What the Hell Is a Down?

Understanding what a down is will go a long way in helping you understand the game of football.

It’s going down…

See what I did there? Sorry, couldn’t help myself.

A down is a chance to do something with the football. Putting it differently, it is the opportunity to make a play.

A down starts when the offense of a team snaps the ball. It ends when the whistle blows.

We care about the number of downs, because at any given time, the team that has possession of the ball, has a limited number of them.


This keeps the game interesting. It forces the teams to move the ball down the field to score (if they’re having a good day) or hand it over to the other team (bad day).

Woah, that just happened again. My bad.

Anyway, teams get 4 downs (i.e. chances/opportunities/plays) to move the ball 10 yards. They are trying to move the ball 10 yards closer to the other end of the field, where their opponent’s end zone is, and where they hopefully score (good day).

How do you know where this 10-yards line is that they need to pass in order to get a new set of 4 downs? If you’re watching on TV, it’s the magical yellow line. (The Falcons [black jerseys] are trying to get the ball across the yellow line to get a new set of downs in this situation.)

yellow line

Photo Source: SportsTech

If you’re watching a game in real life, you can’t see the yellow line. Super annoying. You have to look to the sidelines, where the refs stand with these bad boys:

down marker

Usually there will be two orange things chained together. One marks the line of scrimmage, where the play starts and players line up. The other marks where the offense will receive a new set of downs.

down marker2

Initially, the orange down markers start 10 yards apart.

At this point the offense is going to try to move the ball those 10 yards. If they meet or exceed the 10 yards (by throwing or running the ball), hooray for them – new set of downs!

If they don’t, that’s when you start hearing things like “2nd and 6” or “3rd and 4.” Whenever you hear a “[1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th] and [number usually 1-10, sometimes higher than 10 if the ball went backwards at some point and they lost yards]”, the first part is the number down (opportunity/chance) that they are on and the second part is how many yards to go to reach that new set of downs.

Let that sink in. It’s a key point.

If we revisit our Falcons-49ers game shot from above, we can see on the screen that it’s a 3rd and 5. That means the Falcons already had two chances and they only moved the ball 5 yards forward. They are on their third chance and they need to move the ball 5 yards over that imaginary yellow line.

yellow line

Photo Source: SportsTech

When you get to the 4th down, things can get a little bit weird. It’s the offense’s last chance to do something before they need to hand the ball over to the other team. What they decide to do depends on where they are on the field. They have three options:

1) “Go for it” – The coach has confidence that his team can get the ball over that yellow line. Usually this is only called when it’s a 4th and 1 or maybe a 4th and 2. If they succeed, yay, new downs! If they fail, the ball gets handed over to the other team’s offense at that spot on the field.

2) Field goal – If the team is within reasonable distance to the field goal, they will let their kicker try to kick the ball through the uprights and get 3 points. If they succeed, yay, 3 points on the board! If they fail (kick is “no good”), the ball goes to the other team.

3) Punt – Time for the “other kicker” a.k.a. the punter, to come out on the field and punt the ball away. This is the team admitting that they don’t think either option 1 or 2 above will work out well for them, and they know the ball is going back to the other team. If punted correctly, it will force the other team to start farther away. Usually the offense is still on their side of the field, nowhere near the other team’s end zone. When the ball is punted, the other team needs to catch it and start running back down the field again.

Whew, that was a lot. If you kinda understand what a down is now, good for you. You deserve a dance break!

Hope you’ve got this down pat now! (Get it? Ok…I’ll stop…)

– Michelle


One thought on “What the Hell Is a Down?

  1. Pingback: How to Survive the Super Bowl: A Non-Football Lover’s Guide | The Snap

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