American Football is perhaps the most popular sport...in America. This guide intends to inform you about your favorite Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday (and occasionally Tuesday and Wednesday) pastime, assuming you live in America. If you'd like to know more about college football, then please check out the corresponding notes page.
High school, college, and professional football
Alright, so first off, there are three major tiers of football: high-school football, college football, and professional football (the National Football League). High schools draw players from their general student bodies. During their senior years, especially talented high-school football players sign letters of intent to play for various college programs. This is known as National Signing Day, and is a big event for college television networks such as ESPNU. College players must be enrolled and take classes at the college in question; they can be granted scholarships but not directly paid. After their collegiate career is completed (and they've proven themselves on field), then they'll usually declare for the NFL Draft, which occurs early in April.
High schools usually play football on Saturday afternoons or Friday evenings (hence Friday Night Lights) during the fall semester, and are governed by state-level athletic associations. They are divided into tiers based on school size and athletic program quality, and sometimes into regional divisions as well. There may be separate organizations for public and private schools, or they may all play together; there may be a statewide championship tournament or only regional titles within a state, with any championship game usually played at either the state's largest university stadium, a professional stadium or whichever adequately large stadium is most centrally located. There is no national high school football championship; there are altogether too many high schools for this to work, and besides, all but a few high schoolers are minors for whom such travel would be, if not illegal, then certainly extremely difficult to manage (Robotics competitions manage to do it, though - Nerds Love Tough Paperwork?). Unofficial championships are given out by media organizations such as USA Today or sites devoted solely to high school sports via polling, but are subject to opinion. Despite high school football being organized on a state basis, there are sometimes individual cross-state games during a regular season, and a high school located near a state border might even have an established rivalry with a school in the neighboring state. These are very much the exception, though, and can be complicated by the fact that different states have slight differences in the rules.
The most talented high school athletes are offered scholarships to play football at the various universities that play football. Unlike the other major American sports leagues, the NFL will not allow a player to participate in the Draft or sign with a team until he's been out of high school for at least three years (more in some cases) or earned a degree from a recognized university. As a result, college teams are the primary method of training and refining young players, and teenage hotshots are exceedingly rare.
There are numerous tiers of Collegiate football, called 'divisions', stretching across two organizations. There are at least 5 recognized national championship systems. The top division of the National Collegiate Athletic Association is split into two separate subdivisions, called Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). Generally, FBS teams are regarded as 'college football' in the United States, and are the highest tier.
The FBS is split into numerous 'conferences' which are equivalent to leagues in their own right, crowning their own champions. These are subdivided into two types:
"Big Five" or "Power Five" — The richest and most competitive leagues—the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-12 (Pac-12), and Southeastern Conference (SEC). The University of Notre Dame is also counted among the "Big Five". Although it is not a member of any football conference, it is an ACC member in other sports, and has an agreement to play five of its 12 regular-season games against other ACC schools. These conferences receive automatic spots in the so-called "access bowls", the top tier of bowl games associated with the College Football Playoff (CFP) that begins in 2014. Notre Dame does not have an automatic spot in any access bowl, much less the CFP, but does get special consideration (namely, being part of the shortlist for one of the access bowls).
"Group of Five" (also called "mid-majors") — The other five FBS conferences: the American Athletic Conference (The American), Conference USA (C-USA), Mid-American Conference (MAC), Mountain West, and Sun Belt.
The CFP is a four-team tournament whose participants are chosen by a 13-member selection committee (oddly, twice as large as the one that selects the 68 team playoff for college basketball). It and the "access bowls" are replacing the former Bowl Championship Series (BCS), which operated from 1998 to 2013. Six bowl games will rotate CFP semifinal games on a three-year cycle, with the following pairings: Rose Bowl/Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl/Cotton Bowl, and Fiesta Bowl/Peach Bowl.
In seasons when an "access bowl" is not hosting a national semifinal game, the highest-ranked teams not involved in the CFP will go to the following bowls:
The top Big 12 and SEC teams go to the Sugar Bowl.note In the BCS era, the Big 12 was tied to the Fiesta Bowl. The SEC has a decades-long link with the Sugar Bowl.
The top ACC team goes to the Orange Bowl. The second Orange Bowl berth will go the second-best available team from the SEC or Big Ten, or Notre Dame.
The top Big 10 and Pac-12 teams go to the most prestigious regular bowl, the Rose Bowl.
The participants in the other three "access bowls" (Cotton, Fiesta, Peach) are based on rankings by the CFP selection committee. One spot in these games is reserved for the highest-ranked champion of a "Group of Five" conference.
The final CFP game is the College Football Championship Game, featuring the winners of the two semifinal games, whose winner is declared national champion by everyone... except the NCAA itself. Even though the NCAA lists claimed football national championships in its record books, it has never awarded an official national championship in FBS or its predecessors. Since the TV deal has been signed through the 2025 season, it will be a while until the possibility of expanding the playoff to 8 or 16 teams is considered.
In terms of TV, a football game equals guaranteed high ratings. Any professional football game is almost guaranteed to be the most-watched program of the day, and the Super Bowl almost always is the most-watched program of the year. Several Super Bowls are among the highest-rated programs of all time, and Super Bowl XLIV unseated the series finale of Mash as the most-watched program in American history.note ...and was itself unseated by Super Bowl XLV the following year.
But enough organizational stuff. Here's the rules and positions.
Rules of play
Football is played on a rectangular field of 120 yards note A yard is exactly .9144 meters for you metric folks in length (marked by end lines) and 53.3 yards in width (marked by sidelines). Obviously, anything happening outside of this boxed area is considered to be out-of-bounds. Less obviously, and in contrast to association football/soccer, on the line is out of bounds. The first 10 yards of field measured from either end line are the end zones, their boundaries marked by goal lines. These are the primary scoring areas during a game, and are legally in-bounds for plays. The remainder of the field is divided by marked yard lines that run the entire width of the field. Yard lines are placed in 5-yard increments, and each 10 yard mark is visibly numbered up to the 50-yard line, which denotes the middle of the field. Smaller rows of 2' long markings known as hash marks are placed just inside the sidelines to denote each individual yard on the field for more precise measuring. A second set of hash marks also appears inside each sideline to denote the area of the field where the ball can be placed before play commences.note The distance from the sideline to the nearest set of hashmarks differs according to the level of play. In high school football, the distance is exactly 53 feet, 4 inches, which means that the hash marks divide the field into thirds. In college football, the distance is 60 feet. In the NFL, the distance is exactly 70 feet, 9 inches; putting it another way, the hash marks are precisely in line with the goal posts. Since all these field markings tend to create a lattice-like appearance, a football field is colloquially known as the "Gridiron".note In the early years of American football, the field was marked into small rectangles, making the "gridiron" analogy even more apparent. See this diagram◊, copied from a 1905 book on the sport. The goalposts, upright goals that figure into certain scoring plays described below, are placed on the end lines at the back of each end zone. On the professional level, the goal posts are 18 feet 6 inches (5.64 m) apart and connected by a lower crossbar that stands 10 feet (3.05 m) off the ground.
When a team has the ball they are given four tries, called "downs," to move the ball ten yards towards the end zone (goal) they're facing. If that team can do so in four downs or less, then they get another four downs to move the ball another ten yards. If not, the other team gets possession of the ball from the spot the final play ended at. If less than 10 yards remain to the goal, the team with the ball must score or they will likewise lose possession. Most of the time, if a team reaches fourth down and has yet to move the ball ten yards and get a new first down (also referred to as "converting"), that team will opt to kick the ball as far downfield as possible (called a "punt") so that the opposing team will have further to travel in order to score on their ensuing possession or attempt a field goal (three points) if they are close enough. note The team also has the option of attempting to gain the necessary yardage on the fourth down. This is known as "going for it." However, as this risks the other team gaining an advantage if you fail, it's usually not done unless the situation is especially desperate. If the team with the ball can put the ball into the end zone (with one of their players in possession of it), they have scored a touchdown and are awarded six points. Most of the action of a football game consists of trying to score touchdowns. The ball itself only has to partially pass over a yard mark or goal line while in the possession of a player to be counted as a score or a conversion; this is referred to as the ball 'breaking the plane' of the line in question. As a general rule: forward advancement is marked where the ball is located, whereas determining play laterally is based on the body of the player possessing the ball. A player doesn't have to be in the endzone at all for a touchdown, just in possession of the ball as it's breaking the plane of the goal-line. Whereas a player is out-of-bounds once he steps over a marked sideline, it doesn't matter where the ball was located.
Each football team consists of anywhere from 40 to 70 players, depending on the level of competition. At any given time, 11 of these players are on the field. The team that is trying to score is the offense. The team that is trying to keep the offense from scoring is the defense. Unlike some other sports, American football allows players to be substituted in and out of the game freely, but only between plays. This means that most players play only on offense or only on defense and some may only see a handful of special-situation plays per game.
The length of quarters and overtime format differ depending on level, but typically a football game consists of four fifteen-minute quarters with an option for an extra quarter of sudden-death overtime if both teams are tied at the end of regulation. Excepting playoff games, a tie is possible if neither team scores during overtime, but this is rare.note Even some of the players didn't know this was possible when the most recent tie games were played in 2008, 2012, and 2013, probably owing to vastly different overtime rules for college football, where most NFL players come from. The game clock in football is an interesting object unto itself: if a play ends on an incomplete pass, with a player running out of bounds, a penalty, or a turnover, the clock will stop. If a play ends with a player being tackled inbounds, then the clock continues running. Each team also gets three timeouts per half. There are other times the game clock will stop, depending on level of competition, sanctioning body, and television considerations, but they are too numerous and complicated to explain here. Suffice it to say that "clock management" is a vital part of football strategy. There are numerous ways that teams will try to run off as much clock time as they can when they hold the lead or conversely stop the clock to get more time if they are behind. To add to the complexity, there is also a "play clock" in effect, the offensive team has a set amount of time after their last play has ended to start their next one. On the professional level, teams have 40 seconds timed from the end of the previous play, or 25 seconds after the ball is declared ready for play by officials. Letting the play clock run out will result in a delay of game penalty. It is important to note that this is why American football games, even though they only have an hour of play per game, tend to actually last for 2-3 hours.
When games are broadcast on television, a 3-hour block of time is customarily allocated to allow for the various delays. Sometimes, when a game is particularly hard-fought, and especially when one team is trying to slow down the game clock as much as possible to buy time, the game can even run over 3 hours in "regulation" (the basic 60-minute period). This can occasionally cause problems when the game is broadcast on TV; in one infamous incident in 1968, NBC cut away from an American Football League rivalry game between the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets at the end of the three-hour block to run a children's movie ("Heidi"), notwithstanding that the game was still in progress.note Today this sounds like a stupid reason to pre-empt a football game, but it was a different time. Football was still something of a niche sport, while "Heidi" was a major ratings draw for NBC. The network aired "Heidi" just once a year; since there were three channels and no such thing as home video, families had planned their evening around the film, because this was their only chance to see it all year. The Raiders scored two touchdowns in the final minute to earn the victory, but viewers in the eastern half of the country were left in the dark. The resulting uproar from enraged football fans, which would put many instances of Internet Backdraft to shame, resulted in new policies being adopted. Nowadays, a network will never cut away from a game before it is finished. Unless a major breaking-news event like an assassination or a war beginning happens, TV viewers will see the entire game. (We've since learned that fans watching the "Heidi Game", anticipating that the game could be interrupted, called NBC en masse before the movie was due to start. NBC executives felt likewise and made a late decision to postpone the film, but couldn't contact the broadcast control room to deliver their orders because fans had jammed the phone lines.)
