How to Enjoy American Football

I love football, but I know it’s hard for a lot of people to get into. More than once I’ve heard it described as “just people hitting each other.” The scoring is also a bit strange, and there are a lot of odd rules, so if you want to enjoy football that’s not where you should start.

Think of Football as War

Not in the hyperbolic sense, but in the strategic, battleplan-scheming, territory-grabbing sense. If you watch it with this in mind, the sport is a lot clearer.

Each team has 11 players on the field. One team has the ball. The team with the ball is trying to move into the opponent’s territory, and the opponent is trying to stop them.

The field is 100 yards long. You get 4 tries to move the ball 10 yards forward. If you succeed, you get another 4 tries. If you fail, you give the ball to the other team.

On television, they draw a blue line on the screen to indicate where the play starts (the line of scrimmage). The yellow line is where they have to get to in order to earn another set of 4 tries (tries = ‘downs’). On the screen above “3rd and 5” means “this is my third try, and I have 5 yards to go.”

So, what would you do?

If your job is to move down the field, how would you do it? If you were commanding an army, how would you draw up a scheme to advance on your enemy?

In football, you have two basic options:

  1. Throw the ball.
  2. Run with the ball.

Pretty simple.

If you throw the ball, you can move a lot of yards in a hurry. But, it’s risky. The ball’s in the air. If the defense grabs it, it’s theirs.

If you run the ball it’s comparatively safe, but you may not move very far. If the defense is expecting that, they will tackle you right away.

One thing about football that differs from other sports: those 11 guys on the field are specialists in what they’re doing for each scenario. When a team is playing offense, they have 11 completely different players on the field than they do when they’re on defense.

Wide Receiver #81, Cornerback #24

For every strategy you have on offense, the defense has a counter strategy. For all of your talented, specialized players, the defense has players that specialize in stopping them. You have a few wide receivers – tall, fast guys with great hands, who’s #1 job is to catch passes. They have cornerbacks and safeties – guys who are often even faster than wide receivers, who specialize in sticking on them.

You have to mix it up

It’s not uncommon to think running = boring and passing = exciting. But, strategically, one doesn’t work without the other. If a team just did one or the other, the defense could easily shut them down. If you mix it up, you keep the defense on their toes. A great example was last week, in overtime, when the Steelers defense was sure the Broncos were going to run the ball… and they were wrong:

Though running usually only lets you move forward a few yards, there’s always a chance that something amazing can happen: Marshawn Lynch vs. Saints.

Ok, but Kicking is still Boring

When you don’t move the ball ten yards after your first 3 tries, you have a decision to make. You can try again, but if you fail the other team will get the ball right at the spot. This is key, because if you’re close to your own endzone (the area your opponent is trying to get to) they won’t have very far to go in order to score.

So you have the option to punt. You put a guy out there who will kick the ball to your opponent, but he’s going to do his best to make sure they have to start as far back as possible. A punt can routinely push your opponent back 45 yards.

During a punt, the play on the field is rarely exciting. Punts are interesting strategically – they move the line of scrimmage dramatically, so the other team will have to spend more time and effort to advance the ball back towards you. As with offense and defense, when the punter comes on the field this is yet another set of 11 guys (called ‘special teams’) who specialize in this aspect of the game. As such, there are players who are exceptional punt-blockers or punt-returners who can make a punt exciting.

The game is too slow

The game’s cadence is driven by the fact that the offense is given 4 tries to do anything. They get 40 seconds to meet, decide what they want to do, then run a play. Whether or not they succeed, they stop and get 40 seconds to plan the next one. This is the time when the strategy is formed. Pass or run? Who’s running where? While the offense is deciding what to do, the defense also mulls over how they’re going to line up and stop them. This time itself is also strategic – if the offense can figure out what they want to do very quickly, the defense doesn’t have any time to think. If the offense takes a long time, they are giving that same amount of time to their opponent.

As a viewer that cadence conveniently meshes well with drinking. But, if you’re thinking like the offense and defense, you can also use that time to think about what kind of play the offense is going to run, and see how the defense organizes itself to try and stop it – since they’re guessing just like you are. I think this mindset makes the entire game much more interesting.

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