Help me understand American football
October 17, 2009 4:06 PM   Subscribe

Help me better understand the fine game of American Football.

I have been watching football since 1990, when I was 12. But in Brazilian TV all that was shown was the Super Bowl so we just had the opportunity of watching a single game a year. That made it hard to grasp the rules when you have no Internet and virtually no access to games and commentators who know what they are talking about.

Since 2000 we started getting ESPN on cable so I started watching many more games and get a better understanding of the game, in a way that I really started liking the sport, and I can say it has many fans in Brazil as of now.

However, earlier this year I moved to the U.S. so now I feel I need to step up my knowledge of the game in order not to be embarrassed when watching games with local friends.

Here I go:

1) What is a touchback?
2) When does a safety occur? There seems to be more than one case.
3) I don't see teams doing offensive plays with lateral passes unless they are really desperate (e.g. Cardinals at the last play of Super Bowl 43). Why is that so? Seems a good way to fool the defense and keep the down going.
4) What makes a good punt? Why aren't fake punts used more?
5) Rules for onside kick? Are there any other kinds of plays to be made during kickoff to try to recover the ball quickly?
6) Why do teams insist so much in rushing the ball when passes seem to be more effective? It looks hard to me to cross a barrier of giant men with any chance of holding the football.

You gotta help me with this one, as I don't like baseball and golf and my friends don't get soccer so American football is our only chance of an excuse to drink together while watching TV!
posted by dcrocha to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (32 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
1. A Touchback is a bit complex and cane happen several ways This should help
2. Again wikipedia for a safety
3. A Missed lateral pass is considered a fumble and can easily become a turnover - this risk is why they're not often used in front of the line of scrimmage.
4. A good punt is kicked deep, and as close to the end zone as possible. Fake punts are used with some frequency but not often because of the risk involved in missing the fake punt. The thing with a fake punt is that if it doesn't succeed you are giving up really good field position.
5. I'm skipping 5 but basically an onside kick must go 10 yards or be touched by the other team before the kicking team can recover it. There are variations on onside kick plays but this is the only real method to recover the ball.
6. The real issue is that an effective running game makes your passing game more effective. If you just passed the ball then the defense would all sit back in pass protection and defend the pass. It goes the same the other way you pass to set up the run.
posted by bitdamaged at 4:18 PM on October 17, 2009

Google can help with the rules, so I'll skip those questions.

3) A lateral is dangerous, as a defending player can intercept it easily, or cause the tosser or catcher to fumble the ball - either way, you lose the ball.

4) Hangtime, distance, and accuracy. You want the ball in the air as long as possible, so your guys can get downfield to stop the other team from returning it very far. You want it to go as far downfield as possible, so they are as far away from scoring a goal as you can arrange it. You want to be accurate, because you don't want a touchback, and you (usually) don't want to kick it out of bounds.

6) Because there are a lot of guys from the other team trying to clobber the quarter back, and following around your receivers trying to catch the ball. If there's a chance that you have a guy who will sneak through carrying the ball, there will be fewer players trying to kill your QB or trying to intercept the throw - because if your running back isn't stopped, he's going to get dozens of yards. This is also why short-distance throws are more effective than long distance throws - harder for the defense to predict where the ball will be at any given time. The best offenses trick the defense with clever plays - in pro football, the defenses are just too good to do the same thing over and over. So, a good running game makes things easier for the passing game.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:22 PM on October 17, 2009

I let Wikipedia answer 1, 2 and 5.

3) Forward passes are illegal. Backward/lateral passes are legal however they are rarely used because of the risk of dropping the ball, which remains live -- meaning the defense may recover it and take possession. Too many things have to go right for plays with laterals to work, and the time it takes to put a lateral together usually affords the defense time to breakthrough the line of scrimmage and in general gain a positional advantage. Finally, most teams only field one player who can comfortably throw a forward pass (the quarterback), so essentially once the ball leaves his hands you are actually taking away the option or effectiveness of a forward pass down the field. In the meantime, again, the defense has had time to swarm the ball carrier by then.