On offense, there are two options, run and pass. Running plays involve the quarterback running or delivering the ball to one of the five eligible receivers without throwing the ball forward, with the intent to move the ball forward. Passing plays involve the quarterback throwing forward to one of the five eligible receivers. Note that a forward pass can be caught behind the line of scrimmage as long as the ball moved forward from the passer's current position, and that a handoff or pitch can be completed in front of the line of scrimmage as long as the ball moves laterally or backwards. Attempting to throw or hand the ball forward from beyond the line of scrimmage is illegal, as is throwing the ball forward more than once per down, or the defense throwing the ball forward for any reason. Backward and lateral passes, however, are always legal.
The typical ways to score are (see the terms section below for further details)
Touchdown: The primary form of scoring in football. Occurs when a team advances the ball beyond its opponent's goal line. They are worth 6 points.
PAT or Conversion Attempt: After scoring a touchdown, the scoring team is given the opportunity to score more points. The ball is placed two or three yards from the defending team's goal line and the scoring team attempts one of two possible plays.
Point After Touchdown, or PAT: Attempt a placekick or dropkicknote dropping the ball to the ground and kicking it after it has touched the ground, but don't be surprised if you've never seen a dropkick PAT attempted; the technique fell into disuse decades ago through the upright goal at the back of the endzone for one extra point. As such, it's often simply called "the extra point". The defense will attempt to block the PAT kick, but it is extremely difficult to do so. It is also possible for the kicker to miss the PAT, but due to the very short range required, this is likewise infrequent. Teams will opt for a PAT kick the vast majority of the time, thus a "touchdown" usually entails scoring 7 points total.
Two-point conversion: Make a single offensive play 3 yards away from the endzone. Reaching the endzone gives another two points (for a total of 8). note In the event of a turnover, the play ends in the NFL. In college, the defender can score two points for his team if he carries it ALL the way back to the other end zone. Very rare—it requires a fumble or an interception followed by a roughly 100 yard dash, carrying the ball with 11 angry men in pursuit. Although some teams have very high two-point conversion success rates, the general success rate is 40-55%, compared to the PAT's success rate of 98-99%. As a result, teams rarely try for a two-point conversion, unless they are coming back from a large deficit, they can gain some strategic advantage late in the game, or they want to go for a win in regulation. At the high school level and below, the two-point conversion is more common, because some teams simply don't have anybody who can kick with even marginal accuracy. It's basically unheard of for any college team, and completely unheard of for any professional team, to lack a kicker who can reliably kick the PAT.
Field Goal: Kick the ball through the upright goal placed past the opponent's end-zone for 3 points. Used instead of a punt if the team thinks they're close enough to make it (or desperate).note The longest successful Field Goal in professional football is 64 yards, by Matt Prater of the Denver Broncos. This is generally considered outside the range of the average kicker, making it quite a feat. The ball can touch any part of the 2 uprights and lower crossbar that form the goalpost on a field goal kick, as long as it passes over and through them before hitting the ground. Like a PAT kick, the defense will contest the kick (attempt to block it), and it can be caught on the fly or recovered like a live fumble if it is blocked backwards at the line of scrimmage. Unlike a punt, a missed field goal gives the opponents the ball from the spot of the kick, making it risky at long range. Another consideration is that long field goals that don't leave the field of play can be returned like punts.
Although exceedingly rare, it is also possible to score a field goal during any play by dropkick as well. Due to football's rules of possession, however, it is generally tactically unsound to use this technique. Additionally, the shape of the ball itself makes this much more difficult than in rugby where the drop kick rules originated.
Also exceedingly rare, a field goal can be opted for from the spot of a fair catch on a punt, which is called a "fair catch kick". Line-up rules are similar to a "free kick" (see safety below), but someone can hold the ball like a field goal or PAT attempt. This rule exists in the NFL (where it hasn't succeeded since 1976, and has only been attempted seven times since then) and high school, but not in college.
Safety: A somewhat rare but humiliating situation where an offensive player has possession of the ball in his own end zone and is either tackled, steps out-of-bounds, accidentally or purposefully hikes the ball past the back line of the end zone (this happened to Peyton Manning when his center hiked the ball too high on the opening play of Super Bowl XLVIII), or another offensive player commits a penalty while trying to prevent either from happening. The defensive team scores 2 points and gets the ball (the safetied team kicks the ball to them).note This situation is technically called a "free kick", as is the kickoff after a touchdown or field goal. However, the free kick following a safety has one major difference from other free kicks. After a touchdown or field goal, the ball must be kicked off a tee (sometimes, if winds are high enough, another player will have to hold the ball on the tee). After a safety, the kicker may either kick from a tee or punt, beginning with the ball in his hands. Most free kicks after safeties are punts because their higher trajectory allows better coverage for the kicking team.
Note to fans of The Beautiful Game: This is basically the same thing as an own goal, only not quite as humiliating. Except when it's an accidental safety (as in the quarterback steps out of bounds in the end zone on his own rather than being tackled or forced out by the defense; Dan Orlovsky infamously did this while playing for the Detroit Lions in their 0-16 2008 season, in a game that was ultimately lost by 2 points); that is as humiliating as an own goal.
In certain rare situations, a team may intentionally allow a safety to be scored. This may be done for a variety of reasons:
To gain field position (by kicking off from the 20 yard line rather than punting from the end zone),
To manage the game clock (by running out the last few seconds of the game, as happened in Super Bowl XLVII), or
To prevent something worse from happening (the offense loses control of the ball in its own end zone, then downs the ball or swats it out of bounds to prevent the defense from taking possession and scoring a touchdown)
However, safeties are more often the result of an offensive failure or a player getting confused and running the wrong way with the ball. Only a few safeties are seen each season, and intentional safeties only occur once every few years; they are far more common in Canadian Football, where field position is more important (since in Canadian ball a team gets three downs rather than four and many more points are scored in general).
Then there's the extremely strange one point safety. At the pro level, this is only possible if a team tries for a two point conversion, drops the ball and the defending team knocks the ball out of the end zone (presumably to prevent the offense from picking up the ball in the end-zone for two points). At the college level, it's also possible if the defending team blocks a PAT, recovers it, and then either fumbles through the end zone or gets tackled after backing up into it. This has happened twice in Division 1 play, the most recent time (the 2013 Fiesta Bowl) resulting in the referee beginning his announcement of the result with "On the previous play, we have an unusual ruling," correctly judging that he was one of the few people familiar with the rule.
In the very, very rare event of a Forfeit where the game is never played, the score is officially 1-0.
Here's a breakdown of each position
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Quarterback: This player will touch the ball on nearly every offensive play. The role of the quarterback is to hand off the ball to an eligible receiver or pass the ball. Occasionally, the quarterback will run with the ball himself; some offensive systems use quarterback runs more than others. The mobile quarterback has become more prevalent in the NFL in recent years, but has been a staple of the high school and college game for decades. At the beginning of the play, the quarterback stands either directly under (behind) the center (a quarter of the way back from the offensive line, relative to the rest of the formation, hence the name quarterback), or seven yards behind the center. The latter formation is called "shotgun." A variation of the shotgun formation where the quaterback lines up 4 yards from the center is called the "pistol." As a result of nearly always being the preeminent decision-making player on a team's offense (the recent "Wildcat" formation notwithstanding), a quarterback is usually considered The Ace in the popular consciousness, and "QBs" generally receive an out-sized portion of attention from the media and fans. This is good news for the quarterback when the team is winning. It is bad news when the team is not. The all-time leading passer in NFL history is Brett Favre. He has played for the Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers, New York Jets, and Minnesota Vikings.
The running backs, often subdivided further into halfback, or tailback and fullback roles (while they remain distinct roles, the names no longer accurately describe the differences). The halfback is usually the team's primary rusher - in other words, most of the team's running plays will involve him in some way. As such, he's usually the more agile of the two backs. Halfbacks are also expected to block on passing plays and occasionally act as a receiver. The fullback is typically larger and is primarily used for blocking and short-range pass catching, but will run occasionally, especially when only a few yards are needed. Both can also be used as targets in the passing game. The fullback will usually (ironically) line up behind the quarterback, with the halfback behind him. Running backs of any type tend to have shorter careers than quarterbacks and wide receivers, as the position is physically demanding and more prone to injuries - as a result, it is becoming more common for teams to rotate and make liberal use of two and sometimes three different running backs. At the professional level, it is becoming less common for teams to have a dedicated fullback on the roster, such teams often substituting another halfback or a tight end to assume the roll of fullback on the handful of plays that might require one. The all-time leading rusher in the NFL is Emmitt Smith of the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals. Notable halfbacks of the past include LaDainian Tomlinson, Walter Payton, and Barry Sanders. Current stars at the position include Adrian Peterson (a Jack of All Stats that has been at or near the top of the rushing leaderboard nearly every season of his career, and in the 2012 season came just barely short of the setting the single-season NFL rushing record despite having ACL surgery, which usually puts a player on the shelf for a year or more, less than 8 months prior to the start of the season), Chris Johnson (had a 2,000-yard rushing season a few years ago, but has also showed signs of being a Fragile Speedster, and Maurice Jones-Drew, famous for his production and durability in relation to his height - or lack thereof, standing at just over 5'6". Notable fullbacks in football history include Jim Brown (although he was primarily a running fullback, with minimal blocking duties), Mike Alstott, Lorenzo Neal, and Daryl Johnston.
The wide receivers are the primary targets in the passing game. Before the play starts, they usually stand at the line of scrimmage a good distance away from ("wide" of) the nearest offensive tackle. Most offensive formations include at least two of them on the field; some will feature as many as five. Their job is to catch the ball or block for a running back. The all-time leading receiver in the NFL is Jerry Rice of the San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks, and Denver Broncos (his records include most career receiving yards, most career catches, most career all-purpose yards and most career touchdown catches).
Wide receiver, by virtue of its role in the offense, has a number of current and former stars - included in the most consistent high-level performers of today are the current most single-season yards record holder Calvin Johnson, whose size (6'6", 230+), speed (can run 40 yards in under 4.4 seconds) and leaping ability make him an almost-literal Real LifeGame Breaker (to the point that his nickname is actually Megatron), who in 2012 came just shy of 2,000 receiving yards and broke Jerry Rice's single-season record; Andre Johnson, who has put up nearly equally insane statistics while being a prime target on a largely mediocre team for his entire career; and Larry Fitzgerald.
