Best drinks for ‘Beer Bowl’

A bluffer’s guide to American football


It’s easy, all you’ve got to do is tackle

Newcomers to the NFL may initially wonder what on earth is going on but rejoice! It is not as complicated as it first appears and the basics are easy to pick up.

Like all sport the object is to take a ball from one end of the field to another, as long as you see that happening you have at least some idea of what’s going on.

American Football, or gridiron as it sometimes known, is about fast, explosive plays and has its roots in rugby.

They might pass the ball forward but it is egg-shaped and it’s a contact sport.

Think of the line of scrimmage as a cross between a lineout and a scrum, the quarterback’s the scrum half crossed with the hooker, the defensive line are forwards the offense backs and we’re rolling.

NFL pitchThe pitch: the pitch is 100 yards long and divided into 10-yard segments. Each end has an additional 10-yard “end zone”, (see picture, below) with goal posts at either end.

The teams: the basic NFL team is made up of two 11-man squads, one “offensive” the other “defensive”.

The quarterback, generally considered the star of the team, is the key player in the offensive line-up.

One side’s offense will face the other’s defense at each “down” as shown in the picture (below), although they can vary their positions.

NFL positions

There are also “special teams” made up of the faster players in either the defense or offense who come on to make kicks and run the ball to where the first line of scrimmage will take place.

Timings: The game is divided into four quarters of 15 minutes each. There are short breaks between the change-over of each play, each quarter and a slightly longer one at half time so while the game in theory lasts an hour it does in fact last much longer.

Gameplay: After the coin toss, a designated team will kick the ball down the field to the receiving side.

The receiving team then run the ball up the field until tackled. The spot they are tackled is where the first line of scrimmage will take place.

If the ball bounces out of the back of the field or if a player catches the ball and takes a knee then play will continue from the 20-yard line, the equivalent of a 22-metre drop-out. A player can also call for a fair catch if he thinks his position advantageous enough – again, similar to calling “mark” in rugby.

NFL game

Giants and Patriots at the line of scrimmage

The receiving team’s offensive side then come out and face-off against the other side’s defense and they line up at what is known as the line of scrimmage (above) which is relatively well known even to casual observers of the sport.

Pinging the ball back from the centre player to the quarterback is known as a “snap”.

Football is based on plays, set-piece actions that are constantly rehearsed. When the quarterback is heard yelling he is telling his side the play they are about to go through with or making amendments to it if the defense have lined up in a manner he thinks will hamper the original play.

Alternatively his calls may be meaningless and designed to fool the opposition. As already mentioned, Peyton Manning has been getting a lot of attention for yelling out the name of a town in Nebraska a lot lately.


What will Manning say next?…and what does it mean?

When the ball is snapped, the quarterback can do several things.

The most well-known play is to throw (pass) the ball up field to a wide receiver (a pass play).

Alternatively he may decide to hand the ball to one of his running backs (a run play) and if there is no other option he may run the ball himself and try and make yardage.


Eli Manning hands the ball to running back David Wilson

The aim of each play is to advance 10 yards. The offensive team has four attempts in which to accomplish this before it must hand the ball over to the other team’s offense.

The defensive team is obviously trying to stop them and do so by tackling the ball carrier or breaking through to reach the quarterback and either tackling him (known as a “sack”), forcing him to throw a rushed pass which his receiver cannot catch or making him throw the ball out of play in order to avoid the sack.

If and when the offense makes 10 yards or more they get another four downs to repeat the process and so advance up the pitch to the end-zone.

At the fourth down, if the offensive line is struggling to make 10 yards they will usually bring on a placekicker to punt the ball downfield and ensure that the opposition’s offense have further to advance.

If they are within range of the goalposts but think it unlikely they will break through the defense then they can try for a field goal.

The first down is referred to as the “first and 10”. If the team only goes four yards then the next down will be the “second and six”, and so on until 10 yards are made or not.

The offense and defense are cycled through as often as necessary throughout the game.

Turnovers and fumbles: The ball can be turned over if the quarterback throws an interception, that is to say his pass is caught by a member of the opposition.

He will then run the ball until tackled and his offensive team will come out for a new down.

If a player drops the ball (called a fumble) it can be picked up by the opposition with similar consequences.

Penalties: There are quite a few penalties in gridiron and they result in loss of yards and occasionally downs as well.

NFL penalty

An example of pass interference. Play the ball not the man

The most common are “holding” and “pass interference”. Although players are allowed to tackle other players off the ball and otherwise impede their progress they can only do so at certain times.

“Holding” refers to physically holding onto someone to prevent them getting to the ball carrier. If you stand in front of them and get in the way or push them over, fine but you can’t hold them.

“Pass interference” is a classic case of playing the man not the ball and is when the ball is in the air heading for a wide receiver and the player covering him appears more interested in deliberately making sure he won’t get it rather than trying to compete for it himself and force either an interception or incomplete pass.

Other penalties include “unsportsmanlike conduct”, “unnecessary roughness” (both of which are charmingly antiquated) as well as “hands to the face” and “roughing the passer” (both of which fall under the unnecessary roughness tag).

A penalty will result in the loss of five, 10 or 15 yards and occasionally loss of a down depending on the severity of the foul.

Scoring: A touchdown (the equivalent of a try in rugby) is accomplished when a ball carrier crosses into the end zone or catches a pass from the quarterback in the end zone.

NFL touchdown


The ball has only to break the line of the end-zone to be ruled a touchdown so a play can seemingly be stopped on the line yet still be a legitimate score.

A touchdown is worth six points and a conversion a further one point. A field goal is worth three points just like a penalty or drop goal in rugby. Drop goals do not happen in the NFL.

A team can opt for a two point conversion where, in place of a kicker, the quarterback will attempt to rush or pass the ball into the end-zone as they did to score the touchdown.

Similarly if a ball carrier is tackled in his own end-zone that is known as a “safety” and is worth two points to the opposition.

As in all sports, the team with the most points at the final whistle has won and, in this case, is crowned Super Bowl champion.

Who will get their hands on the Vince Lombardi Trophy?

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