American Football Terms and Definitions
Part of the Football For Dummies (USA Edition) Cheat Sheet
To understand and enjoy American football, get familiar with key terms and what they mean. Until you grasp basic football lingo, listening to announcers call a football game can be like listening to monkey gibberish. The following list fills you in on the basic American football terms you need to know:
Backfield: The group of offensive players — the running backs and quarterback — who line up behind the line of scrimmage.
Down: A period of action that starts when the ball is put into play and ends when the ball is ruled dead (meaning the play is completed). The offense gets four downs to advance the ball 10 yards. If it fails to do so, it must surrender the ball to the opponent, usually by punting on the fourth down.
Drive: The series of plays when the offense has the football, until it punts or scores and the other team gets possession of the ball.
End zone: A 10-yard-long area at each end of the field. You score a touchdown when you enter the end zone in control of the football. If you're tackled in your own end zone while in possession of the football, the other team gets a safety.
Extra point: A kick, worth one point, that's typically attempted after every touchdown (it's also known as the point after touchdown, or PAT). The ball is placed on either the 2-yard line (in the NFL) or the 3-yard line (in college and high school) and is generally kicked from inside the 10-yard line after being snapped to the holder. It must sail between the uprights and above the crossbar of the goalpost to be considered good.
Fair catch: When the player returning a punt waves his extended arm from side to side over his head. After signaling for a fair catch, a player can't run with the ball, and those attempting to tackle him can't touch him.
Field goal: A kick, worth three points, that can be attempted from anywhere on the field but is usually attempted within 40 yards of the goalpost. Like an extra point, a kick must sail above the crossbar and between the uprights of the goalpost to be ruled good.
Fumble: The act of losing possession of the ball while running with it or being tackled. Members of the offense and defense can recover a fumble. If the defense recovers the fumble, the fumble is called a turnover.
Handoff: The act of giving the ball to another player. Handoffs usually occur between the quarterback and a running back.
Hash marks: The lines on the center of the field that signify 1 yard on the field. Before every play, the ball is spotted between the hash marks or on the hash marks, depending on where the ball carrier was tackled on the preceding play.
Huddle: When the 11 players on the field come together to discuss strategy between plays. On offense, the quarterback relays the plays in the huddle.
Incompletion: A forward pass that falls to the ground because no receiver could catch it, or a pass that a receiver dropped or caught out of bounds.
Interception: A pass that's caught by a defensive player, ending the offense's possession of the ball.
Kickoff: A free kick (meaning the receiving team can't make an attempt to block it) that puts the ball into play. A kickoff is used at the start of the first and third quarters and after every touchdown and successful field goal.
Line of scrimmage: An imaginary line that extends from where the football is placed at the end of a play to both sides of the field. Neither the offense nor the defense can cross the line until the football is put in play again.
Offensive line: The human wall of five men who block for and protect the quarterback and ball carriers. Every line has a center (who snaps the ball), two guards, and two tackles.
Punt: A kick made when a player drops the ball and kicks it while it falls toward his foot. A punt is usually made on a fourth down when the offense must surrender possession of the ball to the defense because it couldn't advance 10 yards.
Red zone: The unofficial area from the 20-yard line to the opponent's goal line. Holding an opponent to a field goal in this area is considered a moral victory for the defense.
Return: The act of receiving a kick or punt and running toward the opponent's goal line with the intent of scoring or gaining significant yardage.
Rushing: To advance the ball by running, not passing. A running back is sometimes called a rusher.
Sack: When a defensive player tackles the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage for a loss of yardage.
Safety: A score, worth two points, that the defense earns by tackling an offensive player in possession of the ball in his own end zone.
Secondary: The four defensive players who defend against the pass and line up behind the linebackers and wide on the corners of the field opposite the receivers.
Snap: The action in which the ball is hiked (tossed between the legs) by the center to the quarterback, to the holder on a kick attempt, or to the punter. When the snap occurs, the ball is officially in play and action begins.
Special teams: The 22 players who are on the field during kicks and punts. These units have special players who return punts and kicks, as well as players who are experts at covering kicks and punts.
Touchdown: A score, worth six points, that occurs when a player in possession of the ball crosses the plane of the opponent's goal line, when a player catches the ball while in the opponent's end zone, or when a defensive player recovers a loose ball in the opponent's end zone.