Am I doomed to be a Football n00b forever?
November 29, 2009 6:45 AM   Subscribe

I am a red blooded American, but I just can't seem to grasp football. I understand very little, as in once the ball gets to the end zone the team gets points. I like watching the games, but I feel like a moron. Help me!

My dad is not a sports guy. My husband is not a sports guy. My brother-in-laws try to explain to me what's going on, but they are so involved in the games that it's hard for me to get it. I saw this question, but the asker was much better informed than I am and the answers confused me. This question was more what I'm looking for, minus the basketball suff. I am a very visual person, so anything with labeled diagrams or pictures would be appreciated.

Is there a book that I should read? I need something that breaks down everything from the positions to the rules and includes the plays. Is there anyway to catch up on the politics? Is there some "History of Football" out there for me? Are there blogs that I need to follow? I don't get the newspaper, but even if I picked up the sports page I would be totally lost. Is this something that I can be casually interested in during the season, or do I need to be fully obsessed? Can somebody clue me in on the system for college bowl games, because it seems random to me.

FWIW I prefer watching college football to the pros, and I like to root for Arizona State University and the University of Utah, but this is just because that's who my family roots for. I have no pro team loyalties. Utah has no pro team, so how do I go about choosing who to root for. College and Pro rules are different right? How are they different?

My son is starting to show some interest in the sport, and I'd love to get him in the local Pee Wee (is that what it's called?) league, but I need to understand what it's about before I can watch the games.

I am normally a pretty intelligent person, and it is really frustrating for me that I just can't get this.
posted by TooFewShoes to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (65 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
The wikipedia page on bowl games helps me out a lot - trust me, you're not alone when it comes being confused by the college system.

You need to decide if you want to be a casual observer or a fanatic. If you go casual, I don't think you need to be reading books of plays and historic game highlights - you can tune in once a week, pay attention to the key players, know the score, and that's the end of it (that's the kind of fan I am).

You can peruse to keep up to date on most things if that's your interest, but really it's not necessary.
posted by Think_Long at 7:15 AM on November 29, 2009

Did you understand the first answer in your second link? That's a pretty good basic explanation.
posted by mpls2 at 7:15 AM on November 29, 2009

Wow lots of sub-questions in here. I'll try to handle a few. As far as rules differences go, there are a few but they are fairly subtle. Some of the penalties are scored slightly differently in the pros and near the end of the game, the rules for when the clock stops and starts are slightly different too but that's not a big deal.

Blogs and what not might be a tough thing to wade through at this stage of the game for you because almost by definition people who want to run a football blog are going to geek out on all the details. You might start wading in with the NPR Sports content. I also do like the Slate Sports Podcast which covers current events in a fairly intelligent way. It comes out late afternoon EST time on Mondays.

As for what teams to root for, well that is complicated. A lot of people root for what their parents rooted for. or where they grew up. or where they went to school. or some people actively root for all the schools in their conference. or they actively root against schools in their conference. or you root for the team that speaks to you when you get into the sport (the Detroit Pistons of the late 80s/early 90s were that team for me even though no one in my family had ever been anywhere near Detroit). or you root for a pro team that has a favorite college player on that team. or you root for the team that embodies that style of football you most like (tough defense or solid running or flashy offense etc.).
posted by mmascolino at 7:25 AM on November 29, 2009

Possibly one way you can pick up on the game is to play games based on it. Granted, that means Madden from EA Sports, since they've got an exclusive license, but it will give you an idea of offensive and defensive play calling, the responsibilities of various positions, as well as some of the more standard rules.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:29 AM on November 29, 2009

First, don't be embarrassed. Based on my listening at bars and other events there are a lot of fans who don't know what is going on either. I had a quite smart friend confide to me that despite playing in her high school band for four years it was the end of her junior year before she noticed that the teams switched ends every quarter. Some folks just key more easily into the rules based aspects of play.

From your question I'm not sure if you are more interested in help with the rules or what I'd call 'fan experience'. For rules and jargon quick google and scan indicates the following might be good resources:

Like any sport football is full of jargon, so a quick web search on any term that you don't recognize might reveal a whole world of understanding.

The other part of your question is about how to understand the politics the college football world and choosing a pro team. For college, I honestly think the best answer is to read a link or two about the BCS:, form a strong opinion and go argue with your fellow sports fans. Seriously, there is no right point of view on this stuff and it is all so convoluted that hardly anyone really completely understands it anyway. The debating from semi-ignorance is half the fun.

For pro teams, I recommend you just root for the Steelers.
posted by meinvt at 7:34 AM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you are looking to watch on a casual basis, just watching the broadcast/basic cable TV coverage is enough. It might take a couple of seasons, but listen to the announcers and pay attention to the referees and it should eventually come together. The wikipedia page for American Football is pretty good, along with the pages for penalties, and the one for the rules.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 7:53 AM on November 29, 2009

Hmm... I'm not sure that a book is the best place to start, although it would help you get a grounding in the basic rules.

The best, best, best way is to find someone who is passionate about the game, but is willing to sit and talk with you during a game. Learning about penalty calls and things from a book is great, but it won't really mean anything when you are watching the game.

Also, ever team has it's own plays, based on the scheme that they run on both offense and defense, and each uses their own terminology, so a book that describes the plays doesn't really exist, unless is very general.

I'll tell you what, I'll try and give you a primer in less than 100 lines:

First, the basic goal is to score touchdowns by moving the ball down the field. You do this by running or passing the ball on a series of downs. In the American game, you have four downs to advance the ball ten yards, and the opposing defense is trying to stop you. For instance, 1st and 10 means you are on your first down, and you still have ten yards go. If the offense runs the ball and gets 3 yards, you are now on 2nd and 7 (2nd down and seven yards left to go). If you get ten yards total before you run out of downs, you get a new set of downs and start at 1st and 10 again. Make sense?

