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Football: The Down

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What is a football down?

One of the most important concepts in the game of football is the down. A down is really another name for play. On each down a play is made.

Down marker showing 2nd down
Source: US Navy

There are 4 Downs

The offensive team has 4 downs or plays to either score or gain 10 yards. If the team gains 10 yards, then the downs start over. If they don't gain 10 yards, after the fourth try, the opposing team gets possession of the football at the spot of the tackle.

Each down is called by its name or number: First, second, third, and fourth down.

Playing Each Down

To start the down the football is hiked from the center the quarterback. From there, the quarterback can run with the football, hand it off to another player like a running back, or throw the ball to another player like a wide receiver.

The down or play is over once the player with the football is tackled, goes out of bounds, or one team scores. The next play or down will start from the point where the player was tackled or went out of bounds.

Fourth Down

Fourth down is the offensive team's last attempt to try and gain 10 yards. If they don't get to the 10 yards mark, then the other team gets the football. There are a few options:

Go For It: A football team can choose to play a regular play on fourth down and try to gain the 10 yards. If they don't, then the other team gets the ball at the spot of the tackle. In some cases this could give them really good field position.

Kick a Field Goal: If they are close enough, a football team will try and kick a field goal and gain three points. If they miss, the other team gets the football at the point where the ball was spotted on fourth down.

Punt: In many cases a football team will choose to punt. They kick the ball as far as they can down field to the other team and then try to tackle the player who catches the ball. By punting the team gives up the ball, but they gain field position.

Speaking the Lingo

When downs are described the number of the down is followed by how many yards are left to go. So the typical first down will be described as "first and ten". This means it is first down and there are 10 yards to go to get the next first down. When someone says "fourth and 1", this means its fourth down and there is 1 yard to go to get another first down.

Referee signals for downs

First down signal

The referee signals first down by pointing with his right arm toward the defensive team's goal.

The referee signals fourth down by raising one arm above his head with his hand in a fist.

* referee signal pictures from the NFHS

More Football Links:

Football Rules
Football Scoring
Timing and the Clock
The Football Down
The Field
Referee Signals
Football Officials
Violations that Occur Pre-Snap
Violations During Play
Rules for Player Safety
Player Positions
Running Back
Offensive Line
Defensive Line
The Secondary
Football Strategy
Offense Basics
Offensive Formations
Passing Routes
Defense Basics
Defensive Formations
Special Teams

How to...
Catching a Football
Throwing a Football
How to Punt a Football
How to Kick a Field Goal

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