Football “Cheat Sheet” #1 Understanding the Game

I love football. It was my college sport and dear to my heart. There are positions for big strong guys and speedy, shifty quick players. It’s the sport for the super brainy chess-playing type strategists while having room for complete meatheads.  And I mean that lovingly.  I tell parents, “Most kids go through school with a few close friends; I had 25 best friends and 70 brothers.”

This is an exciting time for me as my oldest is starting high school football. He’s played flag football his whole life, but this is the first time he’s strapped on his pads to enjoy the true Friday night American tradition.

As a youth soccer coach, I always start the year by telling parents, “I am going to teach your kids the game, but I care that you understand it as well.”

Nothing is more troublesome/hilarious/sad than a mom standing up and screaming the wrong thing at the wrong time or a dad strategizing that the coach needs to “just get my kid the ball.”

“I’m glad you came, but. Umm, That wasn’t really a “thing.”

Like I’ve done for soccer and basketball, this article will lay out a quick “cheat sheet” for you as a football spectator to get us all up to speed. Hopefully, this helps you get a deeper understanding and love for the game faster than just sitting through games and trying to pick it up through osmosis. 

I want you to be a FAN of the game.  I want you to see the beauty of football and see what your kid is working on and improving.   While every player will not see the ball, each player has a specific duty to do each play.   The coaches will later analyze the game with hours of review and grade your player on each and every play.  There are no plays “off” so you must have an idea of what is expected to maximize the enjoyment of watching your child’s success and development.

We’ll start this journey with basics, and then I’ll get into terminology and wrap up some strategies.

Suppose you’re happy with the basics, great!  You’re ahead of the curve. But feel free to dive deeper into part 2. It will give you the insider’s eye that makes football so incredible.

Link to #2 – positions in football and strategy

Link to #3 – how to talk the game (a fun article that helps you relate and talk like a pro)

First off, it’s ok that you don’t see everything that is happening.   Football is a real-life chess game full of strategy and positioning and is often described in terms of “War rooms, Trenches and Battle!”

I grew up as a coach’s kid, on the sidelines and locker rooms since I could walk. So I have an insider’s experience. 

Coaches’ summer programs even play “virtual games” where they will “chalkboard” up scenarios of: “If you do this,” then “I’ll do that,” and strategize how it plays out.

But, unlike the chess model, the nuance is that momentum, excitement, athleticism, and luck have HUGE determining factors in this game too.  It’s sports at its finest.   One particular standout player can change the entire dynamic of what a team’s success looks like.   So prepare to get caught up in the athleticism, emotion, energy, dramatics, and beauty of it all.


The team that has the ball is the offense. They are trying to score.

The team trying to stop them from scoring is the defense

Like most sports, there are two ways to win.

Score the most points or stop the other team from scoring.    Both are equally important.   

There is one notable caveat with football compared to other sports –  Most players only play one side.

It is rare to have a kid “play both ways” in high school. This happens less frequently in college and only once a generation in the pros.

So the fact that your kid doesn’t play often and may never in his entire football career score a touchdown isn’t something you should be too worried about. Playing defense, being a lineman, and setting the perfect block are badges of honor—team before Individual.

True, some positions tend to get more highlights and their names announced over the speaker system more often, just like a pitcher is highlighted in baseball. However, the big guys that play down on the line who may go their entire career well into the NFL, never scoring a single point, are just as crucial to the team’s success.  Maybe more so.

More than any other sport in history, football is all about Teamwork.   It is a sport of positions and working as ONE, and why anyone deep into their love of football will tell you that it has some very real-world, real-life implications.



The offense is looking to score a touchdown– worth 6 points.

When they score a touchdown, they then have an opportunity to score an extra point by using a kick-off (called PAT, “Point after Touchdown” or “extra point” ) by kicking the ball through the uprights. 

So the usual and standard football score would be 7.

It is common to see football scores of 21-14 and other multiples of 7.   (one team scored 3 touchdowns and one team scored twice.)  

“Go for 2!

Rather than kicking a standard extra point, if the coach feels they need more, they can elect to “go for two.”  

The team then has one chance and one play only to get back into the endzone for a “2 point conversion”    

So a successful attempt would total a score of 8.  It might seem confusing at first, but just think of it like a 3-pointer in basketball or free throws—it’s just a risk vs. reward scoring option.

The kicker can also be used if a touchdown is not scored.   Kicking from distances ranging way out for a 3- point “field goal.”     These are game changers and are very important in the game.   They have significant risks, especially when attempted from farther out.    A good kicker changes the game.    

Of note:   It’s just the way Football works out.    The game’s final play will often come down to the very last second, where a 3-point field goal will make the difference between a win and a loss.    It’s a pressure situation that is incredible to watch.

There is one final scoring opportunity that is rare but cool to witness.    There is a:

It’s mandatory that every single person in the stands shows the “safety signal” and screams crazily when it happens in a game. If you don’t know, now ya’ know.

2 point “safety.”