The offensive line consists of five players: one center (the center of the line, expected to assign blocking schemes to the rest of the line and usually snaps the ball to the quarterback), two guards (who line up to either side of the center), and two tackles (who line up to either side of the guards). Their job is to block for the offensive backs - in other words, prevent the other defense from getting to the backs. This includes both pass blocking by simply diverting the defense from reaching the quarterback, and run blocking, where the linemen actively create running routes for the backs. The backs include anyone behind the line of scrimmage at the beginning of the play and usually include the quarterback, between zero and three running backs, and a tight end or wide receiver (there must be seven players on and four players behind the line for an offensive formation to be legal). The center's job is also to snap the ball to the quarterback. Offensive linemen are ineligible to touch a forward pass before another member of the offense or defense and cannot move more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage (in the NFL they may not move past the "neutral zone", area defined by the distance between the tips of the ball before the ball is snapped) before the ball passes them (unless the offensive team publicly declares otherwise). Offensive lineman generally only touch the ball on fumbles, but there are a very few plays that have a tackle as an eligible receiver. Probably the best known center in recent years is Jeff Saturday, who retired after the 2012 season; he spent most of his career hiking the ball to Peyton Manning for the Indianapolis Colts and played his final season with the Green Bay Packers. The Tennessee Titans' Michael Oher, of The Blind Side fame, is an offensive lineman (the term "the blind side", in football, refers to the side of the field that the quarterback is not facing when he turns to make a pass or a handoff; thus the offensive line position protecting that side - generally the tackle, Oher's position - is key to a successful offensive line.) In most cases (including Oher's) it's the the left tackle who plays this key role, as most quarterbacks (as with most of the general population) are right-handed (notable exceptions to that rule include Michael Vick and Tim Tebow.)
The tight end usually lines up alongside or offset from the offensive line (in other words, they line up tight on the ends of the offensive line). Tight ends are often used to block and were originally intended solely for that role, but are eligible receivers and most passing plays are now designed with the tight end as an option. Any given play may have anywhere from 0 to 4 tight ends. Some famous recent tight ends are Shannon Sharpe, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten (currently the top receiver from the Dallas Cowboys, beating out all the actual wide receivers), Antonio Gates, and Rob Gronkowski, who in 2011 obliterated virtually every single season record ever posted at the position.
There is also an increasing trend of using H-backs (hybrid-back), players who can both fill the tight end and fullback roles. (An H-Back is more of a skill set rather than a designated position. During any given play an H-Back will act as either a full back or a tight end though due to pre-snap motion their role on the given play may be faked to the opposing defense) Chris Cooley, formerly of the Washington Redskins, was a prototypical H-back.
note Technically, there are no officially required positions, or for that matter formations, on the defensive side as there are on the offensive. The position names have simply developed through the years to describe the most efficient methods thus far found to succeed at their task of preventing the offense from scoring.
The defensive line consists of between two and five linemen, depending on what package is being used. Most defensive packages use three or four: one or two tackles in the middle and two ends. Their goal is primarily to muck up whatever the offensive line is trying to do: If they're trying to clear a hole for a run, it's their job to plug it and if possible tackle the runner. If they're trying to protect the quarterback, it's the D-Line's job to get past them and, if possible, sack the quarterback. Alternatively, the defensive line can be used to open up holes in the offensive line to allow other defensive players like linebackers and safeties to have a run at the quarterback or running back. In a 3-4 defense (when there are only 3 linemen), the single tackle is known as the "nose tackle" and lines up directly in front of the center, whose typical job is to drive the center back into the quarterback. A good nose tackle is a top commodity, as they need to be both big and fast. Some recent famous defensive linemen are Michael Strahan, Jared Allen, Dwight Freeney, Ndamukong Suh, and J.J. Watt.
The linebackers are two to four players who line up behind the defensive linemen (named because they back the defensive line). Linebackers are generally the most versatile players on the defense and can be used to rush the quarterback, support the run defense, or cover slower receivers like backs or tight ends. Typically, a middle linebacker is the playcaller for the defense (sometimes called the "quarterback of the defense", not to be confused with a seventh defensive back in the "quarter" package; see below), as this position has a good view of the offense's formation and his location at the center of the defensive formation makes it easier for all the other defenders to hear him. The linebackers are known informally as the Mike (and Moe or Jack in a four-backer set) for inside linebackers and Will and Sam for the weakside and strongside (the side of the offensive line with the tight end) linebackers. The second number in the common naming system for defense (ex: 4-3 has 4 defensive linemen and 3 linebackers, while the 3-4 has 3 and 4, respectively.) Among the best recent linebackers in football are Ray Lewis, Patrick Willis, Brian Urlacher, DeMarcus Ware, and James Harrison.
Defensive backs: There are usually four or five backs on the field for most plays, though defense packages exist that include as many as seven. The four that are on the field at most times include two cornerbacks (line up on the outsides or corners of the defense, usually against the top two wide receivers), a strong safety (who lines up on the same side as the offense's tight end - hence its "strong" side), and a free safety. The defensive backs collectively are often referred to as the secondary. Their job is primarily to cover wide receivers and stop the pass, but they will occasionally be used to assist in the pass rush or run defense. The fifth defensive back in a play that uses them is referred to as the "nickel" back (because he would be the fifth defensive back on the field), the sixth is called the "dime", and the seventh is a "quarter" (which may cause some confusion). Some excellent defensive backs of the recent past include Deion Sanders, Charles Woodson, and Darrelle Revis.
The placekicker attempts to kick field goals and extra points, for which the ball is snapped to another offensive player who then holds it to the ground (places it) for the kicker (unless the kicker is named Charlie Brown). Some teams employ two kickers, in which case one handles the above duties and one is a kickoff specialist who kicks the ball off of a tee to the other team at the start of play and after scores. Most teams have one kicker who handles both duties due to limited roster space. (A few teams have the punter double as the kickoff specialist instead.) Traditionally, holding the kick was the job of the quarterback, but this has changed in recent years (Tony Romo of the Cowboys is one of the few starting QB's who still does this) and it is most typically the punter who handles the placementnote this is due to practicalities of the practice schedule and roster rules. Because playbooks are so large in the NFL both the starting quarterback and backup quarterback are required to study and practice the plays the offense will be running during the game. If there is a third quarterback on the team he cannot take the field unless the starter and backup have both been ruled ineligible (injured or unable to play) for the remainder of the game. This makes it impractical to have the quarterback-skilled player receiving the snap and there is a small danger involved in handling the snaps if the QB's hand accidentally gets kicked. Finally, the special teams players are usually left to their own to practice kicks so the punter gets the most practice in holding the football for placekicks The most accurate kicker in NFL history is a tie between Nate Kaeding of the San Diego Chargers and Mike Vanderjagt of the Indianapolis Colts. Kickers are known for longevity; since they get defensively hit on plays only maybe about a few times a year they can go deep into their forties before retirement; Morten Andersen didn't retire until he was age 48.
The punter is used when one team wishes to trade a change of possession for improved field position. The punter receives the snap himself and kicks the ball (without letting it touch the ground) toward the other team's defended goal. While the kicking team can recover a kickoff without the receiving team touching the ball, the kicking team cannot recover a punt without an error on the part of the receiving team; if the punted ball touches any member of the receiving team and is not held onto, it is counted as a fumble (even if never touched the hands of the receiving player, which on rare occasions results in an amusing event like the ball bouncing off a receiving player's helmet and into the hands of a kicking-team player). While rare, sometimes the same player acts as both the placekicker and the punter. Like placekickers, punters tend to have long careers, as they're rarely hit. The punter with the longest average in NFL history is Shane Lechler of the Oakland Raiders. While it's become significantly less common, quarterbacks still will sometimes be called on to punt; this is known as a "quick kick". In the modern game, this is a mild form of trick play in which the team fakes going for it on fourth down, then the quarterback punts the ball away with nobody deep to return it.
Most teams also employ a long snapper who handles snapping duties for placekicks and punts, due to long snaps being different enough from standard shotgun snaps to be difficult for centers. He's the football version of Nobody Loves the Bassist. Most fans don't know that most teams use a specialized long snapper - and if they do, they probably can't name one who hasn't screwed up recently.
While most teams use a receiver or defensive back to return kicks, some teams employ a return specialist, a player nominally assigned to a standard position whose primary duties are to return kickoffs and punts, and occasionally cover the opponents' returns. Devin Hester, currently with the Chicago Bears, is the most successful return specialist in NFL history; New Orleans Saints return specialist Darren Sproles holds the single-season record for all-purpose yardage; and Cleveland Browns return specialist Josh Cribbs holds the all-time mark for most return touchdowns (8 PR touchdowns and 3 KR touchdowns, including 2 KR touchdowns in one game).
Teams also have players called gunners, who are called on to run down as fast as possible on punt and kickoff coverage to break up possible returns. The position developed because of an NFL rule stating that only the two players on either end of the offensive line can cross the line of scrimmage during a punt play before the ball is kicked. The gunners, who are almost always backup receivers, running backs, or defensive backs, must be fast and able to shed blocks, as they will usually have one or two players on the receiving team trying to block them as they go down the field. If a gunner is not covered by the receiving team, he may be the target for a pass off a fake punt. In the Pro Bowl (NFL all-star game), the "special teams" position is specifically used to recognize outstanding gunners. By acclamation, the best gunner in NFL history is Steve Tasker, who made the Pro Bowl seven times with the Buffalo Bills and was even named the game's MVP in 1993.
Finally, here are some terms you might want to know
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Down: A play. (So named because a play usually ends when the ball carrier is tackled, i.e. forced down to the ground.) For a legal series, the offense has four tries to move the ball ten yards. If the offense moves the ball far enough, then the down series starts back over and it's first down again. If the offense runs out of downs, possession is turned over at the final position of the ball. As a result, teams treat fourth downs very conservatively and will usually either punt the ball or try for a field goal if they are at a reasonable range. "Going for it" on fourth down is only done when the first down is more strategically valuable than the turnover is detrimental, or the team is desperate for points or field position.
Downs are usually called out as "Nth and X", where N is the number of the down (4th is sometimes replaced with "last") and X is the number of advanced yards required to start the down count over: "2nd and 7", for example, means the offense is on its second try to move the ball ten yards away from where the first down took off, and their current play must move the ball 7 yards forward in order to restart the down count. If the ball is downed within the ten yards approaching the Goal Line, the downs are then called as "Nth and Goal", as there is no first down to gain, and the team must score to avoid turning it over.
In situations where less than a whole yard remains to convert, the play will commonly be called out as "Nth and short" or possibly "Nth and inches", whereas plays requiring large yardage gains may be called out as "Nth and long". Yards lost as a result of a play or penalty are added on to the distance required to convert the first down, so a team that loses 5 yards on a 1st-and-10 play (with no penalty involved) will face 2nd and 15 on their next play.
During the game, officials on the sidelines employ a pair of large orange sticks connected by a 10-yard length measuring chain to mark the distance required for a new first down. These officials are known colloquially as "the chain gang". Occasionally, they will be called out onto the field itself to measure the final position of the ball when a play is too close to call by the referee's eye alone. Thus a common slang term for converting is "moving the chains". A play series that is particularly unproductive is often called a "three and out", meaning the offense used their first 3 downs and netted so little yardage (or negative yardage) that their only realistic option is to burn the 4th down by punting the ball away and getting off the field.
