John: Oh, we call 'em linebackers, or serial killers. Depends on whether they're professional or amateur.
American football is the most popular sport in the United States. This guide intends to inform you about America's favorite Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday (and occasionally Tuesday and Wednesday) autumn pastime. If you would like to know more about the sport's most historic and successful pro league, please check out the corresponding notes page. If you'd like to know more about college football, then please check out the corresponding notes page. And if, by some strange accident, you wound up here looking for info on that other sport called "football", this is probably the page you want.
Rules of playAs weird as American football might seem to foreigners, it is firmly within the same tradition as other football variants, and actually originates from a hybrid of Association and Rugby codes, which first made their way to America in the late 1860s. For reasons that are still a little difficult to understand, while the sport very quickly leaned more towards rugby's rules about carrying the ball with your hands, its players kept calling it football even though kicking the ball is a fairly small (though still critical) part of the game.
A good way of understanding American football is to think of Soccer and Rugby and then ask "what if we tried to solve for the offside rule?" The key innovations of American football are the idea of the "snap", the "line of scrimmage", and the "down". That is, rather than free-floating exchanges of possession (as occurs in soccer), there is a team on "offense" with the ball, and one on "defense" without it, with a specific line clearly separating "onside" from "offside." These rules established American football as a distinct sport from rugby by the 1880s, and the introduction of a legal forward pass in 1906 further distinguished it from its ancestor. The rest of the game's rules follow from there, and the finer details can be found on The Other Wiki. But let's get the basics down before that, shall we?
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 remaining 100 yards of the field is divided like a giant ruler by various markings:
- Yard lines run the entire width of the field. Yard lines are placed in 5-yard increments.
- 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 further inside each sideline to denote the area of the field where the ball can be placed before play commences.note
Since all of these field markings tend to create a lattice-like appearance, a football field is colloquially known as the "Gridiron".note
Finally, 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 and collegiate 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; in high school, the goal posts are 23 feet 4 inches (7.11 m) apart.
Canadian football is extremely similar to American football, and the rules work along the same lines. A Canadian football field is slightly longer and wider; the end zones are 20 yards deep, the goal lines are 110 yards apart, and there's a "centre line" between the two 50-yard lines.
The fundamental unit of football is the "play": particular pre-planned and practiced strategic formations and drills designed to counter defensive strategies or exploit a particular situation or team strength. It is impossible within this article to cover the sheer variety of possible strategies, but on offense the basics break down to three fairly simple categories: run, pass, and kick
- 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 reasonnote Backward and lateral passes, however, are always legal. An incomplete forward pass is ruled dead once the ball touches the ground or if the receiver fails to maintain control of the ball while going down; however, an incomplete backward or lateral pass is a live ball.
- Kicking, discussed further below, is typically a last resort option, as it always ends a team's possession of the ball, barring a fluke mistake by the opposing team allowing the ball to be recovered.note
When a team has the ball they are given four attempts, called "downs", to move the ball ten yards towards the end zone (goal) they're facing. If that team can do so, then they get a "first down" - they replenish their four downs to move the ball another ten yards. As long as a team retains possession of the ball, and moves it another 10 yards within the four down limit each time, they may continue to ratchet their way across the field for as long as it takes to reach the other side.
When watching a game, the term "First and 10" indicates the offense team has just gotten a first down, and thus they have 10 yards to gain before their next down reset. The First Down line is always based on 10 yards closer to the goal from where the line of scrimmage was at the current (or last) first down. If, say, the defense team manages a sack that pushes the line back five yards, you'll see the term "Second and 15," indicating the offense is on their second down, and they have to move the ball 15 or more yards to reset their downs. If the team is close enough that 10 yards would put them in the end zone, then the team cannot reset their downs anymore - they have to score within those four downs (unless a penalty causes them to be reset). This is signified by the word Goal replacing the 10, such as "First and Goal".
If the ball is downed close to the first down marker, but officials aren't sure if the ball broke the plane, the referee will call for the "chain gang", a crew of two that keeps the line of scrimmage and the first down line, out onto the field for a precise measurement. If the tip of the ball is past the first down rod, the first down is awarded. Otherwise, the next down, assuming the previous down wasn't fourth down, is signified by the word Inches replacing the 1, such as "Third and Inches".
If at any time they fail to move the ball 10 yards forward within their four downs, the other team gets possession of the ball, starting from the spot the last down ended at. If the offense reaches their fourth down, they have three options:
- The quarterback may 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. (The players doing the actual punting, while technically the quarterback on the play, are often a specialist called the punter, especially at higher levels. However, some players - including still active players in the NFL - do sometimes punt and sometimes throw passes, example mostly as a "trick play" that works mostly because it is so rare.) Once the opposing team receives the ball, they are on offense and their first line of scrimmage is where the ball stops after the punt play is over.
- The team may also elect to attempt a field goal if they are within range to do so. A field goal is when the quarterback (again, usually a specialist kicker swapped-in rather than the first-string quarterback) kicks the ball between the two upright arms, and above the crossbar, of the defense's goal post. Since this scores points for the team, this ends the offense team's possession and leads to another kickoff with the opposing team receiving and taking possession of the ball.
- Finally, 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, or the team feels like tempting fate.
- In rare cases, a team will elect to Take The Fourth Option, and run a Kansas City Shuffle style play. This is where football begins to show its strategic elements and deep Meta Game.
- For instance, the kicker may be brought on and the kicking formation taken, leading the opposing team to swap in players suited for receiving the ball rather than defending...only for the quarterback to then attempt to force the ball through the opposing team's weakened and scattered defense anticipating a ball falling from the sky in the backfield, not running on the ground through them.
- A quarterback who is also good at kicking may fake going for it, only to punt a few steps into a run. This is referred to as a "pooch punt".
- A kicker who also plays another offensive position can be an extreme wild card, allowing a true, deep field kick to be snuck in at any time with a little subtle shifting of formation. These players are rare however; as a general rule kickers tend to be Glass Cannons with Crippling Overspecialization in kicking the ball really far- thus making this even more of a Mind Screw for the opposing team when it happens.
The biggest difference between Canadian and American football is that in Canadian football, the offense only gets three downs, not four, to advance the ball ten yards. This tends to encourage a more pass-heavy style of play, a style that American football has begun to take up in recent decades.
If a play ends on an incomplete pass, with a player running out of bounds, a penalty, a score, 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. 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... which stops the main clock.
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 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 drama 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.)
Some football leagues, such as the Arena Football League (now defunct) and the 2020 incarnation of the XFL, use a "running clock" rule, meaning the clock continuously runs after out-of-bounds plays and incomplete passes. Outside of the n-minute warningnote of each half, the clock only stops for change of possession, time-outs, and injuries. At the high school level and below, a running clock may be implemented as a "mercy rule" when one team attains a lopsided lead, typically between 30 to 40 points after halftime.
While Canadian football has quarters of the same length as the American game, it has distinctive timing rules (with the CFL rules given here):
- The offensive team has only 20 seconds from when the ball is declared in play to snap the ball, with a violation being called "time count" ("delay of game" is a different foul in Canada).
- Each team gets two timeouts per game instead of three per half. Unlike American rules, in which timeouts that aren't used in the first half are permanently lost, timeouts can be taken at any time, with one exception discussed below.
- The n-minute warning is at 3 minutes, at which point timing rules change even further:
- The clock stops after every play.
