Football: A primer


The first Super Bowl — although, not the first NFL Championship — to be hosted in the Northeast has finally arrived. Although many people are watching it for the legendary commercials (as well as for the excuse it provides for your usual Sunday binge drinking), there will be a football game featured as well. For those of you who have never seized the opportunity to watch the other great American pastime, now is your chance! Football may come off as barbaric to an outsider, but to understand the basics of football is to see it for the beautiful and highly strategic sport that it is. Also, as a rule, if you’re going to spend 4 hours watching something, you should probably understand what’s going on. Here are the basics:

Four 15 minute quarters, 22 players on the field at a time (11 for each team), and a very important ball that is shaped like Hey Arnold’s head.

When the game begins, the offensive team is tasked first with moving the ball into their opponent’s end zone. The other team, playing defense, wants to prevent the offense from moving the ball down the field until their turn is up. If possible, the defense will also try to intercept the ball, thus reclaiming it and becoming the offense.

The offensive team has 4 chances to move the ball ten yards in the direction favorable to them. Each try is referred to as a “down,” and if the team surpasses the 10-yard minimum, these tries are reset and they are back to “first down.” (On the TV screen, the ten-yard line will usually be represented by a big yellow line, but that’s just a computer animation.) A team wants to keep this drive going until they can reach the end zone and score a touchdown – worth 6 points.  After a touchdown, the scoring team can opt to kick a field goal for one extra point, or the more difficult task of re-entering the end zone by a run or a pass for an extra 2 points. If the team cannot achieve 10 yards in the allotted tries, the ball is automatically turned over to the other team and the offensive and defensive roles switch.

Blue is the line of scrimmage and yellow is the ten-yard line.

Blue is the line of scrimmage and yellow is the ten-yard line.

There are two ways to move the ball – running and passing. The quarterback has the option of handing the ball to another of his teammates on the line of scrimmage (where that scrum of players is at the beginning of every play) and that guy can run it, or the quarterback can pass the ball. The quarterback also has the option to run the ball himself (Ed. Peyton Manning won’t do this). If the quarterback doesn’t act before the clock runs out, the defense players on the line of scrimmage are allowed to try and tackle him – a sack. Until then, everyone has to wait for the QB to make a move before they can act.

When the ball-carrier’s knee touches the ground, the tackle is complete and the ball is no longer live. A play will also end if the defense causes an offensive player possessing the ball to run out of bounds. The line of scrimmage for the next play will be set up at the yard line where this takes place.

A sack is when the quarterback is tackled while he's holding the ball.

A sack is when the quarterback is tackled while he’s holding the ball.

If a player drops the ball while he’s on the field and hasn’t been tackled (a fumble), it’s a free-for-all. Whichever player recovers the ball gets possession for his team. A defensive player can also intercept a pass and regain the ball for his team. When the defense gains possession of the ball, their offensive counterparts come onto the field, starting on first down. Fumbles and interceptions are some of the most exciting aspects of the game. Get ready for that spice, because the Seattle Seahawks have a killer defense that knows how force turnovers.

Now, things might get a little weird on fourth down. The fourth down is often used in 1 of 2 ways. First, the offense can use it to punt the ball further down the field to make the other team have to drive for longer. This is the more common use, because if you know you are turning over the ball, you want to leave your opponent’s offense in a position much less favorable than smack in the middle of the field. Second, sometimes the offense will go for a field goal. If their kicker can get the ball through the  goal posts, they get 3 points.

The end zone.  Note the yellow goal post.

The end zone. Note the yellow goal post.

The final way to score is called a safety, but it’s the least likely to happen. Just in case the Super Bowl gets really exciting, a safety is a 2-point score that occurs when an offensive player possessing the ball is tackled in his own end zone.

If this shallow overview of the sport has sparked an interest, try researching some of the subtler aspects of football. There are a lot of rules regarding what the players can and can’t do, and when said rules are broken (which happens a lot) there are various penalties that can be game changers. Look for some yellow handkerchiefs lying on the field; that marks a penalty. It’s also possible for the game to go into overtime, at which point everyone will be so overwhelmingly nervous and excited that you will probably forget everything you just learned.

Enjoy taking your newfound knowledge and applying it to Sunday’s game, because it’s going to be a good one!

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