Although my name appears at the top of the page this is a joint post by Kai and I, and she contributed at least half the content.
The Superbowl takes place this Sunday at the new stadium of the Dallas Cowboys. There will be a post put up for live comments on Sunday pointing out which teams are playing and which players to look out for but since many people who are likely to watch all or some of the match we thought it was a good idea to post this intro to the basics of American football a few days before the event so you can memorise them or at least have it available to answer questions or help you understand what all those men in helmets are doing with the pig bladder.
Like most sports you can learn the basics in a few minutes but to understand the nuances can take a lifetime. We decided it would be best to stick to the basics rather than load you up with enough information to get you a degree.
As near as I can figure it each team has 53 players. I thought it had been cut to 45-ish. Anyway it doesn’t matter what the real number is. All you need to know is there are loads of players although fortunately only 11 from each team are allowed on the field at any one time. Teams are split into three separate units. The offence/offense which is on the field when a team has the ball, the defence/defense when a team does not have the ball and special teams for kicking, punting (which are different), blocking kicks and returning punts and kicks. Each unit has more than 11 players available to it and depending on what they are trying to achieve on a particular play they will swap in and out players.
The object of the game is simple. The offence has to get the ball into the opposition’s end zone to score a touchdown and the defence has to stop them. A touchdown is like a try in rugby except there is no need to touch the ball down. All a player has to do is carry the ball or catch the ball in the end zone.
When a team gets the ball they have 4 plays called downs to advance the ball ten yards. It can be difficult to understand a lot of what is going on during a game on TV but fortunately technology has advanced to help us. Now TV companies put a blue line on the field at the line of scrimmage which is where the ball is placed at the start of the play. A yellow line is placed ten yards from the line of scrimmage and if the team get the ball over that line in their 4 downs they get another 4 to make the next ten yards. So all you need to know on any play is that the offence is trying to advance the ball over the yellow line.
Unlike European sports there is a lot more input from coaches to the extent that every single offensive play is scripted and every single player on the field knows exactly where he has to stand and move. The players have to know exactly what to do in dozens if not hundreds of plays and in training they run all of them multiple times starting by walking through them and finishing by doing them at full speed a few times.
The diagram on this page shows a basic set up for a standard play. The offence/offense is in yellow and the ball is on their 20 yard line so they have 80 yards to go to score but first they need to go ten yards to their own 30 yard line and earn another 4 downs.
The offensive line comprised of the centre(C), two tackles(T) and two guards(G) have to protect the quarterback(Q) from the defensive line comprised of two defensive tackles(DT) and two defensive ends(DE) long enough for the quarterback to pass the ball or hand it off to one of the players who is allowed downfield.
Behind the quarterback are two running backs(RB) and they can either take the ball or block defensive players. There are two wide receivers(WR) who will head into an open position and catch a pass. The final player on the offence is a tight end(TE) who may act like a wide receiver and catch a pass or may bolster the offensive line and block defensive players to stop them getting at the quarterback.
Behind the defensive line are three line-backers(LB) who will tackle any running back trying to carry the ball through gaps made in the defensive line or try to read what the offense is doing and stop them. There are two corner backs(CB) who are, in round ball football terms, man markers for the wide receivers and two safeties(S) who are like sweepers or are used in zone defences.
Occasionally the defence/defense will blitz the quarterback. This is done by some combination of line-backers, corners or safeties ignoring their normal defensive responsibilities and charging at the quarterback hopefully before he is able to unload the ball and expose the holes they have left in their defence.
Both offence and defence can use various formations depending what they are trying to achieve on a particular play. For example the offence could decide to take of their two running backs and put on another two wide receivers or the defence can take off one of their line-backers and put on another defensive back like a corner. This is known as the nickel package because the team has 5 defensive backs – 2 corners, 2 safeties and the nickelback.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you are the quarterback for one of the teams and it is first and 10. You have 4 tries to get the ball 10 yards, or you have to kick the ball to the other team (what, and use feet in football?? Crazy.). Your goal is the end-zone. Shangri La. The Big Kahuna. 6 points, and a possible 7 or 8. It’s what every offensive football player wants to get to, and what every defensive player wants to keep you out of.
Okay, so you get the play from the coach, you say it in the huddle. The Offensive Linemen (big dudes who protect you) line up in front of you, the Center in...um, the center of that line, right in front of you. You call the play “32, 56, badgers, mascara, hike!” The Center hands you the ball, you take 3 steps back and look for your receivers to be where they are supposed to be, or the running back to come by at just the right moment. Let’s say this is a passing play. You are looking to throw it to someone and they are open, so go ahead and throw it to your guy. Hopefully he has made the catch and is able to run past the required distance your team had to go so you can try another series of downs. If not, at least you got some yardage and you get another chance/down. Let’s say he caught the ball 5 yards down field and was tackled. You now have to go 5 more yards. This is referred to as “2nd and 5”: 2nd down (or attempt), 5 more yards to go.