- Only one timeout can be taken, meaning that if a team still has two timeouts at the warning, one is permanently lost.
- The penalty for a time count changes from 5 yards (with the down repeated) to loss of down on first or second down. On third down, it becomes 10 yards, and repeated violations on third down can be penalized by change of possession.note
- If the game clock runs out at the end of any quarter, either during a play or a dead ball situation, a final play is run with "zeroes on the clock" before the quarter can end.
- 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. 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; 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 end zone at all for a touchdown, just in possession of the ball as it's breaking the plane of the goal line.note Historically called a "major" (short for "major score") in Canada, though "touchdown" is now used as well.
- Conversion: After scoring a touchdown, a team receives one additional, untimed down in which they can attempt to score at one-third the normal value. This is formally known as a "try" (yes, like in the rugby codes, though the term is exceedingly rarely used), and a successful score is known as "converting the try", or just a "conversion". In Canada, it's called a "convert". 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 through the upright goal at the back of the end zone 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. Over the years, the PAT has become such a matter of routine that attempts have been made on the organizational level to increase the difficulty. In 2015, the NFL moved the line of scrimmage for kick attempts to the 15-yard line (among other things, making blocks more likely), and in the first season of the change, the league's success rate dropped from over 99% to a hair over 94%. That may not sound like a big changebut the last time the success rate on PAT kicks was this low was in 1982. Additionally, blocked attempts are now live balls, allowing more scoring possibilities. See below.
- Two-point conversion: Make a single offensive play 3 yards away (2 yards in NFL) from the end zone. Reaching the end zone gives another two points (for a total of 8). In the event of a turnover, the play ends in high school football, except in Texas, where the base rule set is that of the NCAA (college).note In college, and since the 2015 season the NFL as well, the defender can score two points for his team if he carries it ALL the way back to the other end zone. Very rareit 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% in college and 95% in the NFL. 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. With blocked PAT attempts now being live in the NFL, it's possible for a fouled up kick attempt to be turned into a 2-point conversion if the blocked ball is recovered by the kicking team, or run back for by the defense for 2 points like a turnover.
- The Alliance of American Football, a minor professional league that began and ended play in 2019, prohibited kicked conversions. Two-point conversion attempts were required after any touchdown.
- Both incarnations of the XFL also prohibited kicked conversions. Instead, the XFL used a three-tiered system, where a conversion scored from the two-yard line is worth one point, a five-yard conversion is worth two points, and a ten-yard conversion is worth three points. The original XFL only used this in the postseason, whereas the 2020 XFL used it from day one.
- 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 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. Perhaps the most famous example of this was Auburn's walk-off touchdown in the 2013 Iron Bowl (AlabamaAuburn rivalry game). Despite the risk, some teams will still focus their entire strategy around simply getting their kicker in range as quickly and as often as possible while preventing their opponent from scoring touchdowns, with any touchdowns of their own being welcome surprises. This can be an extremely hard to counter strategy with a well assembled team, but can quickly fall apart if the kicker is having an off day.
- 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. There has been only one successful drop kick in the NFL since World War IIlongtime CFL and NFL quarterback Doug Flutie successfully drop-kicked a conversion in his final NFL game in 2006.
- 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 eight times since then) and high school, but not in college.
- 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. This has led to several improbable heart-stopping situations where a kicked ball has the range to reach the goal, but due to its shape and unpredictable bouncing tendencies, will carom off one, two, or all three of the bars before it manages to go through or fall out unscored.
- 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 snapped 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). 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 handsexcept in the Alliance of American Football, which had no kickoffs. In that league, the scoring team got the ball on its own 25-yard line unless the other team attempted an onside conversion (see the "Special teams-related terms" folder below). Most free kicks after safeties are punts because their higher trajectory allows better coverage for the kicking team.note
- 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. This is 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). 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 I 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. This became possible in the NFL only in 2015. It is also now theoretically possible for the kicking team to give up a safety for one point as well, but such a play would require an extremely unlikely set of circumstances, such as a blocked PAT being recovered by the defense, run back to near the opposing end zone, only for a fumble to happen, then be recovered by the kicking team, only for the kicking team player to be tackled in their own end zone. This is the only way (except for a forfeit, or a game played in Canada) for a team to have a total score of 1 point, as all other plays worth one point award the point to a team that has already scored a touchdown.
- In certain rare situations, a team may intentionally allow a safety to be scored. This may be done for a variety of reasons:
- Canadian football adds one more type of score: the single point, or rouge. When a team kicks or punts the ball out the end of the opposing end zone, they score one point, and the other team gets the ball. Outside Canadian football, kicking the ball out the back of the end zone is simply a touchback, and the other team gets the ball at their own 20 yard line.
- In the very, very rare event of a forfeit where the game is never played, the score is officially 2-0.
The length of quarters and overtime format differ depending on level. Typically, a football game consists of four 15-minute quarters with an option for overtime if both teams are tied at the end of regulation. Overtime always begins with another coin toss. Overtime is played in one of two methods: sudden death, favored by the NFL and some alternative pro leagues, or alternating possessions, a.k.a, the "Kansas Playoff", favored by American high school and college football as well as the Canadian game at all levels (prep, U Sports, and CFL).
In the Arena Football League, NFL Europa and the United Football League (all defunct), both teams were guaranteed one offensive possession unless the first team to possess conceded a defensive score, whether by touchdown or safety. If the score remained tied after each team had their initial possession, overtime then went to true sudden death.
Alternating possessionsCollege overtime rules, already complicated, got even more so in 2019. Overtime at that level starts with the teams taking turns having possessions from the opponent's 25-yard line (with standard down-and-distance rules); if one team is ahead after both have had a possession (unless the first team to possess in any overtime period concedes a defensive score), they win, otherwise they take another set of turns. If the overtime went to a third or fourth set of possessions, a team that scores a touchdown had to attempt a two-point conversion (unless, of course, the TD gave that team the win). In 2019 and 2020, all overtime procedures starting with the fifth consisted of two-point conversion attempts, and were scored as such. College overtime rules were borrowed from high school rules, which recommend (but do not require) the NCAA's original 1996 version of this procedure (straight-up possessions, with no requirement for two-point conversion attempts; the NCAA added the two-point requirement in 1997); most states have teams start possessions at the opponent's 10. In 2021, to reduce the amount of time overtime takes, the NCAA rules committee has moved the mandatory two-point conversion to the second procedure, while the third and subsequent procedures use the two-point shootout until the tie is broken.
The Canadian Football League uses similar overtime rules to the NCAA, except possessions start at the 35-yard line (due to the goal post being on the goal line in that league), a two-point conversion must be attempted after every touchdown (since the 2010 CFL season), and overtime is limited to two procedures during the regular season and not played at all in the preseason. The original XFL also used a modified version of the NCAA overtime rules, where teams started 1st and goal from the 20-yard line and could not kick a field goal until 4th down; however, if the first team scored a touchdown in less than four downs, then the second team had to match or surpass the first team's score within the same number of downs, negating the supposed advantage of going second. In the 2020 incarnation of the XFL, teams attempted two-point conversions from the 5-yard line in a 5-round shootout format, similar to hockey or soccer; if the score remained tied after 5 rounds, subsequent rounds were played until the tie was broken. The Alliance of American Football had the teams alternate possessions from the opponent's 10, but only one set of turns was used except in playoff games, which they wound up never playing.
