American Football Explained


6 minutes

American Football is immensely popular in the United States. You may have heard people at your workplace or around town talking their favorite professional or college teams but chances are you have never watched a game and have no idea what is going on. Allow me to explain…

Football teams play once a week. Each game requires a lot of preparation and is very physical so players need several days in between to study the next team and recover from the previous week's hits. The fans spend this time dissecting the last game and obsessing over why their teams won or lost.

Because of all this build up, every game is an event. Most college teams play on Saturday, and most professional teams play on Sunday, so people are generally home from work and have time to sit and watch, organize a party, or tailgate at the stadium. There is a nighttime professional Monday game and the occasional Thursday game but one can watch football on almost any Saturday or Sunday from August through January. It is not uncommon for the average football fan to spend an entire weekend watching football, leaving many a fan with a severely dented couch.

The professional teams are divided into divisions based on where they are from and grouped into two conferences. Each conference is, in a sense, a mini league. At the end of the season and playoffs, the winningest team from each conference plays in a game called the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl is American Football's championship game. College football is divided into many more divisions and conferences, and the season's champion is determined through a more complex and controversial system which could be another blog in itself!

Now I'm sure you still have many questions. Here are the ones I am most frequently asked:

Why are there so many players and what do they all do?

Each team carries 45 to 50 players because the positions are so specialized. You will have 11 players on the field at a time, and it is rare that a player will play on both offense and defense. There are big guys who serve as blockers, smaller guys who are in charge of catching or running with the ball, and medium sized guys who may do both. You will also see players who kick and punt. Wikipedia offers a great breakdown of each position. Check it out and impress your new American friends with your football knowledge!

Why is this Quarterback guy so important?

The quarterback controls the flow of the offense and is the main player in charge of getting the team to score. It is his job to throw to the receivers who catch and to hand the ball to the running backs that will run. It is rare that anyone besides the quarterback will throw the ball.

Is this rugby?

No, but it has its origins in rugby, and there are some similarities. Plays begin with the teams facing in what looks like a rugby scrum, they use an oval ball, and there is a goal post that the ball can be kicked through. There are differences, too, though. Namely, players wear lots of protective equipment because they spend so much time quite literally running right into each other.

What's the point of all this?

The point is for your team to get the ball to the opponent's end zone to score a touchdown, either by running with the ball into or catching a pass in the end zone. This nets you 6 points. You then get a chance for an extra point by kicking the ball through a goal post. On rare occasions, teams may try for two extra points by running or throwing the ball into the end zone one more time. The players on defense are trying to stop you obviously. If you get close to the end zone but not quite there, a team may try to kick the ball through the goal post for 3 points. This is called a field goal. The team with the most points at the end of the game wins.

How many games do they play?

Each professional team plays 16 games and gets a week off at some point during the season. The entire regular season is 17 weeks. Then there is a playoff tournament where you have to win or your season is over.

What's a first down?

When your team is playing offense, it gets four downs, or four chances to advance the ball and score a touchdown. A first down just means the first chance to advance the ball. There is marker placed 10 yards away and if you get past these 10 yards, you get another set of four downs. If you don't make the 10 yards or score a touchdown, you have to give the ball back to the other team's offense. Penalties can increase or decrease the number of yards before you get more downs.

Could you explain the Super Bowl?

It is the Professional Championship game at the end of the season. The teams left standing from each conference at the end of the playoffs play each other at a predetermined neutral stadium. The Super Bowl is generally on the first Sunday of February and people often organize Super Bowl parties. Even non-football fans may watch the Super Bowl, making it one of the year's most watched events on television. Companies even use this event to debut their new commercials because so many people are viewing.

Why do you care so much?

The games are fun to watch. Some people get involved in rivalries with fans of other teams. Generally, the teams closest to each other play each other more often. You may have a friend who lives in a nearby city that likes the rival team. It is fun to gloat when your team wins but it might be less fun to hear about how terrible your team is when they lose. There is a sense of community that builds around football. Even if you do not attend a game at a stadium, you may watch at home with your friends or at a local bar.

Why are people cooking food outside the stadium?

It is called tailgating – people park their cars and trucks outside of the stadium and drink beer and grill food. Many don't even intend to go inside to watch the game. They're happy just being outside near the energy of the event. This contributes to the sense of community that develops around football.

Where do these players all come from?

People begin playing football relatively young. Children may begin learning the game in a youth league. Some who are motivated enough may eventually play in high school and even College/University. In fact, College Football rivals Professional Football in terms of popularity and game viewership.

Can I play football?

Of course you can! Get a bunch of your friends together or join in if you hear about a game happening. Your new American friends will be happy to help you learn to play. I don't recommend playing tackle football, though. You can enjoy all of the fun aspects of the game without actually hitting anyone by playing flag football.

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