Posted by on 30 Apr 2011. Filed under The Expat. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

An Idiots Guide to American Football

As many of The Daily readers expressed an interest in finding out more about this uniquely American sport, our expert Patrick McDaniel has put together for you this Idiots Guide to American Football.

American football is a sport that is insanely popular in America, even at the college level. While sports fans in Europe have accepted it to some degree, most of the non-Americans I have met here in Bratislava tend to be very critical of the sport. They say it’s too boring, too slow, and they question the toughness of the athletes because they wear all of the pads. Although I am convinced that these harsh words criticizing my favorite sport come from hurt feelings when I say I don’t really like soccer, most people don’t like American football because they do not understand it.

Just to make it clear, Americans don’t call football football to slap the other football’s (soccer’s) fans in the face. The word soccer was actually coined by the Brits and it comes from AsSOCiation Football or SOCiety Rules Football. Far-fetched I know, but these are the same people who make up nicknames for everything. Example: Americans are seps. Why? Septic tank rhymes with yank and apparently sep is short for septic tank, because Americans are generally full of fecal matter (?). While I must concede that it makes more sense to call soccer football because you only use your feet, it is generally accepted that the name American football comes from the sport once called rugby football. Another theory is that we call it football because it’s played on foot rather than horseback. It is not important, Americans will continue to call it football and everyone else can call it American football or gridiron. Besides, handball is already taken and turbo-charged extreme god’s country slaughter death ball is too long.

Football is played on a field that is 120 yards long, that’s a 100 yard playing field and a 10 yard end zone at each end. Each team always has 11 players on the field. The object of the game is to make the football cross the goal line of the opposing team’s end zone. This is done when either a player carries the ball and runs into the end zone or a player catches the ball while already in the end zone. When this happens, it is a touchdown.

Read this paragraph carefully as it will clarify the game significantly. It’s not as complex as you think. American football does not flow like soccer or basketball. The objective is still to score however and this is done by the offense performing a sequence of various plays to march down the field and into the opponent’s end zone. Each play is called a “down”. The offense must move the ball 10 yards every 4 downs or else they have to turn the ball over to the other team. If the offense makes it 10 yards in 4 downs, they get a new 1st down and they have to move the ball another 10 yards to keep the attack going. After each play, or down, the game breaks so the offense and defense can plan their next play. Although these breaks are only about 30 seconds long, this is the part that irks the first time viewers. Lastly, since American football teams don’t wear their sponsors’ logos on their uniforms, they have many commercial breaks which cause at college or professional game to last up to 3 hours. At the amateur level games are significantly shorter.

The least you need to know about offense and scoring

Plays begin at the “line of scrimmage” which is the spot of the field where the ball is placed, usually where the player with the ball was tackled on the previous play. The “snap” is when the ball is given to the quarterback and the snap sets the play in motion. The offense has 11 players consisting of these positions:

Quarterback (1): The player who receives the snap and either throws the ball, hands it off or keeps it and runs it himself

Running backs (1-2): The players who line up beside or behind the quarterback and take the ball and run towards the end zone with it

Wide receivers (2-4): The players who run down the field and catch the ball that the quarterback throws

Linemen (5-6): The players who block for the quarterback and running backs

Each play is a running play or a passing play. The quarterback must be behind the line of scrimmage to pass forward. However, any player can pass the ball backwards to a team mate during the play.

If the offense is struggling to move the ball 10 yards and 4th down arrives, it is common that they punt the ball or try for a field goal. A punt is when the offense kicks the ball downfield to the other team so they have further to go to get to the end zone on their offensive drive. A field goal is another way to score. It is when a team is close to the opponent’s end zone and they try to kick the ball between the goal posts.

Scoring on offense:

Touchdown, 6 points: Taking or catching the ball in the end zone

Point after touchdown (PAT), 1 point: After the touchdown the scoring team has the opportunity to get another point by kicking the ball between the goal posts from close range

2-point conversion, 2 points: After the touchdown, the scoring team can decide to forgo the PAT and run a running or passing play from close range for 2 points instead of 1.

Field goal, 3 points: On 4th down if the offense is close to the end zone they usually opt to try to kick the ball between the goal posts from the line of scrimmage

The least you need to know about defense

Like offense, there are also 11 players on defense. The defenses’ objective is to prevent the offense from moving the ball down the field. This is done by tackling the person with the ball (once the player with the ball hits the ground, the play is over). These are the defensive positions:

Linemen (3-4): These players try to tackle the quarterback* or the running back and also to make it difficult for the quarterback to make a good throw

*When the quarterback is tackled behind the line of scrimmage it is called a “sack”

Linebackers (3-4): These players stand behind the linemen and either try to rush the quarterback, tackle the running back, or even cover receivers.

Corner backs and safeties: These players, collectively known as the secondary, run with the wide receivers and try to prevent them from catching the ball

If you’re on defense and you stop the offense from going 10 yards in 4 plays, that is good. However, turnovers are better. If the quarterback throws a ball and a defender catches it, that is an interception and the team that was on defense is now on offense. If a player has the ball and drops it or has it knocked out of his hands, that is a fumble and a defensive player can recover it. If this happens, the team that was defending is now on offense.