Positions and formationsThe intricate system of player positions and play formations are the heart of football's deceptive complexity. The closest equivalent it has in any other game are the rules for unit deployment in your typical Warhammer 40k style War Game.
Each football team consists of anywhere from 40 to 80 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. Additionally, all possible position types do not need to be, and in fact cannot be, filled at all times. 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.
Here's a breakdown of each position
- Quarterback: This player will touch the ball on nearly every offensive play. The role of the quarterback is to pass the ball down the field or hand off the ball to an eligible receiver. At the beginning of the play, the QB 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) or seven yards behind the center. As a result of nearly always being the preeminent decision-making player on a team's offense (the "Wildcat" formation notwithstanding), a QB is usually considered The Ace in the popular consciousness, and they generally receive an out-sized portion of attention from the media and fans. This is good news for the QB when the team is winning; it is bad news when the team is not. Despite their importance to the team's success, QBs are also notable for usually being the least "athletic" player on either side of the ball, as good vision and decision making is typically far more important than one's strength, durability, and endurance. This, coupled with the protection provided by the o-line, gives "pocket passer" QBs a slightly longer average career than most players. Occasionally, however, the QB will also have running ability comparable to other backs; the "mobile" or "dual-threat" QB has become more prevalent in the NFL (John Elway, Steve Young, Michael Vick, and Lamar Jackson being prominent examples), but it has been a staple of the high school and college game for decades. The all-time leading passer in NFL history is Tom Brady, with the most career yards and touchdowns. Brady is widely considered the "Greatest of All Time" in professional football, having won seven Super Bowls and appeared in three more with the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (although it must be stressed that this is highly debated). The record for most yards and TDs in a single season (the former by one yard over former New Orleans Saints great Drew Brees) goes to Peyton Manning, who set the record in 2013 with the Denver Broncos after an extremely successful career with the Indianapolis Colts.
- The running backs, often subdivided further into halfback/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 and is 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 '90s Dallas Cowboys (and, briefly, the Arizona Cardinals); the single-season record holder in the NFL is Eric Dickerson, who rushed for 2,105 yards for the L.A. Rams in 1984, though if we're talking pro football in general, the title goes to Herschel Walker, who ran for 2,411 yards the year after Dickerson with the New Jersey Generals of the USFL while also receiving for an additional 400. Notable halfbacks of the past include LaDainian Tomlinson, Walter Payton, and Barry Sanders. The most famous fullback in football history is Jim Brown (although he was primarily a running fullback, with minimal blocking duties).
- 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, on occasion, block for a running back. Wide receiver, by virtue of its flashy role in the offense, has a number of current and former stars. Don Hutson of the Green Bay Packers is commonly attributed with creating the dedicated receiver role (then simply called an "end"). The all-time leading receiver in the NFL is Jerry Rice, who played for the San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, and (briefly) Seattle Seahawks from the late '80s to the early '00s. His records, put up over a 20-year career, include most career receiving yards, most career catches, most career all-purpose yards, most career touchdown catches, most games played by a position player... suffice it to say that he is considered one of, if not the, greatest players in the history of the sport. The single-season record holder is Calvin Johnson, whose size (6'6", 230+), speed (could run 40 yards in under 4.4 seconds), and leaping ability made him an almost-literal Real Life Game-Breaker for the Detroit Lions (to the point that his nickname was actually Megatron); he came just shy of 2,000 receiving yards in 2012. Great wide receivers tend to not be shy about their abilities and are known to fully play into the "diva" archetype: famous examples of this include Michael Irvin (who once stabbed a teammate with scissors over a haircut), Randy Moss (who once pretended to moon fans of the opposing team), Terrell Owens (who got into heated public feuds with his QB on multiple teams), Chad Johnson (who renamed himself "Chad Ochocinco" so the name on his jersey matched his number), and Odell Beckham Jr. (who once got in a fight with a kicking net... and lost). This is hardly true of all wideouts, however; Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals is esteemed as not just one of the greatest players in league history but also once of its kindest and generous figures.
- 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 they 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 tight ends are Shannon Sharpe, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten (currently the top all-time receiver, in terms of number of catches, from the Dallas Cowboys, beating out all the actual wide receivers), Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Rob Gronkowski.
- There was also a 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 Washington, was a prototypical H-back.
- 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 snap the ball to the quarterback at the start of the play), 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 and prevent the defense from getting to the backs. This includes both pass blocking, where they divert the defense from reaching the quarterback, and run blocking, where the linemen actively create running routes for the backs. 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", an 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 linemen generally only touch the ball on fumbles, but there are a select few plays that have a tackle as an eligible receiver. Because of this more utilitarian job, o-linemen tend to lack the media presence of other offensive players, though most successful backs will freely admit that they are only able to do their job if the o-line does theirs. Probably the best known center in recent years is Jeff Saturday, who retired after 2012; he spent most of his career snapping the ball to Peyton Manning for the Indianapolis Colts and played his final season with the Green Bay Packers. Michael Oher, former Carolina Panthers player 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 Steve Young, Michael Vick, and Tim Tebow).
- 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 modern famous defensive linemen are Michael Strahan, Jared Allen, Dwight Freeney, Ndamukong Suh, J.J. Watt, and Aaron Donald.
- 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 play caller 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 weak side and strong side (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.) Both Dick Butkus and Lawrence Taylor, often considered in lists of "top defensive player of all time" (or even "top player of all time"), were linebackers. Among the best modern linebackers in football are Ray Lewis, Patrick Willis, Brian Urlacher, DeMarcus Ware, James Harrison, Von Miller, and Khalil Mack.
- 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 defensive backs collectively are often referred to as the secondary and are usually much more lean and speedy than defensive players at the line, as they are expected to be able to keep pace with receivers or break-away runners. 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 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 modern defensive backs include Deion Sanders, Charles Woodson, Darrelle Revis, and Richard Sherman.
- The placekicker (or simply kicker) 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 of the placekicker.) Traditionally, holding the kick was the job of the starting quarterback, but this has changed in recent years (the now-retired Tony Romo of the Cowboys was one of the last starting QBs who still did this) and it is most typically the backup quarterback, or more often the punter, who handles the placement.note The most accurate kicker in NFL history is Justin Tucker, who has played his entire NFL career to date with the Baltimore Ravens. Kickers are known for longevity; since they get defensively hit on plays only maybe about a few times a year and only need to exert themselves in short bursts (not dissimilar from golfers), 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, who played most of his career with the Oakland Raiders; the consensus greatest punter of all time is Ray Guy, who played his entire career with the same team in both Oakland and L.A. and is the only punter in the Hall of Fame. 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. In very recent years, the position has become notable as home for an increasing number of former Australian rules football players, with former Chargers and Vikings punter Darren Bennett being the Trope Maker and Trope Codifier (though not the Ur-Example).
- 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, longtime returner for the Chicago Bears, is the most successful return specialist in NFL history; return specialist Darren Sproles (best known for his years with the Philadelphia Eagles) 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; petitions to get him into the Hall of Fame have yet to move past the semifinalist round.
Finally, here are some terms you might want to know
- 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 achieve a new first down note is rendered virtually for viewers, usually in yellow or white. 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 the down chains are the official tools used for measurements.