4) A good punt places the returning team as close to their end zone (and as far from the other team's) as possible.

6) In general, offenses can't afford to be one-sided as running or passing every play takes away the element of surprise, thereby allowing the defense to gamble and favor one or the other with less risk. Consequently, passing and running tend to go hand in hand, and usually it's the skill set of the players on the field that might lead a team to favor one over the other.
posted by drpynchon at 4:29 PM on October 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Clarification: forward passes illegal once the scrimmage line is crossed. Inadvisable once the ball is out of the quarterback's hands.
posted by drpynchon at 4:30 PM on October 17, 2009

1. Touchback - when a kicked ball (kickoff or punt) is caught in the end zone, the runner can decide to take a knee instead of trying to run the ball back. If he does this, it is a touchback and his team starts on the 20 yard line.

2. A safety occurs when a player is tackled with the ball in his own end zone (or if he runs out the back of the end zone, I think). The tackling team gets 2 points and receives a kick. One confusing thing is that there is a defensive position called the safety -- his job is to defend against long plays (e.g., deep passes).

3. Lateral passing is risky. If you throw a forward pass and it isn't caught, the next play starts where the previous play started. If you pass sideways or backwards, and you don't complete the pass, the ball is still live and the defense can pick it up off the ground and take control.

4. A good punt leaves your opponent with the ball as far back in his territory as possible (his 1 yd line would be ideal, if it goes into his endzone, he can get a touchback. The punting team wants the play to end as far back as possible. Sometimes this may mean trading off kicking distance for kick height, as this would give the kicking team more time to reach the receiver and prevent a run. Fake punts work when they are a surprise, if you fake too often, the defense will expect it and do a better job of defending against it. Additionally, your punter is typically not one of your best passers or runners, and starts significantly farther back from the line of scrimmage than the quarterback would, so he'll have to make up a good deal of ground to get the first down. Additionally, if a fake punt fails, the other team gets the ball where the other team had it -- this is often closer to the kicking team's end zone than is safe (if they were in better field position, they might be able to try a field goal).

5. The onside kick is a desperation play, where the kicking team tries to recover the ball. It is designed to maximize the chance that an opponent will touch the kicked ball but not be able to maintain control at the same time as it tries to maximize the chance that one of the kicking team players will be able to recover the ball. The ball has to go 10 yards to be a legal kickoff. Additionally, while it is against the rules for a member of the kicking team to interfere with the person waiting to receive a kickoff, once the ball hits the ground, the receiver is no longer protected. So, the kicking team will typically line all their guys up on one side of the kicker, the kicker will kick the ball so it bounces and goes just far enough to bounce off a guy on the receiving team. Meanwhile the kicking team players will swarm around the receiving player hoping to grab the ball as he tries to gain control of it.

6. A pass can give you more yards, but you can't pass on every play. If you do, the defense can assign more players to cover your receivers. However, if you pose a running threat, they have to continue defending against the run, and thus can't allocate extra guys to covering your passers. Additionally, running gives you more control of the clock. An incomplete pass stops the clock, but the clock continues to run after a run (unless it goes out of bounds). The more game time your team is on offense, the less time your opponents have to be on offense (you're also wearing down the opponent's defense).
posted by i love cheese at 4:43 PM on October 17, 2009

A missed lateral pass is a fumble? That explains a lot.

If this rule were abolished, would AF become more like rugby?
posted by dcrocha at 5:12 PM on October 17, 2009

Just wanted to add a comment on #3: After the snap, you generally want to advance the ball up the field as quickly as possible. If you spend too much time moving laterally, you're wasting energy but not gaining yards, and you're likely to get tackled for a loss. For example, end-arounds, reverses and runs that stretch to the outside have a higher risk of losing yards compared to a running play straight up the middle.
posted by gnutron at 5:18 PM on October 17, 2009

i love cheese: " Additionally, running gives you more control of the clock. An incomplete pass stops the clock, but the clock continues to run after a run (unless it goes out of bounds). The more game time your team is on offense, the less time your opponents have to be on offense (you're also wearing down the opponent's defense)."