On television, the line to the first down is marked virtually with a yellow or white line called the "1st & Ten" line. However, it is merely for fan and analyst reference only; referees are disallowed from using the technology to make a ruling and the orange marking pad on the ground and down chains are used for measurements. Even then, the virtual line is somewhat inaccurate as natural camera wobble can throw it off a few inches.
Line of Scrimmage: This is the line where the ball is placed at the beginning of each play. If the ball carrier is tackled behind it, they lose yardage. On television, it is often virtually projected on the field as a white or blue line.
Neutral Zone: the space between the teams before the ball is snapped that is as long as the ball from tip to tip. Neither team is allowed to be in that area until the ball is snapped and ineligible receivers are not allowed to proceed past this area during passing plays until the ball is past them.
Snap: The moment when the Center lifts the football off its place on the ground and a play officially begins. Immediately prior to the snap, the entire offensive team must freeze in place for one second, except for one member of the offensive backfield who is allowed to be in lateral motion.
Line to Gain: This line initially begins 10 yards from the line of scrimmage at the beginning of each down series. If the offense moves the ball beyond it, they've achieved a new series of downs. On television, it is virtually projected on the field as a yellow line (red on fourth down, unless the team lines up to punt in which case the TV broadcasters rarely bother to change the color).
Goal Line: These are lines at both ends of the 100-yard football field. If a team moves the ball past its opponent's goal line it scores a touchdown. If the ball carrier gets pushed back behind his own goal line and tackled then the defense scores a safety.
End Zone: The area behind each goal line which is legally within the bounds of play. In American Football, the end zones are ten yards deep.
Lateral Pass: Or simply "lateral". Any exchange in which the ball is transferred laterally or behind the ball's current position. A lateral is legal at any time, between any two players. Handoffs are considered lateral passes. An incomplete lateral pass is live and considered a fumble. Other than handoffs, laterals are usually not scripted into a play. Sometimes, they are part of a play - like in instances where someone other than the quarterback throws a forward pass. Every once in a blue moon, you'll see a designed lateral happen after a reception - resulting in miracle plays like this one. In theory, the number of times a ballhandling unit can do this with a live ball is unlimited - which can result in insane/controversial plays that go down in college/pro football lore like thesehere.
Forward Pass: Any exchange in which the ball is transferred to a point in front of its current position. A forward pass is illegal after the ball or passer has advanced beyond the line of scrimmage (even if one or both retreats behind again), a forward pass has already been attempted this down (even if, by some circumstance, the ball didn't cross the line of scrimmage, which can happen if the ball deflects off of a hand or helmet), or if an ineligible offensive player touches the ball before an eligible player. An incomplete forward pass kills the play and stops the clock with no change of possession. A legal pass also must have a clear intended receiver, that is, there must be an eligible player that the passer was trying to throw the ball to. If an official believes that an incompletion was thrown blindly by the passer simply to avoid being tackled with it, an "intentional grounding" penalty may be called. This is a very serious penalty that results in the loss of 10 yards (or down at the spot the pass was thrown from, whichever is greater) and a loss of a down. One of the skills of a seasoned quarterback when a pass play has failed is to always throw just close enough to an eligible player that he won't be penalized, but also just far enough away that it's out of range of a defensive player to intercept. Intentional grounding can be avoided if the quarterback is no longer behind his offensive line; in this case, the ball can be thrown almost anywhere for simply an incomplete pass (as long as it crosses the line of scrimmage). However, this can be as dangerous as intentional grounding since a quarterback in this situation no longer has his linemen to protect him and generally can see far less of the field. General practice in this case is to throw the ball far forward and out-of-bounds, or out the back of the end zone if inside the "red zone".
Red Zone: The area between the end zone and 20 yard line of the opposing team. So called because the offensive team has a very high chance of scoring at least a field goal, if not a touchdown, when they have reached this point. Having a play series end in the red zone with no points scored is generally considered to be a significant failure. Having it happen repeatedly is usually a sign of an inept offense or extremely tough defense.
Penalties: Officials carry weighted yellow flags and throw them onto the field to indicate that a violation of the rules occurred during the preceding play. The violating team will then be penalized by moving the line of scrimmage 5-15 yards towards their goal for the following play. Some offensive penalties will also carry a loss of down, as opposed to a replay of the current down. Some defensive penalties also carry an automatic first down for the offense; that is, the offense is awarded a new down series from the reset line of scrimmage, no matter whether the penalized yards would move the line of scrimmage beyond the line to gain. Some penalties are "spot fouls", meaning that they're assessed as a distance from the spot of the foul instead of from the line of scrimmage, making them particularly devestating to the offending team. Technical fouls usually carry 5- or 10- yard penalties, while personal fouls always carry 15-yard penalties (and an automatic first down for defensive personal fouls). Particularly egregious fouls result in ejection (unlike in the other football, the player can be replaced); this is almost always followed by a hefty fine, and sometimes suspension for a period of time (with corresponding loss of salary). Note that most penalties are imposed in place of the results of the live play, so the team receiving the penalty has the option to decline the penalty in favor of the result. This is intended to prevent intentional penalties that would negate plays with large yardage swings. Personal Fouls, however, always add yardage to the end of the play. As well, certain situations (such as a penalty committed during a PAT) allow the offended team to assess the penalty in any number of additional ways (for example, during the ensuing kickoff rather than on the PAT). There are also 'dead-ball' fouls, pre-snap procedural penalties that always negate the following play. Offsetting penalties always negate each other, no matter if there is a difference of degree. To avoid deliberate penalties near the end of games (trading yards for clock stoppages), offensive penalties in the last minute of a half include a clock runoff. These flags used to be weighted with BBs, but the practice ceased when a referee accidentally threw a flag into the face of a lineman, nearly blinding the player in one eye.
Especially egregious offenses (such as an inactive player, or even in one infamous instance a coach, leaving the sidelines to interfere with a play) can also fall under "palpably unfair acts", which is exceptionally rare but allows the referee to award any yardage penalty he sees fit, eject the offender, and/or award an automatic touchdown to the other team. The palpably unfair act penalty was created for instances when the team committing the foul would gain such an extreme advantage that the standard yardage penalty would be insufficient to deter such behavior. Essentially, anyone who commits an infraction severe enough to require this penalty can be seen as having outright cheated rather than having just committed a normal infraction.
Formation: A standardized pre-snap lineup. Seven players (the linemen plus two eligible receivers) must be on the line of scrimmage and the four remaining eligible receivers must be behind the line (one of whom takes the snap, naturally). The standard NFL set, known as the 'I' formation includes one tight end on the right side of the offensive line; one split end, a receiver on the left side of the line, but separated from the linemen; a flanker on the right side, separated and one yard back; the quarterback under center; and the fullback and halfback two and four yards behind him, respectively. All formations can be varied by changing the placement or position of the offensive backs and line receivers.
Shotgun: A formation in which the quarterback lines up five yards behind the center. In the standard shotgun, a running back lines up to the quarterback's left and one yard forward and the other running back is replaced with a slot receiver, a receiver lined up between the line and the split end, one yard behind the line of scrimmage.
Pistol: A variant of the shotgun, in which the quarterback stands about a yard closer to the center, with a running back lined up about three yards directly behind him. The formation, popularized by former University of Nevada, Reno head coach Chris Ault, is designed to allow more options for the running game than the regular shotgun. Although it is seen as something of a gimmick at the highest levels, it can be seen from time to time in college and high school, and a few NFL teams will occasionally use it. One notable example of an NFL ream that includes the pistol in its offensive package is the San Francisco 49ers, whose current quarterback Colin Kaepernick ran that offense at Nevada.
Ace or Singleback: Any set in which the fullback is replaced with an extra wide receiver or tight end. This results in only one running back in the backfield, hence the term.
Pro: A set in which the fullback and the halfback (or two halfbacks, or two fullbacks) line up at the same depth from the quarterback. A standard Pro set have the backs line up on either side of where the halfback would normally go. Some formations have one of the backs line up in the standard halfback position, and are called "Near" and "Far" depending on which side the other back goes; "Near" if the back is on the strong side, and "Far" if the back is on the weak side.
Wishbone: Take the standard Pro set, subtract the tide end or a wide receiver, and add the fullback in his standard position. An Inverted Wishbone instead takes the standard pro set and moves it to fullback depth (with two fullbacks or tight ends in the backfield), then adds a halfback at the normal halfback spot, usually replacing a wide receiver.
Wildcat: A nonstandard (at higher levels) formation wherein the quarterback, usually a nonstarter or a player out of position, lines up in shotgun position and one man always begins in motion. The formation is designed to spread the defense and allow option runs and short passes over the middle. It is generally considered a gimmick at the highest levels, but it is a high-school staple and a small number of NFL teams will use it from time to time.
Play Action: This is the most common type of trick play, wherein the quarterback pretends to hand the ball off to a teammate behind the line of scrimmage, then attempts a forward pass. While it does often successfully fake out a defense, it's so commonplace that it's barely even thought of as a trick play.
Draw: Sort of the inverse of a play action, this is a run play disguised as a pass play. The quarterback usually drops back and waits a moment before handing the ball off (or running it himself). Meanwhile, wide receivers will run routes downfield in an attempt to "draw" defensive backs away from the line of scrimmage to give his teammate room to run. If the quarterback fakes a throw (called a pump fake) before handing the ball off, this is called a Statue of Liberty play, due to the pose the quarterback assumes when faking the throw.
Screen: A short pass play disguised as a botched longer pass play. After the snap, the offensive lineman make a token attempt to block the defense, but then allow them through and run to the sidelines. The defensive linemen (hopefully) see the defenseless quarterback and chase him, whereupon he lofts a shallow pass to an eligible receiver set up behind those same offensive linemen. Like the Play Action, it started out as a trick play but has become so standard that it's no longer really thought of as such.
Shovel Pass: a short pass where the quarterback doesn't throw using his full motion or is thrown underhand. More rarely, it might be thrown sidearm, or flipped using a motion similar to that of a basketball shot (but from a lower angle).
Option: A type of play in which the quarterback receives the snap, then tries to run to the left or right around the line of scrimmage, accompanied by a running back. At any point the quarterback has the "option" of keeping the ball and advancing himself or tossing a lateral to the running back. There are various types of option plays, but the most popular today involves the quarterback and running back. The option is a very popular play among teams up to the Division I-A level, and many of these teams treat the option as central to their offense (Nebraska was famous for using a run-oriented option offense into the early 2000s). In the NFL, the option is seen as a novelty play, and is used rarely because the quarterback risks injury and option plays tend to be relatively slow-developing, which is a lot more problematic in the NFL since defenses tend to be much faster than at lower levels.
Spread Option: A more modern form of the option offense, usually run out of a shotgun or pistol formation. The initial "option" in this offense involves the quarterback deciding whether to keep the ball or hand it to the running back. If the QB still has the ball at this point, he then has the choice of running or passing, or sometimes pitching to a receiver circling behind him. In the 21st century, the spread option has become a staple for many teams up to college level, with Ohio State and Oregon being just two of the best-known users of that scheme. In college, it's largely evolved away from being an "option" at all (many schools refer to it as the "Spread Offense"), with the decision of run or pass already having been made before the ball is snapped, but the formation being basically the same on both running and passing plays. In the NFL, it's largely seen as a gimmick, although some teams have added it as a part of their overall offensive package.