Okay, now let's talk penalties. Knowing the specifics of each penalty is not critical, but you need to know that penalites can affect both the down and the distance to go and can be called on the offense or the defense. For instance, on 1st and 10, if the defense moves into the 'neutral zone' (the area between the lines where the ball sits before the play) before the ball is snapped, they are called for 'offsides'. This is a five yard penalty, so the offense gets to move the ball forward five yards without running a play. It's now 1st and 5. The offense can be penalized too, so it's possible to have the ball moved *back* five yards on a penalty, so it would be 1st and 15. Some penalties on the defense automatically give the offense a new set of downs, for instance if you have 3rd and 7, but the runner is pulled down by his facemask, the offense gets 1st and 10 again, regardless of whether or not the runner got the 7 yards the offense needed for the first down.

Let's talk positions. There are 11 players on offense and defense. Let's start offense:

The first players you see, the ones lined up directly on the ball are the offensive line. There are 5 OL, from left to right they are: Left Offensive Tackle, Left Offensive Guard, Center, Right Offensive Guard, Right Offensive Tackle. These guys have two jobs, opening up room for the runners on running plays (run blocking), and blocking the defense so that the quarterback has time to throw the ball on passing plays (pass blocking). The tackles tend to be quicker, more technical blockers, and the guards are maulers. The Centre is somewhat of a hybrid, and they are generally also responsible for calling out blocking assignments the the other linemen. Left Offensive Tackles are highly prized, and paid huge sums of money because they block (usually) the defenses best pass rusher, and they protect the back side of the quarterback. A good or bad Left Offensive Tackle can drastically affect a teams overall offensive performance.

The quarterback is considered the 'general' of the offense, and is considered the most valuable position in the game. They are normally responsible for taking the snap of the ball from the center, and getting it to the player who will be advancing the ball either by handing it off directly or passing it downfield. The coach of the team calls the plays, but the QB can also change the play call before the snap if they like. This is called 'calling an audible'. Some very good QBs have made a career out of making smart audibles. A good QB will win you games, moreso than any other position perhaps.

The remaining 5 players of offense will be some combination of Running Backs, Wide Receivers and Tight Ends. Depending on what kind of offense you run, and what play you and calling, the number of each will vary from play to play.

Running backs come in two flavours, halfbacks and fullbacks. Halfbacks are smaller, faster, shiftier runners, and fullbacks are the big bruisers. Running backs normally line up behind the quarterback, but there is no rule stating that they must, and the often move around before the play to try and confuse the defense. Often, a fullback never carries the ball, they just get a running start to block someone to try and get a hole for the the halfback to advance the ball. Running backs are another premier position, and a good RB can be a game changer.

Wide receivers tend to be faster and taller than running backs, and they normally line up along the line but spread out away from the ball. A Wide receiver's job is simple, run a pattern (called a route most of the time), get open, and catch the pass from the quarterback. 'Getting open' just means getting away from the defender so that the pass can't be caught by the defender.

Tight Ends are hybrid Wide Receiver/Offensive Tackles. They can line up right next the Offensive Tackle and pass block or run block, or they can run a route and catch the ball. Some are better at one job or the other, and one that can do both very well is rare.

So depending on what you want to do, you use a different number of TEs, WRs, and RBs. If you want a force the ball down the defenses throat, you might go 2 TE, 1 WR and 2 RBs (fullback and halfback). You might want to go all-or-nothing on a pass, and go just 5 WRs.

Passes normally gain more yards than runs, but are riskier because any player, including the defensive players, can catch the ball.

So let's talk defense! 11 players again, broken into three levels: Defensive Line, Linebackers and Secondary. You can have different numbers of each, and you will see defenses named 3-4 or 4-3. It's simple, that's the number of Defensive Linemen and Linebackers the defense uses. Normally, you have 4 players in the secondary, but that can vary too.

The Defensive Line can have two kinds of players, Defensive Tackles and Defensive Ends. Tackles are bigger, stronger guys in the middle of the line, and they are primarily responsible for stopping the offense from running the ball. Ends are faster, and they are normally responsible for rushing the quarterback, and trying to tackle him before he can pass the ball. In a 4-3 defense, you normally have 2 DEs and 2 DTs. In a 3-4 it's usually 2 DEs and 1 DT.

Linebackers are next, and you normally see three or four of them depending on whether you are running a 3-4 or 4-3. Middle or Inside linebackers are normally run stoppers as well, but they are all smaller, lighter and faster than any defensive lineman. Outside linebackers are generally quite quick and need to be able to hit running backs hard, or cover WRs or TEs if the offense wants to pass. You will see outside linebackers referred to as 'strongside' or 'weakside' linebackers. This just means that they line up on the same side as the Tight End (this is strongside) or the opposite side (weakside). Linebackers can also be sent to rush the quarterback, this is called 'blitzing'. The goal with blitzing is to overwhelm the offensive line, and get to the quarterback before he can pass the ball. There is a risk to this though, as you have less people on defense to cover the pass now, and a good QB will pick apart a blitzing defense all day.

Finally, there is the secondary, made up of Cornerbacks and Safeties. Cornerbacks have to be fast, as they are primarily responsible for covering opposing Wide Receivers. Safeties are generally a little bigger as they are also responsible for filling in holes on the defense when the offense runs the ball.

As for coverage, there are two ways to play coverage, zone coverage or man coverage. In Zone coverage, the defenders are responsible for an area, or zone, on the field. In man coverage, they are responsible for an opposing player, and go wherever they go.

The number of players in the secondary varies as well. There are generally no less than four (2 CBs, 2 S), but if you suspect the offense is passing, the defense can take away a linebacker and add another CB. Five players in the secondary is called a 'Nickel' defense, six is a 'Dime' and rarely you can see seven which is called a 'Quarter'.