- 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 or pitch-outs/sweeps (where the running back doesn't run close enough to the quarterback to directly take a handoff, so he can get to the outside of the field faster), 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 these here.
- 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 devastating 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 (unless the clock is/has been stopped for reasons unrelated to the penalty, or the fouling team chooses to take a timeout, or the penalty is for delay of game). 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.note
- For a list of common penalties, see here.
- 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. References may be found to the old 'T' formationnote , which (compared with the more modern 'I') replaced the flanker with a third running back, all of which were lined up next to each other behind the quarterback, making the combination of center, quarterback, and running backs resemble a "T" shape.note
- 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. The most notable of these was the San Francisco 49ers when their starting QB was Colin Kaepernick, who ran that offense under Ault 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, and is sometimes called a 'Y' formation. 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 tight 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.
- Personnel Grouping: Also known as a "personnel package", this concept has seen increasing use to denote offensive skill position players, especially in the NFL. These packages are described by a two-digit numeric code that denotes the number of running backs and tight ends. The number of wide receivers is not explicitly included in the code, but is trivially inferred when one remembers that six of the 11 offensive players are the linemen and QB. For example, as of 2021, about two-thirds of plays are run with one running back, one tight end, and three wide receiversan "11 package" or "11 personnel".
- 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 FBS 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, coined by San Franciso 49ers and New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle. 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; "Alley Oop" still remains in limited use, mostly related to basketball.
- 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.
- Quarterback Kneel: Also known colloquially as "taking a knee" or 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, or (if necessary) to stop the defense from making it to the end zone. 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. The now-defunct Arena Football League effectively banned the quarterback kneel up until its final two seasons of operation; if the leading team wanted to run the clock out in the final minute of regulation, they had to advance the ball past the line of scrimmage on every play, otherwise the clock would stop, making a one-possession lead in the final minute less of a foregone conclusion.
- 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, and is in most rulebooks a specific exception to the intentional grounding rule (as long as the ball is handed to the quarterback by the center, rather than snapped long in a shotgun formation or similar, and as long as the quarterback does so immediately). 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. Using this technique to stop the clock does cost the down that the "play" is run, so obviously it should not be run on fourth down. 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 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. When Peyton Manning was starting for the Colts, then later finishing his career with the Denver Broncos, his teams ran a slower version of the no-huddle by rushing to the line... then waiting 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). He'd also make adjustments at the line based on what he saw the defenders do.
- 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, in the NFL, 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, in college, 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 until they are downed, at which point their team's offense takes the field. 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 Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler 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: 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 relatively 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. In recent years, even less aggressive coaches are becoming more likely to "go for it" if they are in opposing territory, 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.
- Kickoff: A kickoff 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.note The kicking team must stay behind the ball until it is kicked or the play will be offside. The ball must travel at least 10 yards before the kicking team can attempt to regain possession; though most kick offs are sent as far down the field as possible so the receiving team starts with poorer field position, under certain circumstances (usually a team that just scored still being behind late in the game) a kicking team will want to regain the ball immediately, and so will attempt an "onside kick", using a weak kick that travels the minimum distance while sending their own players to recover it instead of letting the other team get it and just blocking the return.
- The Alliance of American Football had no kickoffs. After a touchdown or field goal, the team scored upon automatically received the ball on its own 25-yard line... unless an "onside conversion" was attempted (see below under "Onside kick").
- The 2020 version of the XFL had kickoffs, but with a radically different procedure from any past or present league. The kickoff took place from the kicking team's 30, and the kicker was the only player on either team on the kicking team's half of the field. The rest of the kicking team lined up on the receiving team's 35, while the receiving team lined up on its own 30 except for one returner. Additionally, both teams were required to have four players lined up inside the hashmarks, with three between the hashmarks and sideline on each side of the field. The kick had to be in the air, and at least reach the receiving team's 20. No member of either team, except for the returner, could move until (1) the ball was caught or (2) 3 seconds after it touched the ground. (After following through, the kicker could not move until the rest of his teammates could do so.)
- 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 20-yard line except on kickoffs in the NFL and college football, where the mark is instead the 25-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). In college football only, a kickoff that ends in a fair catch by the receiving team between its own 25-yard line and goal line is treated as a touchback, with the ball being moved to the 25.
- The 2020 XFL strongly discouraged kicks into the end zone. A kickoff that touched the ground between the 20 and goal line and then bounced out of the end zone, or downed in it, gave the receiving team possession on its own 15. The flip side: a kickoff that traveled into the end zone in the air and was downed resulted in a "major touchback", with the receiving team getting possession on its own 35. Punts that went out of bounds between the receiving team's 35 and goal line, or into the end zone, also resulted in the ball being placed on the receiving team's 35.
- 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 signal this by waving one hand above their head. Improperly signaling 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 signaling 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 kickoff, 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.
- While fully "stacked" formations remain legal in high school football, they're now illegal in both college and the NFL. College rules require that at least four players be on each side of the ball. NFL rules are even more restrictivefirst, in 2009, it prohibited kicking teams from "bunching" more than five players together, and then in 2018 it required that kicking teams place five players on each side of the ball, with further restrictions on their side-to-side placement. Also in 2018, the NFL mandated that no member of the kicking team, except for the kicker, could move before the ball was kicked. The rate of successful onside kicks plummeted, and most of the ones that were successful were directed to the middle of the field instead of the sides.
- The Alliance of American Football used an "onside conversion" as its alternative to an onside kick. After a team scores a touchdown or field goal, the scoring team could attempt a special fourth-down conversion if it was (1) trailing by at least 17 points, or (2) 5 minutes or less remain in the fourth quarter. The ball was placed on the scoring team's own 28-yard line, with a successful conversion requiring a 12-yard gain. If the conversion was successful, the scoring team would continue with its possession; otherwise, the team that defended the conversion got possession at the final spot of the play. This play was also available to a team that gave up a safety, with the same constraints on scoring deficit and/or time remaining; in this case, the conversion attempt was a fourth-and-12 from the scored-upon team's 18-yard line.
- The 2020 XFL allowed onside kicks, using NFL rules, but the kicking team had to declare its intent to attempt such a kick before the play.
Levels of play
There are three major organizational tiers of football: high school, college, and professional (the latter dominated by the NFL). All of them have fairly unique but important roles in American popular culture.
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 venue is large enough and centrally located. There is no national high school football championship; there are altogether too many high schools for this to work, never mind added expense of hosting a game or tournament. 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. There's even one pair of high schools in twin cities on opposite sides of a state border that not only have a rivalry, but share a stadium.note These are very much the exception, though, and can be complicated by bureaucratic issues like different states having slight differences in the rulesnote and the legal/liability headache involved in carrying dozens of minors across state lines.
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. The number of women who play football at the college level is even tinier than at the college level; almost all of them play non-contact special team positions for smaller schools. The most talented high school athletes are offered scholarships to play football, with exceptionally talented players often being targeted for recruitment by those with prestigious programs. Even getting to this level is an admirable accomplishment: barely 5% of high school players ever land a football scholarship. Those that miss their shot can attempt to try out for a college team anyway, but success stories of players making the pros from this route are incredibly rare. College players must be enrolled and take classes at the college in question; they can be granted scholarships but are not directly paid by their schools, even though many colleges make more money from their football programs than they do from any other revenue source. However, thanks to changes in eligibility rules in 2021, players can now earn money from outside sources (personal appearances, endorsements, etc.) with relatively few limitations.