This is especially important towards the end of the game.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 5:51 PM on October 17, 2009

To expand on why running is important/used so much:

A huge part of the game that is mostly unseen by the tv audience is the battle "in the trenches" between the offensive and defensive lines. If an offensive line is good enough to push the defense back on every play, then that offense can run the ball and get 4 or 5 or more yards every single play. Since fumbles by runners are relatively rare, this is a recipe for winning by a landslide. You're effectively running the other team off the field. You're also beating them up physically, so as the game goes on you get more and more big plays.

You won't see this level of dominance that much in the NFL- because all the defenses come up to a certain minimum standard. However certain historical teams like the Broncos of the late 90s or the Cowboys of the mid-90s were able to dominate in this way. If you watch high school or college you will see this kind of thing a lot more often, to the point where certain teams throw the ball less than five times per game.

But yes, in the modern NFL, running is often done to set up the pass. Again the secret lies in the "trenches." If defenses were able to blitz (send a bunch of guys at the quarterback) every play, then passing would become hard because the QB would lack time to throw and would stand a good chance of getting hurt. Running keeps the defense "honest," because a blitz is weak against the run- runners can go through the holes left by the defenders who are headed past the line into the backfield, in an effort to get the QB.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:34 PM on October 17, 2009

The ball has to go 10 yards to be a legal kickoff. Additionally, while it is against the rules for a member of the kicking team to interfere with the person waiting to receive a kickoff, once the ball hits the ground, the receiver is no longer protected.

I want to clarify one point here - a kickoff is a free kick, so while the 10 yard rule is in effect, it does NOT have to touch a player on the other team. Anybody can recover the ball after it travels 10 yards.

This is different than a punt, which is closer to what is described above. A punt is NOT a free kick and cannot be recovered by the kicking team unless a player from the other team touches it.
posted by dforemsky at 6:34 PM on October 17, 2009

Do stress overmuch if you don't understand something. NFL rules are almost talmudic. (This, but not that, unless such-and-such, but never when somesuch.) The refs are there to interpret the rules (in such a way that shafts your team, invariably.)

However, arguing whether someone was, e.g., 'down by contact' or 'had control of the ball' is half the fun.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:47 PM on October 17, 2009

One more reason I see not to pass as much is simply the risk, with every pass you are accepting the possibility of an interception or a sack, either of which can be a devastating setback. Also, a good NFL quality quartback is worth his worth in gold (probably more) and setting up them for possible injury from getting slammed by aggressive defense every play is not a good long term investment. According to their draft position and budget, you will see some teams concentrate more heavily on building a solid running game and others on aquiring the best quarterback and wide receivers they can find.
posted by sophist at 6:54 PM on October 17, 2009

If I may make a suggestion, you could try playing some football video games in addition to watching it on TV.

Not only can it be really fun just by itself, but it's how I learned all the rules and the lingo. Not to mention that it gave me a reason for getting familiar with the teams, the players, and all the surrounding culture of NFL football. It's made just watching the game so much more fun.
posted by gemmy at 7:00 PM on October 17, 2009

Also, don't know if video games are your thing, but the Madden franchise has been around for 20 years and is one of the most popular sports franchises out there, available in some form or another for pretty much any platform. I learned a ton about football strategy from playing, stuff I would never have figured out or realized from just watching on TV, and made me enjoy the experience of watching with friends much more enjoyable as someone never playing in school.

On preview: I guess me and gemmy were thinking the same thing!
posted by sophist at 7:04 PM on October 17, 2009

One bonus about watching the Super Bowl is that, unlike most of the regular season (or even playoffs) the broadcasters know that most people watching the game usually don't watch football. Because of that, they tend to use very simple terms, and they usually explain as much as they can about why certain things happened. While this can be frustrating to longtime fans, I'd say the Super Bowl is actually a good time to "study" the game.

Definitely play some football games as well. As gemmy and sophist point out, they're really good at showing the basic formations, and evidently have become incredibly realistic, to the point that you actually need to vary your offensive strategies (different plays, mixing run and pass) or else the defense (the computer) will shut you down.

