The Flow of the Game
Before the game starts there is a coin toss between the team captains. The team that wins gets to decide whether they want to begin on offense or defense.
The team on defense kicks off (pun intended) the game with a kick-off, i.e., the team's kicker tries to kick the ball far down the field towards the team on offense. In an ideal kick, the ball will hang in the air for a long time, so that the players on defense have a chance to run down the field and stop the offense from advancing with the ball.
The offense’s kick returner will catch the ball, and has three options:
- Run with the ball—the kick returner will run as far as he can until he is stopped. The offense will begin their first down wherever he was stopped;
- A Touchback—if the ball is kicked into the end zone, the kick returner can take a knee (this is exactly what it sounds like, he basically gets down into proposal position in the end zone). Now, the offense to start its first down at its 25 yard line; or
- Signal for a fair catch—this tells the other team and referees that the offense is choosing not to run the ball and that no one on defense is allowed to tackle them. The offense will begin their first down wherever the kick returner caught the ball. This almost never happens on a kick-off, but it frequently happens in response to a punt (described below).
Then the offense has 4 attempts or “downs” to advance 10 yards down the field, by throwing or running with the football. If they succeed, they begin again on a 1st down with another 4 downs to advance another 10 yards, if not, the ball is turned over to the other team.
A ball is stopped or down when the player in control of the ball touches his knee, shin, or butt to the field or goes out of bounds.
Advancing 10 yards may not seem like such a big deal, but the other team is working hard on defense to stop the offense, steal possession of the ball for themselves, or force a fumble. A fumble occurs when the offense loses control of the ball before the ball is down, then both teams will scramble to run and get it.
If it doesn’t look like the offense will be able to make it all the way down the field to score a touchdown, they have two options on their 4th down:
- Attempt to kick a field goal for 3 points, if they are in the kicker's range; or
- Punt the ball back to the other team. A punt is basically the same as the kick off, except that the offense will dropkick the ball back to the other team from wherever they were last stopped.
However, with some luck, the offense will make it all the way down the field and score a touchdown! After a touchdown, the team gets an opportunity to score extra points, aptly named Points-After-Touchdown (PAT). There are two ways to get extra points: (1) they can gain 1 extra point if the kicker is able to kick the ball through the goal posts from the 15 yard line; or (2) they can choose to try for 2 extra points, called a 2-point conversion, if they are able to advance the ball into the end zone starting from the 2-yard line.
After the PAT, possession of the ball switches to the team that was on defense, beginning with a kick-off from the team that was on offense.