There are numerous tiers of collegiate football in the United States, stretching across two organizations - the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the smaller National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) - with at least 5 recognized national championship systems. The top division of the NCAA is split into two separate subdivisions, called Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). Generally, the term 'college football' in the United States refers to teams in the FBS, which is the highest tier. Games are usually played on Saturdays.
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:
- "Power Five" or "Big Five" The richest and most competitive leaguesthe Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 (not "Pacific-12"), and Southeastern Conference (SEC). The University of Notre Dame is also counted among the "Power Five".note These conferences receive automatic spots in the so-called "New Year's Six", the top tier of bowl games that includes the two semifinal games of the College Football Playoff (CFP) that began in 2014. Notre Dame does not have an automatic spot in any "New Year's Six" game but does get special consideration (namely, when it doesn't make a semifinal, it's part of the shortlist for one of the other three or four games, depending on the season).
- "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 (MW), and Sun Belt. The other six independents (Army, BYU, Liberty, New Mexico State, UConn, UMass) also fall in this group, although the first two are sometimes counted as Power Five teams for the purposes of Power Five conferences that insist all of their schools have at least one Power Five nonconference opponent. The American would have you believe that they are a Power Six conference.note Four schools are set to leave the Group of Five ranks in the near future; BYU and three members of The American are set to join the Big 12 (which is losing its two highest-profile members) in 2023. In that same year, Liberty and NMSU will leave the independent ranks to join C-USA.
In seasons when a "New Year's Six" game 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
- 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 oldest and most prestigious regular bowl, the Rose Bowl.
- The participants in the other three games (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 Playoff National Championship, 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.
For more on college football, see its dedicated page.
Once exceptional college players have passed the minimum requirements to do so, they will typically declare for the NFL Draft (some will stick at the college level one more year to increase their draft stock, finish their degree, or honor a commitment to the program, but those stories are exceptionally rare and getting rarer). The jump from college to the pros is even steeper than from high school to college: the NFL only drafts around 250-300 players annually, and while another couple dozen players who miss the draft are typically signed to an NFL team out of college, even many of those who are drafted don't make the final cuts for pro rosters. Those that make the final cut are guaranteed a minimum annual salary of $660,000 (minus taxes), but the average player won't make it more than four years in the NFL before being replaced by the next generation of hungry young talent. Those that miss their spot can still try to make a living playing football in smaller leagues (examples listed below), but none of them pay salaries that a player can retire on in their thirties. The better option for those seeking to stay in the sport is to enter coaching (far more coaches at all levels of the sport have no pro playing experience than those that do). Long story short: If you're planning on playing football past high school, you better either have a backup plan or really love the game, because you're more likely to win the lottery than make a lifetime living out of it.
The real money in pro football isn't in the players' hands: It's in the team owners' (who are almost all billionaires off of merchandise and ticket sales) and the television networks'. A football game equals guaranteed high ratings. Any pro football game is almost guaranteed to be the most-watched program of the day (mostly Sundays, with a handful of games on Thursdays and Mondays), 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 M*A*S*H as the most-watched program in American history (and was itself unseated by Super Bowl XLV the following year). Outside of the games, multiple TV channels compete for dominance with each other, generating content and covering news about players on and off the field that makes NFL football one of the best Reality TV shows out there.
For more on the NFL's history and teams, see its dedicated page.
The NFL has been the dominant football league in America for almost its entire existence after it kicked off in 1920 as the "American Professional Football Association" (it changed the name two years later), and you can read all about it on its own page. There have. however, been various attempts to compete with the NFL, some more successful than others. A few of the more notable include:
- AFL I (1926): A Retronym to distinguish from the later, more famous fourth league to use the "American Football League" name, and the first attempt to compete with the (then six-year old) National Football League. Formed when future Hall of Famer "Red" Grange left the Chicago Bears to Start My Own league, it only lasted a season; Grange's team, the New York Yankees, played a few more seasons in the NFL before it dissolved after he returned to the Bears.
- AFL II (1936-37): Another short-lived use of the AFL name, this league spawned the Cleveland Rams, which left for the NFL after the first season. Its second season champion was the Los Angeles Bulldogs, the first professional football team to play on the West Coast and first to put up a perfect winning season—too bad the league folded, and the NFL refused to pick them up due to the cost of transcontinental travel during the Depression before technology could quite make a West Coast team tenable. (Ironically, the Rams would move to L.A. themselves a decade later.)
- AFL III (1940-41): The least memorable of this series of already forgettable American Football Leagues.
- All-America Football Conference (1946-49): 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 won the championship in each of its four seasons and proved to be one of the top teams in the NFL for the next decade; Browns stars Marion Motley and Bill Willis broke the color barrier in pro football just a few years before Jackie Robinson did so in baseball.
- Canadian Football League (1958-present; expanded to the United States 1993-1995): Plays in Canada, using Canadian rules with three downs, 12 men on the field, and a larger field. Since the NFL does not have any minor league system, many players who don't quite make it to the NFL move north to play in Canada, and a few, such as Warren Moon and Doug Flutie, move back to have successful NFL careers. From 1993 to 1995, the CFL expanded into several US cities, but all the American teams folded by the start of the 1996 season. Most American football leagues (and high school and college football) play in the autumn, with their championships in early winter; due to Canada's harsher climate, the CFL plays over the summer, with its championship game, the Grey Cup, contested in November.
- American Football League (1960-69): Actually the fourth league to use this name, although they were easily the most successful. Probably the most visible competition to the NFL, the two leagues merged in 1970, creating the current AFC and NFC conferences. Notably, none of the league's teams ever folded nor were excluded from the merger. All of the AFL's teams are now NFL franchises (though the Houston Oilers are now the Tennessee Titans). 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 (1973-75): 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. In its first season, the WFL made waves for attracting several members of the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins to join the league. Two of those Dolphins - Larry Csonka and Paul Warfield - are the only WFL players to make 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 (1982-87): 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 and most notable 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. ultimate irony 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 started to take over the league. Trump had the USFL sue the NFL for an anti-trust violation and planned on moving the USFL to the fall, likely in a failed attempt at a Batman Gambit where he expected the NFL to repeat what it had done with the AFL and absorb his franchise into the NFL. The USFL won its anti-trust violation and was awarded... $3. The NFL didn't pick up any of the USFL's franchises, and the league folded shortly after that. Four USFL players (Steve Youngnote , 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.
- New USFL (2022-present): After the brief success of the XFL's revival suggested that spring football was viable for a national market (global pandemics notwithstanding), the owners of the very small Fall Experimental Football League (2014-16) and The Spring League (2017-) partnered with FOX Sports to acquire the trademark of the USFL and its teams. Set to launch in spring 2022, this USFL will start on a much smaller scale than its predecessor or of the XFL, with all eight of its teams planning on playing in a single city (most likely Birmingham, which opened a new stadium in October 2021) for its inaugural season.
- Arena Football League (1987-2008, 2010-19): Just based on longevity and popularity, the Arena Football League was probably the best known alternative league since the '60s American Football League, even though the Arena League never attempted to compete with the NFL. The league played "Arena football", which is different in several ways to regular football, stuff we'll let The Other Wiki explain 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. Only one AFL player, Kurt Warner, has been inducted into the Hall of Fame after seeing success in the NFL. There are other, smaller (low-paying) indoor football leagues in America's small to mid-sized cities which don't use AFL rules (since they were patented at the league's launch; however, the original patents have since expired) and are generally unstable, with teams folding or changing leagues seemingly every year; even the AFL wasn't immune to this, as the league went from a peak of 19 teams at various points in the 2000s to down to just 6 in. On November 27, 2019, the Arena Football League filed for bankruptcy and ceased operations for the second time.