This probably will only happen once a season for a team. It is so rare, but I want you to be the first to yell, “SAFETY!”

If the defense tackles the offensive team in their own endzone, (as if the team is 100 yards from scoring) the defensive team is awarded a 2-point safety, AND the offensive team has to kick off.   It’s a tremendous swing for one team and a HUGE momentum, game-changing play.

A safety is one of the biggest plays in the game and is typically done by a player that doesn’t have a fancy position where they are the star of attention. Of course, as a former defensive player, I’m biased – but in my opinion, this is the biggest play in the game!

So now you have the scoring down.

6-point touchdown with either a one or 2-point extra point attempt.

3-point field goal 

2-point safety.     You get to do the math!

My wife and I used this with our kids growing up.   “Braylon, how could a football team score 27 points?”  (4 touchdowns and 1 missed extra point) or (3 touchdowns and 2 field goals), etc.


The offense is allotted 4 plays to make it ten yards. 

They can run a ball, pass it or use other forms of possession to give their team opportunities and options.

Each time they make ten yards, they are awarded a new “first down” and have a new set of 4 plays to use again.    Of course, they can and want more than ten yards and a touchdown, but many strategies are involved in setting up big plays and huge gains.   A coach will often call a simple run play in the middle to “suck in” defensive players or lull them into being a step behind or peeking the wrong way to exploit the defense later. (think chess and strategy) These are setups.   Grinding running plays also keep the clock running and is a great way to speed up the game when your team is ahead.   The team that controls the ball longer generally has a better chance of winning the game.

The defense then has a primary job of stopping the offense quickly to ensure their team gets it back.  A great defense should play less.   As a defender, my best games may have only had me in action for 40 plays.   That means we were doing a great job.    That’s important to note if you feel your kid isn’t getting enough action.  Maybe he’s just having an awesome game!

The defense attempts to stop the offense and not give up the ten yards.   If they stop them on the 4th attempt, they win. Their team gets the ball back on what is (easy to remember) termed a “turnover by downs.”   

4th and goal may be the most exciting play in football.

More often, the offensive team will elect to “punt” the ball on their 4th down to cover more ground and set their defense up in a better position to be successful.    

If the O elects to “go for it on 4th down.” this sets up one of the most exciting plays in the game as the stakes are incredibly high. Quadruple the excitement on “4th a GOAL!” where the result is either a touchdown or a change in possession!

Defense:    The defense is trying to stop the offense.    If they catch a pass and steal it away from the offense, it is called an “interception.”    It is a tremendous play.   They now are the offense.     If the offense “fumbles” a ball and loses it in space, the defense can jump on it and steal it.  

These are called “turnovers,” the same term as basketball steals.

If, as I mentioned earlier, when the defense picks up a fumble or intercepts a pass, the play continues, and the defense has the chance to “take it to the house” and score their touchdown- a monumental swing in points and a giant momentum swing for the team, fans and staff.

You’ll see a considerable amount of nuances with offense and defense.  Ask questions, start to anticipate strategy, watch critical matchups, and begin to see where a team has an advantage they can use.    

That’s a great intro to offense, defense and scoring, but you must be aware of special plays.  Also correctly termed “special teams.”

Special Teams are the set plays that happen for the additional third of the game.    Maybe not as frequently as offensive and defensive lineups, but a more significant margin for scoring opportunity and field position each time.  These are vital plays that make or break a team.  Athleticism and teamwork shine during special teams, and mistakes are magnified tenfold.

The opening kickoff and “return.”    Punts and returns.   Field goal attempts, extra points.  These are the special teams and are key plays.

Special teams plays are always exciting and crucial!

Special teams are also unique in that Coaches often play some kids that might not see the field during regular offense and defense. It’s where upcoming players get a chance to get their feet wet and shine by earning responsibility and playing time.    Almost every football player through history started their football life on special teams before earning their regular spot for game-to-game plays.    These are nearly always electric plays, so get ready!

Wow, that seems like a lot. 

You’re doing great and understand points, offense and defense, special teams, and some reasons for the excitement when the crowd sees a play happening in real-time.   A long high ball with a chance of a touchdown or a possibility of an interception.   Risk vs. reward, athlete vs. positioning, technique, and coaching.    

Feel free to stop there and take it in.  It will all make more sense as you see it happening on the field.  But if you want to dive into positions and how incredible this game gets, continue on as I discuss more. (link to #2)   Much like baseball, your kid will play one or two positions and get very good at those specific tasks. Some positions are better suited for bigger, stronger guys and positions best suited for top-speed athletes. The coaches spend excessive time with your kids and have a great idea of what position your kid could best help the team.

When I explain football to my foreign friends, I typically explain it like I would the military. There are ground forces, Air Forces, artillery, missiles, tanks, close Quarter battles, and strategists. Positions in football are like this. Nobody can do it all. Football is about specialists!

Link to #2 – positions in football and strategy

Link to #3 – how to talk the game (a fun article that helps you relate and talk like a pro)


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