American football for rookies

The most common criticism of American Football I hear amongst British people is that they do not understand the rules. As someone who learnt the sport by watching games, I understand this problem. The fact that there are two clocks shown on the graphics during a game took me long enough to work out alone!

With the new season on the horizon, here is a quick guide to the game to help get you started.

The Game

A game of football is divided into four quarters of 15 minutes. Each team is composed of an offense (attack) and a defense and will have 11 players on the field at any one time. The field is composed of two end zones, two goals at either end, and a field between the two which is 100 yards long. The object is for the team with the ball, whose offense will be on the field, to move the football down the field while the defense tries to stop them. They can either kick the football through the upright goal for three points or get the ball to the end zone (a touchdown) for seven points.


With the ball starting on the line of scrimmage, between the offense and the defense, the offense has four attempts, or ‘downs’, to get the ball ten yards down the field by passing or running the ball, upon which they get another set of four downs. The defense can stop them by intercepting a pass or forcing a player to drop the ball to get back possession, or by blocking passes and tackling players to stop them getting the ten yards they need.


Each play, or attempt to get the football down the field, starts with a pass of the football from the centre member of the offensive line to, generally, the quarterback. From one play ending to the snap which starts the next, there is a 40 second time limit, unless timeouts are used or an event in the game is going on such as a penalty or the two-minute warning at the end of each half.

Short of specific rules for different things going on in a game, details about positions and teams and the NFL league structure, that is more or less all you need to know to understand a game of football! Of course, something will happen every three or four plays that you will need to work out yourself, but hopefully this article will give any beginners a head start. If you have any more questions and want a video guide, we recommend heading here.

Look out for our guide to the NFL and the teams comprising it coming out soon!