Hail Mary: A play in which the quarterback avoids the defense for as long as possible, then throws the ball high in the air as far as possible, in the hopes that someone (on his team) will catch it. Obviously not a high-percentage play, this is used late in games when the offensive team is down by a touchdown or less. Doug Flutie, a quarterback who later went on to have moderate success with the NFL's Buffalo Bills, is still famous for completing a Hail Mary pass to narrowly lead his Boston College team to victory over Miami in 1984. The term itself stems from a 1975 pass by Dallas Cowboys quarterback and devout Catholic Roger Staubach; prior to that historic moment, the same play was called an Alley Oop. The terms "Hail Mary" and "Hail Mary pass" have since entered the American lexicon for any spectacular, last-ditch effort with a low chance of success.
Flea Flicker: A trick play in which the ball is handed off (or pitched) to a running back, who begins to run only to throw the ball back to the quarterback, who then targets receivers who are by now far downfield. An all-or-nothing play that nearly always results in big gains, big losses...or worse. The infamous 1985 Lawrence Taylor hit on Joe Theismann, which resulted in a career-ending compound fracture to Theismann's leg, came on a botched flea flicker. A simplified version, the "Halfback Option", has the running back simply throw to a receiver downfield himself.
Taking a Knee: Also sometimes known as the "victory formation" because of how common it is to secure victory, taking a knee is where the quarterback takes the snap and immediately drops to one knee. By the rules, this is counted as downing the ball, and the clock will continue to run short of the opposing team taking a time-out or some other circumstance. It is very common at the ends of games where one team has victory locked up and just wants to run out the clock (for example, if they lead by 4 points with less than a minute to go with the other team having no timeouts remaining). In the standard formation, there are three people in the backfield besides the quarterback- their only job is to grab the ball in the event of a bad snap. This formation came about after "The Miracle at the Meadowlands", a game that also led to universal acceptance of the kneel-down play after a botched handoff while attempting to run out the clock on the final play resulted in a fumble run back by the defense for a touchdown.
Spiking the Ball: The opposite of taking a knee, spiking the ball occurs when you need to stop the clock as quickly as possible. Spiking the ball generally involves the offense moving to the line as quickly as they possibly can, snapping it, and immediately throwing it into the ground. This counts as an incomplete pass, since there are receivers in the area. Doing so immediately stops the clock. It is generally used near the ends of halves when one team doesn't have- or doesn't want to waste- any timeouts. A more interesting play is faking spiking the ball, which generally catches the defense off-guard and allows open receivers to get into position to catch the ball.
No-Huddle Offense: A tactic used by the offense in which they to rush into formation to begin play immediately after their last without going into a huddle, with the plays called at the line. This is normally done when a team must score and time is running out (in which case it is often called a "hurry-up" offense), but can also be used to wear down the opposing defense by giving them little time to make changes to their formation or substitutions, leaving them with personnel on the field not suited for what the offense is doing and possibly forcing the defensive team to use a timeout. Due to the frequent use of this during the final minutes of the game, the "hurry-up" version is sometimes called the "two-minute offense". Some teams are known for running a no-huddle offense for most if not all of the game, most notably the Oregon Ducks in college football, and the Denver Broncos and New Orleans Saints in the NFL. While, as noted, this tends to wear down an opposing defense, the risk incurred is that it gives your own defense less time to rest when the offense is on the field. The Denver Broncos (via Peyton Manning) run a slower version of the no-huddle by rushing to the line...then wait to snap the ball until either the defense attempts a substitution (incurring a penalty in the process), or until the play clock is down to a few seconds (forcing the defenders to hold their positions for a very long time, which they would be less used to than their offensive counterparts).
Tackle: A defensive player can end a play by forcing the ball carrier to the ground, forcing the ball carrier out of bounds, or halting his forward momentum to the satisfaction of the nearest official. If any part of the carrier's body from the knees or elbows inward touches the ground, it's enough to end the play, so long as an opposing player is touching him when it happens or the ball carrier went down as a result of contact with a defender (ie if a defender pushes the ball carrier and the carrier falls to his knees, he's down even if the defender is no longer touching him when he falls). Having a hand, forearm, foot, or lower leg touch the ground isn't enough.
If the ball carrier falls on his own or catches a pass while on the ground and his knee, elbow and/or body touches the ground, he is not tackled until a defender touches him. If he manages to get back up before any defenders arrive, the play continues. At the college and high school levels, on the other hand, the player is down if he falls even without being touched. This typically results in a tackle being credited to whichever defender was closest to the ball carrier. NFL rookies occasionally forget about this rule difference, resulting in defenders missing opportunities to down a fallen ball carrier or a ball carrier being too slow to get up and run for extra yardage.
Package / Alignment: The terms "package" and "alignment" refer to the configuration of defenders on the field. The distinction between the two is a bit hazy, since as we noted above, defensive positions are assigned by custom rather than by rule. In general, though, terms like "4-3" and "nickel" carry about the same meaning as association football's "4-4-2". It specifies where the players are, but only gives you a rough idea of what they'll do.
Nickel: A defensive package designed for passing plays wherein one lineman or linebacker is replaced with either a third cornerback or a weak safety. The term comes from the US five-cent coin, called a nickel. Similarly, there exist 'dime' and 'quarter' packages which substitute in six or seven backs, respectively. Dime is increasingly rare and quarter is almost never seen anymore outside of the prevent defense. With the proliferation of pass-oriented spread offenses in college football in recent years, the nickel has become the base defense for some teams, with TCU being one notable example.
Sack: A sack occurs when a defensive player tackles the opposing quarterback while behind the line of scrimmage on a passing play. Perhaps paradoxically, for stat-keeping reasons, the quarterback is considered to have lost yardage on a running play when this happens, and the existence of plays like the play action mean that even a failed quarterback run attempt will be credited as a sack. Forcing a quarterback to run out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage also counts as a sack. If any other player is tackled behind the line of scrimmage, it's simply referred to as being tackled "for a loss of X [yards]".
Turnover: A change of ball possession without the intent of the offense. This generally takes place in two ways, a fumble recovery or an interception.
Interception: An interception occurs when a defensive player catches a pass intended for an offensive player. This changes possession of the football and the defensive player is free to advance the football. Unlike offensive linemen, all defensive players may legally intercept a pass. Alternately/colloquially may be called a "pick" or "pick-off" of the pass, or a "pick 6" if the interception is returned for a touchdown and six points.
Fumble: A fumble occurs when the ball carrier drops the football while it is still in play. A wide receiver who does not catch his pass does not fumble; a fumble only occurs if the player had definite possession of the ball. If the defense is able to recover the football before the offense does, then the football changes possession. A ball fumbled out of bounds reverts to the offense at the spot where it crossed the sideline. Unless it's fumbled through the opposing team's end zone, in which case it's a touchback.
Note that defensive players can advance any fumble, but offensive players cannot advance a ball fumbled forward from behind the line of scrimmage. This rule exists to prevent a specific trick play called a fumblerooski, in which a ballcarrier "accidentally" fumbles the ball forward to another player, getting around the rule against forward passes. The fumblerooski was banned for being too "undignified" (advancing a forward fumble was banned in the 1960s by the NFL, but it survived until 1992 in college), but on rare occasions modified versions are used that get around the ban by methods such a backwards bounce-pass or the center intentionally fumbling the snap (neither of which is a forward fumble).
Another fumble trick was the infamous Holy Roller of 1978, in which the Raiders' quarterback fumbled the ball forward as he was about to be sacked, causing the ball to roll toward the end zone, and then two other Raiders batted it forward into the end zone where one recovered it for a touchdown. This was ruled legal on the field because the officials couldn't tell if the fumble and the batting forward of the ball were intentional. The players involved all admitted that it was a deliberate fumble and that they only pretended to attempt to recover it prior to the ball reaching the end zone. This evasion of the "advancing a forward fumble" rule resulted in further restrictions on advancing a fumble by the offense: if the ball is recovered by an offensive player other than the one who fumbled it in the first place, a recovery on 4th down or after the two minute warning results in the ball being placed at the spot of the fumble rather than wherever it had rolled to.
Safety: The final, rarest type of turnover. As mentioned above, if a ball carrier is tackled behind his own goal line, the defense is awarded two points and possession of the ball by means of an uncontested punt by the offensive team. A fumble that moves back through the ball carrier's end zone without being recovered by the defense is also a safety. If the ball is fumbled into the offense's end zone, they will often deliberately get a safety (by either falling on the ball or batting it out of bounds), because giving up 2 points and possession is considered safer than allowing a guaranteed touchdown by letting the defense recover the ball in the end zone.
Turnover on Downs: Not a turnover in the strict sense, this occurs when the offense chooses not to punt on fourth down and fails to score or get the yardage they need. Offenses "going for it" on fourth down is rare, and usually reserved when they really need a score or if the distance needed for first down is extremely short (as in "4th and inches"). As such, forcing a turnover on downs is a big win for the defense. Very aggressive coaches are more likely to "go for it", and a team that has a poor kicking game is likely to do so if they're outside of field goal range but close enough to the goal line that a punt would almost guarantee a touchback.
Blitz: A type of play in which linebackers or defensive backs attempt to rush past the offensive line (creating a "pass rush") and sack or at least put pressure on the ball-carrier, usually the quarterback. If the offense has a running back block the blitzing defender, thus nullifying the play, it is referred to as "picking up the blitz". Considered a risky play because it leaves areas of the field open. However, there are teams that have had lots of success with aggressive blitzing; the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers have long had a reputation for successful blitz-oriented defenses, and the Buddy Ryan-created "46 Defense" is an entire system developed around constantly applying such pressure to opposing offenses for whole games at a time.
Zone Blitz: while a standard blitz involves sending more people than the usual 4 linemen (or 3 lineman and one linebacker) a zone blitz involves the defense faking which players will be rushing the quarterback and which players will be in coverage. For example, a defensive end may act like he's going to rush the quarterback and the strong safety may appear to be in coverage, however when the ball is snapped the safety rushes the quarter back while the defensive end covers. This is intended to cause mismatches between blockers and rushers and open up holes where a blocker expected someone to be and is not prepared for someone rushing from a different position. This of course can backfire if the lineman attempting to cover is not athletic enough to perform these duties.
Prevent: A package involving at least seven defensive backs, most or all of whom are well over ten yards back from the line of scrimmage. The prevent defense concedes long runs and short passes in order to prevent long passes for a touchdown. Typically only used in the last minutes of a game by a team who already has the lead, and even then it's considered by many to be a bad idea; former player, coach and long-time TV commentator John Madden famously said "All a prevent defense does is prevent you from winning." The prevent is ideal for defending a Hail Mary on the last play of a game, though.
Special teams-related terms:
Kick off: A kick off begins both halves of football and resumes play after a score (except for a safety). The kickoffs take place from the kicking team's 35 yard line and the ball is kicked from a Tee (or held by a member of the kicking team, if the ball falls off the tee due to wind, the referee will require they have a member of the kicking team hold the ball like on a field goal attempt). The receiving team may not attempt to block this kick but both teams may contest for possession. The kicking team must stay behind the ball until it is kicked or the play will be offside.
