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Understanding American Football's Downs, Yardage, and Stuff

The down system in American football keeps the game interesting. After all, if the offense kept running plays but never got anywhere, the sport would be really boring. Using the down system, the offense has four downs (essentially four plays) to go 10 yards. If the offensive team advances the ball at least 10 yards in four tries or fewer, the team receives another set of four downs.

If the offense has failed to advance 10 yards after three tries, the team usually punts the ball on the fourth down (a punt is a kick to the opponent without the use of a tee). The other team then begins with its own set of four downs, traveling in the opposite direction.

You may hear TV commentators use the phrase "three and out." What they mean is that a team has failed to advance the ball 10 yards on its first set of downs and has to punt the ball. You don't want your team to go three and out very often. But you do want to earn lots of first downs, which you get after your team advances the ball 10 yards or more in the allotted four downs. Getting lots of first downs usually translates to more scoring opportunities, which are definitely good things.

Football has its own lingo to explain the offense's progress toward a first down. A first down situation is also known as a "first and 10" because the offense has 10 yards to go to gain a first down. If your offense ran a play on first down and you advanced the ball 3 yards, your status would be "second and 7"; you're ready to play the second down, and you now have 7 yards to go to gain a first down.

As a viewer, you aren't expected to just remember what down it is and how many yards to go for a first down. Football makes it easy by providing people and signs to help you keep track:

  • Two rodmen hold metal rods, with Xes at the top, connected by a chain that stretches exactly 10 yards. One rod marks where the possession begins, and the other extends to where the offensive team must go in order to make another first down.
  • The third person, the boxman, holds a marker that signifies where the ball is and what down it is. Atop this rod is the number 1, 2, 3, or 4, designating which down it is.
  • In all NFL stadiums, a person also marks where the drive began (that is, where the offensive team assumed possession of the ball). Many high school and college fields don't have these markers.

Whenever there's a critical measurement for a first down, the chain crew is brought to the hash marks nearest where the ball is positioned, and the officials use the rods to measure whether the offense has obtained a first down.

Thanks to the miracle of technology, determining where a team has to advance the ball to get a first down is easier than ever if you're watching television. On the TV screen during a game, you'll see an electronic line down the middle of the field that marks where a team must go to get a first down.

See also:

How Football Teams Can Score Points in Game Play

Common Football Terms to Know

Football Players’ Roles in Team Offense and Defense

What Football Playing Field White Lines Mean

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