Football FAQs for Non-Americans

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Q. Why do Americans find the SuperBowl so important?

We needed a new national holiday.

We’re a nation of mutts. We have no deep rooted cultural or ethnic affinities like most other nations. We have to make up other things to serve the same purpose. The old holidays don’t quite cut it anymore, and for this day and age, this is the best we can come up with.

It may seem silly, but consider the typical national holiday. It usually has something to do with war, past, present and/or future. Do you really want us thinking about war a lot?

Q. Why do Americans play sports that no one else in the world play?

We demand more action and results from that action in our sports than most.

The rest of the world can watch a soccer match for two hours, see a 0-0 tie, and say, “What a great game!”

To Americans, nothing happened. Nobody won. Waste of time for everybody.

Shallow? I wouldn’t disagree. Not trying to tell you our way is better, just telling you what our way is.

We want action. We want intense action. We want that action to mean something, and “something” means adding to the score, and fairly often. We demand winners and losers; we hate ties.

We may yell “De-fense” at a game, but defense is something you do to other people to win, not something to be enjoyed for its own sake.

Q. Why don’t Americans watch real football (aka soccer) like everyone else?

Soccer is practically the antithesis of what Americans want from sport. You’re less concerned about putting points on the board than keeping your opponent from doing it. Ties are common, often desirable. It’s an act of mutual frustration; lots of running around, little results (this is also why soccer on skates, aka hockey, is a minor sport in America. The intensity is fine; the results aren’t).

If your team scores once for every twenty times you go on the attack in soccer, the average soccer fan is pretty happy. The average American is fast asleep.

Soccer may be great for aerobic exercise, but it’s terrible for intense action. Players have to pace themselves, and pacing means mediocre action.

Soccer can be played by reasonably normal people: skilled, fit, but still normal. You can only expect normal action from normal people.

American football, on the other hand, fits American expectations almost ideally. You get short, comprehensible burst of intense action that begin and end. The two teams score five-ten times in an average game. The rules reward offensive success, so long as you meet certain objectives in a limited amount of tries, you get to keep going until either you score or you fail.

You can comeback more easily from being behind in football than you can in soccer. You can be down a touchdown in football with five minutes left, and it’s no big deal; be down two, and it’s still doable. Be down a goal in soccer with five minutes left, and you got problems, be down two, and you’re dead.

Football rewards action as Americans define it. Soccer thwarts it. Both are sports, they just have much different objectives and goals.

A number of years ago, the British newsmagazine The Economist, editorially decried the excessively defensive nature of soccer, and expressed the hope that someday, Americans would apply their principles of sport (I recall using seven-foot-tall players for headers) to the game. This has not yet happened, but give us a few decades. 🙂

Q. Any game that requires its players to wear modern day suits of armor is a sissy sport. A real man’s sport is rugby.

OK, I’ll bring a bunch of sissies who are six foot eight and two hundred and seventy pounds who can run a forty yard dash in 4.7 seconds or less to your rugby field to play your comparatively tiny and slow men. Whom do you think is going to get carried off first?

You’ll say, “Rugby is played by normal people, not genetic mutants.” Exactly. You can only get an abnormal level of action from abnormal people: faster, harder-hitting action in sports where being bigger, faster, stronger enhance the necessary tactical skills, not impede them.

However, the genetic mutations haven’t quite extended to bones and cartilage and ligaments yet. More force, more speed, same bones. Playing football at this intense level without equipment wouldn’t be a sport, it would be a human demolitions derby. Hence the need for equipment, due to physics, not feebleness.

Q. You play soccer for ninety straight minutes; your players would drop dead if they had to do that.

True, but your soccer players would be heading graveside just as fast if they had to play like football players.

Soccer is a marathon; football is a series of short sprints.

Q. What you’re talking about doesn’t sound much like baseball, the American national pasttime.

True. That’s why it’s not the national pasttime anymore, and continues to drop.

Q. Soccer requires more skill than any sport that requires you to use your hands.

Unlike soccer, American sports acknowledges recent human evolutionary trends and benefits from the advantages of using hands with opposable thumbs. If you find these advantages dubious, try picking up a bat and hitting a baseball thrown at a hundred miles an hour with just your feet. It would also greatly limit the practice of the slamdunk in basketball.

Hand use is allowed in other non-American sports. Cricket is often cited, but Formula One is often overlooked.

Q. OK, I comprehend the American attitude. Why should I watch the Super Bowl?

The only reasons I can think of is either you like action, too, or you want to figure out what makes Americans tick. Either way, you’ve come to the right place.

Q. Anyway, to the Super Bowl. I thought this was supposed to be a titanic defensive struggle?

By American standards, it will be. The two teams will probably score only three-six times during the game. By soccer standards, that’s an offensive orgy. There’s no way the Giants and Ravens will play the game and end up 0-0.

(Should that happen, or the game otherwise ends in a tie, the teams keep playing until someone scores (sudden death overtime). No equal time here. The game ends the moment someone scores. If one team wins a coin toss, gets the ball, and scores, game over. Other team doesn’t get a chance to match it.)

Q. What are the basic rules?

The game is played on a rectangular field, 360 feet long and 160 feet wide. 300 of those 360 feet constitute the playing field; two thirty foot strips at either end of the playing field are called end zones. There is also a fairly narrow forked pole called the goal post located in the end zones.

The object of the game is to score more points than your opponent.

The two major ways to score are to either

1) advance the ball into the other side’s end zone by having someone run with the ball, or by having one member of the team throw the ball to another member of the team (touchdown) or

2) having a player kick the ball from somewhere on the playing field through the forked goal post (field goal).

