Down (gridiron football)

Down (gridiron football)
A down marker showing first down along the sideline of a collegiate game

A down is a period in which a play transpires in American and Canadian football.



A down begins with a snap or free kick (such as a kickoff or safety kick), and ends when the ball or the player in possession of it is declared down by an official, a team scores, or the ball or player in possession of it leaves the field of play.

Down is also an adjective to describe the condition of the player with possession of the ball after he has been tackled or is otherwise unable to advance the ball further on account of the play having ended (e.g., "He is down at the 34 yard line").

It may also refer to the ball after it is made dead in one manner or another. The line of scrimmage for the next play will be determined by the position of the ball when it is downed.

Each possession begins with first down. The line to gain is marked 10 yards downfield from the start of this possession, and the situation is described as "1st and 10" (if the goal line is less than 10 yards downfield, then the goal line is the line to gain and the situation is "1st and goal"). If the offensive team moves the ball past the line to gain, they make a new first down. If they fail to do this after a specified number of downs (four in American play and three in Canadian play), the team is said to turn the ball over on downs, and possession of the ball reverts to the opposing team at the spot where the ball was downed at the end of the last down.

When the offensive team has not yet made a first down before reaching the final down, the team faces a last down situation (third down situation in Canadian play and fourth down situation in American play), where the team is forced to decide whether to either scrimmage the ball in an attempt to pick up the first down (this is called going for it [on fourth down]), or alternatively to kick the ball (either by punting or making a field goal attempt). Though statistical analysis of games suggest playing more aggressively is the better option,[1] kicking the ball is typically seen as the safer solution; scrimmaging may lead to a turnover on downs, potentially giving the ball over to the other team with good field position.

Downing the player with possession of the ball is one way to end a play (other ways include the player with the ball going out of bounds, an incomplete pass, or a score). Usually a player is made down when he is tackled by the defense. In the NFL, if the offensive player is touching the ground with some part of his body other than his hands or feet, then he is down if any defensive player touches him. In the NCAA, an offensive player touching the ground in the same manner is down, regardless of whether a defensive player touches him.

If recovering the ball in one's opponent's end zone (following a kick-off in American football, and following any kick into the end zone, except for successful field goals, in Canadian football), a player may down the ball by dropping to one knee (note that in Canadian play, doing so scores a single for the opposing team). A player in possession of the ball will down the ball if he fumbles it out of bounds. If a quarterback is running with the ball during his initial possession of the same play following the snap, he may down the ball by voluntarily sliding from his feet to a sitting or recumbent position - this is to protect the quarterback from injury. In the NFL, the quarterback is the only player for whom falling down in this way automatically stops play.


  • 1st and 10: First down with 10 yards to go for a new first down. This is the usual starting point for a possession. On occasion the yards to go may be a number other than 10, due to a penalty calling for both moving the ball backwards or forwards (depending on whether the penalty is against the offense or the defense respectively) and replaying the down.
  • 2nd and 5: Second down with 5 yards to go. Similarly, 2nd and 10, 3rd and 2, etc.
  • 3rd and long: In American football, third down with an unspecified but significant distance to go (usually over 7 or 8 yards). Often used as a metaphor for a desperate situation that demands risky actions be taken. The corresponding Canadian football term is 2nd and long. 3rd and long is also a time that is likely to produce a pass play. 2nd and long is also sometimes used in American football when over 10 yards, as a result of a loss of yardage (such as via a quarterback sack) or a penalty.
  • 3rd and 1: Third down with one yard to go. This is often used in tense situations in Canadian football where the offense is tempted to scrimmage the ball rather than kick for a chance to get another first down. A similar term used in American football is 4th and inches. If the ball is deemed too close to visually determine whether or not a first down has been achieved, the official chain crew will be brought onto the field for a measurement.
  • 1st and goal: First down, where the goal line is the line to gain, for example, 1st and goal on the 8 yard line. A team cannot make another first down (barring a defensive penalty) without actually scoring. Similarly, "2nd and goal", etc.
  • down by contact: Describes when a player with possession of the ball is made to touch the ground (other than hands or feet) by a defensive player; for example, if the ball-carrier slips and falls, he can get up and continue, but if he was pushed by a defensive player, he is said to be down by contact and the play is dead. This term is only applicable to professional football; in college and high-school football, the play ends when the player with possession goes down for any reason.
  • turnover on downs: Failure to make a new first down on the final (4th) down.
  • 4th and ballgame: Informal term sometimes used by media and fans to describe the late-game situation where the team with the ball is losing and has reached 4th down, and failure to convert that 4th down will seal the outcome by allowing the winning team to run out the clock.


In the early 19th Century in rugby football, the ball became dead in the field of play only by mutual consent of opponents. A player carrying the ball and held by opponents would say, "Held!", and his opponent would say, "Have it down." That is, the ballcarrier would declare himself fairly held, unable to advance, and an opponent would call on him to put the ball down, initiating the scrimmage. In modern rugby league, this is called a tackle and each team has six tackles to score; if they fail then possession changes over to the other team.

In American football, the concept of the act of having the ball down gave rise to "down" as the condition of the player so obligated, and the ball carrier could call for a "down" voluntarily. Although NCAA rules have effectively abolished this (as the ball carrier dropping to the ground immediately ends the play), other codes for North American football, such as the NFL, still allow (as one way for the ball to become dead) for the runner to cry "down".

Eventually the rules officially applied the word to include all of the action from the time the ball was put into play (whether by snap or free kick) until it became dead. "play".


See 1905 Fairmount vs. Washburn football game

Three and out is an American football term used to describe a situation in which a team, after starting an offensive possession, executes three plays and fails to get a first down, thereby in most cases forcing them to punt or if close enough, attempt a field goal. This is comparable to "three strikes you're out" in baseball.

The term comes from the fact that the offensive unit only has three "real" plays before they are expected to punt. While in theory, a team is allowed a fourth play, this usually does not apply, as using the fourth down to execute a play is a risky move under most circumstances. If they fail to convert to a new first down on a fourth down play, the opposing team will be allowed to take over possession at the stop where they left off, giving them better field position than if the ball is punted farther toward the opposing team's end zone.

Punting following a three-and-out is unlike a turnover on downs. Punting after a three-and-out allows a team the opportunity to set their opposition farther back in field position. On a turnover on downs there is no punt, and the opposing team takes over possession of the ball at the spot of field where the 4th down attempt failed.

In Canadian football, since there are three downs instead of four, the term "two and out" is used in this situation.


  1. ^ "Punt or Play? Professor Gives Surprising Answer", University of California, 2002-08-19

See also

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