So, there's a good starting point. You should be able to tell who is on the field, what position they play, and what the offense and defense are trying to accomplish depending on the number of RBs, TEs, WRs, and CBs on the field. From here, watch some games, learn the penalties, and then I suggest you pick a team and start reading about them!
posted by WinnipegDragon at 7:59 AM on November 29, 2009 [21 favorites]

mpls, yes I understood the first answer. It was extremely helpful, but it kind of goes in one ear and out the other. I'd like to find something more visual, reading about it is nice, but I'd like to be able to see it in action. I guess what I want is a video that tells me what is going to happen and then shows it to me. Does something like that exist?

I am also really glad to hear that most fans don't understand everything either. I'll look up the jargon and see if that helps. I thought that the people who have a team that they root for knew all the history and politics. I want to find a team to root for, but I don't want to be some fair weather fan.

As far as the Madden video game, does it walk you through the game step-by-step? Also, I only have a Nintendo DS. Can I get the game for that system? Is there a game I can play on my laptop?
posted by TooFewShoes at 8:06 AM on November 29, 2009

WinnipegDragon you are my hero! Thank you so much.

If my team is on defense, is there a quarterback on the field?

If the team doesn't get their ten yards in the four tries (downs) then the other team gets the ball. Right? So how else can the other team get the ball? If the other team catches a ball thrown by the QB that's called an interception right? If a team gets an interception does that mean they get the ball, or do they have to give it back? If a player catches an interception and runs for a touchdown it still counts?

Let's say I want to pick a pro team to root for. Are there any resources where I can look at statistics and compare the teams? Some kind of master list?
posted by TooFewShoes at 8:22 AM on November 29, 2009

No trouble, I can talk about football all day!


No, the quarterback is strictly an offensive player. HOWEVER, there is normally one player of defense who can call audibles or change coverage schemes depending on what he sees. These players cane be called 'quarterback of the defense' but it's not a real position. This is normally a middle linebacker or safety who can see the whole offensive formation.

If the ten does not get a new first down, by getting ten yards or by penalty, they give the ball to the other team. This is called a 'turnover on downs'. If the defense catches the ball, yes it's an interception. They get possession of the ball, and can actually run the ball back after making the interception until the offense tackles them, and yes they can run it all the way back for a touchdown. You will hear this referred to as a 'pick six' since 'pick' is slang for an interception. The ball can also be turned over to the defense by the offense if the player advancing the ball loses control of it, this is called a fumble.

If you want to pick a pro-team, you can't go wrong following a local team, or the team that your family follows. If you want to look at stats, go to

I'll tell you right now the most exciting team to watch in football is probably the New Orleans Saints, if you want to see a lot of high flying offense, you can't go wrong with that team. I'm a follower of the Detroit Lions, the worst team in the NFL for like the last twenty years. WE SUCK!
posted by WinnipegDragon at 8:31 AM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

If my team is on defense, is there a quarterback on the field?

No, the positions change. Wikipedia has a pretty good breakdown of the various positions on each side.

If the team doesn't get their ten yards in the four tries (downs) then the other team gets the ball. Right? So how else can the other team get the ball?

If a team can't get a first down after 3 tries, they typically punt the ball to the other team (kick it as far as they can). They do this to make sure the other team gets the ball as far away from the goal as possible. Under some situations, they will keep trying on the fourth down, but this is usually a riskier proposition.

Interceptions work as you've described, there are also fumbles, where a player drops the ball (or has it knocked out of his hands). In either case, the team that recovers the ball can try to score until they're tackled.

In your situation, I'd probably pick a team less by researching them, and more by becoming familiar with the teams, their style of play, and their histories- you'll find yourself appreciating them more by osmosis and natural enjoyment and less by filling out an eHarmony questionnaire.
posted by jenkinsEar at 8:36 AM on November 29, 2009

Since most aspects of football (strategies, plays, rules, etc) have developed to counter others, it is a game where experience over time is probably essential. It'd be tough to learn in a weekend, but can be picked up casually pretty easily.

A few thoughts on making sure you're learning:

-You may want to watch a pro game or two every week, simply for the announcers. You'll have better announcing teams on the NFL level than on the collegiate stage, who do a decent job of analyzing the game on a level the mainstream fan can understand. They can be frustrating, they can be wrong about a lot of things, but hearing people use the jargon while replaying the play can help you pick up the common rules, terms, and situations. Sunday Night Football may be a good option--a pretty classy presentation and one of the better broadcast teams in the biz.

-Watch the games with Wikipedia at your side... If you hear a phrase you don't understand, search for it.

-Build a network of people you can ask specific questions to. If your brothers-in-law are wrapped up in the game, consider jotting any questions you have down on a piece of paper. If you have a DVR, you might even want to note the time on the clock and quarter of a play. Like the first link you sent, post half-a-dozen questions here every so often.

-Once you develop a base level of comfort... Consider picking-up a football video game. Back when I was playing them, most games allowed you to just select plays--so coordination was not necessary. You'll actually be able to see the Xs and Os (maps of how a play is intended to be executed) of the same plays being run in real life. The playbooks alone could be a great visual resource. Keep in mind you don't need the latest version--just realize players have probably changed teams... copies of games from previous seasons can be had for dirt cheap.

-As you start picking stuff up, start reading Gregg Easterbrook's Tuesday Morning Quarterback column. He does an excellent job of working through strategic nuances and the like. Aside from writing a really enjoyable column, he challenges a lot of conventional notions of good strategy, so if nothing else, you'll have topics for conversation with other football fans.

