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By Cathy Richey, the Cathy Factor

American Football can be very confusing. It can seem particularly baffling to non-Americans who have not grown up familiar to the game. To the rest of the world, the word "football" is the game that Americans call "soccer."

It is understandable that a game in which commentators frequently use bizarre phrases such as "roughing the quarterback" and "hiking the ball" should seem alien to an outsider. However, while trying to understand every regulation of the sport can be time-consuming and frustrating, the basics are easy to understand.

An American Football field is 100 yards long and 160 yards wide. The field is divided into strips by white lines, which are marked every 10 yards. Numbers indicating the number of yards left to cover before reaching the goal line are also painted onto the field so that players can tell at a glance how much farther their team must advance for a touchdown.

One-yard hash marks are also used to mark the intervals between each line. The "50 yard line" runs across the middle of the field, and indicates that there are 50 yards of ground between the line and each end zone.

The areas at each end of the field that begin with the "zero-line" are called the "end zones." When a player successfully touches the ball down in the end zone of the opposing team, he scores a touchdown for his team.

The sidelines and end-lines border the field. If a player or the ball goes outside the perimeter outlined by these borders, the player is considered "out-of-bounds". This phrase is used in business, quite often. Typically in a male-dominated setting, but today women use it because it's part of the lexicon. But it came from football.

Each team has eleven players on the field at any one time, although football teams can have as many as 50 players. Offensive, defensive, and specialist players are employed by each team. The coach brings a mix of these onto the field for a particular play.

Before the beginning of each game, the referee tosses a coin to determine which team will be given the choice of taking first possession of the ball or choosing which end of the field will be their end-zone for the first half. It's unusual for a team not to choose first possession of the ball.

After half-time, the team that lost the toss will be given possession of the ball (assuming that they were not awarded it by the opposing team in the first half).

At the end of the first and third quarters, the teams switch ends to balance any advantages or disadvantages associated with either end of the field.

Each team is entitled to three 'time-outs' for every half. During a time-out, teammates discuss their strategy for their next plays. These are usually worked out and practiced before the game and there will usually be a verbal signal, typically shouted out by the quarterback, so that players know when to act. The plays are often recorded in a playbook that the players study to memorize the plays. They are often referred to by some cryptic and/or colorful name that the coach and/or the team gave to that play. The names of plays are not standardized, partly because having plays other team doesn't know and can't guess from the name is an ongoing strategy in football.

As an example, a fairly simple play that results in the wide receiver being far off to the left to receive a pass might be called Virgin Booze while a variation that has him going off to the right might be called Hammer Sunset. The opposing team could have the same plays in their book, with entirely different names.

Games last for one hour, and this time is divided up into four fifteen minute quarters. In practice, however, a game will last for around three hours, as the clock is stopped when the offensive team runs a passing play and pass is not completed, the player carries the ball out of bounds and during time-outs. Half-time lasts for twelve minutes and is held after the second quarter.

Players should be ready to begin the next play within forty seconds of the end of the last one. The back judge monitors the time taken between plays and deliberate time-wasting is punished with a penalty.

During a professional game, several game officials are likely to be on the field at the same time. The referee has the final word in decisions and is the superior of other officials.

NFL teams are permitted to have 53 players on their team. Professional teams are therefore likely to have more than one player who can play each position. The players which comprise a football team are likely to be primarily offensive or defensive players, along with a number of specialist players for particular plays.

The most important player on a football team is the Quarterback. The Quarterback is usually responsible for leading other players on the field and calling out plays on the advice of the coach. It is usually the Quarterback who hands off the ball to the Receivers or Running Backs, who then run or pass to advance the ball.

It is the task of the offensive linemen to block for the Quarterback and Running Backs; that is, to try to protect them from the defensive players on the opposing team.

Linemen are usually amongst the largest players on the team. The line is comprised of the Center who, as the name suggests, occupies the center position in the line. The Center is typically responsible for beginning a play with "the snap." The Left and Right Guards stand on either side of him; then continuing outward you have the Tackles; and finally the Receivers (who stand on the farthest point of each end of the line).

Meanwhile, the Defensive Linemen will try to thwart the efforts of the Offensive Linemen by blocking for their Quarterback. It is the job of the Offensive Linemen to bring down the Quarterback before he can hand the ball off or attempt to advance the ball himself. They are supported in this task by five Linebackers. Those defense guys are the only barrier between this onrushing wall of muscle and the quarterback.

The Cornerbacks are positioned to prevent the Receivers and Running Backs from catching the ball. They attempt to "pick-off" or intercept the ball as it is thrown to these players by the Quarterback. Long passes are discouraged by the presence of the Safeties, who stand apart from the rest of the players to prevent the offense from making longer passes as a way of bypassing the defense.

There are several specialist players on a football team, including the Place-kicker whose main function is to take kick-offs, including kicking the ball to the other team after a field goal or touchdown. The Place-kicker is also likely to be skilled at kicking field goals. The Punter is also used to kick the ball in the event that a team is on its fourth down and it seems unlikely that they will be able to progress farther.

Downs, or plays, are the cornerstone of American Football.  The offensive team has four plays in which to advance ten yards. Plays usually end when a player is tackled or falls and is declared to be "down." A player is down as soon as a part of his body other than his hand or foot touches the ground.

For example, if a team covers five yards while it is on offense, and two of its players have been tackled, they have five yards to go when they begin their "third down." If they are successful in completing the full ten yards within four plays, they are once again on their "first down" and will have another four plays to cover the next ten yards.

