Saturday, October 15, 2011

Football for Mommies

Recently, as my offering for a preschool (and parent) co-op, I held a mini-class called "Football for Mommies," wherein I tried to give a basic outline of what on earth is happening on the television on any given Saturday or Sunday in September-January. It was in google doc form, so I'm copying/pasting here, and adding some photos* in hopes that your eyes won't bug out of your head seeing so many words all together at once. (If you want an easy-to-print cheat sheet, go ahead and click on the above google docs link and do just that.)

Without further ado...

Football for Mommies

photo credit
The basics
(Probably the most basic fact is that each team has 11 players. That’s kind of important.)

If a football field is 100 yards, why do the yard lines only go up to 50? Yards are measured from the end zones, so the field is divided into two separate, 50-yard sections. Each team is assigned an end zone to defend. (End zones are each 10 yards deep.) A team scores by possessing the ball in their opponent’s end zone or by kicking the ball through the uprights of their opponent’s goalpost.

Keeping score in football can be confusing, as there are FIVE ways to score points:
1) Touchdown - Worth 6 points; the most common word associated with American football, and the goal of virtually any offensive possession. The offense must either run the ball into their opponent’s end zone or catch a pass in their opponent’s end zone. You will hear talk of “breaking the plane,” which means only that the nose of the ball must break the plane (when viewed from the side, straight-on) of the end zone in order to score a touchdown. There will be many a reviewed play, instant replay, and brouhaha over whether the nose of the ball crossed the plane before the player was “down.” (more on the two meanings of “down” in a moment)
2) Extra Point - Worth 1 point. After a touchdown, the offense gets one chance to add to their point total, starting from the 2-yard line; the typical choice is to kick an “extra point” because it is almost always successful. The offense must kick the ball between the uprights of their opponent’s goalpost.
3) Two-Point Conversion - Worth 2 points. After a touchdown, if a team so chooses, they can run a non-kicking play from the 2-yard line and score in the same manner as a touchdown, with an offensive player in possession of the ball in their opponent’s end zone. The likelihood of success is much lower than with an "extra point,” but the mathematics of the game can make it highly advantageous to attempt.
4) Field Goal - Worth 3 points; essentially a consolation prize if you can’t score a touchdown, but is easier because NFL kickers can often successfully kick a field goal from upwards of 50 yards away (a little less than half the field; the goalposts are located behind the end zone, which is an additional 10 yards). The offense must kick the ball between the uprights of their opponent’s goalpost.
5) Safety - Worth 2 points. This is the MOST confusing (and rarest) way to score. A safety occurs when an offensive team is stopped in its own end zone or possession of the ball is lost because the ball has gone out of play through the back of the offense’s own end zone. (Think of a mistake while the team’s “back is to the wall.”) 
Signaling a score. photo credit

Regarding that word “down”...Why are there two ways to use it in football? Probably because of vernacular shorthand, but it may also have something to do with a machismo disdain for the word “try.”
Down, defined:
1. (adverb) on or to the ground. When a player with the ball touches the ground with any part of his body except his hands or feet, he is considered “down,” and the play is dead. The ball is spotted where it was when the downing of that body part caused the play to end.
2. (noun) An attempt, a try. Each time a team gets the ball (called a “possession”), they have 4 tries to move the ball forward 10 yards (toward their opponent’s goal). If they fail to do so, the opposing team takes over possession wherever the ball is after that 4th try, or 4th down. Rarely does a team allow their opponent to take over possession, however. If the offense is close enough (typically at about the 35 yard line), they will attempt a field goal. If they are too far away for a field goal attempt, they will punt the ball to their opponent in an attempt to stop their opponent’s forward progress deeper in their own territory (ie, farther from the goal line which they are defending).

Why do the announcers keep repeating numbers after every play? They are telling the audience what down it is and how far the team must advance the ball in order to achieve another set of downs. It changes every play. As discussed, “1st and 10” means it is 1st down, and the team has 10 yards to go to earn another set of downs. For instance, “2nd and 6” means they are using their second try in that set of downs and must gain 6 more yards for a new set. “3rd and 15” is a tough position to be in, and if the team fails to move 15 yards on that one play, they may: a) “Go for it” (use their 4th down to try to advance the ball enough for a 1st down) and risk not converting; b) Attempt a field goal if they are close enough to their opponent’s goal; or c) punt the ball away so their opponents are father away from their end zone--and therefore less likely to score. If a team does not earn a 1st down on a possession, it is referred to as a “3 and Out,” meaning they had only 3 downs before punting the ball away.