-College football blows.
posted by pokermonk at 8:37 AM on November 29, 2009

Oops. Meant to say, when you jot down questions... ask your brothers-in-law after the game or during halftime.
posted by pokermonk at 8:40 AM on November 29, 2009

In your situation, I'd probably pick a team less by researching them, and more by becoming familiar with the teams, their style of play, and their histories- you'll find yourself appreciating them more by osmosis and natural enjoyment and less by filling out an eHarmony questionnaire.

eHarmony questionnaire! LOL, but this is what I need! So how do I do the research? I'm going to follow the advice and start watching more. Even if I just catch a few minutes, and I will pay particular attention to the announcers. Until I know more about the teams I'm just going to root for whoever my bro-in-laws are rooting for, and if I'm watching by myself I'll just flip a coin.
posted by TooFewShoes at 8:48 AM on November 29, 2009

In games I don't have a rooting interest in, I usually just root for an exciting game that ends up in a tie. Yes, that means 'switching sides' over the course of a game, but it's a pretty fun way to watch a game without drumming up false nationalism. :)

Oh, since you have a DS... Tecmo Bowl Kickoff may be a good start for a game... it looks to be gettable for about $15. It's a throwback to simpler video gaming times, and should be a lot easier to pickup than Madden would be while still providing a thorough football experience--although will not be as deep and also not have actual, current players.
posted by pokermonk at 8:56 AM on November 29, 2009

Yeah, I can't believe I forgot to mention punting.

Also, there are actually five different ways to score:

1. Field goal. This is scored by kicking the ball through the uprights. I can be attempted anywhere on the field, on any down, but traditionally a kicker's maximum range is about 50 yards. This means the ball needs to start play on about the 32 yard line. A successful FG is worth three points, but if you miss, the opposing team takes possession of the ball from the spot of the kick.

2. Touchdowns are scored by advancing the ball into the endzone, and this can be done by the offense or the defense (in the case of an interception of fumble return.) This is worth six points.

3. PAT - Point after Touchdown. Also called the extra point. After a TD, the team has to kick the ball through the uprights, this is worth one point.

4. 2 Point Conversion. Instead of kicking the PAT, the team can 'go for two' and try to advance the ball into the endzone again, by a pass or run. If they succeed it is worth two points. This is not a common occurrence unless you are far behind and trying to catch up, or if there is a funny point differential. For instance, if you have just scored a touchdown and you lead by one point, you might as well go for two. This way, you would have a three point lead and a field goal will only tie the game, not give the other team the lead.

5. Safety. This is a rarity, but it does happen. If the QB is sacked (that means he is tackled before he can pass the ball) and he is in his own endzone, the defense scores two points. This can happen if any player advancing the ball is tackled in his own endzone, not just the QB. Finally, if the offense commits a penalty in their own endzone, a safety is also awarded.

So the game has a lot to do with field position. Sometimes you are better to play it safe and punt the ball away than to take a risky play from your own endzone. Also, the choice between going for it on 4th down, trying a Field Goal or punting all relates to the skill of your player and where you are on the field.

I was trying to keep this pretty general, but now you are starting to see the tactics involved, and this, frankly, is where the game gets really interesting. Late in the game, 4th and 1 on the opposing 37 yard line, and you are down by 1 point... Decisions, decisions :)
posted by WinnipegDragon at 8:56 AM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Until I know more about the teams I'm just going to root for whoever my bro-in-laws are rooting for, and if I'm watching by myself I'll just flip a coin.
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:48 AM on November 29 [+] [!]

Not a bad idea ;) Watching football is one of my favourite things in the world. It's the only TV I ever watch.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 8:57 AM on November 29, 2009

Everyone's advice here is great. I have only this to add as a football-novice, myself: I'd also recommend going to a college or pro game with one of your relatives when you're both in the same town sometime, just because it's really, really fun to watch live sports. I do mention beforehand "hey, mind if I ask you a few newbie rules questions?" and most people I've gone to games with don't mind explaining weird hand signals, etc.
posted by NikitaNikita at 8:59 AM on November 29, 2009

Picking a pro team to root for: Most folks do this through their families, or the places they grew up. Less commonly, someone is transfixed by a really amazing or exciting player (e.g., a lot of Chicago Bulls fans were formed during the Jordan years). You can also just root for the people who win a lot of championships (these days, in the NFL, that'd probably be the Patriots and the Steelers), but pretty much everyone looks down on this kind of fan.

When it comes to football, what kind of things do you like? Lovable losers? Community involvement? A tradition of excellence? Guys who always cheat? Traditionalists? Pioneers? Crushing physical defenses? Exciting pass-heavy, high-risk offenses? Is it important to you that your team makes the playoffs most years? Do the mascots and uniforms and stuff make a difference? Will it be frustrating that your team rarely gets on national television?

I've said more or less this same thing in another thread: I've already got a team (luckily, I was born in Pittsburgh), but if I was picking a new one, it would probably be either the Saints (longtime losers made good, great team play), the Packers (community ownership, small-market) or the Browns. Just kidding about that last one.
posted by box at 9:06 AM on November 29, 2009

Definitely read recaps of each weeks games and previews of the following week's games. Generally speaking the Sunday and Monday night games have the highest production values and some of the best/compelling games. If you are going to consistently record and watch some football each week, you can't go wrong with focusing on those two venues until you get a handle on what you like. In particular the pre-game show before the Sunday night show will have the longest per-game highlights shown (the NFL is anally retentive about which outlets are allowed to use which highlights and for how long, so the the "marquee" game of the week, Sunday night, gets to show the most highlights).

