How to learn American Football tactics?
September 14, 2010 1:34 AM   Subscribe

I know the basics of (American) football, and enjoy watching it on TV, but what's the best way to get to grips with the tactics etc?

I'm British, and watched American football as a teenager in the 80s when it arrived on TV here. Last season I started watching again and enjoyed it. But, while I know the rules I would like to know a bit more about why one team might choose formation x over y. My knowledge of this stuff doesn't extend much beyond "Probably run it when there's only a couple of yards to go; probably punt on fourth down."

I've read this from a few years ago, and wondered if there were any particularly good books etc now, ones that don't also need to explain the game from scratch?

Oh, and while playing some football would probably help, I won't be doing that. And I've had a look at 'Madden', which seemed like I'd need to know this stuff before playing the game.
posted by fabius to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Believe it or not, Wikipedia is pretty good on this stuff.

Playing some flag or tag football with friends might be fun and good exercise, but it's so much different that I would worry about it for learning the pro or college game.

Interestingly, the new iteration of Madden has a feature where a computerized assistant coach will call plays for you. This would make your life easier, but it might also teach you _less_ than you want to know about the strategies as to why you'd call a certain play.

Further, there's been some real changes in the past five years. "Wildcat" offenses, where an athletic guy who isn't your quarterback lines up at the quarterback position and tries to fool the defense, are making a big comeback.

Thing is, purists (like myself) think these new-fangled schemes are basically bullshit. Sure, you might get lucky once in a while, but in the modern NFL defenders are big, fast, and smart. And if you make some type of mistake where you're carrying the ball without protection from your lineman or a full-back, you are going to get the ever-loving stuffing knocked out of you.

But hey, with all the controversy over Tim Tebow not being much of a conventional pocket passer, but some sort of potential running threat from the QB position, maybe I'm too old fashioned.

Then again, one blind-side from a line-backer and his legs could snap like a chicken wing's.

For a more specific recomendation, learn who your favorite teams' tight ends are. That's a really versatile offensive position -- they block, pass, and even run sometimes. Perhaps more importantly, the starting position of a tight end (or two tight ends, or none) will tell you before the snap who is and isn't eligible to carry the ball. Typically anyone towards the center from the tight end is a lineman, but there are some weird schemes out there to get around this.

Being able to look at an offensive formation before the snap and tell who is and isn't eligible to carry the football would be a good basic goal for you, if you haven't gotten to this level already.
posted by bardic at 3:38 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding wikipedia.

I think your best bet is to pick a team to follow and then find a good blog devoted exclusively to that team. You'll learn the key players, and any blog worth its salt will devote a good amount of ink to discussing formations and strategy. I think discussion of strategies and formations will be much easier to absorb if you're thinking about specific players rather than X's and O's in an abstract argument.

I don't follow the NFL, so you can't recommend any specific blogs, but the blogosphere for American college football is great. If you were going to follow the University of Michigan, for example (maybe not televised, but you could stream the games), mgoblog provides great in-depth discussion of players, strategies and tactics, upcoming matchups, etc. Something like the "Upon Further Review" feature sounds like what you're looking for: after each game, the author breaks down *every single play*, explains the coverage (often with pics and vids), and points out which players executed well and which did not:

Mgoblog: Upon Further Review
posted by JumpW at 5:42 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

It is a classical war game. You are trying to outfox the opponent. You do this either by being unpredictable, or by overpowering. You do that by learning about the players on the other side, and by seeing how the other side reacts and looking for holes on their side. Kind of like chess.

So if you know Jones has trouble seeing the whole field and really only sees where his head is pointed, you run a play that has someone getting to the side of him and sneaking up on him.

Or you have your best receiver go out and make a big deal about trying to get ready to catch the ball, and then you throw it to the scrawny guy 10 yards further out that everyone ignored.

Defense formations are mostly about trying to confound an offensive formation. Or just by being bigger and stronger- if just a couple of defensive guys can break their blocks, they can cause all kinds of havoc behind the line.

Sometimes if you know you are going to have to kick a field goal, or punt the ball, you might run a play designed solely to move the ball laterally to where the kicker likes it.

As for why they choose the "double back long J" over the "zig zag round robin" (made up names, they are all different) plays, it is mostly voodoo and superstition.

Further, many if not all offenses create game plans ahead of the game, and just run those plays in order. I presume this is to have some predictability for the offense, and maybe to systematically expose the weaknesses of the defense. As the game progresses, they start to make changes to exploit that. I'm not in the business, but sticking to a game plan too strongly when it clearly isn't working can really mess up a team's morale.
posted by gjc at 5:45 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Being able to look at an offensive formation before the snap and tell who is and isn't eligible to carry the football would be a good basic goal for you, if you haven't gotten to this level already

Could bardic or someone else explain what it means to be eligible to carry the football for those of us following this thread?
posted by vincele at 6:18 AM on September 14, 2010

Football for Dummies
posted by caddis at 6:28 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

A typical/vanilla offensive formation would be a) five linemen (defenders) who are not allowed to touch the ball (barring a fumble, and of course the center is the "snapper" so he can touch the ball until the quarterback gets it), b) a quarterback who can run, pass, or hand off (but a QB running is a risky thing due to his smaller size), c) two wide receivers or "wide outs" who can catch the ball (or run it on crazier plays like a reverse), d) two running backs (half-backs typically get the ball and run, full-backs typically block for the half-back but can run or catch), and your e) tight end. The tight end lines up (again, typically) next to the five linemen, but he is ball eligible. He might block, but he is also eligible to catch.

