By Erin Irish
In the NFL, a down begins when the ball is put into play and ends when the ball is dead or the play has ended. Downs are individual plays of short duration. Each possession begins with a first down. A down begins when the ball is snapped from the center to the quarterback. A down can also begin with a free kick such as a kickoff at the beginning of the half or a safety kick. A down ends when the ball or player in possession of the ball is declared down by an official, a team scores, or the ball or player in possession of the ball leaves the field of play.
The offense is given four initial downs or attempts at scoring a touchdown. If the offense advances 10 yards during the four downs, the downs restart at the first down, giving them four more chances to advance and to score. For example, if a team fails to advance 10 yards during the first two downs, but does during the third down, the team is given an additional four downs and restarts at first down.
When the offense fails to advance 10 yards during the three downs, they have three options during the fourth down. The offense has the option to punt (kick) the ball to the other team, turning over possession of the ball and starting the other team’s offensive drive. The second option is for the team to attempt a field goal if they are in range, which would give them three points if successful. The third option is to attempt a final play from scrimmage, which is called a fourth down conversion or going for it. If the offense fails to gain the necessary yardage during their final fourth down, the ball turns over to the other team. Therefore, offenses generally only try fourth down conversions when they are close to midfield or in their opponent’s territory. Otherwise, if they fail to make the first down, they give possession to the other team at a location that would be disadvantageous to their own cause. When a team doesn’t make their 10-yard requirement and possession is turned over to the defense, this is called turning the ball over on downs.
When the offense has first and 10, it is the first down and they need to advance the full 10 yards to achieve another first down. Second and 10 means they haven’t made any progress and still need to advance the 10 yards. Third and 5 means they have advanced 5 yards, but need 5 more to gain another first down. If the offense doesn’t advance 5 more during the third down, they risk losing possession. First and goal means it is the first down and the team cannot make another first down because the end zone is 10 or less yards away, so they can only score a touchdown or kick a field goal.