You decide (actually, the coach decides) on a running play next. You call the play to the players, line up, the ball is snapped, you take your 3 steps back, fake like your passing it to get the other team off balance, then hand it off to your best running back. He runs like crazy but the defense is really strong and they bring him down after he runs only 2 yards. Boo! Now it is 3rd down with 3 yards to go to get to your original objective, which was 10 yards. Hm. Do you run or pass? It depends on how strong the other team has looked in defending each strategy. You do have great receivers out there, so you go for a pass this time.
Same deal: Call the play in the huddle, line up, “badgers, mascara, hike”, the ball is snapped, and you step back. The target receiver you planned to throw to is covered really well this time and you can’t pass it. You check the other receivers, but no dice. The defense was ready for you to pass it. No one else can take the ball, so you try to run yourself. This is really dangerous because once you run past where you started (the line of scrimmage), you are fair game with no special treatment as the quarterback, and those huge people on the other side will try to hurt you so you can’t play. But you’re brave and you run! Goooo, you! But you only get 1 yard. It was a great effort, but you didn’t make it the 3 yards you needed to, so now your team decides to kick it away.
It’s early in the game and it’s not worth trying to go for it on a 4th down. You could, but if you don’t make it those 2 additional yards to get to that magic number 10 that would let you get more chances, then the other team takes over right there. If you’re in the middle of the field then you are making it way too easy for them. It’s best to call in your special teams, which includes the kicker and a bunch of guys whose only job is to kick and receive punts, and punt it as far down the field as possible. If the kicker can punt it and make the ball bounce out of bounds on the 5 yard line, he is a hero. If he messes up and it only goes 10 yards, no one will speak to him and he’ll have to get his own Gatorade. If he punts it into the end-zone and the other team calls for a fair catch then no one can tackle the running back who caught it, and the other team starts where he caught it.
- End Zone: At both ends of the field, where teams score. The 100 yard field is divided up into 10 yard sections. Of course that means the 50 yard line is smack in the middle of the field.
- Offensive Line: Each team has one. They protect the quarterback (QB)
- Center: The middle of the Offensive Line who snaps (gives) the ball to the quarterback
- Receivers: Guys run set patterns to try to catch the ball thrown by the quarterback
- Running Back: A player who gets the ball from the quarterback and runs with it
- Downs: An attempt to get 10 yards. There are only 4 downs. If a team doesn’t get 10 yards in 4 downs (attempts), they have to give the ball to the other team.
- Line of scrimmage: On TV you’ll see an electronic line on the field, usually in blue, that shows where the team started. Another line is electronically shown on screen, usually in yellow, showing where they have to go to in order to get 4 more downs.
- Special Teams: The kicker and all the guys who come in only to kick off or receive punts. Yeah, that’s their whole job. They tend to get pretty hyped up when they come out, and can hit each other pretty hard, ‘cause they’ve been resting up on the sideline.
- Punt: Kicking the ball to the other team
Touchdown: 6 points. Running or passing into the end zone.
After the touchdown the team has to decide to go for 1 or 2 extra points:
The 1 point option is the Extra Point: Kick the ball between the goal posts/uprights.
The 2 point option is the 2 Point Conversion: Teams line up and try to pass or run the ball into the end zone. It looks just like an attempt for a touchdown.
Field Goal: 3 points. This is not associated with a touchdown, this is instead of one. It’s kicking the ball between the goal posts/uprights at the back of the end zone. This can be done after a 3rd down when the team didn’t get as far as they wanted to, but want to try to score because they are close enough, or think they are. A long field goal is 45 yards or so, but they have been done from further away than that.
Safety: 2 points. If the defence can tackle an opposition player who is carrying the ball in that player’s end zone he scores two points and the game is re-started by the opposition kicking the ball back to the team who has just scored the safety.
Coming up on Sunday, The Pittsburgh Steelers vs. The Green Bay Packers!
If you learn things more by doing something practical than reading about it you could try being a quarterback here. Select your play, hit your receiver then help them to carry the ball as far as they can. Start with play shot 2 because all your receivers will be on your left so much easier to swap from one to the other.
If you find being a quarterback a bit too easy you could try being a coach. This game is really good for learning about various plays and formations.