How to tackle a conversation about football

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Fall is here, which means football season is upon us. Have you ever felt lost while watching the sport? Had trouble understanding the X’s and O’s of the game? Well, today we are breaking down some of the most important rules of football so that you can wow your co-workers next time the conversation heads toward America’s favorite sport (and you know it will). 

To start, let’s give you our quick elevator speech on football. We are going to focus on the NFL (National Football League) to keep things simple. 

Football games consist of two teams of 11 players on a 100-yard field competing during four 15-minute quarters. The purpose of the game is to move the ball to the opposite side of the field, either by running with the ball or by passing the ball to a teammate downfield. Although there are only 11 players from each side on the field, there are 46 players on each team made up of offensive players, defensive players, and special teams players. Football is broken up into individual plays. Each play is a chance (aka down) for the offense to move the ball downfield. The offense gets four chances (downs) to gain 10 yards. If the offense gains ten yards, the offense gets a new set of four chances (downs). If the offense fails to get 10 yards in 4 downs, then the other team gets their turn to play offense. Usually, when the offense fails to get 10 yards after three plays, the team will try to kick a field goal or punt the ball away. When the offense runs another play on their fourth chance, this is called “going for it on 4th down.”

Here is a really great video that the NFL put together to give you a quick overview of how football works.

Let’s continue with some of the basics. 


  • Touchdown (6 points) – When a team crosses the opposing team’s goal line with the ball.

  • Field goal (3 points) – When a kicker kicks the ball through the goal posts successfully, usually attempted on a fourth down.

  • Extra point (1 or 2 points) – After a touchdown, a team can earn one point by kicking the ball through the goal posts or two points by running or passing the ball into the end zone again. 

  • Safety (2 points) - Not to be confused with the player/position. A safety happens when the offense is so far from getting a touchdown that they are in their own end zone when they are tackled.  When this happens, the defense earns 2 points for their team and that teams gets the ball.

Offensive Players:

  • Quarterback – We all know this one, Tom Brady, aka Gisele’s husband. Perhaps the most important position of all. The QB calls the plays and initiates them. He either hands the ball to a running back or throws the ball to a receiver. He has to be able to throw a football with accuracy and remain calm under pressure.

  • Running Back – Think of Ezekiel Elliot of the Dallas Cowboys. This player runs, catches, blocks, and might even throw the ball from time to time. Consider this a utility player.

  • Fullback – Tends to block a lot in the backfield. Teams do not use this position as much now that teams throw the ball more.

  • Offensive line – Consists of five big guys whose responsibility is to block and protect their QB.

  • Wide receivers – These players catch the passes that the QB throws. Examples: Antonio Brown (Steelers) and Julio Jones (Falcons).

  • Tight end – This is like a hybrid between a receiver and an offensive lineman. He can either run out and catch a pass or block to protect the QB.

Defensive Players: 

  • Defensive line – Three or four lineman who line up opposite the offensive line. Think of it as a bit of a stand-off. Their job is to try to tackle anyone who has the ball. For you Texans fans, this is JJ Watt’s position.

  • Linebacker – This guy has the defensive line’s back. There are usually three or four of these on the field and they try to tackle anyone with the ball.  LBs usually have a reputation for being fearless and mean.

  • Cornerback – These guys are fast. They spend a lot of time covering Wide Receivers and trying to prevent them from catching the ball.

  • Safety – Consider this the last line of defense on the field. The Safety watches out for Tight Ends, Running Backs, and Wide Receivers who are trying to go for a deep pass.

Special Teams:

  • Kicker – Kicks the field goals and kicks the ball for kickoffs.

  • Punter – Kicks (punts) the ball away if the offense fails to get 10 yards after 3 tries.

  • Return Specialist – Players who the punter and kicker are kicking to.  He catches a kick or punt and tries to run it back as far as possible.

Key Terms: 

  • Blitz – When defensive players other than lineman go after the quarterback.

  • End zone – The two ends of the field.  The scoring area on a football field.

  • Fair catch – Have you ever noticed a player catch a kick or a punt and no one tackles him? Well, this is a fair catch. The return specialist will signal a fair catch by waiving his arms when the ball is in the air.  This means the no one can tackle the returner, but the returner cannot try to advance the ball beyond the spot where he caught it.

  • Interception – When the defense catches the quarterback’s pass.  This is also called a pick.  If the defense runs all the way for a touchdown after the interception, it is called a “pick six” because the defense scores 6 points.

  • Line of scrimmage – An imaginary line separating the offense and defense at the beginning of a down. 

  • Offside – When a player crosses the line of scrimmage (imaginary line between the offense and defense) before the ball is snapped.

  • Onside kick – When the kicking team attempts to get the ball back during the kickoff by kicking the ball really short and racing to get it before the other team.  This usually only happens when the game is almost over.

  • Red zone – This is the area between the 20-yard line and the end zone where the offense is trying to score.  Think of red zone as meaning very close to scoring.

  • Sack – When a defensive player tackles a quarterback behind the line of scrimmage for a loss of yards.

  • Snap – When the center offensive lineman passes the ball backwards between his legs to the Quarterback.  This is the start of a play.

  • Unsportsmanlike conduct – A penalty that a player or team will receive for acting unethically according to the referee. For example, if a player celebrates a touchdown excessively or tries to hurt another player in between plays he may receive this penalty.