Okay, a punt is a kind of kick a team does when they already have possession and need to get rid of the ball, but then how is it different from a kickoff? A punt can take place anywhere on the field (and is snapped directly to the kicker by the center), but a kickoff almost always takes place at a team’s own 20-yard line (and the ball starts off on a kicking tee; it is not snapped). While technically the kicking team has possession of the ball, they can’t make any play other than to kick it to their opponent for the opponent to begin their drive to score. A kickoff takes place at the beginning of each half of the game, and again after any successful score. (The scoring team kicks off to their opponent.)

A punt. photo credit
Line of Scrimmage - An imaginary line across the field where the ball is placed to start a play. Neither the offense nor defense can cross the line until the ball is snapped. (The players who line up “on the line of scrimmage” are called linemen.)
Snap - The ball is moved by the center from the line of scrimmage to either the quarterback or punter
Drive - A set of downs (a possession) by an offensive team in an attempt to score
Fumble - A player who has possession of the ball on a play loses possession of the ball. This sometimes results in a turnover (other team recovers the ball), but not always; the fumbling team can also recover the ball.
Sack - When the quarterback is tackled behind the line of scrimmage, resulting in a loss of yardage. (And often a hurt quarterback!)
Penalty - A player or team violates a rule of fair play. Punishment is loss of yards and/or downs; if the defense commits a penalty, the offense moves forward and/or is awarded a first down. A referee signals a penalty by “throwing a flag”--quite literally throwing a yellow flag into the air. 
Holding - The most common penalty called, and sometimes it can be the hardest to see. Rules state that a player can only block another player not in possession of the ball with his body, straight-on; violating the rule (by wrapping an arm around another player, grabbing their jersey, etc) results in a holding penalty. Since it can be hard to see, players often “get away with it.” You’ll probably hear lots of protests such as “that guy was holding! Where’s the flag?!”
Offside - Another very common penalty called when a player crosses the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped.

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Knowing Your Offense From Your Defense

Why are there so many “backs”? A “back” is just a player who lines up behind the linemen; that area is called the “backfield.”

Offensive Linemen protect the quarterback from the defense, and are generally built like tanks. From the middle of the line, outwards they are:
Center - snaps the ball to the quarterback in addition to protecting him
Right/Left Guard - next to the center
Right/Left Tackle - Next to the guards
The Quarterback runs the offense, calling plays (or at least telling the rest of the team which play the coaches tell him to run). He receives the ball from the center and can pass the ball, hand it off to another player, or run the ball himself.
The Running Back’s job is pretty self-explanatory, right? They line up behind the quarterback and usually gets the ball from the quarterback in a handoff. When he’s not running, he’s blocking defenders for the person who will have the ball or pretending to have the ball to try to fool the defense. A Tailback, Fullback, Halfback, or Rushing back are all types of running backs.
Wide Receivers line up farther away from the ball and typically run downfield to get into position to catch the ball from the quarterback.
A Tight End can act as both a wide receiver and a blocker. (and IMO, the description typically fits players who play this position)

Defensive Linemen try to tackle the ball carrier (typically the quarterback). They are also built like tanks, but tend to be a little faster than offensive linemen. From the middle, outwards:
Defensive Tackle - Besides trying to reach the quarterback, their job is to make sure no one runs right up the middle. A Nose Tackle is a defensive tackle who is in the middle of an odd number of defensive linemen and who is lined up directly across from the offense’s center. (Many teams don’t use the position of nose tackle).
Defensive End - Besides trying to reach the quarterback, their job is to make sure no one runs around the defensive line
Linebackers line up behind the defensive linemen and are regarded as the best tacklers on the team. They are not as big as linemen, but big, strong, fast guys. Often, one is more or less in charge of the defense based on which play the offense seems to be running. There are Middle, Inside, and Outside Linebackers.
A safety is one of two players who lines up even behind the linebackers. Their job is to protect against a deep pass.
Cornerbacks line up farthest from the ball, usually opposite the offensive team’s wide receivers. They also defend against the pass. (Collectively, the safeties and the cornerbacks are called the secondary. As in, a secondary line of defense.)

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I thought it might be helpful to have a “cheat sheet” for easier reference, so tried to format thusly.

*My apologies for the non-clickable photos; blogger's being glitchy for me. Please click on the captions below the photos for appropriate source credit. (all obtained legally via creative commons photo pool, I swear!)

Are there other questions a football newbie might have that I haven’t answered?