Free kick: After a safety, play is initiated by a free kick. The previous team that was on offense kicks the ball either with a drop kick or a punt kick from their 20 yard line. The receiving team may not block the kick and the kicking team may not contest for possession unless the ball is fumbled on the return attempt. Another (incredibly rare) form of free kick is the fair catch kick, which allows a free, unblocked placekick (worth three points, and thus a form of field goal) from the spot at which a punt is received provided the returner calls for a fair catch. However, the circumstances under which a team would actually WANT to do this are so rare that most lifelong fans aren't even aware of this rule's existence.
Touchback: If a team gains possession in the defensive end zone, the team begins their next series as though it had returned the ball to their own twenty yard line. This commonly happens on kickoffs and punts when the ball is either recovered in the end zone and not advanced, or goes out of bounds after entering the end zone. A touchback can also occur on interceptions (occasionally) and fumble recoveries (rarely, since the offensive team must fumble the ball forward into the end zone without actually scoring a touchdown, and either have the ball go out of bounds in the end zone or be recovered by the defense).
Muffed Catch: during a change of possession kick if the player trying to receive the kick doesn't cleanly field the kick, it's called muffed. Often results in a turnover since once the ball has touched a receiving player it is live and recoverable by the kicking team. This is particularly important on a punt, because a muffed catch allows the kicking team to recover the ball; as mentioned above, a punt can only be downed, not recovered, by the kicking team if it hasn't touched a receiving team player.
Fair Catch: when the ball is kicked and the receiving player does not think they have enough space to return a kick they can call a fair catch meaning that if they catch the ball the play is dead where they caught the ball, they cannot be tackled and they cannot advance the ball. They do this by waving one hand above their head. Improperly signalling for a fair catch (waving 2 hands) is a penalty (trickery?). Preventing the player who signaled for a fair catch (by contact, intentionally or unintentionally) from catching the ball is also a penalty. If the player does not catch the ball after signalling the ball is live and recoverable by both sides, as this poor fellow from Wofford in a playoff game learned when he didn't down the ball in the end zone and the opposing team (Northern Iowa) stripped the ball from him for a free touchdown.
Downed Kick: if the kicking team during a punt recovers the kick before the receiving team this is called downing the ball (technically this is a rule violation called "illegal touching") the result is still a change of possession but the receiving team will have no opportunity to advance the ball. This is most commonly used to prevent the ball from going into the end-zone and pinning the other team deep in their own zone.
Onside kick: on a kick off, if the kicking team receives the ball before the receiving team on a kickoff the kicking team can retain possession of it, the only requirement is that the ball travel 10 yards before a member of the kicking team touches it (the only exception being if the receiving team touches it before it crosses 10 yards but doesn't maintain possession). The formation for this kick, if it's expected usually has a majority of the kicking team on one side of the kicker to maximize their chances. The receiving team will usually stack one side of the field to match. The kicker usually kicks the ball so that it bounces off the ground high in the air, this is for two reasons: one, when the ball touches the ground the receiving team cannot call a fair catch, two, this gives the ball a nice high arc allowing the kicking team time to get past the first line of blockers and a lot of spin to make it difficult for the receiving team to catch the ball. The ball can be advanced on an on-side kick reception. This play is normally used if the team kicking the ball needs to score and the game is nearing the end. It is a very risky play to attempt because if the kicking team does not receive the ball it puts the receiving team in very good field position. The receiving team when expecting an onside kick will put in what's referred to as the "hands team" instead of their usual kickoff return team, typically consisting largely of wide receivers and defensive backs whose main skill is catching the ball rather than blocking for a runner. Recent rule changes have prohibited stacking everyone one side of the field, in an effort to reduce injuries; now at least a couple of players have to be on each side of the kicker. Rarely, a team will attempt a "surprise" onside kick out of normal kickoff formation and somewhat earlier in the game than an onside kick would normally be expected. This has the advantage of catching the receiving team off-guard, while they don't have their "hands team" on the field and are out of position to recover the kick, but requires that the kicking team also be out of position in order to sell the deception.
Other American Pro Leagues
The NFL has been the dominant Football league in America for almost its entire existence. There have however, been various attempts to compete with the league. A few of the more notable include:
All-America Football Conference (1946-1949): While this league as a whole was not successful, three of its teams were taken into the NFL when the AAFC broke up: the Cleveland Browns, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Baltimore Colts (which folded after one season in the NFL, though the current Colts—now in Indianapolis—are a Spiritual Successor). The Browns proved to be one of the top teams in the NFL for the next decade.
American Football League (1960-1969): Actually the fourth league to use this name, although they were the most successful. Probably the most visible competition to the NFL, and the two leagues merged in 1970, creating the current AFC and NFC divisions. All of the AFL's teams are now NFL franchises (though the Houston Oilers are now the Tennessee Titans; also the Seattle Seahawks, which were placed in the AFC in 1977, were switched to the NFC when the Houston Texans were created as an expansion team). The NFL occasionally celebrates the history of the AFL, with the most notable being the 50th anniversary celebrations in 2010 (which included numerous "throwback" games in which teams and even referees wore AFL-style uniforms, even if the team name and/or location on the old uniform was no longer accurate). A list of notable players who started out in the AFL (even just a list of Hall of Famers) would be too large for this page. However, there is only one player in the Hall of Fame who played only in the AFL and never in the NFL: offensive guard Billy Shaw.
World Football League (1973-1975): A complete and total flop (and not even a"world" football league, the only team not on the American mainland was a team in Hawaii). Managed to last for two seasons despite laughable amounts of ineptness (one team had its equipment confiscated following the league's championship game) from almost everyone involved. Only two WFL alumni - Larry Csonka and Paul Warfield, both former NFL stars at the end of their careers - made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
This is not the same as the World League of American Football, a league that began in the early 1990's and later evolved into NFL Europa; they are discussed later, under "American Football in Other Countries".
United States Football League (1982-1987): The first serious competition with the NFL since the AFL's halcyon days. The league ran in the spring and signed several star college players (the first being Herschel Walker) before the NFL could snatch them up. The league had problems with solvency early on, and the more cash-strapped teams moved frequently making it hard to cultivate fanbases or secure long-term TV deals. Stories abounded of teams playing in near-empty stadiums and players having their paychecks bounce. Even so, it was rather popular in some markets and looked to be on the way towards success until Donald Trump (yeah, that Donald Trump) bought a team and slowly started to take over the league. He had the league sue the NFL for an anti-trust violation and planned on moving the USFL to the fall (possibly because he may have planned to have the more successful USFL teams folded into the NFL and acquire his own NFL franchise). The USFL won its anti-trust violation and was awarded...$3. The league folded shortly after that. Four USFL players (Steve Young Jim Kelly, Reggie White and Gary Zimmerman) are in the Hall of Fame. All of them signed with NFL teams. The USFL was also where players like Doug Flutie and the aforementioned Herschel Walker played their first pro seasons.
That $3 check was never cashed (as of 2006), and is considered one of the biggest collectors' items out there. Incidentally, the original amount of the award in that case was only $1, but under anti-trust law at that time, any damages awarded by a civil jury were to be automatically tripled, hence the odd value. The reason for the itty bitty award is interesting in itself. The league sued the NFL for anti-trust violations, stating that the NFL used its dominant position to employ predatory tactics to take over the USFL or otherwise put it out of business, by outbidding them for top players, monopolizing the best venues, and the like. Which on the whole was true. However, the court also found that most of the USFL's problems were caused by mismanagement; specifically, their decision to move from a spring schedule to a fall schedule where they would compete directly with the NFL. This move alone caused four teams in top markets to shut their doors or relocate rather than be wiped off the map by NFL teams playing in the same cities. This in turn meant that there were too few teams to accept a leaguewide television contract that would have sustained the league for at least three or four more years had they stuck to a spring schedule, and there were almost no bidders among the major networks willing to pay the bills for a schedule with direct competition. Thus, the NFL did indeed have a monopoly, but the court found that the USFL died without help from anyone else, leading to their Pyrrhic Victory.
Arena Football League (1987-2008, 2010-present): Just based on longevity and popularity, the Arena Football League is probably the best known alternative league since the 60's American Football League, even though the Arena League isn't technically a competitor to the NFL. The league plays "Arena football" which is different in several ways to regular football, stuff we'll let The Other Wikiexplain better; the most obvious difference is that it's played on smaller fields in indoor arenas. Did decently in the ratings and in popularity until the league surprisingly crashed and burned in 2008. The AFL's second-tier league, being a subsidiary, was dissolved in the AFL's bankruptcy, but since they were at least reasonably profitable, they soon reformed into a new legal entity and bought the rights to the AFL name, effectively reinstating the league in 2010. Like the AFL, a list of notable NFL players who also played/currently play in the Arena league would be way too long for this page.
X Football League (2000-2001): Founded by Vince McMahon, it represented the first new nationwide pro football league in nearly twenty years. Strong promotion by UPN and NBC gave it incredibly high ratings for the first two weeks of games (in most cases, with over triple the viewership of the most optimistic projections), but those ratings quickly spiralled downward as the curiosity crowd and WWF audience went away and the remaining football fans realized that the game quality just wasn't very good. By the end of the season, games airing on NBC were drawing record low ratings for prime time programming. Was the home for a handful of very good players - mostly NFL second-stringers who were never really given a chance, like QB Tommy Maddox, the league's lone MVP. Probably best known at the time for Rod Smart, a RB for the Las Vegas Outlaws whose jersey read "HE HATE ME" on the back instead of his own name. Most of the XFL's Hatedom was a result of McMahon's attempt to promote certain players as "characters" with a focus on interpersonal storylines rather than interteam stories, which, while interesting, was a very Love It or Hate It move that did little to encourage the watching of the game. Also criticized was the XFL ruleset's focus on smashmouth football, encouraging hard hits with a lesser emphasis on penalties. Which served as a reminder of why the rules evolved the way they did. Aside from the gameplay itself, several factors worked against it, including the fact that it was owned and operated in partnership with NBC to field their own "in-house" football league. note In the abstract, this seemed like a risk worth taking. Whatever else his faults, Vince McMahon is a hell of a businessman. The teams were not independently owned; McMahon owned the league and all the teams and instituted a leaguewide salary structure that helped limit costs, with NBC helping foot the bill in exchange for broadcasting rights. If the league were a success, or at least broke even, then NBC would be on the ground floor to a viable alternative to the NFL and could garner the high ratings of airing football at a fraction of the cost of constantly negotiating for NFL programming. The high ratings for the first few weeks were encouraging, but when they began to tank, NBC didn't have the patience to let the league evolve and recover. There was talk of going forward with a second season, but the price would have been shutting down McMahon's "SmackDown!" wrestling show. He wasn't willing to do so, and that was that. That, combined with Vince McMahon's tendency to cross-promote with the WWF, eventually led to a perfect storm of casual fans not taking it seriously as a legit football alternative (most saw it as the same kind of "sports entertainment" as pro wrestling, with some even convinced that the game results were scripted) and professional sportscasters having no incentive to show results of a league owned by a rival network. This meant no game recaps on SportsCenter or FOX Sports, no scores recorded in newspaper sports pages, and almost no coverage in Sports Illustrated.