You get six points for a touchdown (with a chance of getting one more immediately afterward) and three points for a field goal.

The game starts by one side kicking the ball to the other side (kickoff). They catch it and run with it until stopped. You stop someone during a kickoff or during an offensive play by either knocking them to the ground (tackling) or by pushing them off the playing field (out-of-bounds) After that, they get four tries (plays) to advance ten yards.

A play starts when the player initially responsible to the ball (center), hands the ball through his legs to another player (quarterback).

The quarterback then does one of two things. He can try to advance the ball by running with it himself (scrambling) or (usually) by giving it (handing off) to yet another player (usually a running back) to do the same (running). Or he (usually) can throw it to certain other members of the team who are allowed to run up the field (either a running back, a tight end, or a wide receiver).

If they manage to gain ten yards in four tries or less, they get another four chances to go another ten yards (getting a first down). This goes on until the team scores, or they run out of chances to get ten yards.

Teams usually don’t use all their four chances, because if they do and don’t get the ten yards, the other team gets the ball wherever the team ended up.

They usually use three of their four tries. If they haven’t gotten ten yards, and they are far away (usually more than forty yards) from the opponent’s end zone, they admit failure, and kick the ball (punt) back away from the end zone they are defending to make their opponent have to go much farther to score.

If they fail after three tries, and they are within forty yards of the opponent’s end zone, they will usually attempt a field goal. If they fail to kick the ball through the forked goal post (uprights), the opponent gets the ball just as if they had tried four times to get ten yards.

A team can lose the ball during their four tries one of two ways. If they try to run with the ball, and the person holding the ball lets go of it (fumble), the other team can grab the ball, and it becomes theirs.

The other way is when the person (almost always the quarterback) tries to throw the ball to another team member, and a member of the other team catches it (interception) before it drops to the ground. If the quarterback throws the ball, and nobody catches it before it hits the ground (incomplete pass), there is no gain or loss on the play.

You now know enough about American football to understand what is going on at least half the time.

Q. Running, passing, kicking, it’s very confusing, isn’t it?

Not really. If you have the ball, you either run or pass with it. When you run out of chances, you kick it.

Q. What are penalties?

Penalties are imposed when you break a rule. This usually means you lose yardage and/or tries with the ball.

Q. What rules? It seems to me this is organized assault!

Well, if you start assaulting before the play starts, that’s a penalty called “offsides.”

There are certain types of assaults that are not allowed, not too many, but a few.

Don’t expect to know all these, most of us don’t either. If the referee calls it, it’s a penalty. On certain special occasions, a team that doesn’t like the call can challenge it, and have somebody else review it on video tape, but 99% of the time, what the ref says goes.

There’s a few judgment calls, too, like “roughing the passer,” “unnecessary roughness,” and “unsportsmanlike conduct.” Generally, if the violence is reasonably necessary to stop somebody from advancing any further, that’s OK. If it is unnecessary or useless for that purpose, it is not.

Q. What is “pass interference”?

Pass interference occurs when somebody physically touches someone downfield in an attempt to prevent somebody else from catching the ball before he has a chance to catch it.

Q. I just saw somebody getting smashed while he was in mid-air trying to catch the ball! If that’s not pass interference, what do you call that?

A great play. 🙂

Seriously, the key word in pass interference is “before.” If the person has just caught/is catching the ball, then it’s OK to whack him. Not before.

Q. What’s the big difference?

It’s easy to impede somebody from catching a football. If that were allowed, there’d be much less passing action. Much harder to whack him at the moment he’s catching the ball. That promotes action.

Q. Why does it take fifteen minutes to play the last two minutes of each half?

A terrible thing happens at the end of each half. There is a cessation of action. About fifteen minutes after the first half, about a week after the end of most football games, and about seven months after the end of the Super Bowl.

To try to keep the fans from feeling too deprived during these absences, there is a flurry of activity at the end of each half to tide them over, especially if the team losing has the ball.

To do this, football teams do a number of things, including slow down time. Not real time, of course, but official time.

Football teams get three timeouts a half. They usually save them for the end of the half.

Unlike soccer, where official time only stops when the referees have to do something, official time always stops after an incomplete pass (it keeps running after a running play). It also stops when a person carrying the ball is forced out of bounds.

Sometimes, a team will deliberately throw an incomplete pass or a player will run out of bounds just to stop official time, but with one exception (which involves the quarterback taking the very strange action of getting the ball and immediately throwing it into the ground), it can’t be too obvious (like throwing the ball deep into the stands), or a penalty called “intentional grounding” is called.

Between the timeouts called by the team and incomplete passes/running out of bounds, two minutes of official time can easily be stretched to fifteen or more minutes of real time.

Teams that are ahead and have the football, on the other hand, try to make official time pass as quickly as possible, at best to keep the ball away from the other team until the game is over, at worst to minimize the remaining time the other team has to score and to make the other time use up their timeouts.

So they’ll run the ball a lot, and stay in bounds. They also won’t start a new play until the last possible moment. This usually takes about forty-five seconds off the clock for each running play.

Q. I’ve watched Superbowl halftime before. I’ve seen military jets flying around and some pretty jingoistic language being used.

1. See the answer to question one.

2. The Armed Forces can’t afford SuperBowl advertising rates. 🙂

3. It doesn’t matter. Millions of Americans are too busy going to the bathroom to pay any attention (water pressure actually plummets during SuperBowl halftime). Most of the rest are finding more stuff to shove in their faces.

Q. Why does the President of the United States call the winning team?

How many things can the President of the United States do before over a hundred million Americans that won’t make at least a quarter of them mad? 🙂

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