September 20, 2014

Gridiron Girl's Guide to Football

The team with the most points wins. There, it’s simple, isn’t it? Well, it’s a little more complicated than that, but the basic principles of the game are pretty simple. Honey, I'll have you going from tailgate cutie to wifey faster than a 25 second play clock.
The Kickoff
The game (and the second half) starts with a kickoff from one end of the field, where the defense kicks the ball to the team who's trying to score. The team on offense tries to catch it and run as far as possible up the field to advance the ball — this is called a kick return. Where the player carrying the ball is tackled is where they start the next play.
If the defense kicks the ball all the way into the offense's end zone, the player who catches the ball has the choice to kneel down (called a touchback), which means the ball will start at the 20-yard line, or he can try to run the ball up the field if he thinks he can make it farther than the 20-yard line. During kickoff, if no one catches the ball, either team can try to gain possession of it wherever it lands, as long as it's in bounds.

Now they don’t have to get those ten yards all at once.
Each play of the game is called a "down," and lasts from the second the ball is snapped to when officials signal the end of the play. Each driving offensive team has four downs to move 10 yards. If the team gets 10 yards from the initial line of scrimmage, they get to start over with four more downs. This is the goal and means the team is moving down the field, closer to the end zone to score. If, after four downs, the team hasn’t gained 10 yards, then the other team’s offense gets the ball. Tip: You can always find a summary of the downs and how far the driving team has to go on the TV screen, where it will say, for example, “3rd and 4,” meaning the offensive team is on their third down and has four yards to go to reach 10 yards. They can either: pass the ball – where the defense will attempt to either intercept (catch) or knock the ball away from the receiver or run the ball – where the defense will attempt to stop the ball carrier by either tackling or running him out of bounds. If a player steps on the sideline, he is out of bounds and the play is dead at that spot.

Now the third down is very important. If the third down is successful – the offense gets the necessary yardage to complete the full ten yards – they start over. Four more tries to get ten more yards. But, if after the third down the offense has not been able to advance ten yards, it is the fourth down and they have three options:
  1. They can go for the fourth down.
  2. If they are in field goal range, they can go for the three points.
  3. They can punt.
If they go for it it’s usually because they only need a yard or even less, and they’re probably going to try and push their way through. They may pass the ball, but that’s not done often. Now if they get it, it’s another first down. If they don’t get it (the defense holds them back), not only do they lose possession of the ball, but the other team gains possession with good field position. But if they punt, at least they can get the ball deep into the opposing team’s territory.
If they go for it and make it, it’s first and ten. That’s known as a fourth down conversion. They’ve just “converted” that fourth down into another first down. Just as if they complete the ten yards on the third down, that would be a third down conversion. (Next time you’re watching the game with your guy, when your team is on it’s third down, ask him if thinks they’ll be able to convert. What? You’ve never seen him speechless before?)

The offense: Offensive team members include positions like the quarterback, who throws or runs the ball up the field and calls plays; The unsung heroes of every offensive unit are the offensive linemen—the center, guards, tackles, and tight end. Protect their teammates with the ball from getting tackled or otherwise stopped by the defense. The side of the field with the greater number of linemen (usually, it's the side with the tight end) is considered the strong side; the side with the lesser number of linemen is considered the weak side. A team always puts 11 players on the field.

