American Football Explained
Warning! Long post! You probably won’t read this! Warning!
In time for Thanksgiving and not in any way, shape, or form complete or remotely comprehensible!
Both I and my other half are keen followers of American Football despite the fact that neither of us are American and only one of us was created in a laboratory from an old football, some nails, and a wind-up toy frog. Ribbet.
I follow – and have done so since the late 1980s before you accuse me of jumping on some mad New England-supporting bandwagon – the New England Patriots. My other half is more of a newcomer to the sport and, after careful consideration a couple of years ago, decided that the Minnesota Vikings had the nicest colour kit. Purple. She likes purple.
We have tried and tried and tried to get other people interested in the NFL but people being people and not yet being automatons with controllable lizard brains (note to shareholders of neOnbubble Sauromaton plc.: soon my friends, soon) the swine don’t seem interested citing various reasons ranging from "It’s all stop-start, stop-start" to "They’re all girls playing in all that padding; they wouldn’t last 2 minutes in a real man’s game of golf", and asking questions like "Don’t they stop the game every 8.2 seconds for commercials?" and "Is there an option in interactive viewing for cheerleader-gusset cam?"
So, because nobody listens to me in real life and I have anecdotal proof that over two have in my virtual existence I now present a definitive guide to understanding, appreciating, and enjoying American Football.
It’s Rugby For Girls, Isn’t It?
Whenever someone attempts to compare rugby and American football I am forced to suppress the urge to rip out that person’s intestine and feed it up and down their nasal passages before twirling it into a delightful parody of a handlebar moustache.
Yes, the ball shares some similarities in shape. Well done. However, last time I checked, nobody ever compared beach volleyball to marbles yet, surprise!, both use round balls. Baseball and mafia board meetings both utilise bats yet rarely are the two mixed up. Roller skaters wear kneepads. So did the guy who fitted the carpet at my parent’s house. Guess what? Not similar at all.
When rugby players come together in a scrum (no double entendres please) they start more-or-less locked together and push. When I used to play rugby I was taught that tackling was best made just below the knees; lock the arms around the legs and the player will go down and you won’t get hurt. But they lied. They lied! Anyhoo, you tackled typically from the side or just behind. Occasionally from in front but only if you wanted to see how much a human body (yours) can bend. To summarise: tackling in rugby, though it can sometimes look rough, is a low impact business.
In American football the equivalent of the scrum is facing off at the line of scrimmage. The players launch themselves at one another from one to two yards away. Field tackles typically come from any angle at full speed and everything from the shoulders down is fair game. Yes, even the dangly bits. Fingers, that is. The padding saves lives because American footballers and the impacts they impart are really rather large indeed.
Still not convinced? Try this test: stand with your head against the wall and push. Hurts a bit? That’s rugby. Now step back a couple of yards and hurtle at full speed at the same wall. Did you survive? That’s American football. If you didn’t survive please make your dying action one of closing down your browser window so that I am not held to blame for your injuries. Thankyou.
Don’t Think Of It As A Sport
A lot of people don’t like the 3 seconds of action, 30 seconds of milling about, 3 seconds of action, commercial break aspect of American football. Yet none of them complain about the cheerleaders. That’s fair enough if you’re used to a breakneck sport like snooker or synchronised swimming but there’s a trick to understanding the game better if you get frustrated easily: don’t think of it as a sport at all. That’s right: think of it as war!
If you’re a nerd who likes wargames then you will love American football. If you’ve got any party-organising skills then you’ll love the NFL. If you play chess because it’s a thinking, strategy game rather than because it has pretty horse pieces then you’ll not only love the sport but become irresistable to women too. If you consider yourself one of the leaders in the apocalypse to come rather than one of the scab-pickers then you just might find this sport saves your life.
American football is a tactician’s wet dream in physical form. As the players line up to face one another there’s a strategic battle taking place. Maybe the offensive side are going to form a box around the quarterback and give time for runners to make a 45 degree sprint across the field. Perhaps the defensive team realise that protecting zones in the back will be the best option this time or maybe they’ll risk giving them up to add an extra attack on the offensive line. Mayhaps the special team will do something special. Oh! Can you feel your militaristic juices flowing with excitement? I can! And then … three seconds later and yes, the defenders risked their rear by blitzing but the quarterback spotted the move, passed the ball off quickly to a runner who’d come around the back, bypassed everyone and then ran thirty yards down field before fumbling the ball, grabbing the facemask of an opponent and being penalised fifteen yards for acting like a moron. What theatre!
American football takes place on a field 100 yards long called the gridiron. There are markings every yard and every ten yards and at each end of the field are two "end zones". Taking the ball into your opponent’s end zone scores points. Taking the ball into your own end zone and being tackled also scores points but not for you. Behind the end zone are two upright posts called "The Two Upright Posts Behind The End Zone". Kicking the ball through your opponent’s posts scores points too.
The object of the game is to score and be the team that scores the most. In this respect American football is very much like international over-70s basket-weaving. Unlike international over-70s basket-weaving the reward for winning is not a flu vaccination. It’s hookers.
