable’ imaginary line determined by the match officials.
As a rule, the center player stands on the line and passes the ball back between his legs to the quarterback. This is usually called the snap or hiking the ball.
The kickoff takes place on a kicking tee at the defense’s 30-yard line. The place-kicker punts the ball down field to the offense players. A kick return man will try to catch the ball and run with it into opposition territory.
American Football Match Duration
Rules of American Football games allow sixty (60) minutes as an allotted time of play. The actual match duration will divide into four (4) quarters. There will be fifteen (15) minutes of play in each quarter.
Players take a two minute break between the 1st and the 2nd quarter, and then again between the 3rd and 4th quarters. A fifteen minute rest break takes place between the 2nd and the 3rd quarter for half time.
American Football Players
NFL rulings permit 53 players to be on the team active roster. But, only 45 players can dress out for the game.
This is the important part:
The rules and regulations of American Football allow each team to field no more than eleven (11) players during the game itself. There are no restrictions on substitutions made between plays.
American Football rules and positions generally consist of three different groups of players, such as:
- Offensive Players: Typically smaller, stronger, and faster attacking team members (includes a quarterback).
- Defensive Players: Usually larger, burly, and more powerful.
- Special Team Players: The Place-kicker and the Punter specialise in kicking and punting.
American Football Equipment UK
American Football rules and regulations state all players must wear approved and mandatory safety equipment.
Protective gear is part of the American Football equipment list and includes:
- Neck Collar
- American Football Shoulder Pads
- Hip Pads
- Leg Pads
- Thigh Guards
- Knee Pads
- Football Cleats (footwear)
- American Football Gloves (optional)
American Football Field Dimensions
- The size of an American Football field is 120 yards long (110 meters) by 53.33 yards wide (48.76 meters). If you’re measuring American Football field dimensions in feet, the size is 360 x 160 feet.
- It is a rectangular field divided into strips and marked off every ten (10) yards. White lines with painted numbers show the distance to the goal line. Hash marks delineate one (1) yard intervals between each line.
- The 50 yard line identifies the middle of the ground between the line and each end zone. End zones are areas at each end of the field beginning at the ‘zero-line’.
- Sidelines and end-lines mark the border of the field. Touching the ball down in the end zone of the opposing team scores a touchdown for your team.
- Any player (or the ball) going outside the perimeter outlined by the borders will be considered as out-of-bounds.
American Football Safety Gear
Players must wear proper gear and accessories for a game. Check out the section that lists the equipment used in American Football with detailed descriptions on:
- Helmets, the chinstrap, and mouthguards
- Shoulder pads and padding sizes
- Hip pads, thigh guards, leg and knee pads
Moving the Ball
You move the ball either by throwing it to a teammate or running with it. Each team gets 4 chances (downs) to progress the ball 10 yards forward.
Passing a 10 yards distance means the ‘down’ is reset and the movement starts again for another 10 yards.
Losing possession of the ball:
The ball gets turned over to the defensive team if you fail to make 10 yards after 4 downs have passed.
- The offense will use a run to advance the ball into the opponent’s territory.
- The quarterback will either:
- Hand the ball off to a running back.
- Run with it to gain as many yards as possible.
- The alternative to running with the ball is to throw it (called the pass).
- Anyone on the offensive team can pass the ball providing they conduct it behind the line of scrimmage.
- A pass is complete when another offensive player catches the ball.
- An incomplete pass occurs if the ball hits the ground before a teammate catches it.
Downs in American Football Explained
There will be many different plays happening on any down. But generally, the team players will determine the play.
Footy fundamentals for beginners:
It often appears uncoordinated and haphazard when players are running all over the place (making routes).
As a rule, it will be the senior members of the squad who call out the offensive and defensive tactical plays. It is usually the head coach or quarterback and the defensive captain (respectively).
American Football Rules [PDF Download]
Reading through the American Football rules PDF version will help you master all the fundamental laws. It contains the 2022 rules changes with a free download option.
Scoring in American Football for Beginners
There are four ways to score points in basic American Football rules and regulations:
- Touchdown: Scoring a touchdown wins six (6) points for the team who crosses the goal line defended by the opposition. The player can either carry the ball, or receive it (catch it) in the opposite end zone to score points.
- Extra Point: Kicking the ball for a short field goal (PAT) off the ground following a touchdown is worth one (1) extra point. But, you only get the extra point if the ball passes between the upright posts of the end zone. Getting the ball in the end zone again (after a touchdown) is a conversion and would score two (2) extra points.
- Field Goal: A successful field goal kick scores three (3) points if a player kicks the ball off the gound and between the posts. This is another American Football scoring option for a team that fails to get the ball in the end zone for a touchdown.
- Safety: It is not a common way to score points in American Football, but ‘scoring safety’ gains two (2) points for the defensive team if they tackle an opposing offensive player inside their own end zone.
American Football Officiating and Officials
There should always be seven (7) officials who officiate on the field at the same time (in professional games). But, it is the Referee who has the final ruling in any important decisions.
The match Referee also has superiority over all other officiating crews. As part of the American Football basics on officials for officiating matches, there will also be:
- Umpire: The Umpire is primarily responsible for spotting the ball at the beginning of plays.
- Down Judge: The Head Linesman handles the chains. The role is to verify how many yards a team has covered during a play and counting how many downs a team has used (and how many are remaining).
- Line Judge: The Line Judge keeps time and helps the Linesman set up the line of scrimmage.
- Field Judge: The Field Judge supervises any defensive players who are often placed too deep.
- Side Judge: The Side Judge ensures players remain in-bounds and supervises play on his side of the field.
- Back Judge: Responsible for monitoring the game duration of time outs and half-time.
Note: The jurisdiction of the seven officials will begin 100 minutes before the scheduled kickoff. It ends once the Referee declares the final score.
Penalties in American Football
Committing an illegal action against the rules and regulations in American Football will incur penalties. It will be either a five, ten, or 15 yard penalty and the down gets replayed.
A minor offence is more commonly punished by a five yard penalty.
Aggressive actions often result in an award of a ‘first down’ to the opposition. Match officials would spot the ball in the appropriate place for a penalty and play would resume.
Some of the most common penalties used by match officials as part of American Football terminology are:
- Delay of Game (DOG)
- Illegal Blocking (e.g. illegal block above the waist ‘IBW’)
- Roughing the Kicker/Passer (RRK and RPS)
- Encroachment (ENC)
- Facemask (15 yards ‘FMM’)
- Unnecessary Roughness (UNR)
American Football Terms and Phrases
Browse a section with 100s of American Football terms and definitions used by players and officials listed alphabetically from A to Z.
Winning a Game of American Football
The winner in American Football is the team with the most points at the end of the game. Over time would come into play if the teams both have the same number of points.
US football rules is a timed sport, so what happens in the event of a tied game? If this happens, the teams would play an extra quarter to determine the outright winner.
Related Guides in this Section
Note: Watch a short video presentation [4:58 seconds] explaining the basic fundamentals of football American style with simple graphics and clear commentary.