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End Zone Rules for the NFL

By John Lindell

The National Football League end zone is the area of the football field that one team tries to get the ball into to score. The team also tries to keep the opposing team out of their end zone. Touchdowns and safeties are scored in the end zone, with clear-cut rules governing how they are determined by the game officials. An NFL end zone can have many controversial plays occur within its boundaries each week, so NFL end zone rules are in place to help sort things out.


An NFL end zone is ten yards deep and 160 feet wide. It has sidelines and a goal line as well as an end line. The goal line is the line that separates the end zone from the rest of the playing field and the end line is the back end of the end zone. The goal posts are positioned so that they are ten feet above the end line, but with the post that supports them offset a little bit from the end line so as not to be in play.


For a running touchdown or a two point conversion to be scored, a player with the ball has to break the plane of the goal line with any part of the ball while it is in his possession. This means that the ball can be on, above or over the goal line. The end zone corners each have an orange pylon in them. A player may reach over and touch the pylons in the front half of the end zone with the ball to score a touchdown as long as he has not been ruled down by the officials and as long as he has not stepped out of bounds before doing so.


Touchdown and conversion receptions in the end zone are made when a receiver catch a legal pass and have possession of the football and both feet in bounds within the end zone. Plays of this type are among the most reviewed plays by NFL replay officials. They look to see if the ball indeed in the possession of the player and if that player managed to get both of his feet down in the end zone before going out of bounds.

Expert Insight

A safety is scored in the NFL in a number of ways. If a player is tackled by the opposing team in his own end zone, then a safety is awarded to the defense, worth two points. If the ball carrier goes into his own end zone and steps across the sidelines or the end line out of bounds, this is a safety. If a team snaps, fumbles, or laterals a ball out of bounds in their own end zone, a safety is scored by the opposing side. Safeties can also be scored by NFL end zone rules when a team has a kick or a punt blocked and the ball goes out of bounds in their own end zone, or when they intentionally down the ball by kneeling or falling on it in their own end zone. No safety results when a defensive player intercepts a ball near the goal line and has his momentum carry him into the end zone where he is then tackled. The play is ruled a touchback, and the opposing team gets the ball at their 20 yard line.


One of the rarest forms of a safety occurs when a team commits certain penalties in their own end zone. An example would be when a team is backed up to their own goal line and the quarterback goes back to pass from his own end zone. If he intentionally grounds the ball to avoid being tackled for what would be a "normal" safety, or if holding is called on the offensive team while the quarterback is in the end zone attempting to pass, then a safety is awarded. The function of this end zone rule is to prevent teams from committing those penalties in an attempt to avoid a safety when passing from their own end zone.


A touchback is ruled by the referee when a kickoff is fielded the end zone but is not returned by the opposing team. A kickoff that goes through the end zone is also a touchback. If a player attempts to field a kickoff outside of the end zone and either muffs it or fumbles it into the end zone, a touchback is called, as long as the team fielding the ball recovers it. If a team fields a kick in the end zone and tries to advance it out but is tackled before doing so, it is still only a touchback. As stated, this is also true of an intercepted pass in the end zone, as long as the player does not cross the goal line and then retreat back into the end zone. On punts, if a punt goes into the end zone or through the end zone out of bounds, it is a touchback. If a member of the kicking team, while attempting to keep a punt out of the end zone, touches any part of the end zone while doing so, the play is called a touchback. All of these scenarios give the receiving or defensive team the ball at their own 20 yard line, first and ten.

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