This weekend's games are no slouch either. Sunday night is Pittsburgh at Baltimore. Pittsburgh is one of the most storied teams in the league with quality stable ownership and a really supportive nation-wide following. Baltimore (which is the former Cleveland Browns franchise) is the arch-rival of the Steelers. Both teams have a history of playing tough, aggressive and actively confounding defenses. Adding to the wrinkle this week is that both team has serious injuries to their defenses and the Steelers are missing their first two quarterbacks due to injury. They will be starting a quarterback that has attempted just one professional pass in his short career. Both of these teams were expected to make the playoffs at teh beginning of the season but due to injuries and fluke losses, it is getting down to the point where the loser of the game might have to think about next year.

Monday's game features the New England Patriots and the New Orleans Saints. New England is one of the best teams of the '00 and undoubtedly you've heard about their quarterback Tom Brady. They run a high powered offense with a solid defense. Their coach is famously a curmudgeon, a master tactition and reviled by most of the league due to a cheating scandal. The Saints are shaping up to having one of the most prolific offenses in professional football. They are also one of the two remaining undefeated teams (along with the Colts).
posted by mmascolino at 9:12 AM on November 29, 2009

I am in Utah, no pro team. My family is in Arizona. I don't count the Cardinals as a pro team, I can't bring myself to root for them. I like the idea of a team who gives back to the community. I know the Packers are locally 'owned' so I kind of like that. I don't like cheaters, but I like it when the players give the other team a hard time. Similarly, I like watching Hockey for the fights. I mean, they are so heavily padded that they aren't likely to actually hurt each other. (I don't mean players won't get hurt, I just mean that two guys punching each other are not going to do any real damage.)

It would be easier if I lived in a town with a team, but at the same time I like the idea of being a fan because the team 'deserves' me. I'm going to keep an eye on the Saints, the Packers, the Lions, and the Steelers. At least those games I won't have to flip a coin.
posted by TooFewShoes at 9:26 AM on November 29, 2009

As a 18-year veteran, die-hard fan, moderator on a fan forum, and general Lions slappy, I beg of you, don't cheer for the Lions unless you can take crushing loss after crushing loss.

I may have mentioned before... WE SUCK!

Really, once you get to the point of calling yourself the 'fan' of your team, you get emotionally invested, and you better be able to take the losses...
posted by WinnipegDragon at 9:32 AM on November 29, 2009

WinnipegDragon you make me laugh! I think I can handle the stress. Just don't be mad if I decide I'm not a fan.
posted by TooFewShoes at 9:40 AM on November 29, 2009

I only know a little bit more about football than you do, but I love watching it. It is easier when the people you are watching it with are the kind of enthusiasts who enjoy explaining the nuances during the game. (I have more than one friend who shares great information like WinnipegDragon has been doing and it is even more effective when you're watching it happen. And thanks, WD, for your great answers here.)

Two other things I've done that help ramp me up: I've joined friends at sports bars on Sundays just for the enjoyment of drinking a few beers and yelling at the TV en masse. I don't really follow specific teams, but when there is more than one game on, you get to see a lot more exciting plays and the patterns of those plays become more recognizable; by which I mean, if you see a few two-point conversions in a few different games, you'll start to understand why teams are making that choice instead of just getting the extra point.

To that same end, if you have some of the fancier cable packages, you may be able to get channels like ESPN Red Zone. It's not some people's cup of tea, and really won't work if you are following a specific game, but the announcers/channel follow every game being played and only tune into the game or two where there is an active play going on at the moment. Again, this changes the pace as a viewer (and you never get a chance to pee) but there is a lot of dead time in pro football. Seeing games from this angle is a fun switch, and since you're still picking a team, it might be another way to see more of them play.
posted by juliplease at 9:53 AM on November 29, 2009

WinnipegDragon you make me laugh! I think I can handle the stress. Just don't be mad if I decide I'm not a fan.
posted by TooFewShoes at 11:40 AM on November 29 [+] [!]

For your sake, I hope you decide you aren't as well!
posted by WinnipegDragon at 10:09 AM on November 29, 2009

Try to find a game's radio broadcast and use that for audio while watching the TV with the sound down -- the radio's play-by-play description is a lot more helpful for understanding the action as it unfolds, as well as picking up more about the strategies and game subtleties. The radio broadcasters know more about what's going on with their team (they call for the same team each week, instead of being parachuted in by the network) and generally offer more intelligent commentary. Too many TV teams just seem to be watching the game with you, chiming in with unhelpful "Wow, that was a nice throw." kind of hurfdurffery.
posted by mimi at 10:12 AM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Whatever you decide, just please don't become a Cowboys fan. :)
posted by andrewcilento at 10:20 AM on November 29, 2009

If you get ten yards total before you run out of downs, you get a new set of downs and start at 1st and 10 again.

Is there a limit to the downs a team gets? Hypothetically if a team never loses the ball through a fumble or interception, will they just keep moving up the field? Does the other team get the ball when the opposing team scores?

The first players you see, the ones lined up directly on the ball are the offensive line. There are 5 OL, from left to right...

From my left to right if I am standing behind them or facing them?

When the referee calls a penalty does he get to decide how many yards that penalty is worth or is that listed in the rules?
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:35 AM on November 29, 2009

For years I had no real interest in football, but recently I was coaxed into playing NFL Madden 09 on the Wii and found a real depth of strategy I never thought was there. So, I'm in your boat of trying to learn what's going on but also recommend you try playing one of the Madden games to get a feel for the rules and flow of play. The easy setting is very forgiving, and the replay cameras are nice for picking up on plays.

As far as downs go, they get renewed any time you pass the 10-yard markers (they're the big orange things on the sidelines with circles and arrows connected by a chain). So, if you're at "3rd and 4" (3rd down with 4 yards left to renew the 1st down) and you get the four yards, then you're again at 1st and 10 from wherever the ball lands (not from the last 10-yard marked section).

