NFL Rules & Regulations

NFL Rules & Regulations

If you’re new to the National Football League (NFL) then it’s best to read up and get acquainted with the basics of the game and its most important rules. While not quite an ‘American Football rules for dummies’ this article will give you a general overview to understand the game better. Below we will touch on the evolution of the NFL and also touch on the most important parts of stats central. It is worth noting, that the same regulations that govern the teams in NFL are also found in college football rules.

The objective of the game in American Football is simply to outscore your opponents over the duration of the matchup. Each game is broken down into four equal quarters, consisting of 15 minutes each quarter, therefore a total of 60 minutes. All games are preceded by a performance of the national anthem in which players and fans take part to honor our game.

Just before kickoff, a coin is tossed by the referee at the beginning of a match to determine which team will receive the ball to start the game. This NFL officiating team consists of seven officials – one of these is the referee and all decisions are made by him or her. Currently there are no female referees on the NFL roster at the time of writing (August 2018).

The league uses video technology to assist the officials during the game and the inclusion of NFL’s instant replay during games lets questionable or ambiguous decisions be reviewed in real time. The officiating team come together to express their individual opinions and then the referee watches replays pitchside and can even contact officials in New York at the leagues head office. The correct enforcement of the leagues many rules is very important to the NFL in protecting its integrity and also the players safety.

As a fair way to determine which of the two teams starts the game with the ball, the referee tosses a coin. Captains on both teams call which side of the coin will land face up and the team who wins the coin toss decides to either receive the ball from the kickoff or defer to receive the kickoff in the second half. From there each team aims to move the football towards the goal posts and eventually into the opponent’s end of the pitch.

Football Field

Each football field is a total of 120 yards long, with 100 yards of the pitch known as the ‘field of play’. The 100 yards are broken down into 10 yard sections which are painted onto the field. From the end zone the lines are marked at ten yard intervals from 10 up to 50 – which marks the middle of the field. Players look to cross these marking lines with the ball either in their hand or through the air. Here is an image of the field – with the 2 end zones in red at either end.


Teams are split into three sections; offence, defence and special teams. Each section has an integral part to play in the duration of the game and its eventual outcome. Each team can move the football down the pitch by either throwing it or running it. They have 3 attempts known as ‘downs’ to move the ball a minimum of 10 yards towards their opponents end zone. If they succeed in moving 10 yards, then they have an additional 3 downs to make a further 10 yards.

This continues as the team moves the ball down the pitch towards a scoring opportunity. If the defending team manages to halt the progress of the attacking team and they do not make the minimum 10 yards in any of the 3 downs, then they must kick or ‘punt’ the ball possession to their opponents. The team that were defending now have possession of the ball and have the opportunity to move the ball the required 10 yards and look to attack their opponents.

A team can score points in one of three ways – the first two being the most popular. If a team either runs the ball or catches the ball in the opponent’s end zone they have scored a touchdown. A touchdown is worth six points and a team can then chose to either kick the ball between the goalposts for an additional point or to have one attempt at running or throwing the ball back into the end zone for an additional 2 points.

If a team gets close to the opponent’s end zone but does not manage to breach the end zone line within the stipulated 3 downs they are able to attempt a field goal by kicking the ball in-between the goalposts. A specialist player known as a kicker tries to score and a successfully converted field goal is worth 3 points.

The third way of scoring points is known as a safety and is worth 2 points. This occurs when the team with possession of the ball have their the ball carrier (normally the quarterback) tackled, sacked or pushed out of bounds in their own end zone. If this happens, the defensive team who make the tackle are awarded the points.

The team which accumulates the most points in the 60 minutes is the winner of the game. If a score is tied at the end of the stipulated period of time, there is an additional period of overtime. The same basic rules from regulation time apply, where both teams have a chance to score. If the team with the first possession of overtime scores a touchdown then the game is over and that team wins. If they fail to score a touchdown and the opposition team also fails to score with their possession then the game moves into a sudden death scenario where next score wins. Draws in American Football are extremely rare and the last time it happened was in September 2018 and before that it was October 2016.

technical Rules

There are a great number of technical rules during a game, enforced as penalties which the officiating team collectively determines on the field of play. An NFL game sees the team of 7 officials signal fouls by throwing yellow flags onto the field to mark illegalities by players on either team. The NFL rules enforcement range from an unnecessary roughness penalty – where a player is overly aggressive outside of the rules, false starts and offsides – where a player moves before the ball is snapped, pass interference – where a player stops an opponent receiving the ball illegally, and many more.


Penalties are enforced by moving the placement of the ball on the pitch and therefore penalising the team who’s player makes the foul. Depending on the severity of the foul, the ball will be moved either forwards or backwards a set number of yards. Minor offences such as false starts will see a team move backwards 5 yards, whereas more serious offences can see the ball move to the spot of the foul and can be even 50 or 60 yards.

Penalties can see an attacking team move forwards if a defender fouls one of their players, or can see them move backwards if one of their own players commits the penalty. A team that is penalised regularly, either during a game or even during a whole season, will struggle to win games as any progress they make in yards will be penalised due to the pealties.

In recent times the league has allowed coaches to ‘challenge’ calls made by a referee during a game. Challenges are only allowed in certain circumstances and are limited to two a game – so they must be used wisely. If a coach is of the belief the call on the field is incorrect (usually after watching replays) then he or she can throw the red flag onto the field. The flag can only be thrown before the final two minutes of any half and if the team has a time out available to them.

If those criteria are met the referee will watch replays of the incident in question at various angles and speeds to try and determine if the original decision on the field was called correctly. Importantly, the referee must view incontrovertible visual evidence that the original call was incorrect to overturn that decision. That is to say there must be compelling evidence on the replay to change the call on the field. If the replay is unclear in anyway then the call on the field stands and the team who called the challenge is charged a time out. If there is sufficient evidence for the call to be reversed then the team is not charged a time out and the referee makes the necessary changes to the score / game clock / field position to correct the decision.

Challenges can only be made directly after the original decision and before the next snap of the ball. As such coaches may need to make instant decisions, without viewing replays and based on only the feedback from their players. If a dubious call is made in favour of the offence then the team looks to get play started as soon as possible to give the opposition no time to call the challenge before the ball is snapped.


Coaches have the final decision on whether or not to throw the challenge flag, after weighing up the opinions of sometimes irate players, video replays, team assistants and even the crowd in the stadium. Because of the potential game changing significance of challenges, coupled with the limited number and the potential loss of a valuable time out, challenges are used mainly on pivotal plays with huge significance to the outcome of the game.

Creating the NFL schedule is a hugely complicated process which plans out the entire regular season for each team to select its opponents and fixtures. The schedule allocates 8 home and 8 away fixtures ensuring there are no fixture clashes. Each team is allowed to have a maximum of 53 players signed with the team, known as being on the roster. The players, together with the coaches tactics, look to devise and implement a winning strategy for each game during the season.

Only eleven players can be on the field of play during a game, with the players split into three groups; offence, defence and special teams. These three groups of players rotate onto the pitch during the different phases of the game. If a teams offence struggles to put together drives and retain possession of the ball, then the defence can expect to be on the pitch a lot of the time. Vice versa, if a teams offence is hot and can consistently put together scoring drives then the defence will not be called on as often. Special teams players are used for kick off returns and punts – which sees the ball switched between the teams after either a score or the end of a non scoring drive.