It’s that time of year again: When some Americans become utterly obsessed with watching a sport that to everyone else makes no sense whatsoever. We’re here to fight that confusion. What follows are 17 real, actual questions from football novices on the BuzzFeed staff, with answers by sports reporter and bona fide former college football player Joel Anderson.
1. What are “downs” and why do they matter?
Think of “downs” as opportunities for the team that has possession of the ball. A team gets four downs — four opportunities — to advance the ball 10 yards. Each opportunity ends when the player with the ball runs until he’s tackled by the opposing team’s defense. If the team with possession of the ball — the offense — advances those 10 yards, they get another four opportunities to again gain 10 yards. (A football field is 100 yards long in total.) Getting this new set of opportunities is called “getting a first down.” (The GIF above is Brandon Spikes of the New England Patriots indicating, via interpretive dance, that the Patriots have a first down.)
The offense’s hope is that, eventually, they will advance the ball all the way into the “end zone” for a “touchdown” (six points, plus the opportunity to either kick for an “extra point” or run the ball into the end zone again for a “two-point conversion”). The defense hopes to prevent the offense from advancing 10 yards. If that happens, the defending team becomes the offensive team, and vice versa.
(FYI: Teams use different sets of players on offense and defense, although this is a result of specialization, not an inherent rule of the game.)
(Also FYI: If the offense only has one down left — fourth down — and doesn’t like its chances of getting those 10 yards, it can “punt” the ball down the field so that its opponents have to start their downs further away from the end zone.)
2. Where should I be watching when the play starts?
Most television cameras follow the ball, and for good reason: Possession of the ball is paramount to success in the game.
The ball almost always starts in the hands of the center on the offensive line, who will “snap” it to the quarterback to begin a play. The quarterback will then either run with the ball himself, hand it to a nearby teammate — usually someone who plays the “running back” position — or throw it to someone. (Pass-catching specialists are called “wide receivers.”) From there, you’ll see members of the defense frantically rushing to bring down, or tackle, the person with the ball. Then they do it all over again.
3. Why are some of the guys significantly fatter than the other ones?
Diet and genetics? But seriously, folks: The “fatter” ones — players who indeed often weigh 300 pounds or more — generally play on the offensive and defensive “lines” of a football team. This means they start each play right next to the ball, arranged along the “line of scrimmage,” the theoretical line that divides defense from offense before the play starts. Think of offensive lineman as the bodyguards for the smaller, faster, more coordinated players on their team. (The offensive lineman in the center of the line, called the “center,” is responsible for snapping it to the quarterback.)
Defensive linemen are charged with trying to get past the offensive linemen across from them and then tackling whoever has the ball. Every football team that aspires to greatness needs their fair share of significantly fat guys; someone must engage in the dark arts away from the glory boys like quarterbacks and wide receivers. So when you hear coaches, players, and fans toss out clichés about toughness and dirty work, they’re usually talking about what those fat guys are doing.
Think of how much easier it’d be if we had a fat guy to help us cut in line at the Apple Store.
4. How come they never pass to the fat guys?
Football has lots of rules about which players are allowed to catch a pass. Uniform numbers generally make it clear which offensive players are eligible to catch a pass: anyone wearing the numbers 1–49 or 80–89. That leaves out numbers 50–79 and 90–99, which tend to be reserved for the aforementioned linemen. (Of course, like everything in football, there are some exceptions to numbering and pass-eligibility rules, which are not that interesting and rarely affect a game’s outcome.) Additionally, none of an offense’s five linemen are permitted to run down the field at all before a pass is thrown. But again, there are exceptions and, hey, football fans live for the faint hope of Fat Guy Touchdowns.
5. What is a “zone”?
In football, there are two basic ways to defend against passes: man-to-man and zone defenses. Man-to-man is fairly self-explanatory — a defender is assigned a specific player and then follows them all over the field. Zone, then, is a strategy that asks defenders to cover certain areas of the field. The zone defense usually requires that linebackers, who are generally stationed behind defensive linemen and only a few yards away from the line of scrimmage, cover short and mid-range areas of the field. The responsibilities of defensive backs, whose primary responsibility is defending against the pass, can differ depending on the particular zone coverage. Either way, the goal is to confuse quarterbacks and make them throw into an area that seems open but is in fact being patrolled by a defensive player.
6. Why do they keep stopping?
A bunch of reasons. For one, football is hard and the players need to break to recover. Teams also use stoppages to substitute players. Mostly, though, breaks in action allow officials to sort out some of the chaos going on around them. Were there any penalties on the previous play? Did anyone get injured? Officials’ jobs have only gotten more difficult in recent years as many offenses eschew huddles — a “huddle” is when the team gathers in a tight circle to strategize before each play — and rush to the line of scrimmage in an effort to confuse and tire out their opponents.
And the game moves fast on the field, even if it doesn’t always appear that way on TV, what with all the erectile dysfunction commercials. An offense has only 40 seconds from the end of a play until they must snap the ball again. If they fail to start a play on time, officials can call a 5-yard “delay of game” penalty (and as we established earlier, yards are a valuable resource in the game). So most offenses are moving quickly to start the next play.