There are technically 4 downs to attempt the 10-yard gain before a turnover. Statistically, it doesn't make sense to turn over the ball where it is if the 4th down attempt fails, so most teams punt on the 4th down. This is because then the other team receives the ball way closer to their end zone so they have more field to cover before scoring.

After scoring, like most sports, football has a kickoff where the scoring team kicks it to the non-scoring team.

To answer your question about referees and penalties - each flag they call has a penalty as stated by the rules, i.e. such-and-such is a 5 yard penalty, facemasking (where a player grabs another player's facemask - very dangerous and painful) is I believe half the distance to the goal.

If a penalty occurs mid-play, sometimes coaches will decline the penalty (against the other team) if it would reset them back to where they were + 5 yards, for example, whereas the play made maybe 30 yards. Then, they'll decline the penalty and keep the longer yardage so they're further down the field.

I'm a Colts fan because I went to college in Indiana (and my husband - a football nut - is from there), but he usually has some sort of preference for each team, like a hierarchical ranking of teams (e.g. "anybody against the Patriots!"). I usually just root for who he roots for, and he's starting to get into college games so I get plenty of chances. :)
posted by bookdragoness at 10:56 AM on November 29, 2009

Wait a second, if a team is awarded penalty yards it is instead of the yards they got on that play? I thought it was in addition to.
posted by TooFewShoes at 11:27 AM on November 29, 2009

I'm watching the Colts game right now, and I think I'm finally starting to get it! I think repetition is key. Going to my Brother-in-law's house once a month for a game is not going to do it. I'm going to start watching at least one game a week to make sure all this new information sticks. Having all your answers next to me while I'm watching is helpful because I can just look things up if I don't understand. Now I think I can leave the in-laws alone and let them enjoy their game!
posted by TooFewShoes at 11:35 AM on November 29, 2009

Winnepeg already said most of what I was thinking, but one idea to add: next summer join a fantasy football league--it'll vastly increase your understanding of the players and stats in a fun 'gaming' context.
posted by chalbe at 11:48 AM on November 29, 2009

One basic thing that I think still needs explaining here (unless I missed it above) are the rules that the defense operates under when covering a receiver - e.g. pass interference. Also what are the rules governing a good catch, like one foot down, knocking the ball loose, when is it a dead ball, etc.
posted by intermod at 12:02 PM on November 29, 2009

Also, TFS, following on your "repetition is key" comment, after a good day of watching games and listening to TV commentary, you should come back here and reread the posts above.
posted by intermod at 12:04 PM on November 29, 2009

There is an exception to the rule that when one team scores the other teams gets the ball. The defense can score points for their team by getting a safety. A safety occurs when an offensive player is down in his own endzone (not the one he's trying to score in - the other one).

If a safety occurs, the team on defense gets 2 points AND they get the ball afterward.
posted by chndrcks at 12:08 PM on November 29, 2009

There have already been some good links, but you can't go wrong with the NFL's own page. This page has: the full rulebook, a digest of rules, the official signals, Beginner's guide to football, and football basics.
posted by chndrcks at 12:12 PM on November 29, 2009

A safety is a way to score and a player?

I am really getting into this. I can see how easy it is for some people to be such rabid fans!
posted by TooFewShoes at 12:12 PM on November 29, 2009

chndrcks that is just like what I'm looking for! I never thought to try the NFL official page!
posted by TooFewShoes at 12:16 PM on November 29, 2009

If you still want to read a book, two good possibilities are Ralph Hickok's Pro Football Fan's Companion and John Madden's One Knee Equals Two Feet. I'll mention Brian Billick's recent More Than A Game, too, though you'll get more out of that one if you read it in a month or two.
posted by box at 12:28 PM on November 29, 2009

A safety is a way to score and a player?
Yup.. don't you love when that happens?

In that link I posted above, I just realized you can get to a page where they're supposed to talk about player positions, but it didn't work for me until I went here. The information is good, but for some reason they decided a muppet was the best way to present it, so you have to pay close attention.
posted by chndrcks at 12:38 PM on November 29, 2009

Exciting to hear you are getting into it so much. To correct a couple little points from bookdragoness:

There are actually two facemask related penalties. The lesser which is just for getting a hand up there is 5 yards. The greater, which involves actually pulling the player down by the mask is 15 yards.

Any time a penalty should be applied that would move the team more than half the distance to the goal the distance is instead that amount. A team never scores on a penalty in football.

The game of football has a LOT of rules, and they are constantly being changed to maintain the sport's level of action and balance. So, give yourself lots of time to learn the nuances. This is also where the differences between college and pro games come in.

While on differences between college and pro a few big ones include:
The style of play in college games tends to be looser and the range of skills broader, one outcome of this is that you are much much more likely to see plays where the quarterback just takes the ball and runs as a designed play or has the "Option" of either running or passing the ball after taking the snap.

In college football you are 'down' and the play is over if your knee, shin, elbow or body touches the ground while you are holding the ball. In the pros you are only down if the above happens due to contact with an opposing player. This makes a difference when there is a diving catch, the pros can pop up and keep running if they aren't touched.

Pro overtime (if tied after regulation) is simply one quarter of play where the first team to put a point on the board wins, and the game ends in a tie if neither does after 15 minutes.

College overtime is complex and premised on giving each team's offense and equal chance to control the ball, so they go back and forth trying to score from a set field position.

Hope your planning to have fun watching our Steelers tonight!
posted by meinvt at 12:44 PM on November 29, 2009

There are actually two facemask related penalties. The lesser which is just for getting a hand up there is 5 yards. The greater, which involves actually pulling the player down by the mask is 15 yards.

This used to be the case, but the rule was changed starting with the 2008 season. All facemask penalties are now 15 yards.

