What's a Down in Football? I've Been Pretending to Know but I Don't!

First Down Measurement

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s a first down? How is it different from a 2nd down? And how many downs can you have? I’ve been pretending to understand football for years but i really have no idea.

Thanks,
Julia


Dear Julia,

Admittance is the first step and we are very proud of you for admitting that you don’t know what a down in football is. You are not alone — many people don’t! If you keep reading, by the end of this short blog post, you should be able to understand and explain the concept of a down!

When you are watching football you will often hear or see the phrase N Down and X.

  • N can be either First, Second, Third, or Fourth.
  • X can be any number from “inches” to 99 although it is normally between 10 and 0.

When a team gets the ball in football, they start out each possession with four chances to do something. Each chance (N) is equivalent to one play.

  • First down = Four chances left
  • Second down = Three chances left
  • Third down = Two chances left
  • Fourth down = Last chance!

If a team is successful in meeting their goal during any one of the downs, they get a brand new set of downs (four chances, not four new ones plus however many remained from their last set) and the pattern starts over.

You may be wondering what the goal is — the goal is to move the ball past an invisible[1] line which starts out 10 yards from where the ball is placed to start out on first down. This goal is expressed (X) as the number of yards between where the ball is now and where your team needs to get it to earn a new set of four downs.

  • First down and 10 = Four chances left to move the ball 10 yards
  • Third down and 2 = Two chances left to move the ball 2 yards
  • Second down and 18 = Three chances left to move the ball 18 yards[2]

The last wrinkle to learn is not about rules, but about strategy. Although it is totally legal to use all four downs to try to matriculate[3] the ball towards the yellow line, usually teams only try for their first three downs. Remember that if the team tries to move the ball past the line on fourth down and fails, the other team gets the ball right there. So, on fourth down teams will either punt the ball (conceding that the other team will get possession of the ball, but attempting to make them start from way on their side of the field) or try to kick a field goal (three points for the good guys) if they are close enough to try. In effect, this means the while First down = Four chances, normally only the first three of these “count.” On rare occasions, a team will chose to use their last chance to actually try to move the ball past the line. This is called “going for it on fourth” and is extremely exciting.

Now you won’t need to pretend anymore![4] Keep the questions coming,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Although it’s not invisible anymore when you watch football on TV. Thanks to some work by Princeton Video Tech (Astle family represent!) the line your team is aiming at now shows up as a yellow line superimposed onto the screen.
  2. Also it means that something pretty bad/stupid happened on first down.
  3. This is one of those strange words that only seems to exist in higher education and football.
  4. Although if you still have questions, please leave a comment on this post and we will try to do some better explaining!

5 thoughts on “What's a Down in Football? I've Been Pretending to Know but I Don't!”

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