Do you ever get frustrated watching a football game and the player with the ball runs right into the middle of a bunch of huge guys? It seems like you can’t keep track of where the player with the ball went, as well as thinking that he is just not getting anywhere! Especially closer to the goal like he is supposed too.
This is where the down system comes in. The team that has received the ball from the kickoff will start the game with the opportunity to make four downs. What that means is they have four chances to move the ball 10 yards.
Every time the offense, (the team with the ball) gets the ball 10 yards or more down the field they get another set of downs. If they do not get the ball down the field in 3 tries, they may use the 4th try to punt (kick without a tee) to the other team. Sometimes the offense will decide to use their fourth try to get the first down depending on how far they have to go.
So here is an example:
Team A has the ball and they are on offense. Team B is defending their goal and on defense. Team A has four downs or four chances to go at least 10 yards at which time Team A will get another set of four downs.
On the first try (first down) also called “first and 10“, Team A moves the ball only 2 yards. That means they have 8 more yards to go to get another set of downs. On the second try (second down) also referred to as “second and 8“, they get the ball down the field 5 yards. That means that they have moved the ball 7 yards in total and have only 3 more yards to go. So now it is their 3rd try (third down), also referred to as “third and 7” and they have 3 yards to go to start the down process again. And….they make it! Team A goes 4 yards which gives them a total of 11 yards from where the series of downs started and they get a whole new set of downs. They will start over with “first and 10”.
The idea is that they drive the ball down the field any way they can to get closer and closer to the goal in hopes of scoring a touchdown and the down process gives them the chances to just that!
But wait! What if Team A doesn’t make it? Let’s say on their 3rd try (third down), they only go 2 yards, giving them a total of 9 yards from where the series started. They are 1 yard short of a new set of downs and they have a decision to make. Team A can use their fourth chance (fourth down) to try and go for the 1 yard or they can punt (kick) the ball to Team B at which time Team A then becomes the defense and Team B is the offense trying to score.
Punting (kicking) the ball is a bit different than kickoff. The players do not line up like they did at kickoff. Wherever the last play ended for Team A is where they will punt the ball to Team B. When Team B receives the ball they can wave their hand for a fair catch and no one will tackle them or they can run with the ball. Depending on what the receiver does determines where Team B’s sets of downs will start. For example, if the receiver on Team B catches the ball on the 20 yard line and gets tackled on the 30 yard line then Team B’s four downs starts on the 30 yard line.
The cool thing is that watching a football game on tv takes the headache out of trying to figure out what yard line your team is on and how many more they need to get a first down. Some televised football games are so technical that colored lines appear on the tv screen showing where the ball started, where it needs to go and where each down is marked. It is extremely helpful. You can always look at the scoreboard too. Not only will it show what down the play is on, but how many yards are left to go and who is on offense.
So how does the television crew actually know what to put on our tv screens? They are watching a group of people, called “the chain gang“, that is on the sideline of the field, marking spots with metal rods…….
“Two people called rodmen hold metal rods with X’s or O’s at the top connected by a thin metal chain that is exactly 10 yards when the two rods are thoroughly extended. One rod marks where possession begins, and the other extends to where the offensive team must go in order to make another first down.”
The third person, known as the boxman, holds a marker that that has either a 1, 2, 3, or 4, on the top. This marker is placed on the yard line where the ball is and the number shows whether it is first, second, third, or fourth down. In the pros there will often be a fourth guy that marks where possession began.
Sometimes it is extremely hard to determine with the naked eye whether or not a first down has occurred. We are talking inches here and the chain gang has to actually run out on the field to measure with the chain to see if the ball made it the full 10 yards.
It’s exciting when a first down occurs. Cheers, hand expressions, and the like are traditional reactions when a team gets another… “FIRST DOWN!” But it’s not as exciting as scoring and that is exactly what we will be discussing next….. All the ways to score in a football game so stay tuned!
**I have tried really hard to explain everything up to this point as simply as possible. If there is something that is not clear or you have further questions about, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or email me. I want to do the best I can to help anyone understand this crazy fun game of football. From here on out, it is going to get a bit more complicated so bear with me, and again, ask questions if there is something you don’t get.