How Football is Played

How football is played:

Ok, so you now know why they play, how they win and why there are so many guys out there, but how does the game actually progress? Let’s discuss that amongst ourselves. If you have not already done so, you may want to have a cocktail about now.

Starting the Game – The Coin Toss:

Pretty simple. Referee tosses a coin. One of the visiting team captains calls heads or tails. One team wins the toss and gets to choose what they want. However, it’s not quite that simple. What’s funny is that this is one of those things that actually confuses a lot of guys out there too.

The team that wins the toss has to choose between the following:

  1. Kick the ball to the other team or have the other team kick to them (receive)
  2. End of the field they want to defend
  3. Defer to the second half

So, what do they do and why? Most of the time the team who wins the toss will defer their choice to the 2nd half where they’ll choose to receive. That means the team that lost the toss would most likely choose to receive in the 1st half.

Well, if you’ve been paying attention, teams primarily score points when they have the ball (are on offense), So, why wouldn’t the team who wins the coin toss always choose to start the game with the ball. Well, there are many reasons but the top few are defensive momentum, wanting to start the 2nd half with the ball, and weather conditions.

How weather impacts coin toss decisions

The only real time the team who wins the coin toss will pick the side of the field they want to defend instead of choosing to kick or receive is when there is some kind of weather condition that will give teams a specific advantage or disadvantage. Typically, that is a strong wind blowing in a direction that would make it more difficult to kick field goals or extra points. If that is the case, they’ll want the wind in their backs (pushing the kick) in the 2nd quarter and 4th quarter. In order to do that, the team will pick the side they want to defend in the 1st quarter where the wind is in their face. When the teams switch ends of the field at the end of the quarter, the wind will be in the back of the offense to help push passes and kicks further. Why? Well, a lot of games are decided by a game winning field goal at the end of the game. If you have to kick a long field goal with the wind blowing in your face, you are not likely to make it.

Kick Off:

Based on the outcome of the coin toss and what the two teams decided to do, one team will kick-off to the other. A special teams unit will come on the field for each team. The team kicking off will have the kicker and 10 other guys who are fast and not scared of hitting someone. These are probably the guys that looked to pick fights in high school.

The team who receives the kick-off is the return team. They will have 1-3 guys in the back near their own end-zone who can catch the ball and run with it really well. Sometimes these guys are also receivers on the offense.

The other 8-10 guys will be willing to block the kicking team’s players who are sprinting down the field.

There are a lot of rules here about how you can block (clipping, block in the back penalties), how close you can get to the player trying to catch the ball (halo rule), whether or not the player trying to catch the ball is planning on running or not (fair catch, downing the ball/taking a knee). There are also several types of strategies both the receiving and kicking team might use. We will talk about all of this in the Details section.

For now, the key thing to know is the following:

  • Kicking team kicks the ball and their goal is to stop the other team as close to the end zone as possible. Success is stopping them between the goal line and the 20 yard line.
  • Receiving team receives the ball and their goal is to run as far down the field as possible. Success is advancing the ball anywhere past the 20 yard line.
  • Why the 20 yard line? Well, if the kicker kicks the ball all the way in the other end zone, the receiving team can take a knee (down the ball) and no one gets tackled. The receiving team’s offensive unit then comes on the field and starts play at the 20 yard line. So anything less than that or more than that is better for the kicking and receiving teams respectively.

Possession and Downs:

Once the offensive team takes control of the ball (possession), they must advance the ball towards the other team’s goal in order to make points. They have 4 downs to go at least 10 yards or the other team gets the ball. Generally, if they have not gone 10 yards in 3 downs, then they use the 4th down to either punt the ball to the other team or attempt to kick a field goal. So, what is a down in football? Well, this is essentially the same as a play, but that may be equally ambiguous in your mind too.

Ok, so how to explain…..let’s think of a down as your attempt to make eye contact with the cute guy across the bar from you. Each time you make your best attempt is like a down. You might give the fake laugh and point at the TV while talking to your best friend in hopes that he sees you as a down. Or maybe you do the meek and timid approach by looking longingly into your beverage while gently caressing the glass. That’s a down. If he does not notice you, then you have to try again. You only get 3 attempts before you have to make a decision to ‘Punt’ or ‘Go For It’. The catch is that you may get a ”do-over” too. Say for example, as you make one of your attempts, the waitress walks between you just at that perfect moment and blocks the view. That might be a ‘penalty’ and allow you to try that same move again.

Ok, so that’s a bit weird, but each of your attempts to gain his attention is about the same as a down. A down is when the center of the offensive line, snaps the ball to the quarterback. Whatever happens from there is a play and will either result in a down or a do-over if the defense commits a penalty.

In summary, a play is what happens each time the ball is snapped. It may or may not result in a down which it generally is. It only is not a down if the defense commits certain penalties that allow the offense to try again (do over). The offense has 4 downs to move at least 10 yards but the 4th down is used to execute the resulting decision on whether or not they are close enough to gain the 10th yard, kick a field goal, or just flip the field and let the other team try after they punt. If they make at least 10 yards at anytime during the 4 downs, they start over with a new set of 4 downs.

A team can get as many sets of downs as the game will allow. Each possession will end with either score (field goal or touchdown), a punt, a turnover (fumble, interception or turnover on downs).


So at the end of what is called regulation (the last second of time in the 4th quarter), if one team is not beating the other team, then the game will result in overtime. This means that they will essentially ‘add time’ to ensure that someone wins.

It was not always that way. It used to be that college football could end in a tie but that was changed in 1996 when overtime was added. This was after several years of controversy on determining the #1 team including in 1990 when Georgia Tech had a tie and won the co-National Championship with the University of Colorado. We’ll explain that some other time….

In college football, the rules for overtime are a bit different than the pros. In college, each team gets a chance with the ball and there is no clock to determine how much time is allowed (other than the play clock). They will do a coin toss to decide who starts with the ball and what end of the field will be used. Each team will have a chance to start at the 25 yard line closest to the goal they are trying to score in. From there, they will have the same rules to score. They have just the one possession and start with 4 downs. They can get first downs every 10 yards. They can score a touch down or a field goal. The other team can intercept a pass or recover a fumble and end the possession too. The only real difference is that they won’t punt the ball and will use all 4 downs.

When they are done with their possession and whatever it results in (points or no points), the other team then gets the same chance. If after the first overtime (both teams having a possession), both teams are still tied (they both got the same number of points), then they will do the same thing again for the 2nd overtime. If a tie is still in place after 2 overtimes, then the teams must go for 2 points if they score a touchdown until one of the teams comes up with more points.

Back to About Football

Tell us what you think!