A Guide to the Basics of American Football
3rd November 2016. For hundreds of millions of people around the world, one thing and one thing only comes to mind when they hear the word "football." That thing is a wide, green pitch and two teams of players skilled with their feet, passing and striking a ball back and forth in attempts to score goals. However, for Americans, it means something quite different! American football, the game played on the gridiron with an oblong ball, is nothing like "soccer," but that hasn't stopped it from gaining popularity and viewership worldwide. For example, more than 13 million people in the United Kingdom are fans of the game, and there's even a league in China for the game.
For those who aren't yet fans, the high-impact, high-velocity nature of the sport can be quite intriguing. Before you tune in to watch your first game, though, you might want to have a better understanding of the game's structure and how it's played. After all, for the uninitiated, the entire sport can seem like an overly complicated mess. Once you get down to it, though, American football is a game beautiful in its ruleset and a true thrill to watch it unfold on the field. From player positions to how the league works, we'll give you a quick and effective run-down on American football below.
How are the games organized?
Before we dive straight into the actual mechanics of the game, it's first crucial to have an understanding of the National Football League's organization and structure. Otherwise, it will be difficult to keep track of the teams and understand the rankings, and eventually, the playoffs. Overall, the NFL is the organizing body for the sport. The League sets and maintains the rules, employs the vital officiating crews, and ensures fair play amongst all the 32 teams that play across the United States. Within the NFL, these 32 teams break down into "conferences" and "divisions." A conference is sixteen teams broken up into four divisions of four teams each. The two conferences of the NFL are known as the AFC and the NFC, standing for the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference. There are deep historical roots that define which teams are in which conferences and divisions, but they aren't important to the procedure of the game. What is important, however, is how each team performs in its division. Division leaders will eventually face off against each other in the playoffs, as well as "wild card" teams. Each conference produces one victorious team through the playoff system. These teams then go on to face each other in the national championship, the world-famous Super Bowl. Whoever emerges victorious is that year's champion. The process of setting the schedule is complex, as teams will also face "out of conference" opponents. However, simply understanding how the division of teams works is enough to form a foundation for further learning.
Teams and the players on them
Now let's take a moment to learn a little bit about the players on the team. Football rosters can be quite large, but let's stick to the basics: at any given time, there are 11 players per side on the field. This means 11 players on offense, and 11 players on defense, fighting for the movement of the football. Let's start by looking at a quick overview of the players on the offensive side of the ball and what they do. Offence
- Quarterback (QB): The "leader" of the offense. The QB receives the ball at the start of each play from the center in a movement called the "snap." He's responsible for getting the ball to the player that can move it farthest in each play.
- Center: Aptly named for being in the middle of the offensive line; holds the ball and "snaps" it to the quarterback before trying to block the defense.
- Running Back (RB): Powerful players with speed and strength. They receive the ball and try to run forward with it through the defense.
- Wide Receiver (WR): The go-to players for catching passes, they run far down the field to attempt to catch balls thrown by the QB.
- Fullback: Heavy players on the offensive line responsible for preventing defensive players from getting to the running back.
- Tight End (TE): A flexible position that can block or run a route to catch passes.
- Guard: Inner members of the line blocking to protect the quarterback from a tackle.
- Tackle: Outside members of the line, also blocking to protect the quarterback.
Next, let's look at the other side of the field. Defence
- Linebacker: The main defensive players who usually stand behind the main line. They cover runners, receivers, and sometimes can try to "sack," or tackle, the quarterback.
- Defensive end: Defenders against the run
- Defensive tackle: The central part of the defensive line; their goal is to stop runners and open gaps for linebackers.
- Cornerback: The players who cover and try to block wide receivers from catching passes
- Safety: Players who look to catch offensive players who break past the main defense
While these 22 players line up on the field every play, the way they do so is rarely the same from play to play. Both the offense and defense create formations to attack and counter effectively. There are many formations, each with a different purpose, from creating passing opportunities to opening gaps for runners. So how does the game itself work?
How the progression of play works
The actual game of football is relatively simple. After a coin toss to determine initial possession, one team "kicks off" to another. After receiving the ball, the offense has four attempts, known as "downs," to move the ball 10 yards. If they do not do so after four downs, they forfeit possession of the ball to the other team. That team then takes over and attempts to move in the opposite direction. This proceeds through four "quarters" of play, where each quarter lasts 15 minutes. After two quarters ? or one "half" ? the teams take a brief break known as halftime. Through each set of downs, the offensive drives towards their opponent's "end zone." This zone is a ten-yard area on either end of the field. If an offensive player enters the end zone while carrying the football, they score a "touchdown," worth six points. Afterward, the team lines up to attempt to kick the ball through the yellow uprights in the end zone. This "point after try," or extra point, means a touchdown is potentially worth seven points. If a team cannot make it into the end zone, they may elect to punt or try for a "field goal."
Punting is kicking the ball as far away as possible, so the other team has a larger distance to cover to score. A field goal uses a down to send the ball through the uprights ? if successful, this is worth three points. Other rarer types of scoring, such as a "safety," also exist.
At the end of regulation time, the teams with the most points win. Of course, it's important to remember that the defense can score, too. If the ball is "fumbled" (dropped while in play), the defense can take possession. Defensive players may also intercept passes thrown by the quarterback and attempt to run for a score. All in all, this makes for an explosive and unpredictable game.
Penalties in American football explained
Finally, one last point of order. If you've ever watched American football, the sudden appearance of yellow markers on the field can cause confusion. These "flags" as they are known are penalty markers. Referees throw them when they witness a rules infraction, such as when a defensive player "holds" an offensive player for too long, preventing legal play.
Penalties can play a major role in determining the outcome of a game if a team fouls many times. Penalties range from violations as simple as a "false start," which costs a team five yards, to "pass interference," which moves the ball to the spot the foul occurred. At times, this can mean penalty yardage of 50 or more! When you only have 100 yards to travel to score, every inch counts. While there are many potential penalties, any avid sports fan will quickly pick up on them all.
Now you're ready to sit back and enjoy the game!
Once you've gotten a handle on the basics of American football, it doesn't take long before the appeal becomes evident. From tactical defensive battles to long passes that soar for dozens of yards and runners that break free from the defense, the next exciting moment is always right around the corner. That's not even touching the entertainment value of rivalries between teams, or the incredible talents and stories possessed by some players. Although the strategy of American football can become quite complex, it's not hard for a viewer to engage with the game quickly. It's no surprise that not only does the NFL hold exhibition games in London twice a season but that its global fan base is growing! Follow @SportNessUK