What the Rest of the Universe Needs to Know about American Football

In the United States we have a sports game that we call football. The rest of the world probably calls it slow ball. The rest of the world has a game they call football that they feel is superior to American football probably because it resembles actual conflict and requires constant activity on the part of the sports persons playing it. In both football and American football, the purpose is to advance a token into the opposing team’s goal. While the rules for football are clear, nobody waits for anybody else to get set for the slaughter, and the token (called a soccer ball by Americans and a football by everybody else) never stops being shoved toward one goal or the other.

In American football, on the other hand, waiting to prepare for slaughter is part of the game. Each side gets “possession” of the game token, called a football, in turn. When a team possesses the token, they are called the offense. The team that does not possess the token is called the defense. Each team has one set of specialists who play defense and a set of specialists who play offense. There are generally two phases to American football: the planning phase and the activity phase.

The offense gets to take up to forty-five seconds after every move to plan the next move. This is the planning phase. There are approximately 40 to 50 of these planning phases during a game. The defense uses the time to try to figure out the tactics the offense might be planning. Spectators use this time to buy beer and hot dogs and make noise. The token uses this time to wait passively between the defense and offense, probably happy it is a token in American football rather than football. It is probably happy because in American football it doesn’t knocked around during the planning phase.

Near the end of the planning phase, the offense lines up on one side of the token and the defense lines up on the other side of the token. A leader on the offense, called—for whatever archaic reason—the quarterback, takes charge and begins to bark out nonsense code. These barks signal changes the plan if he quarterback thinks a new plan might be more successful than the planned plan. The barks also signal alternatives for preventing the defense from preventing the offense from executing their plan whether as originally planned or as changed. There is also a pre-decided bark that means, “Let’s do this.”

This starts the activity phase. When the quarterback barks the “let’s do this” bark, an offensive player in the middle of the offensive line tosses him the token by “hiking” it between his legs. Since the quarter back is behind most of the rest of the offense, this is a backward move. But it has the strict tactical purpose of putting the token in the trained hands of the quarterback. Depending on the plan made and modified during the planning phase, the quarterback usually hands the token to or tosses it to another offensive player, who then tries to shove it toward the defense’s goal. The defense’s goal is anywhere from one to one-hundred yards (roughly 91.44 meters) away—depending on how far each activity phase has managed to advance the token. The defense shoves back to prevent advancement of the token and a major score.

When the offensive player with the ball is knocked down, everybody is supposed to stop shoving. Usually they do, and everything goes into the next planning phase. (Things get complex here, because “usually” is a civilized word; and football and even American football is about testing the boundaries of civilization to please spectators. No need to go into when things are not “usually” right now.)

The offense gets four opportunities to move the token at least ten yards (9.144 meters) of the one hundred yards (91.44 meters) to the defense’s goal. If they don’t advance at least the ten yards, the token is turned over to the opposition. Usually the offense uses the forth try to make a minor goal or to get the token as close to the defense’s goal as possible. They do either of these things by kicking the token.

To score a minor goal requires a different set of skills than just kicking the token as close to the defense’s goal as possible. To explain it all would take more tedious pages than most initiates would care to read. So. . . .

Turns changes from one team to another occur on one of three circumstances

  1. Score. The offense has actually managed to cross the defense’s goal by advancing the token the full 100 yards (91.44 meters) and shoving it across or kicking it between the goalposts. When this happens the two teams change status. The offense becomes the “kicking team” and the defense becomes the “receiving team.” This status is temporary. The kicking team takes the token back to a place near their end of the playing field and places it on holder that serves the same purpose as a golf tee in the sports game of golf. It holds the token until a person with special kicking skills can kick it toward the receiving team’s end of the field. The kicking person kicks the token. It is caught or not caught by a receiving team person who then tries to advance it back toward the receiving team. The receiving team then becomes the offense. The kicking team becomes the defense. The next planning phase begins.
  2. Screw up by the offense. As noted, if the offense cannot advance the token 10 yards in four tries they give it up to their opponent. They usually do this by using the fourth try to advance the token by kicking it as far toward the opposing team’s goal as possible. On giving up the ball, the offense becomes the defense and the defense becomes the offense. And the next planning phase begins.
  3. Theft. The defense can force a change of possession and take over the turns by stealing the token. There are several ways this happens:
    1. An offensive player accidentally tosses the token so that it ends up in the hands of a defensive player.
    2. An offensive player loses grasp of the token (fumbles) and a defensive player picks it up.
    3. A defensive player takes the token from the grasp of the offensive player possessing it.

There are a few minor and major variations on these three ways of changing whose turn it is to be on offense. But nothing we need to concern ourselves with now.

As with football, American football is a timed event consisting of two thirty minute halves, which are subdivided into two fifteen minute quarters each. One team gets to start as the offensive team at the beginning of the first half. The other team starts as the offensive team in the second half.

I hope this offers some clarity on American football. Which is as different from football as Hockey is different from Curling.

5 thoughts on “What the Rest of the Universe Needs to Know about American Football

  1. Thank you. I watch NFL when it is on Australian TV. With so many breaks it makes it easier for those “portly” gentlemen to play. I still wonder why scoring is called a touchdown when the the ball is never touched down like it is with Rugby League which is called a Try. I don’t know why either as they perhaps try to get the ball down over the line. It should be called a success.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, apparently it was originally called a touch down because the token was touched to the ground behind the defese’s goal.

      Here’s the OED definition:

      noun. m19.
      [ORIGIN: from touch down s.v. touch verb.]
      1. Rugby & Amer. Football. An act of touching the ground behind the opposing side’s goal with the ball while it is held in the hands, to score points. Also (Amer. Football), a score made by carrying or passing the ball into the end zone of the opposing side. m19.
      2. Aeronautics. The action or an act of making contact with the ground during landing. m20.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for clearing that up. You didn’t mention AFL – Australian Football League – AKA Aussie Rules. Doesn’t resemble Football (Soccer) in any way at all, but still called Football or footy. It’s a minefield.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. American football is popular in Mexico, and there are leagues at high school and college levels. I was just thinking about the big Thanksgiving games coming up next month; I have always thought of this sport as chess on the field.

    Liked by 1 person

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