United Football League (2007-2013): The most recent entry into the NFL competitor sweepstakes, it's remained largely low key and currently features only four teams in small markets. Has recently gained media attention for extending invitation to NFL players to play for them if the 2011 NFL lockout lasted until the regular season. This didn't happen. The most recent teams are in Virginia Beach, Virginia; Omaha, Nebraska; Las Vegas, Nevada and Sacramento, California. Not exactly football hotbedsnote Nebraska is, though its Mecca is Lincoln, not Omaha, and they worship at the altar of Big Red (the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers), but each team has a small yet devoted fanbase. After the 2012 season was cut short, there were hopes that a 2013 season would take place, but the scheduled dates came and went. No official statement has been made about the league's future and the UFL is technically still in existence, but as the business licenses for all its teams have expired and said teams and the league itself have almost no staff on the payroll, it's generally assumed that the league will move on not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Legends Football League (2010-present): Formerly known as the Lingerie Football League, it is, at this point, the only "major" female football league with any media attention, though most of it is negative attention because the players basically play in athletically-minded Chainmail Bikinis with padding and helmets, with games carried in edited form on MTV2. Some of the female players are just glad to play at all (using the example of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League seen in A League of Their Own) and try to ignore that the league basically exists as fanservice for guys too cheap to even get Cinemax. Uses a 7-on-7 indoor format with no punts and field goals. Started to exploit the publicity that came with the Lingerie Bowl, a pay-per-view event that counterprograms the Super Bowl yearly. Between 2012 & 2013, the LFL made significant changes in hopes of legitimizing the league. The league expanded by adding new teams in Canada for 2012, and Australia for 2013, with the launch of a European league now delayed to 2015, with each country/region acting as its own separate league. The US teams shifted their schedule from a fall schedule to a spring-summer schedule similar to Arena Football and other indoor leagues. In 2013, the league rebranded itself by changing its name and announcing that it would downplay the "sexiness" factor of the league; depictions of sexualized women will be removed from team logos, and the "lingerie" aspect will be removed, although uniforms will still be revealing.
Though the concept of fantasy sports began with Baseball, it truly exploded once it was expanded to Football. With the advent of the internet, and thus computers happy to do all that obnoxious "tracking of every game stat" and "doing math on those stats to turn them into points" stuff for people automatically, fantasy football (along with fantasy baseball, naturally) became even more popular, as it was now accessible to people unwilling or unable to do the tedious record-keeping and calculations. Plus, they no longer had to find all their players in the same geographical area, so that was easier too.
Players meet once before the season, either online or in-person, and select real NFL players in their fantasy draft. One the regular season rolls around, the players choose a "team" based on the players they have selected, and receive points based on how well the real-life players do. This is Serious Business for many fans and there are literally thousands of websites, magazines, books, articles, television programs and even sitcoms (The League) dedicated to discussion of Fantasy Football. Some players have gambled huge sums of money on this. This became exceptionally notable when Brian Westbrook of the Philadelphia Eagles chose to stop on the 1 yard line rather than score a touchdown late in a game. By stopping, he allowed his team to run out the clock and win the game without risk, but many, many fantasy football teams lost as a result. Bill Simmons of ESPN.com wrote that one of his readers lost one hundred thousand dollars because of that play.
By extension, it can result in some fantasy players wanting real teams to run up the score (ordinarily considered unsportsmanlike) in order to improve their fantasy team's stats.
Since Fantasy Football was previously prone to the Rage Quit, some leagues have begun enforcing financial penalties for the teams which finish in last place. In the aforementioned Bill Simmons' league, the loser pays for the pizza and beer at the next season's draft. However, this has gotten more creative, as one small league in Nebraska became infamous for making the loser get a tattoo designed by the winner, with their only choice being it's location on the body. ESPN found this so hilarious, they covered it for the entire season with the seriousness of a real league.
American Football in other countries
Because the word 'football' refers unambiguously to association football (soccer) outside the United States and Canadanote and Australia, and Ireland, and South Africa, and Japan, with varying levels of ambiguity, the sport is referred to as "American football" (or a translation thereof) to differentiate it from other football codes such as association football and rugby football. In Australia and New Zealand the game is known as gridiron football, although in the United States the term "gridiron" refers only to the playing field itself.
The NFL has attempted to introduce the game to other nations and operated a developmental league known as NFL Europa (previously NFL Europe or the World League of American Football), which over the years had teams in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Great Britainnote in fact, in its first two seasons (as the WLAF), it had North American teams as well before switching to Europe-only and changing its name to NFL Europe, but the league gradually shrank and condensed into a six-team league, five of which were in Germany. The league folded following the 2007 season.
In Canada, football is played by the professional Canadian Football League at the professional level and by the collegiate Canadian Interuniversity Sport.
In the UK, where it's often derided as "Rugby for pansies", 46 teams play in the British American Football League. The BAFL has three levels: The Premier, of which there are 7 teams; BAFL 1, of which there are 12 teams; and BAFL 2, of which there are 27 teams. While the lower level teams have their own championship games during BritBowl Weekend, only Premier league teams face each other in the BritBowl which is it traditionally held in Sheffield's Don Valley Stadium. Unlike the NFL, the BAFL season is played through the summer (April to September), with the British university season spanning the autumn and winter. In the 1980s, the Sky network featured live broadcasts of American football games. Unfortunately, those broadcasts were early in the morning. Despite this, it managed to get small but devoted audience.
Recently, there's renewed interest in the game with Sky Sports showing the early doubleheader and NFL Network games, the local ESPN airsMonday Night Football, while the terrestrial Five network gets Sunday Night Football, all live (though in the latter cases the night games air in the early mornings after midnight London time due to time zones). The NFL currently plays two yearly regular season games at the new Wembley Stadium in London in order to stoke further interest in the American game with the Jaguars giving up one home date in order to play every year because their owner also owns former English Premier League side Fulham, thus twice a year two team's "home games" takes place at least 2,000 miles away across The Pond at a neutral venue. The NFL, while doing well in the US, sees its future in expanding the league in other countries, and regular season NFL games abroad are a part of this plan. The Arena Football League has stated similar aspirations, and has established a subsidiary to build a 6-team league in China by 2014, featuring both American and local talent.
In Mexico, the ONEFA is a college league with 26 teams in 3 conferences. It is the most important championship in Latin America. Mexicans have been playing college American football since the 1920s. When broadcasts of American football started in 1960s, games featuring the Dallas Cowboys were shown. Its popularity grew during the 1970s with returning migrants who were American football fans popularizing the sport. While its popularity can't compare with Soccer, it's by far the most popular minor league sport there. It's also the most popular sport to bet on there, with the odds of winning at 50/50 as opposed to 1/3 of winning with soccer. The NFL has also expressed interest in playing at least one yearly game in Mexico City, like it does in London.
In Japan, the X-League is a professional league with 60 teams in four divisions, using promotion and relegation. After the post-season playoffs, the X-League champion is determined in the Japan X Bowl. There are also over 200 universities fielding teams, with the national collegiate championship determined by the Koshien Bowl. The professional and collegiate champions then face each other in the Rice Bowl to determine the national champion.
In Germany the sport got a foothold because of the American troops stationed at bases there. The German Football Leaguenote Not a translation—that's the actual German name. organizes roughly 200 teams, the elite division is called Bundesliga and comprises 14 (16 from 2012) teams partitioned into north and south conferences. The finalists from the playoffs determine the German champion during the German Bowl. All but one of the NFL Europa teamsnote It was renamed NFL Europa starting after its penultimate season were based in Germany by the time it folded. Curiously, although American soldiers are stationed mostly in the southern parts, the north dominates strongly, having won all German Bowls since 1993 - with only two southern teams even reaching the finals in that period - 26 out of 32 total and in some years winning all interdivisional and playoff games against southern teams. German teams (especially the Brunswick Lions and the Hamburg Blue Devils) dominated European football in the mid to late 90s but had an Austrian caused drought until the most recent win in 2010. The most succesful teams are Brunswick Lions, Düsseldorf Panther, Berlin Adler and Hamburg Blue Devils.
Finland has traditionally had the strongest European national side (holding a record 5 European titles out of 12, with two each for Italy, the UK and Germany (the current holders) and one for Sweden) and Finnish teams winning the first two Eurobowls (a playoff competition between the winners of the European leagues) but has faded since.
In Austria, the top-tier Austrian Football Leaguenote Also the league's actual German name. consists of seven teams (one of them from the Czech Republic). Austrian teams dominated European club competitions, winning all Eurobowls from 2004 through 2009, and is now competing with the German league for the moniker "strongest league in Europe".
In Hungary, 18 registered teams participate in a the MAFL's two division league structure. The sport has grown significantly since 2004 and with some top Division I teams participating in the CEFL.
In Norway, div I consists of only two teams, Oslo Vikings and Eidsvoll 1814's. These two teams also compete in the European Football League but they play an annual game for the Norwegian Championship title. Norway has seven other teams that play in div II and this division is looked upon as the Norwegian Football League.
Poland launched its league, the Polish American Football League (PLFA, its Polish initialism), with four teams in 2006. By 2008, the PLFA had 17 teams, and the league split into two divisions. For 2013, there are a total of 74 teams in five leagues, with both 11-man and 8-man leagues. The highest level, the Topliga (11-man), has 8 teams, with 29 other teams playing in two divisions below that. In the 8-man game, there are 37 teams in two divisions. The final match of the Topliga, officially SuperFinal PLFA and usually known in English as the Polish Bowl, had traditionally drawn small crowds in the 1,000 to 1,500 range... until it was moved to the National Stadium in Warsaw for 2012 and drew 23,000. The 2013 Polish Bowl returned to the National Stadium and drew 16,500.
The International Federation of American Football is the governing body for American football with 45 member associations from North and South America, Europe, Asia and Oceania. The IFAF also oversees the American Football World Cup, which is held every four years. Japan won the first two World Cups, held in 1999 and 2003. Team USA, which had not participated in the first two tournaments, won the next two in 2007 and 2011.
Major American leagues have also held some regular season games outside of the United States. On October 2, 2005, the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers played the first regular season NFL game outside of the United States, in Mexico City's Estadio Azteca, From 2007, the NFL has played or has plans to play at least one regular season game outside of the United States, with London being the typical location. The NCAA will also play games outside of the U.S. In 2012, the United States Naval Academy played the University of Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland. In 2014, Dublin will again host the sport, though at a different stadium,note The 2012 game was held at Aviva Stadium, home to the Republic of Ireland soccer team and the Ireland rugby team. The 2014 game will be at Croke Park, home to the Gaelic Athleric Association. when Penn State and UCF (Central Florida) play, and the Bahamas will host a postseason bowl game.
A home improvement store ran an ad featuring an expecting couple selecting paint carefully, with the mother-to-be softly smiling and holding a hand over her belly. Where does the paint go? On their faces as the mother yells something less than complimentary at a quarterback.
Oddly, the dubbing for Project A-Ko has B-Ko declaring the upcoming mecha-versus-superhuman battle will be their own Super Bowl ... while the sight-gag is of her changing into a baseball uniform, and taking a batting stance.