This site may be indirectly helpful: it tracks which of the Sunday daytime games will be broadcast by Fox and CBS in what areas of the country, so you can see a few days in advance which games will be broadcast where you are, if you want to read up on those teams in particular.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:55 PM on November 29, 2009

This used to be the case, but the rule was changed starting with the 2008 season. All facemask penalties are now 15 yards.

Heh! Well I guess that just goes to prove my point about most fans not really always knowing what was going on, I've watched another season and a half without picking that up.
posted by meinvt at 1:02 PM on November 29, 2009

I bow down to the Fountain of Wisdom that is AskMeFi!
posted by TooFewShoes at 1:03 PM on November 29, 2009

Lots of good information here. I say that you now have more than enough grounding to enjoy watching football games. As you've seen, it's a very complex game and you'll find that even die-hard fans rarely know all the minutiae of rules and playbooks.

Now that you understand the basics, I don't think you need to study the rules to get more out of the game. Watch football and you'll learn more by osmosis, both about the rules/strategies/politics, and about what teams you support.

As far as picking "your team" you'll find that it's not strictly necessary to enjoy the game. I grew up without a local team (halfway between the 49ers and the Seahawks) and a non-football family. Consequently, I generally root for the underdog or, even more generally, I root for a good, close game. Joining a fantasy league will give you a lot to root for as well, although it's more individual players instead of teams, which is why a lot of purists say this detracts from true fandom (a Ravens fan rooting for Carson Palmer of the Bengals?! The horror!).

Good luck and welcome to the club!
posted by maniactown at 1:41 PM on November 29, 2009

Sorry I stepped out for some Christmas shopping, but it looks like you have a lot of people here answering questions for you!

maniactown's last bit of advice is a good one. You may not want to follow a team, it's easier to just enjoy the game without worrying and fretting over one team obsessively, like I do.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 2:10 PM on November 29, 2009

I know you said you're more interested in college than pros, but any football fan who cares about really understanding the game should be watching ESPN NFL Matchup. The show breaks down the NFL games the same way the players and coaches do. The show doesn't talk about what happens, but why it happened.

A lot of it might be over your head at first, but after a while you'll start seeing football in a totally different way.
posted by derivation at 2:25 PM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Lots of good info here. I agree on just watching lots and lots of games. You'll catch on, especially what starts to emerge is the bigger strategic picture, versus seeing every individual play as a big deal. But it is incredibly complicated and the details about formations and types of defense and diagrams of plays.. those are hard to catch on to. One of the big problems is that NFL broadcasts show you only certain angles closer to the field, and you can't see the entire field from a bird's eye view, which would be helpful if you really want to figure out what the whole team is doing -- it really requires everyone on the team working together to make a play work.

I tend to enjoy games with teams I don't care about, because I'm not stressing out over it. I have friends from Utah who are Cowboys fans but I can't really recommend anyone root for the Dallas Cowboys ever. I bet the Kansas City Chiefs could use some more fans, and nobody would accuse you of jumping on the bandwagon of a winner, but maybe they'll be interesting soon - teams have seemingly rebuilt pretty fast lately.
posted by citron at 3:09 PM on November 29, 2009

I watched the Colts game today while I folded laundry. I couldn't really pay full attention because I was dealing with my kids a lot, but the parts I caught I really enjoyed. I did what pokermonk said and had a pencil and paper next to me, when I heard something I didn't understand I wrote it down then hopped on my laptop to look it up.

I was bummed during the first half because the Colts were not doing very well, but at least I understood why Manning was sitting on the sidelines!

There is one thing I don't understand still. The ball turnover. I that I understand that a team gives up the ball if they don't gain enough yards in their downs or if they score. If the ball is intercepted or fumbled the other team can try to score, but as soon as they are tackled they have to give the ball back. Two more questions. When the defense player who caught the interception is tackled, does play resume from where he was tackled, or back where the offense was when they started the play? The other thing that I didn't understand about the downs was when the team got more than ten yards on a down. It kept going back to 1st and 10. How many of those do they get before they have to turn over the ball? Do they get 4 tries no matter how many yards they gain?
posted by TooFewShoes at 4:00 PM on November 29, 2009

Okay, here's some more answers for you:

There is one thing I don't understand still. The ball turnover. I that I understand that a team gives up the ball if they don't gain enough yards in their downs or if they score. If the ball is intercepted or fumbled the other team can try to score, but as soon as they are tackled they have to give the ball back.

Not quite, if the ball is intercepted, the defense gets to advance the ball as far as they can, and *then* the sides switch. The team that intercepted the ball keeps it, and then takes over on offense from there. Same with a fumble. If the ball is turned over on downs, the teams switch and the ball stays where it was at the end of the last play.

Two more questions. When the defense player who caught the interception is tackled, does play resume from where he was tackled, or back where the offense was when they started the play?

From where the play ended. The defensive player wants to advance the ball as far as possible after the interception because of this.

The other thing that I didn't understand about the downs was when the team got more than ten yards on a down. It kept going back to 1st and 10. How many of those do they get before they have to turn over the ball? Do they get 4 tries no matter how many yards they gain?

The goal is the get a total of ten yards within the four downs. Any time that you go over that ten yard cumulative total, you start over at 1st and 10 again.

So, if you get 13 yards on 1st down, you have 1st and 10 again. If you get 3 yards on 3rd and 2, you have first down again. Only penalties can change this.

You also asked earlier if penalty yards are *added* to a play or replace the yards gained on a play. Well, that depends on the penalty. Personal fouls for instance add 15 yards, and are an automatic first down regardless of how many yards were left to gain. A false start penalty stops the play, the offense is penalized five yards, and you try again on the same down (i.e. 2nd and 8 becomes 2nd and 13).

