Two years ago, my beloved Bears were in the Super Bowl. They lost to Indianapolis, but that's not the point of this post. Michael's sister lives in Indianapolis, and she knew nothing about the game, so I put together a set of football basics to help her understand what she was watching. Since then I've given it to other friends who were tired of asking their husbands what was going on during games (and no doubt their husbands were tired of being asked).
Since I know that Super Bowl Sunday is the one day of the year that lots of non-football fans watch the game, I thought I'd publish my piece "Football Essentials" here. Those of you who are already football fans will find this basic in the extreme, . . . but you aren't my intended audience.
If you're going to be at a Super Bowl party and you don't know much about football, this post is for you.
NOTE: Any note that starts with the word “Importance” is explaining strategy. The rest are explaining rules. So if you know the basic rules, just concentrate on the strategy stuff.
1. Basics: The field is 100 yards long. The object is to get down the field into your opponent’s end zone to score. Teams do that in 10-yard increments. When a team has the ball, it has four tries, called downs, to move 10 yards. When it doesn’t make 10 yards, it has to give the ball to the other team. When it succeeds in moving 10 yards, the team is said to have “made first down,” and it receives four more downs to go another 10 yards. NOTE: The starting line of any play is called the line of scrimmage.
2. Fourth Down: As noted above, teams have four downs to travel 10 yards. Usually, if a team doesn’t make the 10 yards in three downs, they will punt the ball to the other team on fourth down. They don’t have to do this. They can keep trying to move the ball, but that can be risky. If they don’t make the full 10 yards on fourth down, they have to give the ball to the opposing team’s offense at the spot of the last play. This usually gives the other team a good field position. Teams usually only go for fourth down if they have very small yardage to make.
3. Kickoffs and Punts: Usually, when possession of the ball changes, it is done with a either a kickoff or a punt. The kicker or punter kicks the ball down the field and hopes to land it near the end zone. (If it lands in the end zone, it is brought back to the 20-yard line.) If a player from the opposing team catches it cleanly, he may try to run it back. If it looks like the defense will prevent him from running the ball back, the receiving player may signal “fair catch.” That means he will not run, and no opponents are allowed to tackle him. NOTE: As a casual fan, you don’t really need to know the difference between a kickoff and a punt.
4. Importance of Field Position: When people talk about field position, they mean that teams gain advantage from starting as close to their opponent’s end zone as possible. Kickoffs and punts are the main way to give your opponent bad field position. If you can force a team to start near their own end zone, they have to move 90 or more yards down the field, which is very difficult to accomplish. If, however, they start from the 30 or 40 yard line, they have only 60 or 70 yards to go. NOTE: When you hear people talk about special teams, they are most often talking about what happens during kickoffs and punts.
5. Importance of Third Down: Because teams usually use fourth down to punt, one way to evaluate teams is by how well they can “convert third down,” which means how well they reach their goal of making 10 yards on the third down. You will often hear the phrase “third and long.” That means the team did not do well on their first two downs, and they still have over half the 10 yards to gain on third down. Teams don’t usually get many first downs if they consistently find themselves in “third and long.”
6. Types of Offense: Basically, there are three types of offensive plays: running with the ball, throwing the ball to another player, and kicking field goals. The quarterback initiates the first two types of plays. NOTE: Touchdowns are 6 points. Teams are then given an extra play to try to add onto their points. They can add a single extra point by kicking the ball through the goal posts or add 2 points by completing a run or pass into the end zone.
• For running plays, the QB hands the ball to a running back. Because the goal is to make 10 yards in three downs, a run needs to gain at least three yards to be considered good.
• For passing plays, the QB throws, or passes, the ball to a wide receiver, a tight end, or sometimes a running back. The player who catches the ball tries to run to the end zone, while the opposing defense tries to stop him. Announcers will name a lot of types of routes, but it isn’t necessary for a casual fan to understand them to appreciate the game. Usually (but not always) passing plays gain more yardage than running plays. For that reason, coaches usually call a pass play on third and long (unless they are afraid of turning the ball over).
• If the offense gets within approximately 32 yards of the end zone, they are in kicking range. (This range can be longer or shorter, depending on the kicker.) If the team is within this range and does not convert on third down, they will usually try to kick a field goal (kicking the ball through the goal posts). Field goals are worth 3 points.
7. Defense: The point of defense is to stop the other team from gaining yards and ultimately to keep them from the end zone. But to be effective, a defense has to try to guess what type of play the offense is going to make.
• If they guess that it will be a running play, they are more likely to play closer to the opposing team to try to halt the runner as close to the line of scrimmage as possible.
• If they guess that it is a pass play, they are more likely to spread out to prevent the other team from catching the ball and then running into the end zone.
• There are many variations on defense. One important play is the blitz, in which numerous players rush toward the quarterback to try to stop him from initiating a play. If the quarterback is knocked to the ground behind the line of scrimmage while he still has the ball, it’s called a sack. The offense has to move the line of scrimmage back to where the quarterback went down. This means they have to go even farther to make first down.
• In the most basic terms, a safety occurs when the defense causes the offense to make a mistake when they are backed up in their own end zone. When a defense causes a safety, it receives 2 points and the possession of the ball.
8. The Importance of Balanced Offense: Basically, this means that teams try to balance the number of running plays with the number of passing plays. Most teams lean a bit more to one or the other. The Bears are historically a running team. With Peyton Manning, the Colts are a great passing team. But no team can afford to do just one kind of play because that it makes it too easy for the defense. If all a team does is run, the defense doesn’t have to guess. It just always sends its defense in close to the line of scrimmage. If all a team does is pass, the defense can spread out its players and defend against big throws. A good offense mixes up plays to confuse the opponent and force them to cover more ground.
9. The Importance of Turnovers: When a defense takes the ball away from the offense, that’s a turnover. It can be done in several ways. A running back or quarterback can fumble, or drop, the ball. Another type of fumble is when the defensive player rips the ball out of an offensive player’s hands. Or a defensive player can catch a ball that was being thrown to an offensive player. Turnovers mean the other team gets to go on offense, usually with good field position. Some people think the MOST important statistic in determining outcome of games is the turnover ratio. Usually, the team with fewer turnovers wins. NOTE: A dropped pass is not a fumble. It’s just an incomplete throw and does not cause a turnover.
10. The Importance of the Offensive and Defensive Lines: This is probably the last part of the game that casual fans figure out. The front line of the offense and the front line of the defense don’t do the glamour work of throwing, catching, or running, but they often determine the outcome of the game. The big guys up front on the offensive line have two crucial jobs: they knock holes in the defensive line so running backs can get through and they act as a wall protecting the quarterback from getting pressured or hurt. The defensive line, on the other hand, has the two jobs of trying to put pressure on the quarterback (so he cannot throw or so that he throws quickly and inaccurately) and of bringing the running back down so he can’t gain any yards. When announcers say that the game is won or lost at the line of scrimmage, they are talking about how well the offensive line and defensive lines hold their ground.