Offensive Backfield
Running backs position themselves a couple steps behind the quarterback or off to his side, and their primary job is to run the football. On some plays, they're meant to block for the quarterback, and on others they're meant to head down field for a pass, but the best of 'em carry the ball 20 to 30 times each game, usually through heavy traffic. Within the category, there are fullbacks, who lead the way for the halfbacks. A fullback is generally bigger and heavier than his backfield running mate, while a halfback is quicker and more explosive. Fullbacks are like offensive linemen—theirs is another one of those thankless positions on the field, throwing blocks and setting decoys. Some offensive alignments call for only one running back on a particular play, while others require the more traditional two-man backfield. Running backs of every stripe are called on regularly to catch the ball as well as run with it, so they've got to have soft hands to go along with their hard heads. Usually, teams will feature one primary running back throughout the game, although some teams present a more balanced attack spread across two or more featured runners. 
Offensive Linemen
The center is one of the easiest players to spot on the field because he's the one who lines up over the ball and snaps it to his quarterback to start the play. It's a tough, thankless, highly skilled position.
On each side of the center, you'll find a guard, appropriately named because, like the center, the guards protect their quarterback, and open up holes for their running backs by pushing defenders out of the way and clearing a path through which they might advance the ball. In most offensive formations, a tackle is positioned outside each guard. They also protect their quarterback, and open up holes for their running backs, but their name doesn't fit their assignment the way it once did. They're no longer allowed to tackle the guys on the other team, per se—unless, of course, those guys have somehow managed to come up with the ball. Modern rules prohibit guards, tackles and centers from grabbing their opponents in any way. They can drop low and take their legs out, or they can hit them high and hard and hope to knock them off balance, but they can't actually tackle them, so the name doesn't quite line up with what they're asked to do. There is one tight end on the offensive line, usually located next to one of the tackles. Increasingly, teams utilize two tight ends, putting one on either side of the ball and opening up a whole mess of passing and blocking options. Many tight ends are built tough and low to the ground, in such a way that you can't always tell them apart from the other linemen. But they need to be quick and sure-footed, with soft hands and an offensive mindset. Like the center, guards, and tackles, the tight end's job is to block for his quarterback, give him time to throw the ball while the play develops, and open up holes for his running backs. As the only eligible receiver on the offensive line, he is also called upon to catch a pass from time to time and to run down field with it. Tight ends line up at the end of the offensive line, and tight to that line. Line them up any place else and, well, they wouldn't be tight ends. Slot them on the line between the guard and the tackle and they wouldn't be eligible to catch a pass, because the rules state that they must be lined up at the end of the line to be considered a receiver. The center, guards, and tackles cannot be the intended target of a pass. There's something slick about them, the way they pretend to block and then roll out to catch the ball. Along with the quarterback, they're probably the best actors on the team, always trying to deceive their opponents into thinking one way and then sneaking in some surprise move or other.

Wide receivers, so named because they line up wide of the other offensive players and are eligible to receive the ball. Realize, only seven players are allowed to line up on the line of scrimmage, and most coaches run out five offensive linemen (the center, two guards, and two tackles, let's say). That leaves room for a tight end and one other player, usually a wide receiver who'll toe the line of scrimmage on the weak side of the field. A second wide receiver, sometimes known as the flanker, will line up wide of the linemen a step or two off the line of scrimmage, on the strong side of the field. These guys are fast, agile, wiry, and fast. (Have I mentioned fast?) They're also great jumpers, with incredible hands, and the kind of precise body control. Receivers are good actors, too, because the ball only comes their way a half-dozen or so times each game—maybe more for a real go-to guy—and yet every snap from center they're sprinting down the field, cutting  and going through the motions at full-tilt, like their number has been called. They've got to sell the play, even when they're nowhere near the play, to lure defenders away from the ball. Wide receivers . . . they've got it going on. They're all style and all substance—all the time.
The Defense
The defensive unit comes on to the field when the other team has possession of the ball. These guys are the first line of defense, and they stand as mirror images to the offensive linemen. They're just as big and beefy and just as down and dirty, but they tend to be a little quicker and a little more athletic—which comes in handy when trying to chase down the opposing quarterback. Their basic job is to stop the other team's offensive players from running the ball and to rush, pressure, or otherwise charge at the quarterback so that he doesn't have too much time to look down the field for an open receiver. Defensive linemen can also be among the more colorful personalities in the game. The best of them are fan favorites, wildly celebrated for their accomplishments—and for their creative celebrations ("sack dances") that invariably follow a sack of the opposing quarterback or a punishing hit that stops a running back behind the line of scrimmage. The great thing about a solid defensive line is the way the linemen can work together to accomplish their objective. The best are able to "stunt"—or switch positions to confuse the offensive linemen—and to "gang tackle" or "bull rush" the running back in such a way that he'll think twice before attempting to run the ball through the line a second time. It's a team effort.

This second layer of defenders lines up just behind the defensive linemen. Their job is to guard against the pass and the run, and to generally mix things up and make things happen—so they've got a whole lot of ground to cover. If there are four players on the line, a team will run out three linebackers; if there are three linemen, there'll be four linebackers. The outside linebackers are positioned outside the guys in the middle—duh!—and just to keep up the symmetry, there are weak-side linebackers and strong-side linebackers; the strong-side linebacker lines up opposite the other team's tight end. Here again, quickness is key, because they've got to react to every imaginable scenario. For the most part, the middle linebackers focus on running plays, and the guys on the outside focus on passing plays—but they all focus on the ball.