Positions in football:


Photo courtesy of sidelinepass.com

OFFENSE (Blue):

T= Tackle (lineman)

G= Guard (lineman)

C= Center (lineman that snaps the ball)

QB = Quarter Back

TE = Tight End (lineman & receiver)

WR = Wide Receiver

FB = Fullback (running back)

HB = Halfback (running back)

DEFENSE (Orange):

E = End (lineman)

T = Tackle (lineman)

ML = Middle Linebacker

OL = Outside Linebacker

CB = Cornerback

S = Safety

Special teams

While a team’s offense and defense are on the field for most of the game, there is also a special teams unit. The special teams put the “foot” in football. At the beginning of the game and after halftime there is a kick-off where one team kicks the ball to the other team to decide where the offense will start with the ball. Kick-offs also occur after scoring. The team that just scored kicks the ball off to the other team. The field goal and field goal block team are also special teams. Same with the punt and punt return team.

So there you have it, American football 101. Come watch this Saturday April 30th as the Bratislava Monarchs take on the visiting Brno Alligators.

5 Comments for “An Idiots Guide to American Football”

  1. James Baxter

    Sounds a fair enough deal! I clicked that link and the obvious thing is that it’s all about the enthusiasm for the sport that’s developed locally – just as it should be. Noticeably young squad too.

    ‘when I told them that I like American football they gave me the attitude of
    “You like american football, I hate american football, therefore I hate you”.’
    That’s depressing to hear, the more so because it’s far from unbelievable.

  2. James Baxter

    Sure, completely agree with the last three lines, total respect too for having enough of a love for a sport to get it so well off the ground and with local guys in a place that’s not its natural territory.

    Far better that than (to take perhaps the worst instance) the ridiculous notion of the English Premier League wanting to play its ’39th game’ in various corners of the world for purely commercial reasons. Or, for that matter, that American football exhibition game that was staged at Wembley a while back.

    The hostility of Brits (including me sometimes, as I’ve said) towards American football is partly down to the pads, the stoppages, the commercial breaks and the fact that we just don’t ‘get’ the game but I think there is a wider cultural point too ; our streets are full of McDonalds and bloody Starbucks, our cinemas are full of Hollywood crap, our governments are at the Americans’ beck and call… So sport is one small area where we feel we still have some cultural independence and we’d rather keep it that way.

    Not saying that’s right and wrong, in fact it’s probably over-sensitive. And I would definitely be open-minded enough, if there was an American football game across the street, to wander over, have a look and find out what’s happening. Any coming up in Zilina?

    • patrick

      No British person has ever put it in words like that to me. Thank you for your honesty. I always wondered why when I told them that I like American football they gave me the attitude of “You like american football, I hate american football, therefore I hate you”. Zilina does not have a team that plays in the Czech league but they have a Slovak league team called the Warriors. The Monarchs play in this league as well but there’s no schedule for it yet. The Slovak league games are shorter and played with less people and they are jamboree style where 3-4 teams show up and we all play each other. The Warriors’ website is http://www.zilina-warriors.banda.cz. But yeah, go to a game, if you can’t get into it at least they serve beer and ciganska there.

  3. James Baxter

    I’ll admit it ; as a Brit, a ‘soccer’ fan since early childhood, who played a lot of rugby at school, I am naturally dismissive at best, hostile at worst towards American football. Articles like this don’t help, frankly. There’s a condescending instruction to ‘read carefully’ because the game’s ‘not as complex as you think’ followed by lots of fairly meaningless technical terms.
    The best would be if I did indeed go to watch and someone like you explained to me, patiently and in person, what’s going on and why.

    Even so, I think we can only truly love and understand a sport if we grew up with it. I played and watched soccer, rugby and cricket as a kid and they still mean a lot to me. I can see why people love ice-hockey – it’s fast and it’s obvious what the players are trying to do – but it’s not in my heart because I didn’t get to know it till I came to Slovakia. I can see why baseball appeals because it’s a cousin of cricket but, again, it’s not my game. And it’s mainly because I had a British (European) childhood, not an American one, that American football means nothing.

    For similar reasons, it’s fairly pointless to argue about which sports are ‘best’ – it really does all depend on a person’s own roots.

    • patrick

      If you’re dismissive at best and hostile at worst towards football, I’m surprised (happily) that you read the article. I have no idea about what “technical terms” I used and didn’t define clearly. But you are right, the best would be to come to a game with someone that understands. You are also right that there is no point in arguing about which sport is best as everyone is entitled to like whatever sport they want (funny how a Brit is the one telling ME this). It is funny though how much animosity there is towards American football over here. It doesn’t matter though, I found a group of about 40 Slovaks that took the time to learn the game and who have the balls to play full contact… and I respect every single one of them for it. And it’s great to see fans in the stands!

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