From here it can get even more simple or even (a lot) more crazy.
posted by bardic at 6:41 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just go ahead and play Madden, start out on the easy level, and the videogames will make suggestions about which formations to go with, the longer you play, the better you'll get at it. I've gotten to the point where I have memorized complete playbooks and now when i see them on tv recognize them instantly...
posted by The1andonly at 7:11 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

There is a show on ESPN called NFL Matchup hosted by Ron Jaworski. It is, without a doubt, the best show for what you want to learn. It comes on early Sunday morning (in the USA) and analyzes the games from last week to get you ready for this week. If you watched all 20 episodes (16 regular season + 4 playoffs) you would increase your football knowledge exponentially. Unfortunately, I have no idea how you can watch it from Britain. This might be the kind of thing that football dorks torrent.

Jaworski has a book coming out in October. I have no idea how good it will be but it is worth thinking about.

I also recommend the Smart Football blog. It is mostly about college football (which features much crazier tactics, formations and plays than pro football) but is still a good general resource.

While watching football, pause the game before each play and work out what personnel are on the field and how they are lined up. Note how many wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs are lined up on offense. Try to figure out what the defensive coverage scheme is.

As for eligible receivers, the Wikipedia page explains it better than I can. Wikipedia is a great place to look up specific football topics but it won't give you an overall impression of their importance and how they fit into the game.
posted by Uncle Jimmy at 7:17 AM on September 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Something Awful is really, really great for this kind of thing. If you can't view that, MeMail me.
posted by proj at 7:55 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

there is alot of stuff on

posted by fozzie33 at 8:10 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Simplest advice: when you watch, don't follow the ball, tempting as that is. Instead, focus on the defense. Doing so will really help you see the strategies unfold.
posted by Dr. Wu at 10:14 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

NY Times FB blog, just ran a series of articles on NFL defensive strategy and history. I personally enjoy watching what the defense does more than the offense in pro ball, like Dr Wu said.

Yeah, smart football is great too, he'll use a lot more coach-level terminolgy that might be confusing, and colleges offense are a lot more diverse, but he always looks at things from a broad, strategic way.

The Pregame Show at football outsiders is a pretty good summation of what they've learned through their last decade or so of geeking out on stats.
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 11:17 AM on September 14, 2010

You can usually tell from the offensive formation whether the play is likely to be a run or a pass. A running play will typically have more blockers and a passing play will typically have more eligible receivers.

Here's the formation that bardic outlined:
WR            T   G    C    G    T    TE



This is what's called an I formation because the quarterback, fullback, and halfback are lined up behind one another like a capital "I." It's more often a running formation since there are more blockers.

There have to be at least seven players on the line of scrimmage. The two players on each end (in this case, the wide receiver on the left and the tight end on the right) are eligible receivers. The wide receiver on the right is also eligible because he's slightly behind the line of scrimmage.

The side with the tight end (the right side in this case) is called the strong side.

This is a single set back formation, with no fullback and an additional wide receiver. It's most often a passing formation since there are more eligible receivers.
WR            T   G    C    G    T    TE
     WR                                               WR


Wikipedia's articles on formations and strategy are good.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:06 PM on September 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Take a look at Madden again, even as a supplement to some of the resources here. Older versions of the game can be found for nominal amounts of money. You don't need to know much more than "probably run the ball here, probably punt here" before playing. And its not like losing against the computer means anything.
posted by AceRock at 2:14 PM on September 14, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions folks - I'd be marking nearly all of them as best answers.

In the UK the only free-to-air football we get is Sunday Night Football, so following my favourite team (Raiders), or even seeing a single game of theirs, isn't going to happen without paying $200.

But I'll give Wikipedia a look and hunt out a good blog or two. I wasn't sure about Madden - it seemed like, with 11, it was either just going to tell me what to do (which didn't feel like I was learning much) or put me in at the deep end. Not much in between. Maybe it just takes a bit more perseverance.

Thanks again.
posted by fabius at 2:03 AM on September 15, 2010

You could try a sports bar/pub (although they might be touristy). Bodeans BBQ Restaurants (TV schedules online), Sports Bar & Grill, and Sports Cafe show NFL games.

Also, the San Francisco 49ers and the Denver Broncos are playing at Wembley Stadium on October 31.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:06 AM on September 15, 2010

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