- Original XFL (2000-01): 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 spiraled 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. It was the home for a handful of very good players - mostly undrafted college players and NFL second-stringers who were never really given a chance and were just happy to be playing pro football at all. The league's best player was Los Angeles Xtreme QB Tommy Maddox, who became its lone MVP. The league's best known player — even to this day — is 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 detractors were 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 divisive 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 just 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 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. In the XFL's defense, it helped make the "Sky-Cam" a mainstay of NFL and NCAA broadcasts and unlike the Alliance of American Football below, actually finished its only season of play.
- New XFL (2018-present): Nearly two decades after the demise of the original XFL, McMahon relaunched the league in 2020, one week after Super Bowl LIV. The new XFL was intended to be a more serious league, eschewing the sports entertainment gimmicks of its predecessor; to distance the new league from the WWE's operations, McMahon created a new company, Alpha Entertainment, to oversee the XFL. Additionally, the new XFL is positioning itself as a complement to the NFL instead of a direct competitor. The new XFL's teams were based in seven current NFL markets (New York City, Washington DC, Tampa Bay, Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles and Seattle) and one former NFL market (St. Louis), with some teams even sharing incumbent NFL venues. In order to speed up the pace of play, the XFL used timing rules similar to the now-defunct Arena Football League where the clock continuously runs except in the final two minutes of each half. Unfortunately, with the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19, the XFL's revival was cut short 5 weeks in; however, unlike the Alliance, which left its players and staff high and dry when it folded, the XFL assured its players and staff they would get compensated for the unplayed weeks of the regular season. The league initially planned to return in 2021, which looked questionable when they suspended operations, laid off its employees, and filed for bankruptcy three days later. Just when everyone thought the league would die completely, Dwayne Johnson stepped in, leading a group that bought the league's assets shortly before they had been set to be auctioned. A few months later, The Rock tweeted that the league planned to resume play in 2022, though this date has been pushed back to 2023 at the earliest as the league explores the possibility of partnering with other non-NFL leagues for greater security.
- United Football League (2007-13): Another entry into the NFL competitor sweepstakes, the UFL remained largely low key and at the time of its demise featured only four teams in small markets. During the 2011 NFL lockout, it gained media attention for extending invitation to NFL players to play for them if the regular season had been delayed. This didn't happen. The final teams were in Virginia Beach, Virginia; Omaha, Nebraska; Las Vegas, Nevada and Sacramento, California—not exactly football hotbedsnote , but each team had 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 was ever made about the league's future, and the UFL is technically still in existence, but as the business licenses for all its teams expired and said teams and the league itself have almost no staff on the payroll, the league moved on not with a bang, but with a whimper.
- Extreme Football League (2010-present; branded as "X League"): Formerly known as the Lingerie Football League and later as the Legends 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, two-piece sports-wear with padding and helmets, with games carried in edited form on networks like MTV2, YouTube, and Fuse TV. 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 the criticism. 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. At the beginning of the 2018 season, players began the season wearing lacrosse helmets, shoulder pads with a team-colored cover, bras and yoga pants. Near the end of the season, however, the LFL apparently couldn't help itself and switched to booty shorts. The league initially announced that it would not hold a 2020 season, but soon restructured itself as the X League, with plans to resume play in April 2020. However, COVID-19 caused the 2020 and 2021 seasons to be canceled; the league plans to resume in 2022.
- Alliance of American Football (2018-19): This ill-fated league launched in 2019, one week after Super Bowl LIII, with eight teams, each one playing in an NCAA FBS stadium. As with many alternative pro leagues, teams were based primarily in markets without an NFL team (Birmingham, Memphis, Orlando, Salt Lake City, and San Antonio)note ; however, two teams were based in current NFL markets (Atlanta and Phoenix), with a third in a former NFL market (San Diego). The league was founded by Bill Polian and Charlie Ebersol; the latter's father, former NBC Sports executive Dick Ebersol, was involved in the original XFL. On April 2, 2019; the AAF announced it was suspending operations after just eight weeks of play, leaving the final two weeks of the regular season and the playoffs unplayed, and the league filed for bankruptcy two weeks later. Without a championship game, the Orlando Apollos, with the league-best record of 7-1 when play was terminated, were declared the de facto champions of the AAF by sports betting website FanDuel. Lead investor Tom Dundon had withdrawn his funding after the league failed to reach an agreement with the NFL Players' Association to allow third string and practice squad players to receive playing time in the AAF. The abrupt ending of the league resulted in a major controversy, after players reported that they were now left on the hook for medical bills, hotel rooms, travel and other expenses. The AAF now serves as a cautionary tale of how not to run any professional sports league.
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, formerly of ESPN.com, wrote that one of his readers lost $100,000 because of that play.
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. By extension, this can result in some fantasy players wanting real teams to run up the score (ordinarily considered unsportsmanlike and, in some cases, detrimental to the team's success) in order to improve their fantasy team's stats.
American Football in other countries
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 , 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 at the professional level by the Canadian Football League and at universitynote level by U Sports. The rules of the Canadian game are distinct from the American version (12 players rather than 11 per team, 3 downs per series instead of 4, and a much larger field, among other differences), enough that it is sometimes considered its own sport. American viewers are more likely to know of the CFL than any international league due to its regional popularity and geographic proximity; for the same reason, it is typically the #1 destination for college players who missed the draft or NFL washouts, even though the league institutes limits on the number of American players per team and fairly few CFL players make the jump to the NFL today. Hall of Famer Warren Moon did successfully make the leap back in the '80s, proving it can be done.
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 airs Monday 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).