Also known as the defensive backfield, the secondary is actually the third layer of defense, reinforcing the defense from the back. If you've been keeping score, you'll note there are four defensive positions still unaccounted for. Those final four spots are taken up in most formations by two cornerbacks, positioned behind the linebackers at either corner of the field, and the two safeties, who usually line up in the deepest part of the field to guard against the long pass. More than anyone else on the field, cornerbacks and safeties take tremendous pride in what they do, probably because they're exposed more than anyone else on the field. They're the last line of defense, and they mean business. And their butts are on the line every time the ball comes their way—or not, as the case may be. If a quarterback keeps throwing to one side of the field, it's because he doesn't think the defensive back assigned to that side of the field can cover his man; if he keeps throwing to the opposite side of the field, it's because he doesn't want to test a guy he knows to be at the top of his game. Plus, if a lineman or a linebacker misses his assignment, there are a half-dozen other guys playing behind or alongside him to help fill in the blanks. When a defensive back misses his mark, it usually means six points for the other guys, so this is a pressure-packed position.

Special Teams
As the term suggests, players on the special teams unit are on the field only for special circumstances. You'll want to know the difference between the punter and the placekicker. The punter is the guy who lines up on fourth down to receive the long snap from center, and then kicks the ball downfield in a change-of-possession. A top-tier punter can keep opponents on their heels all game long, pushing them deep into their own territory with his booming kicks. You want punts to have a long hang time (air time) and be able to travel a great distance. The placekicker is the guy who kicks the field goals and point-after-touchdown attempts and who kicks off from a tee to start each half and following each score. A top-tier placekicker makes it possible for his team to put points on the board from midfield and to keep scores close. On the decidedly not-tiny side, there's also a long-snapper, whose incredibly difficult and precise job it is to send the ball backwards through his legs to the punter, while managing to block the rushers on the receiving team. From time to time, you'll see a team's center double as the long-snapper; but for the most part the role is filled by a specialist, who spends most of his time at practice rifling the ball between his legs, trying to hit his mark.
Two other special teams players of note are the punt returner and kick-off returner, who are assigned the task of receiving the opposing team's kick and securing possession of the ball before attempting to move it up field. It's also one of the tougher assignments in the game. Typically, these guys are fast, with sure hands and an intrepid demeanor. A lot of times, teams will feature a wide receiver or a defensive back in this role. You have to be a little fearless to get under one of these booming kicks while 11 opponents thunder toward you like you have a bull's-eye on your jersey.

Touchdown (six points): This is the biggest way to score and is when the offensive team gets the ball inside the defensive team's end zone, located at the end of the field.

Extra point (one or two points): After a touchdown, the offense has a chance to score an extra point by kicking the ball through the goal posts from the two-yard line. They can also choose to try for two points instead, called the two-point conversion, by trying to run or throw the ball into the end zone. 
Field goal (three points): If the offensive team has made it a good way down the field but won't be able to make another first down or reach the end zone for a touchdown before having to give up the ball, they can try for a field goal, which is when they kick the ball through the goal posts just like they do for an extra point. Where the ball is kicked from on the field depends on where it was stopped — it can be close or far depending on how much the team has advanced up the field.

Time-outs give players a chance to hydrate, talk with coaches and regroup physically and mentally, but they're also important strategically. Each team is entitled to three time-outs per half. Generally, teams save their time-outs until the end of each half in case they are trying to score and want to stop the clock. Head coaches also call time-outs to avoid being charged with a penalty or to challenge a call by the officials. If the team loses the challenge, however, they also lose one time-out.
Holding 10-yard penalty or half the distance to the goal line when there are fewer than 20 yards between the line of scrimmage and the offense's end zone
When an offensive player illegally blocks a defensive player. 

Face Mask 15-yard penalty
When a defensive line member grabs an offensive player by the face mask, usually while attempting to make a tackle. 

Encroachment 5-yard penalty
Remember how you can’t cross the line of scrimmage before the snap? If a defensive player does it and touches an offensive player, it’s a penalty.

False start 5-yard penalty
An offensive player makes a movement before the snap.

Offside 5-yard penalty
A player (or any part of him, really) is beyond the line of scrimmage before the play starts.

Pass interference 15-yard penalty and an automatic first down for the offense
Here’s where it gets confusing. Yes, defensive players are supposed to prevent offensive players from getting the ball, but they can’t make contact with the receiver (the player who a pass is intended for) before the ball gets to him. That’s called pass interference, and it’s a foul. The defensive player can, however, touch the receiver after he touches the ball. The defensive player can also intercept the ball without touching the receiver.

Personal foul 15-yard penalty
If the foul is particularly nasty, a player can be ejected from the game.
Any action that appears to be done in order to intentionally harm another player (you can’t just punch each other, guys).

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