First Down!?

The bulk of each football game consists of an offensive team trying to advance the ball down the field in the hope that they will get the ball into the end zone (thus scoring a touchdown and earning their team six points) and a defensive team trying to stop the offense from gaining any yards or scoring any points.

After the opening kickoff, the ball will be placed at the line of scrimmage, or perhaps a better way to describe it would be that the line of scrimmage is the line where the ball is. Once the line of scrimmage has been set, the offense must stay on its side of the ball while the defense must stay on its side until the ball is snapped.

The offensive team will have four chances—called downs—to move the ball forward as far as they can either by rushing or passing the ball. If the offensive team is able to gain a combined ten yards over their four downs, the downs will reset, and it once again becomes first down.

For example, the offensive team has the ball on the 20 yard line—this is the line of scrimmage. The first play will be first down and ten yards to go (to the next first down).

If you are watching a game on TV, this will be part of every play: A down followed by a number. If the announcer doesn’t say it, it will be displayed somewhere on the screen. If a team rushes the ball and gains two yards on ‘first and ten,’ it will become ‘second and eight’ (aka second down and eight yards to go).

If a team gains eight yards on ‘second and eight,’ it will be ‘first and ten’ again. Likewise, if a team gains 25 yards on ‘first and ten’ it will once again be ‘first and ten.’

This will continue the whole way down the field, at least until the offense gets inside the ten yard line—how can you have a ‘first and ten’ if you are on the eight yard line? Actually, you can’t. Once the ball moves inside the ten yard line, it becomes ‘first and goal.’ This means the offense has four chances left to score a touchdown or kick a field goal and cannot get another first down (barring a penalty on the defense).

What happens when a team does not gain the ten yard necessary for a first down?

This is something that will happen to virtually every team in every game, even the best offenses fail to pick up enough yards sometimes. Failing to reach a first down means that the other team (the defensive team) will inherit the ball right where it is. The defense will become the offense and the roles of the two teams are reversed.

Put simply, once it comes to be fourth down, teams have three options:

  • Go for it – take the risk of not acquiring a first down and losing the ball to the other team.
  • Kick a field goal – if the offense is close enough they can attempt the three-point kick.
  • Punt – the most common choice, meaning that teams will kick the ball as far as they can, thus backing up the line of scrimmage. The defense will still get the ball, but with the punt having moved the line of scrimmage they will have a lot further of a trip to go to score.
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