Friday, August 12, 2011

Making Plays

Now that you’ve got the basics down, today’s lesson explains how the offense advances the ball down the field to its opponent’s end zone.

The game of football is measured in yards. Yards are marked on the field in 10-yard intervals on the field, in ascending order from one end zone to the 50-yard line, the midpoint of the playing field.  From the 50-yard line, the yardage is marked in descending order to the opposite end zone (check out the image in my last post).  When a team gains possession of the ball, it goes on offense and begins its drive toward the opponent’s end zone, where it will attempt to score.  Wherever the team begins its drive, it has four opportunities (plays) to gain ten yards.  Each such opportunity is called a down. 

This is where you'll hear the term “first and 10.”  The offense starts its drive with a first down.  If the offense doesn’t gain ten yards on its first play, it will then have a second down; then, a third down; finally, if it hasn’t gained ten yards after running three plays, it becomes fourth down.  A simple way to remember this is to think of “first and 10” as “first down with 10 yards to gain.”  The number of yards to gain typically changes with each play.  For example, if the team gains four yards on first down, it becomes “second and six”, or “second down and six yards to gain.”  Once the offense gains the yardage needed, it gets a new set of downs.*  At that point, it will once again be first and 10, and the sequence starts over.  Of course, if a team scores a touchdown or field goal, it will kick off the ball to the other team, who then goes on offense.

If the offense fails to earn a first down (or score), after four plays, the ball goes to the other team.  This is called “turning the ball over on downs.”  However, after three plays, the offense has the option to punt the ball instead of trying a fourth play.  This is what happens about 95% of the time. When a team punts, it kicks the ball to the other team, and when a player on that team recovers the ball, that team then goes on offense (and, of course, will have a first and 10 where they recover the kicked ball).

One more wrinkle:  if a new set of downs begins within the 10-yard line of the opponent's end zone, it's not "first and 10." Instead, it is "first and goal." This is because there aren't ten yards to gain, only the goal line; so, think of it as "first down and goal to go."  Within the next four plays the offense has to score a touchdown or field goal. If it doesn't, it will turn the ball over on downs to the other team.

Clear as mud?  Concept of downs was the hardest thing I could get a handle on when I was learning the game as a kid.  I remember my dad having to explain what "first and 10" meant every week for a whole season before I got it. 

Enjoying the preseason so far?  If so, just wait until the regular season starts!  If not, just wait until the regular season starts!

 *There will be times when the offense has more than ten yards to gain for a first down.  This will occur if either the previous play results in a loss of yardage, or the team commits a penalty, resulting in a loss of yardage.

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