To stoke further interest in the American game, the NFL started playing an annual regular season game at the new Wembley Stadium in London starting in 2007. Starting in 2013, the Jaguars have played one of their home dates in London every year because their owner also owns English Premier League side Fulham (though they will not play in London in 2020 due to COVID-19). Because of this, there were now two annual games in London. In 2016 the NFL added a third London game, played at Twickenham Stadium (England's national rugby stadium). In 2017, the number jumped to four: two games at Wembley and two at Twickenham, meaning four teams got to play "home games" at least 2,000 miles across The Pond at a neutral venue. Starting in 2019, the venues changed to Wembley and the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the latter built for both the EPL club and the NFL.note 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 had 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 was the most important championship in Latin America before the country established Liga Fútbol Americano, a fully professional league (the first such gridiron football league outside the US and Canada) in 2016. The new league launched with four teams, expanding to six in 2017, eight in 2019, and nine for the upcoming 2020 season. Mexicans have been playing college American football since the 1920s, and today's top Mexican college teams are seen as roughly equivalent to NCAA Division III (non-scholarship) teams, but steadily improving. In 2009, a Mexican college team beat Blinn College, a Texas junior college (two-year school), in an exhibition. Making that game more significant was that Blinn went on to win the US junior college national title, and the quarterback who lost the exhibition and won the national title was Cam Newton. Yes, that Cam Newton. 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; this was achieved in 2017, with the Patriots blowing out the Raiders 33-8 at Estadio Azteca.note
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 American Football Association of Germany (AFVD for short due to its German name) organizes roughly 200 teams, the elite division is called German Football Leaguenote and comprises 16 (less in the event of bankruptcies) teams partitioned into north and south divisions. The finalists from the playoffs determine the German champion during the German Bowl. All but one of the NFL Europa teamsnote were based in Germany by the time it folded. Curiously, although American soldiers were stationed mostly in the southern parts, the north now dominates strongly, having won all German Bowls between 1993 and 2011. (Ansbach and Frankfurt dominated the league in 1979 and the next couple of years largely on the strength of nearby US military bases.) The Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns are the first serious challenge to Northern dominance, having won the German Bowlnote in 2011 and 2012 as well as 2017 and 2018note and often giving a fierce fight in the Playoffs. 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 a win in 2010. The most successful teams are Brunswick (New Yorker) Lions, Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns, Kiel Baltic Hurricanes and Dresden Monarchsnote . Historically, teams like Berlin Adler or Hamburg Blue Devils were also quite good until budget woes kept them from signing good American talent and coaches and their German players left. As of 2021, the rules put a limit of two on the amount of "American" players (Mexicans, Canadians, and Japanese also count as "Americans") that can be on the field at any given time. However, there is no such limit for European players from outside Germany, which means that the best teams are often an assortment of "European all stars", with the French national quarterback playing in the second league in Germany for many years. Furthermore if an American player manages to be nationalized in a EU member country (say, if they have an Irish grandfather or an Italian grandmother) they also count as "European" and no longer count towards the limit on "Americans". German teams are usually strong in European competitions if they participate, but quite often conflicts between the different associations or the unwillingness of teams to undergo long trips abroad to play games of questionable value (even GFL2 teams routinely dominate teams from weaker leagues in Europe) mean no or very weird German representation. In 2021 the Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns won the CEFL Bowl which had representation by the two Austrian top teams that year but had only seen lackluster teams competing (and no European entrants) in prior seasons.
On the spectator side, Football in Germany has had its ebbs and flows, being introduced thanks to American soldiers in the area and steadily growing thanks to decent coverage by the main Pay TV providernote , however the bankruptcy of the Hamburg Blue Devils, the shutdown of NFL Europe (which never made a cent in profits and had only one arguably financially sustainable franchise in Frankfurt) and a slump of the Braunschweig Lions dealt a serious blow to the sport; for some time even having the Super Bowl on German TV was hit and miss. However, quality of play stayed high and Germany won the European championship of 2010 with the league slowly but surely recovering on a broader base instead of the Hamburg-Braunschweig duopoly of the 1990s and early 2000s. By 2014, more NFL games could be found on TV and Germany defended its European title in Austria against Austria in front of 27,000 people. Someone at Sat1 took note and the 2015 regular season was to be the first to be carried in free TV. Ratings exploded, and the NFL has become a social phenomenon in Germany ever since, way past what even the best NFL Europe days could have hoped for. In 2016, Schwäbisch Hall wide receiver Moritz Böhringer became the first European ever drafted by an NFL team without having played American college ball, and is now on the Minnesota Vikings' practice squad. However, the 2016 NFL season also saw struggles for many of the German NFL players. Björn Werner failed to make a team after his contract with the Colts ran out as did Markus Kuhn after he was released by the New York Giants - both would announce their retirement at the end of the season on German TV. Sebastian Vollmer was on injured reserve for the Patriots throughout the season (though that did make him eligible for a Super Bowl ring nonetheless) while the aforementioned Böhringer couldn't crack the roster but stayed on the practice squad, he has since signed a futures contract with the Vikings. Kasim Edebali of the New Orleans Saints meanwhile played solidly but failed to become a starter - much to the chagrin of fellow Hamburger Patrick Esume who works as an expert for Ran NFL.
In The Netherlands, the sport is run by the American Football Bond Nederland (American Football Association Netherlands). The league consists of two divisions. The Eredivisie (Premier League) is the highest ranked division and consists of eight teams. The First Division contains 11 teams is divided in 2 groups. In the days of the NFL Europe, the Amsterdam Admirals were one of the long running participants and eventually the only non-German team in the league. American Football has a small, but devoted fanbase in The Netherlands. On average, the Admirals attracted 12.000 fans to home games in the Amsterdam Arena (capacity of 50.000). The Superbowl is live broadcasted on the open channel, while the other games are available via pay television.
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 three for 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. Traditionally Finnish teams relied on huge physical guys and Finnish linemen and tight ends are still sought after in the top leagues of Europe.
In Austria, the top-tier Austrian Football Leaguenote 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.
In Australia, where Australian Rules Football and Rugby League reign supreme, "Gridiron" has attracted a small following, thanks in part to TV coverage of the NFL. The Super Bowl airs live on the free-to-air Seven Network (despite it kicking off in the middle of the morning on a Monday). A total of 73 teams on the senior and junior levels play in Australia. Gridiron has also benefitted from Crossover action by Australians. Rugby league star Jarryd Hayne had a high-profile stint with the San Francisco 49ers, and an Australian talent pipeline has revolutionized punting in the American game, with the so-called "rugby punt" (punting while running, actually more of an Aussie Rules manuever) becoming common. The 2016 college game between California and Hawaii in Sydney drew an unexpectedly huge crowd to ANZ Stadium (around 61,000). The 2017 game (Stanford and Rice) only got about half that attendance, though.
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 thre in 2007, 2011 and 2015. The American and Canadian National teams don't include any NFL or CFL players (and the few NFL players from other countries are not allowed to play for their national teams either) and in fact even top college talent is conspicuously absent. Still, the US team has only lost one game during its entire existence - against a "rest of the world" all star team, which sent many members to top colleges and the NFL later on.note
The European Federation of American Football is the governing body in Europe (for the most part, there have been squabbles between IFAF and EFAF in the past, mostly fueled by the egos of the respective leaders). It's main business is organizing pan-European competition like the Eurobowl (now renamed to Big6) or the European Championship. Judging from the media interest and spectator numbers of the 2014 European Championship (all games live in Austrian TV, 27 000 turned out for the final) they are doing a pretty decent job of it. However, the lack of competitive balance between Germany, Austria, France on one hand and pretty much the rest of Europe on the other as well as the lack of enthusiasm for the sport in many countries make their job rather difficult. The next European championship is to be held in Germany in 2018 who are also defending champions twice over (2010 & 2014).
Major American leagues have also held some regular season games outside of the United States. In 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. Since 2007, the NFL has played or has plans to play at least one regular season game outside of the United States each year, with London being the typical location. The NCAA will also play games outside of the U.S. In 2012, the U.S. Naval Academy played Notre Dame's Fighting Irish in Dublin, Ireland. In 2014, Dublin again hosted the sport, though at a different stadium,note when Penn State and UCF (Central Florida) played, and the Bahamas began hosting a postseason bowl game. The 2016 season saw two season openers outside the U.S., with California and Hawaii playing in Sydney and a return to Dublin, this time with Boston College and Georgia Tech. Another Sydney game was played as a 2017 season opener, this time involving Stanford and Rice.
American Football in fiction:
- The Super Bowl Special is its own trope in advertising.
- 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.
- Eyeshield 21, with some backing from the NFL.
