Super Bowl XLVII: An idiot’s guide for newcomers to NFL

Super Bowl XLVII: As the Ravens prepare to face the 49ers, Sportsbeat's Chris Bailey gives newcomers the basics

By Sportsbeat

What is the NFL and why should I care about it?

The NFL stands for the National Football League and is to American Football what the Premier League is to ‘soccer’. Why should you care? Because if it didn’t contain the thrills, spills, heroes and heartbreak as advertised, millions of Americans wouldn’t be holding their TV remotes hostage every Sunday.

Not sure about that – looks pretty boring to me

A lot of this complaint is down to the befuddling laws of the game which can often put off NFL newbies before a snap is even played. But I was in your position a mere two years ago and rest assured – persistence pays off.

Alright I’ll give it a go – but just because of this Super Bowl thing. What’s that?

It’s the NFL’s annual grand slobberknocker. The league is divided into two conferences – AFC and NFC – and the best of each are pitted against one other having negotiated a brutal five-month schedule.

Sounds quite an occasion, but I think I’d better learn the basics. How many players?

The NFL is so specialised that each team puts out two different sides when either attacking or defending – ‘offence’ and ‘defence’. They both field eleven players, as in our football, with the simple aim of either scoring against or stopping your opponents. One team’s offence and defence will never meet on the same pitch, though. And as for substitutes – the squad limit is 53 and coaches bring on different players between snaps all the time depending on how they want to line-up in an effort to outfox the opposition.

Hold on, you’ve mentioned ‘snap’ twice now. Care to clarify?

It is simply the start of each play. You’ll notice there are two lines of bodies facing each other as if about to lock into a scrum, right? The central player (called the ‘centre’) in the offensive line will start the play by ‘snapping’ the football to the quarterback. It is then the offensive line’s job to protect the quarterback from being hit or pressured by the other row, which is aptly named the defensive line.

Quarterbacks … they’re always mentioned in American sitcoms. Must be pretty important?

Absolutely. Only one on each offence, they are what makes a team tick by being the men primarily responsible for scoring points. They will either pass the ball, run with the ball or hand the ball off to someone else to run. However, this isn’t like rugby – passes must all go forward or the offence gets penalised. At the start of each snap an offence’s receivers will run up the pitch and try to shake off their defensive counterparts so they are free to catch the ball. If there isn’t a good option, sometimes quarterbacks will run up the pitch – however, more often than not they will hand the ball to a running back who sprints with the ball through the defence as far as he can.

OK, the ‘offence’ seems to have a lot of weapons. How does the defence stop them?

Thankfully for the defence, the offence only gets four attempts to move the ball up the field. If they do not move ten yards in four attempts, they have to give the ball to the opposition – in which instance that team’s offence enters the fray. These ‘attempts’ are called downs. At the start of each match you’ll see ‘1st and 10’ tucked into the corner by the score. This means it is first down and they are ten yards away from another first down. Should they only move three yards, for example, the next snap will be ‘2nd and 7’. If the ball does move 10 yards or more, from wherever the offence is tackled or runs out of bounds it starts over at 1st and 10. Unless there’s a very short distance to go for another first down, most offences send out their punter on fourth down to boot the ball away as far as they can for territory – like in rugby. You don’t want to risk giving the other team’s offence the ball near your end-zone (more on that later).

Why does anyone need to catch it? Can’t the quarterback just throw it into empty space to get a first down?

Nope. The ball must not touch the ground – like in cricket for a batsman to be caught. If a receiver, a running back or a quarterback gets tackled and the ball hits the ground, that’s OK as long as either their knee or their ball-carrying arm gets down to the deck first.

And if it doesn’t?

It’s a fumble and you have one of those spectacular, potentially game-changing moments where players from both sides flail around trying to pick up the ball first. If the defence do, it’s called a ‘turnover’ – meaning a turnover of possession as their offence return to the field from wherever the ball is carried to. Feasibly, a defensive player can pick the ball up and run all the way for a touchdown. This can also happen when the defence catch the ball ahead of an offence’s receiver, which is an ‘interception’

Even I know what a touchdown is, but how are they scored?

If the ball is thrown or run into the opposition’s end-zone – a rectangular box at each end of the pitch – it’s a touchdown for six points. It works a bit like a rugby try-line but you don’t have to ground the ball and it can be caught from anywhere within the zone. Teams then decide to either kick for an extra point from within ten yards or go for a two-point conversion, which is a snap from the two-yard line. The caveat of the latter is that you only get one attempt to throw or run it into the end-zone, so in most situations it is safer and far easier to go for the kick.

Any other ways in which points can be scored?

Kicks, or ‘field goals’, work much like rugby – in between the posts and you earn three points. Teams will elect to do so if they are near enough to make the kick but are on fourth down. Or perhaps it is near the end of the fourth quarter and they’re three points away from winning the whole thing …


Oh yeah. Pretty straightforward. The game lasts for an hour and is divided into four quarters, but there is a 15 minute break at half-time. The offence has 40 seconds between each play to snap the ball. Time is an essential part of the game – do you wind the clock down if you’re the offence and you’re trying to hang onto the lead? Teams also get three timeouts per half. A defence might decide to call a timeout to stop the clock, which prevents the offence from slyly taking their time.

I think I’m slowly getting it now. But my head hurts.

Your education does not end here. The only way you’ll pick up the nuances of the game is to watch and learn.

Thanks. By the way, what’s a ‘Hail Mary’?

Ah, yes. It is a deep, desperate pass on a wing and a prayer. If a team is losing with only seconds left, the quarterback might decide to sling the ball up-field in the hope of a touchdown. There are a few problems with this. Firstly the ball must reach the end-zone, secondly his receivers must reach the end-zone, and thirdly those receivers must catch the ball before it drops to the ground or is batted down by the defence. See last year’s Super Bowl between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots for a failed example of this. When it does work, however, it’s one of those jaw-dropping moments which make the game what it is.

What haven’t we covered?

Kick-offs, particular offensive and defensive positions, sacks, safeties, co-ordinators, head coaches, flags, penalties, divisions, the Tuck Rule and all sorts of the nitty-gritty. Go now into the wilderness, young pup.

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