Because the NFL and NCAA are very protective of their images, very few movies feature real teams, preferring to use fictional leagues or Brand X versions of real teams.
North Dallas Forty: a 1979 movie about the life of a professional sports team. Used a No Celebrities Were Harmed version of the Cowboys.
Any Given Sunday: a movie by Oliver Stone from 1999 about the ways business and sport clash in a professional league. Used a fictional rival league to the NFL, called the AFFA.
The Replacements: a generally panned 2000 movie based on the 1987 NFL players' strike. Used a Brand X of the Washington Redskins, though it did use NFL insignia.
Rudy: 1993 movie about a player who earns a place on the Notre Dame football team through hard work. A more-or-less true story, except that the real coach is such a nice guy that he gave the moviemakers permission to turn him into a Coach Nasty villain for the sake of drama.
Knute Rockne All American: the movie that made Ronald Reagan famous and gave him his nickname, the Gipper.
The Program: 1993 movie that dramatized college football similarly to Any Given Sunday, though The Program was much more well received. Also famous for having a scene in which several characters walk into traffic and lay down in the middle of a busy street to prove their bravery. This scene was cut from all post-theatrical versions of the film because some kids tried to imitate it with predictable results.
Among its various incarnations, Friday Night Lights. It chronicles the 1988 Permian Panthers of Dillon, Texas (based on Real Life Odessa in all but name), a Dying Town of dried up oilfields that places all of its dreams and aspirations on the local high school football team. Unlike most other films, it shows the darker side of football and the extreme pressure and expectations that many young players face in rural America.
Necessary Roughness: a movie that took the devastation of the Baylor and SMU teams after eligibility scandals and made it into a slapstick comedy.
The Longest Yard avoids the license trap by setting their team in a prison, featuring convicts.
We Are Marshall is a 2006 film which tells the true story of the 1971 Marshall University football team's attempts to rebuild following a plane crash which kills most of the 1970 team.
Ashes To Glory is a 2000 documentary about the 1970-1971 Marshall University football team. The makers of Ashes To Glory sued the makers of We Are Marshall for plagiarism, but the case was dismissed as being without merit.
Ace Ventura had Dan Marino playing himself. And also a Dolphin mascot; we presume the Dolphin also played itself.
Remember the Titans, a 2000 film about a coach trying to create a racially-integrated high school football team in the 1970s.
Black Sunday, where a group of terrorists hijack the Goodyear blimp in order to attack the Super Bowl with a flechette bomb. Has Miami Dolphins owner Joe Robbie playing himself in a ten-minute segment.
The Blind Side a Based on a True Story movie about Michael Oher surviving high school, becoming an offensive lineman and eventually getting courted by a number of universities, and finally being drafted by the Baltimore Ravens.
The Last Boy Scout, and action film featuring Bruce Willis as a private detective who teams up with a disgraced NFL quarterback (Damon Wayans) to take down the corrupt owner of the team, climaxing with a shootout at a football game. The opening credits sequence was a satirical take on the Monday Night Football intro.
One iconic moment in The Dark Knight Rises is when Bane and his henchmen announce their takeover of Gotham City. They go to the city's football stadium where a game is to be played between the Gotham Rogues and the Rapid City Monuments (the stadium is represented by Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, and actual Steelers are seen cameoing as the Rogues). Just after kickoff to start the first quarter, Bane and his men hit detonators that blow up all of the bridges, trap all of the city's cops in the tunnels underground, and also collapse most of the infield. The field opens up, swallowing all but one player. Bane then makes his entry, reveals the nuclear bomb, and breaks Dr. Pavel's neck in front of the crowd.
Invincible is a fictionalized story of Vince Papale, who earned a spot on the Philadelphia Eagles at age 30.
The upcoming movie Draft Day will star Kevin Costner as the general manager of the Cleveland Browns during the NFL Draft. Notable for the NFL allowing the film to shoot footage during the 2013 NFL Draft.
The Draft, a novel written by football analyst Will Mara, features a fictional General Manager of an Alternate History Baltimore Ravens team which had just won two Super Bowls and have all the piecess to win a third. But during the offseason, a little old lady on her meds crashes into the car of the team's star QB, potentially ending his career and leaving a gaping wound on the team roster. Fortunately, the upcoming draft has a promising QB candidate who's bound to go as the 1st overall pick. The San Diego Chargers, who own that pick, announce that they are willing to trade that choice away for the right price, leading to a league-wide Gambit Pileup for the rights to the next young superstar.
Playing For Pizza by John Grisham, details the not oft seen world of European Italian "American Football". The teams are mostly fielded from various odd workers, craftsmen and athletes of other sports past their prime, bank-rolled by the nearest top businessman/politician in the area (and just barely; the title comes from the players' "pay"), and their local supporters would be shamed by most high school booster clubs. The rivalries and dedication to the game, however, are "REAL football". There's also some nice bits about Italian history, art, food and opera. Bene.
Out of Position and its sequels, Isolation Play and Divisions by Kyell Gold bring football to the niche genre of gay furry romance, of all things. The books center on a gay pro football player and his crossdressing boyfriend. Football is not a gimick or sideshow to that, but drives the plot just as much as the relationship does. The series has won 3 Rainbow Awards for gay fiction.
Playmakers, an unsuccessful attempt at bringing the idea behind Any Given Sunday to the small screen.note It was possibly killed by the NFL, as they probably didn't want a show featuring a large storyline about football players using drugs to get ahead on ESPN, a network that airs NFL games once per week.
Columbo has solved the murders of team owners in two separate cases. Both episodes involve Brand X teams.
Coach, a sitcom starring Craig T. Nelson as a coach of a fictional college (later NFL) football team.
The 1971 made for television movie Brian's Song is the source of many Manly Tears.
Al Bundy from Married... with Children has several plotlines through the course of the series where he relives what he considers the only happy time of his life as a star fullback on his high school football team before reality and adulthood set in.
The League, a comedy about a group of friends in a fantasy football league. Frequently features NFL players as guest stars.
In an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Jenny Calendar invites Giles to watch a high school football game as a date. Giles snarks for a bit about how Americans put on so much padding to play a game of Rugby, while Jenny gets her heckles up over Giles insulting her nation's pastimenote Part of the joke, of course, is that the American national pastime is generally accepted to be Baseball.
In Star Trek: Enterprise, a Vulcan asks one of the crew about football. A Vulcan cultural observer had witnessed a game and assumed the goal was to kill the Quarterback. The crew member sets the record straight.
The American music video (one of two produced) for U2's song "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" features a placekicker missing a critical field goal and repeatedly reliving the moment. It also features a cameo by John Madden.
AndyGriffith first entered the national consciousness as a comedian with the sketch "What It Was, Was Football", depicting a college football game through the eyes of a country preacher who had never before seen the sport.
George Carlin has a whole routine comparing football to baseball. See the page quote up top for a taste.
Bill Cosby describes playing football in the streets of Philadephia as a kid:
Quarterback: Arnie, go down ten steps and cut left behind the black Chevy. Filbert, you run down to my house and wait in the living room. Cosby, you go down to 3rd Street, catch the J bus, have them open the doors at 19th Street— I'll fake it to you.
Bill:(narrating) There was always one fat kid you never thought of—
Fat kid: What about me?
Quarterback:(not missing a beat)You go long.
Bill:(narrating) We got a lot of good plays going that way.
Quarterback: I'll throw it over the water tower— you'll catch it as it bounces out.
Electric Football, possibly the earliest marketed tabletop game.
Gridiron: a collectible card game.
Lombardi, an NFL-sponsored theater-in-the-round play about Vince Lombardi and his relationship with football. This is only a slight exaggeration, as Mrs. Lombardi (who narrowly prevented an unthinkable alternate universe by encouraging her husband to accept a request to be head coach of an NFL team in tiny Green Bay, Wisconsin instead of settling for a job as a bank manager) states that the three most important things to her husband was "God, family, and football, but not necessarily in that order".
Madden NFL is one of the most successful video game franchises in history. A simulated game is played out every year before the Superbowl, which correctly predicted the winner every year for the first several years it was done.
NCAA Football is close behind.
Tecmo Bowl was the first truly successful football video game. Because of a licensing snafu, it featured real players on Brand X teams. Tecmo Bo Jackson is considered the greatest athlete in video game history. Tecmo later obtained an NFL license and created the also successful Tecmo Super Bowl, which still retains a cult following for its easy and fun (if somewhat unrealistic) gameplay. There's a video series that amusingly follows Madden NFL's lead in simulating games to predict winners, starting with an explanation that both coaches completely dropped their full line-ups in favor of the now-retired players that were featured in Tecmo Bowl, and stright-laced announcing of impossible plays such as Jeff George's "Wonder Pass".
NFL Blitz: a series of ultraviolent football games originally by Midway that cycle in and out of favor. Since EA now holds exclusive rights to the NFL and NFL Players' Association, the last Midway Blitz games used fake teams and players; however, this let them get away with content that would be slanderous if used with real athletes, such as giving players the option of feeding their team illegal drugs or sending prostitutes to the other team's hotel. After Midway's bankruptcy, EA Sports relaunched NFL Blitz as a download-only complement to Madden.
Roy Bromwell of the Rival Schools games, being one of the token Americans in the series, is noted in his bio as the star quarterback of Pacific High's football team. In-game, however, this is an Informed Ability; the only evidence of his football background is one of special moves being named Touchdown Wave.
Johnny Maximum, from the World Heroes franchise, had more of a football theming; he was dressed in full football gear, and initially had football-shaped projectiles that were either passed or kicked to enemies.
Black College Football: The Xperience, an experimental title that focused exclusively on historically black universities. Mostly known for its focus on non-football stuff, such as a halftime drum competition minigame, and an interactive player museum.
Shows up in It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown as a homecoming game for the kids. Their school's athletic budget is pretty minimal: no actual uniforms for Peppermint Patty's team; Snoopy ends up playing the roles of referee, cheerleader, and news helicopter; Woodstock is a linesman and cameraman. Based, of course, on Peanuts strips featuring football, the playing of football, and the pulling away of footballs.
There was also You're in the Super Bowl, Charlie Brown, where the kids competed in a punt-pass-and-kick contest for Super Bowl tickets, interspersed with Snoopy coaching a team of Woodstock and his friends in an Animal Football League.
An episode of King of the Hill featured Bill going back to his high school to graduate and play one more year and trying to regain a rushing record he had recently lost in the process.
The NFL made their own animated show in 2010 called NFL Rush Zone Guardians Of The Core (which later became "Season of the Guardians", and most recently, "Guardians Unleashed"), a Flash cartoon which aired on Nicktoons Network. Notable in that the cartoon features real players and coaches from the NFL, most voiced by their real life counterparts.
Peter meets Tom Brady in the Family Guy episode "Patriot Games", and briefly plays running back for the New England Patriots.
For more information, watch Eyeshield 21 or Friday Night Lights. Or show up at a sports bar full of drunk Americans on an autumn weekend afternoon. Or any part of Texas, with anyone, at any time, especially if you like high school football. Or anywhere near a public television in a college on game day.