Plays are usually carefully worked out and practiced before the game. This is one of the reasons a good coach is such a vital element of a successful football team. A coach who works out plays that will catch the other team by surprise secures his players an advantage that can make all the difference to the outcome of the game. Remember those crazy play names? That's part of reaching this goal.

Plays usually begin by a verbal signal from the quarterback so that all players know when to act. It’s the reason that players often shout cryptic messages at each other or count aloud ("One Mississippi, Two Mississippi"...etc) during play.

There are several types of plays that form a fundamental playbook. Everyone who properly learns football learns these plays, the same way someone who properly learns chess learns a collection of opening moves. A team might develop entirely new plays, but usually they develop variations on the fundamental plays. Developing entirely new plays is risky, and the standard plays are based on the actual dynamics of the game.

A classic fundamental play is the rushing play. This involves a player receiving the ball and running with it while his teammates try to break through the defensive team's formation so the player can cover as much ground as possible, or go for a touchdown if he is very close to the end-zone, before being tackled. When commentators discuss how many yards a player has "rushed for," they are referring to how many yards the player has covered in plays of this type.

An alternative to the rushing play is the so-called "passing play," in which the quarterback "hands the ball off" to another player. That player may choose to rush or pass again to another player. He might pass back to the Quarterback, who then passes to a Receiver down field. 

Imagine that the members of the offensive team had already been tackled three times (and were about to begin their fourth down), but still had too much ground to cover to believe that they could successfully cover their full ten yards without the ball carrier's being tackled.

Imagine also that the offensive team is too far away from the end zone to consider attempting a field goal. In this circumstance, when it seems clear that they are about to lose possession of the ball, the best the offensive team can hope for is to make it more difficult for the opposing team to score once they have the ball. The offensive team may choose to kick the ball down the field to an opponent; this increases the distance the team will need to cover to score a touchdown or field goal.

A touchdown is worth six points and is awarded when a player successfully carries the ball into the end-zone of the opposing team. Once a player has scored a touchdown, he is faced with a choice:

  • Try for one extra point by attempting to kick the ball over the crossbar which lies between the goal posts; or

  • Try for two extra points by trying to advance the ball into the end-zone again (the ball is placed on the 2-yard line if this option is taken).

It is unusual to opt for the 2-point option, as it is very difficult for a player to make it to the end-zone without being tackled by an opponent. This option is usually taken only in very close games when the extra point might make a difference to the eventual outcome.

A field goal is worth three points and is awarded when the ball is kicked over the cross-bar from the field. Field goals are less common than touchdowns because teams prefer to make touchdowns, which are worth more points.

A player will usually decide to attempt a field goal only when he is close enough to the goal posts to have a good chance of succeeding, and when a touchdown seems difficult due to time restrictions. A field goal might also be attempted if a team has a lot of ground to cover in only one or two downs, and it seems unrealistic that they will continue to hold possession of the ball.

A Safety is worth two points and is awarded to the opposite team if a player is downed, or causes the ball to go out of bounds, while he his standing in his own end zone. The only exception is if the ball was kicked to the player in question and he raises his hand to signal that he was going to take a fair catch and make a touchback (meaning that no player can tackle him, his team will retain possession and play will resume from the 20 yard line). Points are rarely awarded this way.

In American football, a player who is determined by game officials to have committed an illegal action incurs a five, ten, or fifteen yard penalty for his team. That means they move back that many yards and then replay the down. This can be costly!

The rules try to ensure that the penalty is appropriate to the offense committed; a minor offence is usually punished by a five yard penalty, whereas some aggressive actions committed by defensive players will result in the opposition's being awarded a first down. When a penalty is declared, the ball is spotted in the appropriate place by game officials and play resumes.

Common penalties include:

  • Delay of Game. Deliberately wasting time between plays is illegal.

  • Illegal Blocking. There are rules regarding how players can be tackled. A player cannot, for example, be tackled from below his knees (fifteen yards) or from behind above his waist (five yards).

  • Roughing the kicker/snapper. "Roughing" is a term used to describe illegal and aggressive tackling. Someone who "roughs" a player preparing to kick the ball, or the player who is holding the ball for that player, is punished severely (the offense is given a first down). Similarly, "roughing the snapper" before play begins is illegal because the player (usually the Center) has not had a chance to get in position himself and is therefore vulnerable.

  • Encroachment. A penalty committed by defensive players. This involves crossing the line of scrimmage before the snap which begins a play (five yards).

  • Facemask. Players are not permitted to grab the face mask of another play to bring him down. If done deliberately, the team will have a 15 yard penalty.

Repeated infractions can result in a player's being tossed out of the game. For example, Bill incurs a facemask penalty and his team takes a 15 yard penalty. The penalty is severe as a way of saying the aggressive and dangerous behavior isn't acceptable. Bill does this again, and the referee tells Bill's coach, "Fifteen yard penalty. Control your player or he's out on the next infraction."

Some types of behavior can result in a player's being removed from the game on the first infraction. The referee or other official may file charges for that person to be banned for X number of games, the rest of the season, or even for life. While football is a brutal sport that leaves many players in permanent injuries to their brains, backs, knees, and other body parts, it still has some limits.


About Cathy: She and her Doberman Trooper conduct research into all kinds of topics and produce articles like the one you see here. To contact Cathy, write to thecathyfactor@yahoo.com. Get the facts from Cathy, and let the Cathy Factor give you an edge.



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