And, if you can, spare yourself the agony of liking a traditionally lousy team. While jumping on the Patriot or Cowboy bandwagon is pretty tacky, don't subject yourself to being a fan of, say, the Lions, Browns, Raiders, Rams, or Chiefs. Or the Redskins. Definitely not them.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:39 PM on October 17, 2009

Laterals are used sometimes as part of a flea flicker, a reverse, or another kind of trick play. None of these are exactly common, but you'll see far more reverses than you will laterals in the open field.
posted by box at 7:50 PM on October 17, 2009

If this rule were abolished, would AF become more like rugby?

First, I wasn't aware that a dropped lateral in rugby was a dead ball. Is that specific to rugby league?

Regardless, there's no effective way to abolish the rule in American football. Stripping the ball from the ball carrier is legal, and the only difference between a dropped lateral and a fumble is the players' intent, which is difficult to properly discern if stripping the ball is legal.

Moreover, you'd also run into other issues. Since there is no such thing as onside/offside defensive players while play is in progress, and blocking is allowed, the "fumble is a live ball" concept is in good balance with the rest of play.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:53 PM on October 17, 2009

Patriots Bandwagon? There's one outside of New England? No, there is not. The Pats aren't like the Red Sox - they're the "bad guys" everyone roots against. Bandwagon teams: Steelers, Packers, Giants, Cowboys. These teams always do very well, and will have more winning seasons than losing seasons, and have fans in out-of-the-way places without a NFL franchise, like North Dakota or Los Angeles. You can root for the Patriots, but this will spark heated confrontations in sportsbars outside New England... sort of the way it was for the Raiders before Al Davis went senile.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:03 PM on October 17, 2009

6) Why do teams insist so much in rushing the ball when passes seem to be more effective?

Besides the correct answers above, take note of the role that deception plays in the game. You can fake a hand off or a pass in several ways -- a play-action pass, a draw play, a delayed handoff, a reverse, an option run, a double-pump on a pass, etc. I always loved the counter-trey, but it has fallen out of fashion.

Since yards gained are so important (10 yards buys you an entirely new offensive series), defenders obviously try to react to plays as quickly as possible. If the defensive linemen see a QB dropping back, they will yell "Pass!" to alert their teammates. Linebackers and safeties may drop back into coverage, but if it's a draw play instead of a pass, for instance, that may open up one or more running lanes.

Finally, note that scoring a touchdown on every single play is not a realistic goal. You may just want to get 2-3 yards on first down, so you can throw a shorter, low-risk pass on second down, to hopefully get another first down, and then you're just marching down the field, moving the chains, eating up the clock and keeping the other team's offense off the field altogether.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:06 PM on October 17, 2009

3- They are not used often in pro ball, but in college, this is used with more frequency. Watch a team like U. of Florida or The Miami Dolphins, who have a wildcat package. In the case of Florida/Miami,The snap will come to a RB/QB, who will run it up the side. If the defense is about to tackle him, he will lateral the ball to a trailing teammate who is usually a WR. This way, the defense wastes a man tackling the dude who just got rid of the ball, and the really fast WR sprints up the line for a good gain. However, you just put the QB in danger, as he has to eat a tackle or throw a block to be effective. Thus, people hate to take the risk, and not many NFL teams like to do it, which is why you don't see it. I believe this is a wildcat/option hybrid - but I could be wrong on the terminology.

6-Some teams just don't need to score a lot, just hold onto the damn ball as long as they can. Teams like Ohio State, or the Pittsburgh Steelers, their real strength is special teams/defense. What they do is play LOCK DOWN defense, then force a punt. Their great special teams does a lot of lifting with really good punt returns (think 20-30 free yards) then their offense just has to NOT TURN THE BALL over, get a couple first downs, kick a field goal, maybe score a TD if they're lucky. Teams like this just need to score a total of 13-20 points max. In order to NOT TURN THE BALL OVER, they run a lot- it's a lot less risky than throwing, and good RB's are just as scary as a pass heavy offense on big plays.