A team starts with the ball. That team then has four attempts to move the ball ten yards further up the field. If they manage this they get another four attempts to move it another ten yards. Each attempt to move the ball is called a down. On a team’s first attempt to move the ball they will have ten yards to go. This is described as "first down and ten." Suppose they manage to move it three yards on that first attempt. They are then at "second down and seven". If the team gets in the end zone they score. If the team run out of downs then the opponents get the ball. Most of the time if a team is at "fourth down and something" they will elect to punt the ball – effectively boot it down field as far as possible – so that if they had failed to make the required yards on their last down the opposing team wouldn’t be in such a good position on the field of play.
The ball can be handed to another team player or thrown backwards but can only be thrown forwards once and only if the ball is behind where it started at the beginning of the down unless the moon is full or one team decides to play a joker and has a hand with three diamonds in it. If the ball is thrown it must be caught – in the hands or stomach crease only; teeth were ruled illegal in 1996 – before hitting the ground or the play is ruled "incomplete" and the down is lost. If a player catches the ball and is tackled or runs out of bounds then the next play starts from that position on the field. If a player is tackled and loses the ball before his knee, arm, or buttocks touch the ground this is called a "fumble". The other team may recover the ball and take over control if this happens. The opposing team may also "intercept" a thrown ball or, more usually, flap at it and miss.
There are four quarters of play, each lasting fifteen minutes, and a fifteen minute half-time break at, appropriately, half-time. The clock is stopped for fouls, when a player runs out of bounds with the ball, when wizards from the chronodimension wish it, and up to three times just for the hell of it for each team per half (timeouts). Subsequently, four periods of fifteen minutes take anywhere between 3 hours and a day to complete. And this is why American beer is so low in alcohol content.
Each team has eleven players on the field at any time. Players may substitute freely. Each team consists of three sub-teams:
- the offensive team isn’t as rude as their name implies and includes the quarterback (the commander on the field, responsible for deciding formations), his blockers (who protect him from the opponents), his runners (who he might hand the ball to so that they can run up field), and his receivers (who he might throw the ball to) (unless they’re from San Francisco),
- the defensive team players are supposedly skilled in stopping an offensive team from running the ball or catching it (unless they’re from San Francisco),
- the special team still make my other half laugh every time they’re mentioned although they’re not special in that way (unless they’re from San Francisco) and instead consist of punt specialists, kickoff specialists, field goal specialists, and team mascots.
Penalties are handed out for a variety of fouls. You’re allowed to block a player but you can’t hold him. That’s called "holding". You’re allowed to chase after a player who is expecting a ball thrown to him but if you touch him in his special place that’s called "interference". During a tackle you’re not allowed to grab someone’s face mask. That’s called "grabbing someone’s face mask". Taunting an opponent is known as "taunting" and gets you a penalty. Beating up one of the three hundred referees is frowned upon and celebrations after scoring are limited to one restrained celebration for the scorer and a ripple of applause from his team mates: anything else is a foul.
Penalties are typically five, ten, and fifteen yard losses of yardage (so a team might commit a foul on their first down and then face a first down and twenty five instead) but there is also a "half the distance to goal" penalty for seriously upsetting the head referee, ejection from the field of play for attacking a referee, and execution by firing squad for ineffectual grunting.
Fouls are signalled by one of the referees throwing a yellow handkerchief on the ground. They call them flags but they never wave them because they’re handkerchiefs. As to why they’re yellow: well, they’re handkerchiefs.
Upon indicating a penalty has occurred the referee will also give a hand gesture to identify the specific penalty. Three of the most common gestures are displayed below:
Gesture: Both arms are held parallel to one another in front of the chest and rotated rapidly around one another. A bit like a combined harvester.
This penalty indicates that an illegal scientologist has been spotted downfield in direct violation of rule 42.3b. Teams are allowed to place a single scientologist at the line of scrimmage; his job is to check for body thetans before the ball is snapped. However, the scientologist cannot advance beyond the line of scrimmage and five yard penalties are most commonly awarded. If a scientologist downfield tries to set a personality test on an opposing team member the penalty is increased to ten yards and five minutes in the Tom Cruise Booth.
Gesture: Form a fist and thrust it up and down in front of your face.
American football is a contact sport. Sometimes it’s a close contact sport. Occasionally it’s an internal contact sport. Ten yard penalty.
Gesture: Arms on hips, rock gently from side to side.
A certain amount of campness has to be present in any American football game to offset the sheer masculinity of men in lycra with pretty patterns on their helmets grappling with one another in the pursuit of an oddly-shaped ball. However, camp actions such as shouting "Ooh, get you!" to make your opponent blush are only allowed before the ball is snapped. Afterwards, and it’s a five yard penalty.
I’d like to thank Pixar studios for the use of their Cray-rendered referee animations above.
Hopefully, that’s given NFL virgins an insight into the sport they might not otherwise have gleaned from reading soup can labels or walking around with divining rods on the moors in slippers and a hat and nothing else. More likely, though, nobody has read this far which is fine too. At least I put an effort into it and can feel some justification at not updating the site for the next few weeks. Ribbet.