7. When the quarterback yells, he’s yelling a code for the play, right? If they’ve already run that play, won’t the other team know they’re running it again if they hear the code?
Well, there’s a lot of complexity in those codes. They’re constantly changing, from week to week and even play to play, and some codes only mean something in combination with other codes, if that makes sense. And if an offensive coach or quarterback suspects that their opponents know what play is coming, they might call an “audible” — a new or substitute offensive play, announced via a different set of codes. (Yeah. It’s complicated. Peyton Manning makes it even more complicated by occasionally calling plays in Gaelic — see the video above.)
8. Do players ever forget what calls mean?
9. What is a blitz?
Like the German WWII strategy, a “blitz” is a concentration of force at high speed. Specifically, blitzing is a defensive strategy where an additional player or two (or three) are sent to outnumber the people protecting the quarterback. The hope is these extra defenders will find gaps in the offensive line before someone can account for and stop them. It’s been known to work from time to time.
10. Is anything being accomplished when they all just fall into a pile? Why don’t they just, like, throw it way far down the field each time?
Throwing it way down the field is hard and probably one of the least-efficient plays that a team can attempt. It’s a notoriously high-risk, high-reward strategy. (But damn it looks great when done right). Tim Tebow (heard of him?) threw deep more often than anyone else over a three-year period studied by Pro Football Focus. And he failed a lot, which is why he’s no longer in the league.
It’s probably worth noting that hardly anyone is actually just falling into a pile. What you’re more than likely witnessing is an offense that relies on running the ball. Or maybe you’re simply watching an offense that can’t get low-risk plays right either and is accomplishing virtually nothing.
11. How violent are they allowed to get? Like, they can ram into each other, but if they kick someone in the face, that’s bad, right?
Well, football is violent; it’s not a stretch to compare the game to a series of small car crashes. But face-kicking is bad and will almost assuredly earn an ejection and costly fine for the offender. In fact, for a game known primarily for its brutishness, there are quite a few penalties that aim to punish excessive violence among players. For example, it is forbidden to tackle or bring down a player by his facemask; tackle a player with the ball by grabbing the inside of his shoulder pads or jersey from behind and yanking him down; hit a player with the ball when he is already out of bounds; or jump on a player with the ball who has already been ruled down by officials. In recent years, players have started being penalized for ramming the helmet of another player with their own helmet — referred to commonly as “helmet-to-helmet” or “targeting” penalties. These new rules were put in place in light of revelations about the potential for long-term damage from concussions and other traumatic brain injuries.
Additionally, there are “roughing” penalties: Players are not permitted to tackle a passer after he has already thrown the ball, nor tackle, hit, or run into a kicker after he has already kicked the ball. All of which is to say, the violence in the game is and has been heavily policed over the decades. Football authorities would like to make hits like this — which didn’t draw a penalty when it happened — a thing of the past.
12. How do some spectators seem to know what the penalty was even before the ref has said it? Are they like watching every single thing every person is doing?
First, referees are generally trained to throw their yellow penalty flags in the direction of an infraction. And certain penalties tend to occur in certain areas of the field. For example, if a defensive player commits pass interference — making premature contact with the intended receiver while the ball is in flight — officials will often throw their flag right at the spot where the receiver is standing, and fans are usually safe to assume an interference penalty has been called.
Second, players can often hear the officials discussing the call among themselves before they announce it to the crowd. Their reactions will often give you a hint as to what happened — an offensive lineman who waves his arms in disgust might be about to be penalized for illegally grabbing a defender’s jersey, or “holding.” Also, the players are usually making the same mistakes over and over again. It gets easier to figure out where things went wrong after a while.
13. Why are there, like, 18 coaches for every team?
Each position on the team — if we’re talking about college or professional football — gets a specialized coach. So let’s break it down: a coach for each of the nine traditional football position groups, overall coordinators for offense and defense, and a head coach. That’s 12. Some positions have more than one coach, some teams have co-coordinators, some teams have a special teams coordinator. You might think it odd that professionals — presumably the best-trained and most experienced and highly skilled players at this particular sport on Earth — would need so many coaches, but those billions of NFL dollars have to be spent on something. Blame it on the football-industrial complex.
14. What do “special teams” do?
Sometimes, not a damn thing. Special teams are the units that come onto the field during kicking plays, which are relatively rare. In addition to the aforementioned punting on fourth down, teams can also try to score 3 points by kicking the ball through the upright goals at the back of the end zone. Teams also “kick off” to their opponents at the beginning of each half, and after any score.
15. Why do some of them wear fanny packs?
Otherwise known as “hand warmers,” these actually serve a purpose for a small number of players. Those players are usually quarterbacks and receivers — people for whom handling the football is the most important part of their role — and it’s to keep their hands warm in the cold and dry in the rain.
As of this fall, by the way, the only people wearing fanny packs in NFL stadiums are the players. Thankfully.
16. What precisely does a “tight end” do?
Almost anything you want, if his coach has some imagination. Does Vernon Davis (above) seem like the sort of man who accepts limitation? The literal answer: Tight ends are players who specialize in receiving and blocking. They’re big, but they’re also fast. And they have chips on their shoulders from all the people making fun of them for playing a position called “tight end.”