Football for dummies: First downs, fumbles and flags on the play?

Do you enjoy going to football games, but find yourself often confused? Have you ever accidentally cheered, thinking the team had won an advantage when really they had lost one? Do you find yourself disoriented by the slang and terminology of athletes and fans? If you answered yes to any of these questions, don’t worry — you are far from alone! I, too, was once a muddled spectator myself. Want to sound like a well-rounded sports buff? Follow along for a series of guides for the less athletically intelligent population: Sports for Dummies. Football made easy!

Proper Attire

The first step in becoming a football fanatic is, of course, looking the part! The first step before going to any sporting event is to head down to the bookstore (or the website of your team) and purchase merchandise! A sweatshirt (for chilly autumn nights) and a basic team t-shirt (for warmer afternoon games) are both great places to start. Another option is to simply dress in the colors of your school or team, so if you were to go to a Hope football game, you could wear an orange or dark blue shirt, or, if you’re feeling adventurous, facepaint. Once you’ve got your game day outfit perfected, it’s time to learn the basics!

Overall Goal

In many sports, football included, the main objective of the game is to score more points than the other team before the four 15-minute quarters are up. In football, points are earned through touchdowns and field goals. Touchdowns occur when the ball is successfully carried or caught into the endzone (ends of the field — where the school logo is usually located). Touchdowns result in 6 points being awarded to the respective team. After successfully scoring a touchdown, the team has the opportunity to score an additional point, called a PAT (point after touchdown) by either kicking the ball through the goal post (the big yellow ‘U’ on both ends of the field) OR by trying to run the ball into the endzone from the three yard line for two additional points. 


Kickoff occurs at the beginning of the game, after halftime and anytime after a point has been scored. Kickoff takes place at the respective team’s 40 yard line, where the team’s kicker kicks the ball as far down the field as possible, after which the opposing team will catch the ball. After the ball has switched possession, the defending team tries to stop the offense (whoever is in possession of the ball) from advancing the ball up the field to score. After a point is scored, the team that scored kicks the ball, giving possession to the team that did not score.


The offense is whoever is currently in possession of the ball. The goal of the offense is to score points either by putting the ball in the end zone or kicking a field goal, as previously stated above. The offense has four downs (“plays” or chances) to score, or, they can move the ball downfield 10 yards to receive a first down (a fresh set of downs/four new attempts to score). When the offense fails to “convert” a first down, they will punt (kick the ball) to the opposing team, creating a turnover (when possession of the ball switches teams), resulting in a better chance for the defense to prevent the opposing team from scoring.


The defense is in charge of stopping the ball from being driven down the field by the opposing team’s offense. This is achieved through tackling and preventing the opposite team from completing passes (this is called an incomplete pass). The defense can also try to intercept (catch a pass thrown to an offensive player). When executed properly, this results in a turnover (when the defense catches or recovers the ball from the opposing team’s offense, giving it back to their own offensive players). 


Penalties are most often signaled by a yellow flag thrown on the field. This is referred to as a flag on the play. Some plays or instances that may result in a penalty include:

  • False Start: When an offensive player moves before the ball is snapped in a play.
  • Offsides: When a defensive player is lined up in front of the ball before the ball is snapped.
  • Pass Interference: When a player intrudes or interferes with an opponent before contact with the ball has been made, i.e. shoving a defensive player before catching a pass.

Final Thoughts 

Once the scoreboard says “Quarter 4” and the timer runs down to zero minutes and zero seconds, the game is over (unless the teams are tied, then they will go into overtime). If the team you are rooting for has more points than the opposing team, it’s time to celebrate! This is your cue to start clapping and embrace the sweet, sweet victory of a win and congratulate the players on their hard work. If your team did not win, however, some people might still clap, out of respect for a game-well-played… the choice is yours at this point, but most people leave, disappointed in the loss. Some takeaways to remember are to clap when your team runs through the end zone, gets a field goal or first down and when they win. If you’re still feeling lost, no worries! Simply look the part, at least act like you’re paying attention to the field and clap when everyone else around you does. The most important part, regardless of your football knowledge, is to have fun, enjoy the action with your friends and family and offer your enduring support to your home team!

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