Turnover on downs

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In American football, a turnover on downs occurs when a team fails to convert a fourth down into a first down by gaining the required yardage.

A team has four chances (each chance is called a "down") to gain ten yards or to score. Any ground gained during one down short of these ten yards is kept for the next chance. Thus, if a team gains four yards on first down, it then has three chances to gain the six remaining yards. If a team gains the required ten yards, it receives another four downs to gain another ten yards (an event called a "first down") or cross the goal line for a score.

Though teams have four chances, in most cases, only three are used. Usually, if a team fails to gain the needed yardage after the third down, it will then punt the ball, offering the opposing team possession (the kicking team aims to place the ball downfield), or attempt to kick a field goal if close enough. The opposing team will start their new set of downs at the spot the punt returner can advance the ball to before being tackled (or going out of bounds), or where the punt comes to rest when rolling to a stop (or where it goes out of bounds), or at the spot where the ball is fair-caught.

But in some instances, a team may elect to use its fourth down to try to gain the yardage, rather than punt. This is often referred to as "going for it" or "sticking" (as opposed to "kicking"). This disadvantage is that if the fourth-down conversion attempt fails, the opposing team will immediately take possession of the ball at the spot where the play ended, rather than (usually) much farther away from a score in the case of a punt. Factors that may lead to a team making this choice are:

  • Only a small distance is needed to gain a first down
  • A team is close to, but not within field goal range, such that a punt may not net very many yards (if the punt reaches the end zone, the opposing team will get the ball on the 20 yard line).
  • The game's end is near, and if the team surrenders possession of the ball, they may not have another chance to score what is needed to win or tie the game.
  • The game's end is near, and if the team is in field goal range but is trailing such that a field goal would not tie or win the game, but a touchdown would.
  • Occasionally, a team trailing by exactly one field goal's points will elect to attempt a conversion, if tying the game on a field goal and going into overtime is undesirable for the team.

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