WHAT ARE THE RULES OF THE NFL, simply explained

The objective of the game

What are the rules of the NFL? The aim and objective of the game is to outscore your opponents within the allotted timeframe. Each team can score points once they reach the opposite end of the field and have four plays to advance at least 10. 

The “first down” is earned if the offense successfully advances 10 yards & resets the counter for the number of tries. This is calculated from the starting from the spot which they first made a move against their opponent. After this, they will be given four more tries to advance to an additional 10 yards. The team without the ball will regain control of it if the offense fails to advance to at least 10 yards during their four downs.

On offense, points are scored when the ball goes past the opponent’s end zone for a touchdown (worth six points). Points can also be earned by kicking the ball from the playing field through the raised goal posts.  These are placed on the end line of the end zone for a field goal (worth three points). After scoring a touchdown, the offense is given an additional opportunity from the 2-yard line to attempt to score.


While the opposing team has possession, it is the job of the defense team to prevent their opponent from scoring. If an offensive player loses the ball during play or the ball is caught by a defensive player while still in the air. The defense can attempt to run into the offense’s end zone for a touchdown. The defense may also score points by tackling the ball carrier in the offense’s end zone, called a safety (which is worth two points).

Time of play

Football games are 60 minutes long, and this is divided into four quarters of 15 minutes each. The referee is in charge of the game clock and can stop the clock after an incomplete pass or any play that ends out of bounds. Also, each team is allowed three timeouts in each half that can be used at their discretion.

In addition to the game clock, a separate play clock is also used. This counts down the time the offense has to start the next play before it is awarded a penalty for delay of game. The NFL uses a 40-second play clock that starts immediately after the previous play ends. It is applied for certain delays, such as penalty enforcement. The offense has 25 seconds from when the ball is marked ready. The purpose of the play clock is to ensure that the game progresses at a consistent pace, preventing unnecessary delays.

Separating the first and second halves is halftime. Teams change ends of the field at the end of the first quarter and the end of the third quarter. In the NFL, an automatic timeout is called by the officials when there are two minutes left in both the second and the fourth quarters, and overtime; this is most commonly referred to as the two-minute warning.


If a game is tied at the end of four quarters, overtime is played. In overtime, the coin is tossed to determine which team will possess the ball first. 

The winner of the coin toss can choose to give the ball or receive the ball. If the first possession results in a field goal, the other team is given possession to match or better the field goal; therefore continuing the game. If the first possession results in a touchdown, the scoring team wins. During the regular season in the NFL, one overtime period is played. If both teams are tied after the 10-minute overtime, the game officially ends in a tie.

In the playoffs, 15-minute overtime periods continue until a winner is determined. Overtime follows after a three-minute intermission following the end of the regulation game. Before the start of overtime, a coin flip is performed where the captain of the visiting team calls the toss. The team that wins the coin flip has the option to either receive the kickoff or choose the side of the field they wish to defend.


Coin toss

Three minutes before the start of the game, the referee meets with captains from both teams for a coin toss. The visiting team calls the toss, and the winner of the toss may defer their choice to the start of the second half

Scrimmage downs

The majority of a football game takes place on plays, or downs, that begins at the line of scrimmage. The officials spot the ball on the line of scrimmage and declare it ready for play.


A typical offense is made up of a quarterback, five offensive linemen, two wide receivers, a running back, a fullback, and a tight end. However, teams will vary their personnel on the field to fit any given play. A quarterback is essentially the leader of the offense. It is most often their responsibility to pass along the play called to the rest of the players in the huddle before any play.

An NFL rule book

Click ‘here’ to view this book

The players on offense must arrange themselves in a formation, all behind their line of scrimmage. For safety and competitive balance, there are strict rules which define the way in which the offensive players may line up. Seven players must line up directly on the line of scrimmage while four players line up behind the line of scrimmage.

Linemen do not handle the ball

Within this formation, there are six eligible receivers who may receive a forward pass during play. These eligible receivers are either the running back, fullback, tight end, or wide receivers. The remaining five linemen, often called interior linemen do not normally handle the ball during a play.

The players on defense may arrange themselves in any manner, as long as all players are behind the line. Players who line up opposite the offensive line are called defensive linemen, usually with one or two defensive tackles in the middle and with one defensive end on each side. A defensive lineman’s job is typical to put pressure on the opposing team’s quarterback by rushing the offensive line.

Behind the linemen are the linebackers. A linebacker’s job can be any number of things, including trying to rush the opposing team’s quarterback, stopping the opponents’ running back on run plays, or covering the opponents’ tight end or wide receivers.

Positioned opposite the wide receivers are the cornerbacks. Their primary responsibility is to cover the wide receivers. Farthest back from the line is the safeties, usually in the middle of the field behind the linebackers. The safeties are the last line of defense against the opponent.


A kickoff is a type of free kick where the ball is placed on a tee at the kicking team’s 35-yard line. Players on the kickoff coverage team cannot line up more than 5 yards behind the kickoff line, minimizing running starts and thus reducing the speed of collisions.

The kicking team’s players may not cross this line until the ball is kicked; members of the non-kicking team are similarly restrained behind a line 10 yards further downfield. A valid kickoff must travel at least this 10-yard distance to the receiving team’s restraining line, after which any player of either team may catch or pick up the ball and try to advance it before being downed.

Receiving a kickoff

A member of the receiving team gaining possession of the ball on a kickoff may attempt to advance it as far as he can. Heading towards the kicking team’s goal line before being downed. Once the ball carrier is downed, the play is whistled dead, and the ball is placed by the officials at the point where the play ended.

This spot then becomes the line of scrimmage for the ensuing play. A kick that travels through or goes out of bounds within the end zone without being touched, or is caught by the receiving team in the end zone but not advanced out of it, results in a touchback; the ball is then placed at the receiving team’s 25-yard line, which becomes the line of scrimmage.

A field goal (3 points)

A field goal is scored when the ball is place kicked; drop kicked, or free kicked after a fair catch or awarded fair catch between the goalposts behind the opponent’s end zone.

Touchdown (6 points)

A touchdown is earned when a player has legal possession of the ball and the ball touches or goes over the imaginary vertical plane above the opposing team’s goal line. After a touchdown, the scoring team attempts a try for 1 or 2 points.

The official NFL rule book

Click here to view the book

Try for extra point

Either one or two additional points may be scored during the try. The ball is spotted at the 15-yard line (for 1-point conversions); 2-yard line (for 2-point conversions) for the NFL and the team is given one un-timed play to earn points.

Safety (2 points)

The uncommon safety is scored if a player causes the ball to become dead in his end zone; two points are awarded to the opposing team. This can happen if a player is either downed or goes out of bounds in the end zone while carrying the ball. Or if he fumbles the ball, and it goes out of bounds in the end zone.


The game is officiated by a crew of 3 to 7 officials. Every crew will consist of a referee. He is generally in charge of the game and watches the action on the quarterback and in the offensive backfield; an umpire, who handles spotting the ball and watches the action on the offensive line; and a Head linesman, who supervises placement of the down box and line-to-gain chains. The crew may also consist of a line judge, back judge, field judge, and side judge, in the order listed: i.e., a crew of five officials has a referee, umpire, head linesman, line judge, and back judge.


In NFL, there is a total of 6 timeouts allotted to each team with 3-timeouts for each half. Timeouts not used in the first half cannot be used in the second half or overtime. 

So there you have it, next time you are asked ‘what are the rules of the NFL’ you can use this post as a reference. Check out another one of my posts on NFL gift ideas, Hover helmets or take a look at the awesome snack helmets. 



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