About Gridiron Football
Gridiron football, sometimes known as North American football, is an umbrella term for related codes of football primarily played in the United States and Canada. The predominant forms of gridiron football are American football and Canadian football. The terms refer to the sport’s characteristic playing field, which is marked with a series of parallel lines resembling a gridiron.
“Gridiron” football developed in the late 19th century out of the older games related to the games now known as rugby football and association football. It is distinguished from other football codes by its use of helmets and shoulder pads, the forward pass, the system of downs, a line of scrimmage, more specialist positions and formations, free substitution, platooning – the use of different players for offence and defence, measurements in yards, and the ability to score points while not in possession of the ball by way of the safety. Walter Camp is credited with creating many of the rules that differentiate gridiron football from its older counterparts.
The international governing body for all forms of gridiron football is the International Federation of American Football (IFAF).
Types of Gridiron Football
American football is the most common and widely known of the gridiron-based football codes. It is played with eleven men to a side, four downs and a 100-yard field. The IFAF uses the name “American football” in its name and statutes, identifying it as being “made up by American football played under whatever set of rules, Canadian football, flag football, touch football, peewee-football, indoor American football and related activities for amateur and professionals”.
Note that the premier professional league in America, the NFL, has its own distinct code, Official Playing Rules of the National Football League. Colleges in America generally play under the code defined in NCAA Football Rules and Interpretations. High Schools in America generally follow the rules and interpretations published by the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS), although at some states follow the NCAA code for high school play. Youth games (below high school age) generally follow NFHS code with modifications. Adult semi-pro, amateur, touch, flag, etc. may follow any one of these codes or use their own rules.
While the vast majority of the game is the same among these three codes, subtle variations in rules can lead to large difference in play. Many of the differences are in penalty enforcement and the definitions of fouls.
Canadian football is played exclusively in Canada. It was originally more closely related to rugby until the Burnside rules were adopted. The game is played on a 110-yard field and has three downs and twelve men to a side. The Canadian game also allows players to move forward toward the line of scrimmage before the snap, which is forbidden in most versions of American football, and also features a one-point “single” (formally called a “rouge”) for a ball kicked into the end zone and not returned by the receiving team.
Like the American game, the Canadian Football League and Canadian Inter-university Sport both have their own rulebooks for the game, although there are generally fewer differences than between their American counterparts.
Nine-man football, eight-man football and six-man football are varieties of gridiron football played with fewer players. They are played with four downs (often with a 15 yard requirement for a new set of downs, as opposed to 10 in other codes), fewer offensive linesmen, and an 80-yard field. These games are generally based on the high school rulebooks, which have an addendum devoted to the play of these codes.
Indoor football is played with special rules to accommodate smaller indoor facilities. It is played on a 50-yard field with seven or eight men to a side (depending on the league). Prototype games were played in 1902 and 1932, both of which used the shortened field but followed the outdoor standard 11 men to a side. However, indoor football did not gain popularity until James F. Foster’s proprietary version, arena football, began in 1986, and set most of the standards for indoor leagues today. As almost all indoor leagues are for-profit professional leagues, each league has its own proprietary code.
Touch football, flag football and backyard football are informal varieties of the game, played primarily at an amateur and recreational level. No specific rulebooks are universally recognised for these variants, where house rules usually apply.
The Rules of Gridiron Football
Prior to the start of a game, a coin toss determines which team will kick off the ball to their opponent. Each team lines up on opposite halves of the field, with a minimum ten yards of space between them for the kick-off.
At this point, play from scrimmage begins. The team in possession of the ball is on offence and the opponent is on defence. At least half of the players (the exact number varies by code) on the offence must line up on the line of scrimmage, including the snapper, who handles the ball before play commences; the rest must line up behind the line. Neither the offence nor the defence can cross the line of scrimmage before the play commences. Once the offence sets in formation, the snapper snaps the ball to one of the players behind him.
The play has now commenced, and the offences goal is to continue advancing the ball toward their opponent’s end zone. This can be done either by running with the ball or by a rule unique to gridiron football known as the forward pass. In a forward pass, a player from behind the line of scrimmage throws the ball to an eligible receiver (another back or one player on each end of the line), who must catch the ball before it touches the ground.
The play stops when a player with the ball is tackled to the ground, runs out of the boundaries of the field, or a forward pass hits the ground without being caught. In order to keep play moving, the offence must make a certain amount of progress (10 yards in most leagues) within a certain number (3 in Canada, 4 in the United States) of plays, or downs. If the offence does indeed make this progress, a first down is achieved, and the team gets 3 or 4 more plays to achieve another 10 yards. If not, the offence loses possession to their opponent at the spot where the ball is.
More commonly, however, the team on offence will, if they have a minimal chance of gaining a first down and have only one play left to do it (fourth down in the U.S., third down in Canada), attempt a scrimmage kick. There are two types of scrimmage kick: a punt is when the ball is kicked down-field as far as possible; the kicking team loses possession of the ball after the kick and the receiving team can attempt to advance the ball.
The other scrimmage kick is a field goal attempt. This must be attempted by place kick or (more rarely) drop kick, and if they pass through the goal set at the edge of the opponent’s end zone, the team scores three points (four in rare variants and special circumstances).
If the team in possession of the ball, at any time, advances the ball into the end zone, it is a touchdown, and the team scores six points and a free play known as a try. In a try, a team attempts to score one or two points (rules vary by each league, but a field goal on a try is usually worth one point while another touchdown is worth two).
If the player with the ball is tackled while he is in his own end zone, the defence scores a safety, worth two points. After a try, safety or field goal, the team that had possession of the ball goes back to the middle of the field and kicks the ball off to their opponent, and play continues as it did in the beginning of the game.
Play continues until half-time. Each team switches sides of the field with each other halfway through each half, at the end of a quarter. After the half-time break, the team that did not kick off at the beginning of the game kicks off. Whichever team has more points at the end of the game is declared the winner; in the event of a tie, each league has its own rules for overtime to break the tie.