A catch occurs when a forward pass is completed (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) and a player who is inbounds…

  1. secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground and;
  2. touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands and;
  3. after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, performs any act common to the game (e.g., tuck the ball away, extend it forward, take an additional step, turn upfield, or avoid or ward off an opponent), or he maintains control of the ball long enough to do so. 

Coin Toss

A pre-game ritual where the referee flips a coin and the captain of the visiting team calls heads or tails. The coin toss determines who kicks off to start the game, who gets the ball first and in which end zone the defense will defend first.

Dead Ball

The ball is considered “dead” during stoppages in play, between downs and during timeouts.


The team trying to prevent the offense from scoring.


A down is the period of action that begins when the ball is put in play and ends when the ball is declared dead. Most downs start with a snap from scrimmage, but kickoffs and safety kicks start when the ball is struck. An offense has four downs or fewer to advance the 10 yards required to gain a first down, which allows them to maintain possession and earns them another four downs. The initial down in a series of downs is called a first down. Subsequent downs are numbered sequentially — second, third, or fourth.

Down by Contact

A player who possesses the ball is ruled down by contact when he touches the ground with any part of his body — other than his feet, hands or arms — as a direct result of contact with a player of the opposing team. If a player touches the ground with any part of his body other than his feet, hands or arms, but was not contacted by a defender, he may get up and continue to advance the ball. The exception is when a ball carrier intentionally kneels down or gives himself up and stops advancing.

Drop Kick

Rarely used, a drop kick happens when a player drops the ball and kicks it as, or immediately after, it touches the ground. This kick was more common in the league’s early days but has been phased out of the game because of the unpredictability of bouncing the odd-shaped ball before kicking it. The only successful drop kick attempted since 1941 was converted by New England Patriots quarterback Doug Flutie on January 1, 2006.

Eligible Receiver

Eligible receivers include:

  • All defensive players
  • Quarterbacks
  • Punters
  • Placekickers
  • Running backs
  • Tight ends
  • H-backs
  • Wide receivers

Offensive players who are eligible wear numbers from 1–49 or 80–89, though in certain situations, other players can report as eligible to the referee before a play. Anyone on the field becomes eligible once the ball has been touched by any defensive player or eligible offensive player.

Fair Catch

A player in position to receive a punt can signal for a fair catch by raising one arm above his head and waving it from side to side. Once the receiver signals for a fair catch, he cannot advance the ball and the play is over when he catches the ball and the opponent may not interfere with or tackle him.

Forward Pass

A forward pass occurs when an offensive player, usually the quarterback, throws the football from behind the line of scrimmage toward an eligible receiver on his team with the intent of advancing downfield toward his opponent’s goal line.

Forward Progress

The point on the field where the forward momentum of a player who is in possession of the football is stopped by a defender or by going out of bounds. A player is awarded the most forward spot the runner reached when the ball is declared dead even if he is pushed backward.

Free Kick

Any kickoff or punt in which one team kicks the ball to the other to start a possession at the beginning of either half, after a score or safety, or after a defensive stop.


A turnover that occurs when any player who is in possession of the football drops it during a play. Once a player fumbles, either team can recover the football.


A handoff occurs when a quarterback hands the ball to a teammate, most commonly the tail back, who attempts to advance the football downfield towards his opponent’s end zone.


The place on the field where players meet to discuss the strategy they will use.

Ineligible Receiver

A player who cannot legally catch a forward pass. This includes offensive players who do not line up for a play on either end of the offensive line or at least one yard behind it when the ball is snapped. Offensive players wearing numbers 50–79, are ineligible unless they report as eligible to the referee. A previously eligible receiver who steps out of bounds prior to or during a pass, even if he re-establishes himself inbounds, is ineligible.


A turnover that occurs when a defensive player catches a forward pass thrown by the offense resulting in a change of possession.


A kick that puts the ball in play at the start of each half, at the start of overtime, after each Try, and after a successful field goal.


A pass that goes sideways or backwards. Unlike forward passes, a team may lateral as many times as it likes on any play, and laterals can occur anywhere on the field as long as they do not go forward.

Line of Scrimmage

A virtual line that extends from sideline to sideline that passes through the forward point of the ball after it has been made ready for play. The offense and defense line up on opposite sides of the line and cannot cross it until the ball is snapped for the next play.

Line to Gain

The line to gain is the spot 10 yards downfield from where the ball is spotted for an offense’s first down. If an offense advances the football to the line to gain in their set of downs, they are awarded an additional first down.

Loose Ball

A live ball that is not in any player’s possession that either team can recover.

Loss of Down

Certain types of penalties on the offensive team can result in a loss of down where the offense will not be able to repeat the down and is assessed a yardage penalty. If this type of foul occurs on first down, for example, the yardage penalty will be assessed and the next play will be second down.


When a player touches a loose ball while unsuccessfully attempting to gain possession. Muffs most frequently occur when a kick or punt returner fails to successfully execute a catch on a free kick or a punt.

Neutral Zone

A virtual area that runs from sideline to sideline bounded by the forward and backward points of the football after it has been made ready for play. The offense and defense line up on opposite sides of the neutral zone and cannot enter it until the ball is snapped for the next play.

No-Huddle Offense

When an offense lines up to run a play without first huddling. This is done to either conserve time or catch the defense off-guard and prevent them from making substitutions.


The team that is in possession of the ball and is trying to score.

Out Of Bounds

A player is out of bounds when he touches any boundary line or touches anything — except a player, an official, or a pylon — that is on or outside a boundary line.


Any offensive player who attempts a forward pass.


A long underhanded toss, usually using both hands, from the quarterback to a running back on running plays.


A kick when a football is held stationary and upright, either by the “holder” or by a tee.


The team that controls the football and is attempting to advance downfield to score — or the player who is holding the ball during a play — has possession.


Almost always occurring on fourth down, a punt takes place when an offense is not likely to score or earn a first down. The offensive team will play it safe and punt the ball to its opponent and let its defense try to stop the opponent. A punt is a specific style of kick where the punter catches a snap from the long snapper, drops the ball and kicks it before it hits the ground.


Any player who is in possession of, and trying to advance, the football toward his opponent’s goal line.


The movement of two or more offensive players at the same time before the snap.


The number and worded codes called by the quarterback in the huddle or at the line of scrimmage ahead of each play. Signals are also called by the defense, usually by a linebacker.


The action that starts a play from scrimmage. A snap occurs when the center passes the ball through his legs back to the quarterback, punter, or holder.

Snap Count

The signal called by the quarterback on which the ball is snapped to start a play from scrimmage.


The place on the field where the previous play ended or a penalty yardage was assessed where the referee places the ball. The spot establishes the line of scrimmage for the next play.

Spots of Enforcement

Where the referee places the ball to establish the line of scrimmage for the next play after penalty yardage is added or subtracted from the previous play.


Each team is allowed to play with 11 men on the field. All players may leave or enter the game as long as the ball is dead, but all substitutions must be complete before the next play begins.


A tackle occurs when a defensive player forces the player with the ball to the ground or out of bounds to stop the runner from advancing downfield and to end the play.


When a player downs the ball after a free kick behind his team’s own goal line, or the ball is kicked through the back of the end zone, the play is dead and the ball is spotted on the 25-yard line.


When an opposing defense gains possession of the ball from the team on offense, usually by picking up a fumble or intercepting a forward pass.

Turnover on Downs

When an offensive team fails to gain enough yards to earn a first down and another set of downs, they turn over the ball “on downs” and the opposing team gains possession of the ball where the last play ended.


Back to top