- 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. This ends up being an example of Small Reference Pools for "big sporting event" (using "World Series" would be more appropriate).
- Short-lived and much criticized Marvel Comics hero NFL Superpro was an NFL player.
- 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 (2000): 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 Odessa, Texas (changed to the Dillon Panthers for the TV series), 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.
- Averted in The Fortune Cookie, which featured the Cleveland Browns.
- 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 said 1970-1971 Marshall 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 Alexandria, Virginia in the 1970s.
- Radio, a 2003 film also set in the South in the 1970s (here South Carolina) about the relationship between a white high school coach and a mentally challenged African American.
- 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.
- Draft Day starred 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 nuclear bomb at the center of The Sum of All Fears is detonated at a football game in Baltimore. Scenes in the stadium were actually shot at a Canadian Football League game; consequently, the two teams go unnamed in the film. In the novel, the game in question is explicitly stated to be the Super Bowl, and the names of actual NFL teams, as well as that of Mile High Stadiumnote are used.
- Gus: a live-action Disney film about a donkey that can kick soccer ball for 100 meters, and thus a 99-yard field goal, and the hapless pro team than hires the animal and its handler to rescue their season.
- The Freshman features Harold Lloyd as a hopeless benchwarmer who manages to make his way into the Big Game.
- The Waterboy stars Adam Sandler as the socially inept (but also intelligent) Bobby Boucher, a waterboy for a college football team, and finds that his anger issues from being teased make him an extraordinary linebacker.
- One subplot in the coming-of-age comedy-drama Lucas focuses on the title character, an undersized young genius, trying to play for his high school football team.
- Wildcats 1986 stars Goldie Hawn as the daughter of a coaching legend who becomes head coach at an inner-city high school.
- DC Extended Universe: Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) was an academic football player for the Gotham City University team before the accident that crippled him. He has a flashback in which he scores a decisive victory for the GCU in Zack Snyder's Justice League.
- Friday Night Lights
- 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
EuropeanItalian "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.
- The Blind Side was actually a book before it became a movie. The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, by Michael Lewis, is roughly half the story of Michael Oher and half the story of the evolution of the position of offensive tackle from the 1980s to the 21st century.
- Friday Night Lights. Much like its literary and movie counterpart, it's a Genre Deconstruction of the mythos surrounding football and the feel-good sports movie. Odessa, Texas is a Dying Town that places all its hopes on the Permian Panthers high school football team. As a result, the players face major forms of scrutiny from just about everyone, and it leads to quite a bit of heartache.
- Playmakers, an unsuccessful attempt at bringing the idea behind Any Given Sunday to the small screen.note
- 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.
- Superdome, a Direct-to-TV Follow the Leader / Dueling Movies with Black Sunday. Notable only as a very early MST3K target.
- 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
- In Star Trek: Enterprise, a Vulcan asks one Tuker about football. A Vulcan cultural observer had witnessed a game and assumed the goal was to kill the Quarterback. Tucker sets the record straight.
- Sheldon Cooper turns out to be a football buff, which he credits to his upbringing in Texas.
- The song "Round Up" by Sam Spence is sometimes used in NFL Films that air on the NFL Network.
- The overwhelming majority of collegiate fight songs will include a reference to the sport. Keep in mind that these fight songs apply to their respective schools' entire athletic programs...
- Ray Stevens's 'Armchair Quarterback' discusses not as much the game as some of its fans.
- Kenny Chesney's song "The Boys of Fall" is pretty much Friday Night Lights set to country music.
- 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.
- Andy Griffith 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 played college football for Temple University as a fullback. He got tired of people constantly asking about it, saying at one time "it's the truth! Don't keep asking me 'did you really play?' Yes, I really played!" However, he notes that the teams he played for were never very good, describing players from the rival school Hofstra as giant monsters who beat Temple 900-0 in their street clothes.
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.
- Cosby also describes playing football in the streets of Philadelphia as a kid:
- Bob Nelson's college football routine.
- 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 Super Bowl, which correctly predicted the winner every year for the first several years it was done.
- NCAA Football is Madden's sister series for college football. However, it entered legal limbo in 2014 as even its No Celebrities Were Harmed in-game representations of real college players (whose names and likenesses the series cannot legally use due to their "amateur" status) were considered too close to the real thing for comfort. The series was suspended indefinitely after NCAA Football 14.
- One challenger to Madden NFL's dominance was 2K Games' NFL 2K series. It disappeared after EA obtained the exclusive rights to the NFL Franchise for making video games, and has only made one last appearance with All-Pro Football 2K8, which used fictional teams and former/retired players.
- 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 straight-laced announcing of impossible plays such as Jeff George's "Wonder Pass". Even to this day, there are hacking groups that mod Tecmo Super Bowl ROMs to include updated rosters, updated team graphics and expansion teams, and even managed to change the divisions to the way they are today (Tecmo Super Bowl was released back when the AFC and the NFC had East, Central, and West divisions. Modded versions of the game now include the North, East, South, and West Divisions for each conference.)
- 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.
- The Chargin' Chuck in Super Mario World is dressed in football padding. Some varieties kick footballs or throw baseballs at you.
- Backyard Football
- Mutant League Football
- 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.
- Peanuts specials:
- Its Your First Kiss Charlie Brown has 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.
- Youre In The Super Bowl Charlie Brown has the kids compete 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.
- King of the Hill:
- "Bills Are Made To Be Broken" 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.
- "Suite Smell of Excess" features the guys and Bobby attending a college conference championship game between the Texas Longhorns and the Nebraska Cornhuskers (a fictitious game, although Texas and Nebraska did play for the Big 12 championship in 1996, 1999, and 2009), in which they end up sneaking into a luxury box normally used by a famous Nebraska alum and former football player.
- In "A Beer Can Named Desire", Hank wins a trip to a Cowboys vs. Saints game in New Orleans, with the choice of either throwing a football into a mock beer can and earning $1 million, or having former Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith make the throw for him and earn $100 thousand.
- Hank Hill's personal hero is Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry, who often appears to Hank in various dreams or visions, and is also the namesake for Arlen's middle school.
- 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.
- SilverHawks team members (and super-strong Cyborg Genius Bruisers Will and Emily Hart are hard-core football fans-Will's Collapsible Helmet even looks like a football one!
- The Simpsons:
- In "You Only Move Twice", Homer tells Hank Scorpio that he dreams of owning the Dallas Cowboys. In the end, Hank rewards Homer by giving him ownership of the Denver Broncos, to Homer's disappointment. Hilariously, since this episode aired, the Broncos have gone to the Super Bowl 4 times and won 3 times, whereas the Cowboys haven't even gotten to their Conference Championship since.
- In "Bart Star", Bart enrolls in pee-wee football, though the thrill is gone when Homer decides to be his coach. Features a cameo by Joe Namath.
- In "Sunday, Cruddy Sunday", Homer organizes a trip to Super Bowl XXXIII, where everything that can go wrong does. Features appearances by the likes of Dan Marino, Troy Aikman, John Madden, and Pat Summerall.
- On Pepper Ann, the title character spent a season as Hazelnut Middle School's placekicker, ultimately deciding to lose a beauty pagent in order to make a crucial kick in the team's most important game. (She had to take time off from the school's Soccer team in order to play.)
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 an American college campus on game day. Or on Super Bowl Sunday pretty much all around the globe and ask the person wearing the most NFL gear.