American football is immensely popular in the United States. You may have heard people at your workplace or around town talking about their favorite professional or college teams, but chances are you have never watched a game before 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 between games to study their opponents 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 a major event. Most college teams play on Saturday and most professional teams play on Sunday. At this time, 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 occasionally there is a game on Thursday. 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 geographic location and also grouped into two conferences. Each conference is, in a sense, a mini league. At the end of the season and playoffs, the most winningest team from each conference plays in a game called the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl is American Football's championship game.
Compared to professional football, the college teams are divided into many more divisions and conferences. 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, mostly by girlfriends that have been forced to watch games with me.
Why are there so many players and what are their responsibilities?
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 both 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 the ball to the receivers (who catch) or to hand the ball to the running backs (who run). It is rare that anyone besides the quarterback will throw the ball.
Is this the same as rugby?
No, but it has its origins in rugby, and there are some similarities. For example, the plays (or strategic maneuvers) begin with the teams facing in what looks like a rugby scrum, the game uses an oval ball and there is a goal post that the ball can be kicked through. There are differences, too. Football players wear lots of protective equipment because they spend so much time— quite literally— running directly into each other.
What's the point of the game?
The point of the game is for your team to get the ball into the opponent's end zone to score a touchdown. They can do this by either running with the ball into the end zone or catching a pass in the end zone. This gives your team 6 points. The team then gets a chance for an extra point by kicking the ball through a goal post. On rare occasions, teams may try for 2 extra points by running or throwing the ball into the end zone an additional time. Obviously, the defense players are trying to stop the goals from occurring. If the offense gets close to the end zone, but not quite there, they may attempt 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 professionals play in a season?
Each professional team plays 16 games and gets one week off at some point during the season. The entire regular season is 17 weeks. Afterwards there is a playoff tournament where the team must win the game or their season is over.
What's a "first down"?
When your team is playing offense, it gets 4 downs, or 4 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 the team gets past these 10 yards, they get another set of 4 downs. If they don't make the 10 yards or score a touchdown, they have to give the ball back to the other team's offense. Any penalties that occur can increase or decrease the number of yards your team obtains before getting more downs.
Could you explain the Super Bowl?
The Super Bowl is the professional championship game at the end of the season. The remaining teams 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 many Americans 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 watching the game.
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 geographically closest to each other play more often. So it is possible that you may have a friend in a nearby city who likes your 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, many people watch games alongside their friends at home or at a local bar.
Why are people cooking food outside the stadium?
This is called tailgating— people park their cars or trucks outside of the stadium, drink beer and grill food. Many people don't even have tickets 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.
How does one become a football player?
Professional players begin playing football relatively young. Children may begin learning the game in a youth league. Motivated, young players may eventually play in high school and even at college or university.
Can I play football?
Of course you can! Get a bunch of your friends together and start a game. Or if you hear about a game happening, simply join in. Your new American friends will be happy to teach you. I don't recommend playing tackle football, though. Try flag football or touch football, instead. You can enjoy all of the fun aspects of the game without actually hitting anyone.
- Steve Bossous, Career Training USA, Associate Program Manager
Image Source: Houston Texans wide receiver Jacoby Jones (12) is hit by New Orleans Saints cornerback Jabari Greer as Saints free safety Malcolm Jenkins (27) looks on during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)