Have you ever been watching a game and the announcer said something to the effect of, “And the Vikings are going to go 3 and out”? (No offense, Vikings fans; I picked a team at random. Kind of.) You may have thought that statement was a piece of complicated football jargon, but it’s not! It’s actually really simple and makes a lot of sense once you figure out what it means – as per all of football. Let’s dive in!
Do we all remember everything we’ve learned about downs? Let’s review just in case we need a refresher:
Once the offense starts their drive, they have four chances, called “downs,” to move the ball 10 yards from where they started (this place is called “the line of scrimmage”). Each play is then calculated by what chance (down) the offense is on and how many yards they have left until they reach 10 yards total. Once they reach or exceed the 10 yards in one set of downs, they get a new set – four more chances to move the ball 10 more yards. The calculation of what down it is and how far they have left to go is called the “down and distance.”
Let’s say the offense is starting their drive (current offensive possession) on their own 20-yard line (a very common occurrence). The ball will be placed on the 20-yard line, and the imaginary line extending from the ball to both sidelines is the line of scrimmage. The offense needs to reach or exceed the 30-yard line, which means they’ve gained at least 10 yards total from where they began (at the 20-yard line), over the course of the next 4 downs to receive a new set of downs and therefore another opportunity to advance down the field and score. You will know how far the offense needs to go to gain a new set of downs thanks to the magic of technology: they need to reach or exceed the bright yellow electronic line on the field, which indicates how far the offense has to go to get a first down.
Ok, so let’s keep rolling with this scenario to talk about going 3 and out. Let’s say the quarterback hands the ball off to a running back on first down and he gets pummeled before making any progress. He is down at the 20-yard line, so the new down and distance is 2nd and 10 (because it’s their second chance and they still have 10 yards to go). On the next play the quarterback hands the ball off to another running back…who is also pummeled before making any progress. Down and distance: 3rd and 10. On 3rd down, the quarterback throws a pass out to a wide receiver who can’t make the catch. That’s an incomplete pass, and it’s now 4th and 10.
4th down is when everything changes. The offense has 3 options:
2. KICK A FIELD GOAL. This happens most often when a team is within field goal range (30-50 yards is typical length for NFL kicks) and doesn’t want to give the other team the ball where they currently are. (Although it should be noted that if the offense misses the field goal, the other team gets the ball at the spot of the kick (not at the 4th down line of scrimmage), unless the kick is from the 20 yard line or closer, in which case the other team would get the ball at the 20 yard line.)
3. GO FOR IT. This happens most often when the yardage is short (4th and 1 or 4th and inches) and the team believes they can either convert (get the 1st down) or hand the ball over on downs without sacrificing too much field position.
In our scenario, the offense is on their own 20-yard line. That means they have 80-yards of field to cover before they reach their opponents end zone. A field goal is out of the question; it’s way, way too far of a kick. Going for it would be a desperation attempt. If they don’t get the first down, they hand the ball over to their opponent and put them right in scoring position, 20-yards outside of the end zone. The only reason they would choose this option is if they are way behind late in the game. Let’s assume that it’s only the 2nd quarter. In this situation, the offense would more than likely choose to punt: kick the ball away to the other team to start a new drive.
If a team punts on 4th down on their FIRST set of downs, it’s called going “3 and out.” Why? Because they were unsuccessful in their first 3 downs, and they’re using the 4th down to go “out” or off the field by punting. It means they barely got out there before needing to punt and get off the field again.
It’s important to note that anytime a teams punts on 4th down after 3 unsuccessful attempts is NOT a 3 and out. So if a team has successfully converted downs during their current drive – let’s say they advanced from the 20-yard line to the 47-yard line over the course of two sets of downs – and decides to punt after 3 unsuccessful attempts, it’s not a 3 and out. Anytime the offense has earned a new set of downs on their current drive, punting on 4th down can no longer be considered going 3 and out because they had a successful conversion prior to the punt.
So, to review:
Punting on 4th down after 3 unsuccessful attempts on the FIRST set of downs = 3 and out.
Punting on 4th down after 3 unsuccessful attempts after the first set of downs = just a punt.