Pro Football, which it sounds like you mostly watch, does not do a lot of "common sense" plays because they are risky. Pro Ball is all about minimizing risk, which includes minimizing injury to key dudes, as well as minimizing the possibility of turnover. There are a couple basic rules:

1) protect the Quarterback at all costs
he is crazy expensive, and a good throwing QB is expensive. one bad shot to the shoulder, and you just wasted 26 million dollars. Offenses usually protect this dude - that's why they assign 5 men (offensive line) or more (running backs) to prevent him from even being hit. This is also why the second highest paid dude on the team is usually the left tackle, as he prevents blindside hits on the QB.

2) high risk play is generally NOT WORTH IT
If you do something funky, outside the general canon of standard pro football, your ass will get fired if you do not turn up a shitload of wins. If you build a standard team/strategy, and lose, you can blame it on injury and live to coach next year. This is why no fake punts, random onside kicks, 2pt conversions, few spread offenses (all throwing offense) etc etc etc.

Watch College Ball, and you will see these crazy things happen that you are wondering about. In particular, watch Texas Tech or Boise State - they are minor schools with nothing to lose, and their coaches do CRAZY stuff. In particular, Texas Tech. Mike Leach, the coach, is half insane, and he makes close games really fun to watch. (really, watch college football, it is AWESOME)
posted by wuzandfuzz at 9:13 PM on October 17, 2009

Why are the New England Patriots the "bad guys"?
posted by dcrocha at 9:14 PM on October 17, 2009

Why are the New England Patriots the "bad guys"?

They've been very successful over the past few years. Their coach, Bill Belichick, is not a warm-and-fuzzy personality. And they were accused of cheating.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:28 PM on October 17, 2009

Oh yeah, and successful running moves the defense inward. You have 3 lines of dudes on defense: the line of fat guys, (deceptively fast fat guys, I might add) the linebackers behind them to stop runs and short passes, and the really fast guys behind them to stop long passes. (secondary)

The fat guys, the Defensive line, help stop runs, but they can't stop everything. Thus, the linebackers help plug holes in the middle, and prevent runs to the sideline as well.

However, these linebackers also have to stop short passes. Thus, by successful running, the second line has a dilemma - I need to stop these short 3yd runs which are killing us, but they could bomb it over my head to score if I try to stop runs too much. Successful running makes linebackers, and also the secondary, think they have to stop the run. They then start, slowly, to focus on running to the line of scrimmage, and pay less attention to wide recievers downfield.

This allows wide recievers to get open deep. Thus, short runs suck in defenders so recievers can get open downfield for big plays. This is where the tired adage, "the run sets up the pass" comes from.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 9:59 PM on October 17, 2009

4) What makes a good punt? Why aren't fake punts used more?
It's a bit of a derail, since the technical details of your questions have already been answered, but here's an interesting article about a high school coach in Arkansas that never punts -- and whose team won the 5A (largest schools) state title in 2008. Apparently his statistical analysis shows that it's generally better go for it, when comparing (a) the probability of his team getting a first down on the play; (b) the probability of the other team scoring if his team don't get the first down; and (c) the probability of the other team scoring if his team punts.

Stats aside, I would have to think there's also a fairly sizable psychological advantage to his team knowing that they have four attempts at a first down rather than three.

Later in the article, the author also points out that this same coach does an onside kick about 75% of the time on kickoffs -- again, based in a statistical analysis that examines (a) the probability of success on the onside kick; (b) the probability of the other team scoring if the onside kick fails; and (c) the probability of the other team scoring after a "normal" kickoff.
posted by Doofus Magoo at 7:20 AM on October 18, 2009

See? You're in for =years= of this if you start rooting for the Pats. Of course, you'd also be in for years of excellent football, but really, being a Pats fan is either genetic (You were born in Rhode Island or Maine) or a calculated move to get involved in more bar fights.

The Patriots are also a favorite team of two popular sports writers, Peter King and Bill Simmons (both with ties to the Boston area), so the perception is that New England has more media attention than other, perhaps more deserving teams.

