Understanding the Rules of Flag Football

By Matt Smolsky , last updated December 12, 2011

Understanding the rules of flag football takes some study and attention to detail. While the rules are similar to tackle football, flag football has a number of notable differences. Modern American football originated in the late 1800s, primarily on college campuses, with the first game played between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869. It was a rough and violent sport, much more so than even what's played in the National Football League today. They used a formation called a "flying wedge," which allowed the ball carrier to advance behind an impenetrable wedge of blockers in front of him. The flying wedge resulted in broken bones and even deaths. In the early 1900s, President Teddy Roosevelt threatened to ban football because of its inherent dangers.

Touch and flag football was a safer form of football that's been around as long as tackle football. Generally, a ball carrier is considered "down" when touched with two hands below the waist by an opposing player. However, organized games weren't played until flag football was played on military bases in the 1940s. Servicemen came to enjoy the sport and organized leagues were formed after the war during the 1940s and 1950s. Today flag football is played by all ages, boys and girls, men and women.

Differences from Tackle Football

The limitation on tackling is the biggest difference between tackle and flag football. There are also limits on blocking, though blocking rules are often ignored in games without a referee. An advantage that flag football has over touch football is that all players wear two or three strips of cloth or ribbons on their waists. The ribbons are attached to a belt by Velcro or a plastic socket. They'll stay securely attached to the belt while the player is running or involved in normal play. But when the ribbons are grabbed by an opposing player, they come loose quite easily. When an opposing player grabs the ribbon on the waist of a ball carrier, it indicates the spot the player is down. When a player is down, the play is considered over and the teams line up for a new play.

Flag Football Basics

A flag football field is normally 80 yards long and 25 to 53 yards wide, depending on the space available. Games are also sometimes played on a field that's 100 yards long. Each end of the field has a 10-yard deep end zone, which is the scoring area. Players must cross the ball over the goal line to score. There may or may not be a goal post in flag football.

Flag football introduces the concept of 20-yard zones. In tackle football, a team has four attempts to move a ball 10 yards. In flag football, a team has four attempts to move the ball 20 yards. If successful, the team gets a new set of four downs. If they are unsuccessful, the opposing team gets the ball. On fourth down, the team with the ball can either choose to attempt to get another first down, or they can kick the ball to the other team.

In some rules of flag football, the concept of fumbles is different. If the player drops the ball during the play, the ball automatically goes over to the opposing team. In regular tackle football, a fumble is a loose ball during the course of a play that can be recovered by either team. The ensuing scrum to retrieve the ball can cause injury, which is why fumbles are sometimes treated differently in flag football.

Players

The number of players depends on the league and the number of players available. Teams can be comprised of anywhere from five to 11 players. Normally, you'll see seven or eight players per side. In general, the positions are the same. Each side has linemen. The offense (the team with the ball) will have a quarterback, running backs and receivers. The defense will have linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks, depending on how many receivers the other team plays.

Play

The rules for running and passing the ball are the same as tackle football. A lateral or pitch that's mishandled and falls to the ground would be considered a fumble. An incomplete forward pass simply stops play and the ball is retained by the offense. Holding, clipping, pass interference and other rules familiar to tackle football still apply in flag football.

Scoring

Scoring in flag football is the same as in tackle football. A team gets six points for a touchdown (when the ball is carried into or caught in the end zone), one or two points for a point after touchdown (depending on league rules), three points for a field goal (when the ball is place-kicked through the uprights of the goalpost), and two points for a safety (when an offensive player is tackled in his or her own end zone).

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