Some penalties are really bad, like intentional grounding, which is when the QB throws the ball away to avoid being sacked and he does not aim at a receiver. That penalty is nasty, the ball is moved back to where the QB was when he threw it (so the yardage penalty is variable) AND the down counts. So if it's 1st and 10, the QB drops back seven yards, and intentionally grounds the ball, the new down and distance is 2nd and 17!
posted by WinnipegDragon at 4:12 PM on November 29, 2009

There is one thing I don't understand still. The ball turnover. I that I understand that a team gives up the ball if they don't gain enough yards in their downs or if they score. If the ball is intercepted or fumbled the other team can try to score, but as soon as they are tackled they have to give the ball back

Nope. When the ball is intercepted or fumbled and the defense recovers, they can try to score on that play, but as soon as they're down, the recovering team maintains possession with a new set of downs. Their offense takes the field and play proceeds normally. Sometimes the fumbling team recovers their own fumble. If they recover behind the first down line, they maintain possession at whatever down they were on. If they recover beyond the first down marker, they start with a new set of downs.

As far as downs go, it's a maximum of four downs and not limited to 10 yards. Once they make it past the initial 10 yards, a new set of downs is earned from the place where the previous play ended. They can keep earning first downs until they score. If they use all 4 downs without making 10 yards, they "turn the ball over on downs" which means the opponent takes the field with the ball at that spot. That's why you'll usually see teams punt on 4th down, instead of trying to pick up the first down. Make sense?
posted by maniactown at 4:16 PM on November 29, 2009

Or what WD said ;)
posted by maniactown at 4:16 PM on November 29, 2009

WinnipegDragon do you have a blog? I'd like that address.

You guys confused me a little on the fumble/interception turnover, tell me if this is right:
Player number 00 from team X catches an interception from team Y at the 25 yard line. 00 runs 35 yards and is tackled by team Y on the 10 yard line. Now team X has possesion of the ball, the line of scrimmage is on the 10 yard line that 00 was tackled on and it is 1st and 10. Y is now on defense.
posted by TooFewShoes at 4:39 PM on November 29, 2009

Ha! I have a 'learning to shoot a DSLR' blog that rarely touches on football. It's in my profile if you want to see some very amateur photography :)

You can always drop me an email if you have questions, I'm happy to help. You can get my email from the contact link at my blog too.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 4:41 PM on November 29, 2009

Re: turnovers: You got it now.
posted by maniactown at 4:43 PM on November 29, 2009

Oh forgot the question:

Player number 00 from team X catches an interception from team Y at the 25 yard line. 00 runs 35 yards and is tackled by team Y on the 10 yard line. Now team X has possesion of the ball, the line of scrimmage is on the 10 yard line that 00 was tackled on and it is 1st and 10. Y is now on defense.

Basically this is right, but if player 00 had advanced the ball 35 yards from the 25 yard line, he's be in the endzone and it would be a touchdown. Reverse those numbers (25 yard return after an interception at the 25) and you are dead-on. Player 00's team is now on offense, 1st and 10 from the 10 yard line.

Having said that, any scenario where ten yards would put you in the endzone is referred to as (# of down) and goal. So, let's say in your scenario he was tackled at the 8 yard line. It's not 1st and 10, or 1st and 8, it's 1st and goal. If they run the ball and get 5 yards, it's 2nd and goal. You'll see that frequently in most games.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 4:45 PM on November 29, 2009

Sorry, typo:

Reverse those numbers (25 yard return after an interception at the 35) and you are dead-on.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 4:46 PM on November 29, 2009

Yeah, I got my math mixed up. Sorry!
posted by TooFewShoes at 6:13 PM on November 29, 2009

WinnipegDragon you are my Football Guru. You need to start a blog for n00b's like me! The way you write is very easy for the uninitiated to understand. I give you permission to call the blog N00b's Football Guru.
posted by TooFewShoes at 6:16 PM on November 29, 2009

Well thank you for the kind words, I only hope it helped. I barely have time to take pictures to post in my existing blog, so I doubt another is in my future.

I'll tell you what, you start a "I'm learning about football" blog, and I'll be your first commenter ;)
posted by WinnipegDragon at 6:55 PM on November 29, 2009

I'm seriously late to this post, but I can't believe nobody has suggested ESPN's College Gameday for the politics and history of college football on a realtime basis. They go into why some of the more "important" matchups of the week are important. It comes on every Saturday at 10 AM EST during college football season (which sadly only has one more week left before the break before bowls, and this is the weekend (generally) reserved for conference championships). Great production values and some fun watching if you like the college game. Glad you're enjoying your entry into football!
posted by This Guy at 11:04 AM on December 2, 2009

Thank you to everybody who answered! This is my update.

I am fully addicted now. I am actually upset that the season isn't longer. My husband thinks aliens have abducted his wife and left an impostor in her place. I totally get the game now! I still use the computer to look up the penalties, but now that I understand the game they make more sense.

I still don't have a specific team that I root for, but I am starting to think that I'm a jinx. Every team that I've cheered on has lost. It's actually getting kind of sad.

My six year old boy is learning right along side me. I have to say I really enjoy having something in common with the little guy. He is super excited to start PeeWee.

I did decide to start my own football newbie blog. I won't link it here since I think that's against the rules, but memail me if you are interested. Trying to explain it in my own words has really helped me better understand it.

I can't listen to the commentators in the before and after game shows. My eyes glaze and I start drifting off. But I'll keep at it for awhile. I think I just prefer the action of the game.
posted by TooFewShoes at 8:18 AM on December 8, 2009

Put the link in your profile, nothing illegal about that
posted by Think_Long at 10:16 AM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Please put a link to your new blog in your profile!
posted by Night_owl at 8:35 PM on December 12, 2009

If anyone is still reading this, I updated my profile with my football blog. Please feel free to comment and tell me what I've got wrong.
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:57 AM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

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