Being both a Rhode Islander and a barroom-brawler, I like the Pats. As a new football fan, Pittsburgh would be the team to follow - great coach, awesome front office (who hire the best players), and a long history of great football to be proud of.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:21 AM on October 18, 2009

I love the Steelers, but I was born in Pittsburgh.

If I was going to pick a new team to follow, it'd be the Packers (small market! community ownership!) Or the Ravens, except that I'm divided about that Art-Modell-screws-Cleveland thing.
posted by box at 7:40 AM on October 18, 2009

Doofus Magee: here's another interesting article about high-school football in Arkansas. Basically, it argues that private-school football teams (in places like Arkansas, that means Christian schools) win games through recruiting. Worth reading, if you're interested in this stuff, and worth considering, if you share Pete Rozelle's feeling that parity is a great thing for the NFL.
posted by box at 7:48 AM on October 18, 2009

Yeah, if you really want to learn strategy as well as rules, pick up Madden for any game system you might own. You'll learn defensive formations (nickel, dime, 4-3, prevent, etc) as well as offensive (eg: shotgun).

One thing I've heard more in recent years is the use of the Wildcat formation. It's basically a formation without a QB (or a running back that can sometimes be a QB). When Denver played New England earlier this year, Denver came out with the Wildcat, (Denver calls it the Wild horse), and NE had to call a defensive mid-drive TO to adjust.
posted by yeti at 8:55 AM on October 18, 2009

If I was going to pick a new team to follow, it'd be the Packers (small market! community ownership!) Or the Ravens, except that I'm divided about that Art-Modell-screws-Cleveland thing.

I'd second those choices. The Ravens were extra fun before they got a good QB because they would win games with their defense. (Strangely, nobody seems to give t
Indianapolis crap for stealing Baltimore's original team)
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:13 AM on October 18, 2009

Why are the New England Patriots the "bad guys"?

Another part of it is.. what some might call a cold-blooded approach to personnel: they don't hesitate to trade away or release big name players and veterans, everyone seems expendable. Seems like this happens a lot more than it does other teams.. see recent trades of Vrabel, Seymour.. Ty Law, Deion Branch, Asante Samuel, Vinatieri.. Vince Wilfork is in the last year of his contract & is a key player on that defense but they haven't been able to work out a deal, and if he wants too much money they'll probably let him go. Also seems like players either drink the kool-aid of team over individual, or talk like they do, so interviews are always about the team, we need to execute better, we need to do a better job, we respect the other team, etc. No trash talking and flamboyant personalities. Belichick comes across as frosty and no fun, in press conferences. And who cares, that's not his job and he's a brilliant coach, but I guess it doesn't endear him to fans of other teams. I loved watching Josh McDaniels jumping up and down and celebrating last week, meanwhile, Belichick is sometimes just about as dour when they win!

I have no beef with the Patriots, they always show up and usually play good football. There are definitely some Pats bandwagon fans, and other fans get mad when people jump on the bandwagon after they won three Super Bowls, and other fans get REALLY mad when women jump on the Pats bandwagon because Tom Brady is hot. But he is. And one more reason for Pats hate: they've been very good for long enough that the fanbase gets spoiled, and bent out of shape too easily, doing stuff like freaking out about last week's very close loss in Denver while thousands of Redskins, Chiefs, Browns, Rams, Raiders fans are like.. WTH are you even upset for?

As a new football fan, I'd say the Falcons are pretty fun to watch. And I guess there's a Saints bandwagon these days.
posted by citron at 6:53 PM on October 18, 2009

Your questions seem to be answered pretty well. But I'll just reference a quote about why teams don't pass more often (#6):
With a forward pass, three things can happen; two of them are bad.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 10:13 AM on October 19, 2009

Dang, ObscureReferenceMan, I was just going to jump in with that. At least I can attribute the quote. It was uttered in response to a reporter's question about why the Crimson Tide didn't pass more often by the late, great Bear Bryant.
posted by dinger at 7:31 PM on October 19, 2009

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