Ashley’s Rookie Season: Downs, Tackling, Contact, and Home Field Advantage

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If you missed the scoop on Ashley’s Rookie Season, check out this post!

Ashley got this party started in great style; she came up with a bunch of great questions! Here’s our first round of questions and answers from her rookie season as a football fan.

Q. Whats the deal with downs? Is it really that the team has to move 10 yards in a certain number of tries – its 4 tries right?

A. This has to be the question that haunts most football rookies – what the heck is a down, and why is it so important?!

For starters, Ashley’s right – it’s 10 yards in 4 tries. But here’s an in-depth explanation from the Basics of Offense post:

The offense has four chances, called “downs,” to advance the ball ten yards. If they do, they receive a new set of downs and the opportunity to continue trying to reach the end zone to score.

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.

Stay with me! Here’s an example!

Let’s say the offense is starting their drive on their own 20 yard line (a very common occurrence). (Just a note – the 50 yards of field from the offense’s end zone = their “own” side of the field. The 50 yards of field on the defense’s side of the end zone = the defense’s territory.) 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 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.

The first play is called “1st and 10,” because it’s the offense’s first down (chance) and they still have 10 yards to go to get a new set of downs. Let’s say they hand the ball off to a running back and gain 3 yards. The next play would be called “2nd and 7,” because it’s their second chance and the running back gained 3 of the 10 yards needed for a new set of downs, so the offense still has 7 yards left to go before they earn a new set of downs. 10 – 3 = 7. See! 1st grade math! You can do this!!!

Ok, so it’s now 2nd and 7. Since the offense started at the 20 yard line, we know that they are now at the 23 yard line because they gained 3 yards on the last play. Let’s say the quarterback throws a quick pass out to a wide receiver who catches it and gets tackled at the 25 yard line. It’s a 2 yard gain. So what’s the new down and distance?

It you answered 3rd and 5, you’re right! It’s now the offense’s 3rd chance, and they’ve gained 5 total yards (3 on 1st down, 2 on 2nd down), so 10 – 5 = 5 yards left to go.

So it’s 3rd and 5. The quarterback drops back to pass, but he doesn’t find anyone open. He sees a small hole in the defense and keeps the ball himself, trying to run through the hole to gain at least 5 yards. But he’s tackled at the 29 yard line. He only gained 4 yards.

The new down and distance? 4th and 1.

Are you still with me? Because we’re going to make things a little more complicated now that we’ve reached 4th down. Re-read that last section again and then meet me at the next paragraph.

Ready? Let’s move on to 4th down!

When a team reaches 4th down, it’s not as simple as trying one last time to get a first down. If the offense tries and fails on 4th down, they surrender possession of the football right where they are – no kicking or punting – to the other team. So in this situation, if the offense were to go for it on 4th and 1 at their own 29 yard line and the quarterback throws an incomplete pass for no gain, that means the other team would take over at the offense’s 29 yard line, giving them excellent field position to score. They’d already be within field goal range and aren’t even 30 yards away from the end zone. Unless a team is desperate, you’d rarely see an offense “go for it” on 4th down when they are so deep in their own territory.

What you’d normally see in this situation is the offense punting the ball – kicking the ball to the other team – to start the other team’s new possession. This is what we call a “3 and out.” The offense tried to advance the ball 3 times, failed to get a first down, and then had to punt the ball away.

Let’s switch things up for a moment and pretend that the offense isn’t on their own 29 yard line, they’re on the other teams 29 yard line. In that situation, the offense has two options on a 4th and 1 play: they can try for a field goal, which would be kicked from the 46 yard line (because you have to add 17 yards to the line of scrimmage to account for the length of the end zone and where the players line up), a fairly standard field goal attempt. But the offense might also try to go for it on 4th down to try and gain the one yard they need for a new set of downs. This makes sense for 2 reasons: 1. If they make it, they’re in great field position to try and score on the next set of downs. 2. If they don’t, the other team gets the ball right where they are, on the offense’s 29 yard line, which isn’t giving them too much of an advantage in terms of field position.

Let’s review. When 4th down comes to call, a team has these options:

1. PUNT. This happens most often when a team is on their own side of the field (the 50 yards connected to their own end zone) or fairly close to it.

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.

I know that’s a lot to swallow on the first question, but if you can get the whole downs concept, your whole football watching experience is going to improve dramatically. For real.

Q. Why is tackling important/necessary?

A. Let’s start from scratch: tackling is the act of a defensive player stopping the progress of an offensive player by forcing him to the ground in a legal manner. The art of tackling has been lost in recent years; you see a lot of guys arm-tackling – just grabbing at ball carriers with their arms as they pass by – instead of tackling with their whole bodies.

Good tackling is essential in the NFL. Why? Because without it, ball carriers run amok all over the field, scoring points at will. Football would be pretty boring if not for tackling.

Q. What is illegal contact

A. GREAT question. Illegal contact is when defensive player (usually a cornerback or safety) messes with an offensive player (usually a wide receiverafter he’s 5-yards from the line of scrimmage and before the ball is in the air. Defenders can “jam” (or try to block) receivers at the line of scrimmage, but once the receiver has advanced 5-yards away from the line, it’s hands-off. Defenders also can’t interfere with receivers while running routes down the field in an attempt to catch a pass. Contact after 5-yards and before the ball has been thrown  = illegal contact.

What’s the difference between illegal contact and pass interference, you might wonder? Pass interference is a penalty that can be called on offensive or defensive players, and it occurs after the ball is in the air.

Got it?

Q. Why is it basically impossible to beat the Seahawks at home?

A. The Seahawks have harnessed the power of home field advantage, the unique ability for the home team to play better and have a higher win percentage at home than they do on the road. In Seattle, the structure of the stadium and the dedication of the fans (deemed the “12th man” for being an extra presence on the field) (each unit is only allowed to field 11 players, hence the “12th man” nickname) have created an atmosphere which even the best road teams find nearly impossible to overcome.

Just how powerful are the Seattle faithful at CenturyLink field? As per Peter King’s MMQB column the game against the 49ers, “got to 136.6 decibels in the third quarter, 16.6 decibels louder than the sound generated by a jet engine on an open runway.” At that noise level, the opposing team can’t think straight, let alone hear calls from the quarterback or the sidelines.

That’s a wrap for the first round of questions! Rookies: how did you do? Was this helpful? Be on the lookout for another round next week!

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3 Responses to “Ashley’s Rookie Season: Downs, Tackling, Contact, and Home Field Advantage”

  1. Ashley September 27, 2013 at 5:48 pm #

    Beka, this has been so helpful. I’ve read this post 3 times already – and the more I read the more I get … Just from this ONE post! I FINALLY understand downs! No more will I have to ask about the basics of that and have people look at me as if to say, “really you don’t get that?” THANKS!
    And the Seahawks may be making good progress as being a candidate for my favorite team…their fan seem pretty awesome at 136.6 decibels!

    • Beka September 28, 2013 at 9:25 am #

      Ashley…that’s awesome!!! I’m so glad!!! Thanks so much for being up to the challenge; I think it’s going to be a great season! :)

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