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How to Understand American Football

By Allen Bullman May 11, 2020

How to Understand American Football

First things first: there is only football. Not American football, and not English football. Football is the only game; anything else is called soccer, and it’s barely a sport. Soccer has been on the rise in the USA for 40+ years, but it’s still a far cry from football in national excitement. There is a professional soccer league here now, but we still lag far behind the rest of the world in soccer skills. We didn’t even make the last world cup, and tiny Iceland did. What’s that tell you? It tells us all that football is the national pastime and the national obsession. If you aren’t a fan yet of football, then strap in and find out how to understand American football. Your fandom is waiting. One more thing: that’ll be the last time I refer to “American football.” It’s only football for the rest of the way.

The Legend of Football

The greatest game in the history of the world was invented on the greatest of days. Not surprisingly, the world’s greatest game was invented along with the greatest nation in world history. On July 4, 1776, football was invented by Billy Pigskin in Canton, Ohio, after he had a vision while drinking ales with his friends. Mr. Pigskin was a pig farmer, patriot, and visionary who knew this fantastic new nation would need its own game. A game that promoted physical fitness, preparation for the coming battles, tactical brilliance, and teamwork. Ol’ Billy also knew that it was important to cast off the shackles of England and their silly games like cricket and soccer. To do that, America would need something to call its own, so he got to work. “Billy Ballgame,” as his friends called him, created the first ball from the hide of a thousand-pound hog from his farm. The hog survived a lightning strike one night; it glowed with a brilliant yellow light, and so did the first ball. Villagers for miles around came to marvel at the ball and bring Billy gifts. Not wanting to waste anything, he wrote the first rules of the game on the remaining hide with the hoof of the sacred animal. One hoof was sharpened to a fine point and the rest were ground into black pigment, and Billy Pigskin tattooed the original 12 rules onto the hide in a magnificent cursive script that rivaled the US Constitution in beauty. The rules are hidden in an undisclosed location somewhere in the continental United States. Some believe they are in the hidden vault within Mount Rushmore. Or the game could have been slowly born of rugby by Yale student and rugby player Walter Camp. No one knows for sure.

The Basics: Teams on the Field

At its core, football is a ground acquisition game in which two teams try to gain ground on each other to score points. In the modern, professional game, a team is permitted to have 53 players on their active roster. For each team there is an offense, a defense, and special teams. Each team within the team has 11 players on it. The offense is made up of the quarterback, halfback, wide receivers, tight end, and linemen. The defensive side of the ball is made up of the linemen, linebackers, and the defensive backs. The special teams consist of the kicking teams and the coverage teams. Kicking teams are the punt team, the field goal team, and the kickoff team. They are used in different situations throughout the game.

Basic Game Play

The game begins with a coin toss to see who will get the ball first. Whoever wins the toss gets to either accept the ball, play defense first, or defer to the second half. The game starts with one team lining up 11 players and kicking the ball to the other team. A player catches it and returns it as far as they can before being tackled to the ground. The ball is placed where the kick returner was tackled. The team on offense comes out and gets in a huddle to communicate the play they are going to run to all members. The team on offense has four chances to move the ball ten yards and each chance is called a “down.” They have four downs to advance the ball ten yards by either throwing it downfield or running it. If they get ten yards, the downs start over and they then have four more chances to move the ball ten yards. If they fail to move the ball, then the other team takes over on offense where the ball last was. On fourth down, the offensive team has the option to try one last time to gain the necessary yardage, or they can kick, or punt, the ball to the opposing team. This is a bit strategy to pin the other team deep in their own territory, forcing them to move the ball farther to score. If the offense is in range of the field goal, they can also attempt to score a field goal. A kicker will attempt to kick the ball off the ground through the field goal instead of trying to get the yardage or punting.

Scoring During the Game

The object of football is to get more points than the opponent. Teams can score points by taking the ball to the endzone and scoring a touchdown; that’s worth six points. After the touchdown they can attempt an “extra point” by kicking a field goal or go for a “two-point conversion” by running one more play. Field goals in which a kicker kicks the ball from the field of play, through the uprights, are worth three points. The defense can score points by intercepting a pass or recovering a fumbled ball and returning it for a touchdown. They can also score two points by getting a “safety”—tackling the opposing quarterback in his own endzone. Teams can score touchdowns by returning punts and kickoffs for touchdowns as well.

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How to Understand American Football


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