Some sports have events that people only watch once-a-year – Wimbledon, The Grand National, The Open – add to that list, the NFL’s Super Bowl, which sees people staying up way past their bed-time and watching men in crash helmets dive into each other’s guts, and cause untold damage to each other’s insides.
However, American Football can be a bit bewildering to those new to the game, and the people who try and explain what’s going on are so deep into their own knowledge that they’re neither use nor ornament.
Don’t worry – this piece will give you what you need to know, so you can confidently yell at the big screen this weekend, like you’re a seasoned veteran. And once you get into the Super Bowl, you might find you want to watch the NFL every week.
Super Bowl LI (the NFL like Roman numerals, but to you and me, it is Super Bowl 51) is being played this Sunday, on February 5th. The game will be played in Houston between New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons.
There seems to be more people watching NFL – how come?
The NFL have had a thing called the ‘International Series’, which started off with some friendly NFL matches being played at Wembley. They were such a success, that the NFL decided that some teams would play actual league matches in the UK, complete with the points that matter with regards to the league tables. Wembley and Twickenham hosted games this season, and there’s a lot of loud rumours that one of the sides will actually move over here permanently. Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium is looking like it’ll be the base for any team that decides to set up camp in London.
Do we know which team is getting a British passport?
At the moment, no. The NFL would like to have something running by 2021 if it happens at all, and the UK government is keen for it to happen too, as there’s a lot of money to be made from American Football. It might be a new team, set-up from scratch; it might be a team that relocates. The Jacksonville Jaguars are one of the teams more likely to make the leap, as their owner is already based in London and owns Fulham FC.
The Glazer family, who own Manchester United, also own Tampa Bay Buccaneers, so they could be a potential move also. We’ll just have to wait and see. They might just stick to the current arrangement.
Right, American Football. How do I watch it?
The games are long, and the Super Bowl is no exception. That means, while watching the game, you’re compelled to eat and drink. If you want to get in the spirit of things, plough through burgers and beer, and a variety of things covered in melted cheese – American Football is a sport that’s designed to have enough pauses so you can shovel things into your mouth.
Aside from the game itself, you’ll also have the famous halftime show, which in the past has featured Paul McCartney, Beyonce, Michael Jackson, Prince, and loads more. This year, Lady GaGa is providing the entertainment, and it is very likely that there’ll be some surprise guests too.
It all seems a bit over-the-top…
It is. That’s what it is all about. If you want something more sedate, there’s some videos on YouTube where you can listen to the white noise of machinery for eight hours.
Why do they call it football if they use their hands?
Without fail, every single year, someone pops up to make this joke like they’re the first person to think of it. Then they’ll cackle to themselves by referring to the event as the ‘Superb Owl’. Ignore these people – they’re wacky ties on legs.
Fact is, it has been called ‘football’ since forever, and that should be good enough. If you want more, it is because the sport sprouted from Association Football (the ‘association’ bit is why they call our football ‘soccer’). Rugby teams also have ‘football’ in their names, so it is what it is. If you really, really want to know, read this.
We assume you’ll be yelling “Why is it called cricket when it isn’t played by insects LOOOL!” and “Ha ha! Coxless pairs?” and that joke stops there, as we’re trying to keep it clean here.
What are the rules of American Football then?
How basic do you want it? Let’s do this is two stages, so you can decide just how much you want to know. Firstly, the rules are as simple as this: Each team has to run or catch the ball into the ‘end zone’ for points. The team who have the ball are allowed four goes at it – if you manage to keep possession for 10 yards down the field, your four goes start over. These goes are called ‘downs’. You keep doing that until you score or lose possession.
Seems simple enough – tell me more.
Okay, so you have downs. That’s what people are talking about when someone says ‘1st down’ – it’s your first go, of your four. Third downs get people excited, because it’s your last proper go with the ball before a team usually hoofs it downfield to the opposition, or if they’re close enough to the posts, try and kick some points.
When a team is throwing the ball, the other side try and intercept it or, if someone’s running with it, they try and knock it out of their hands. Sometimes, people literally try and headbutt the ball while someone is holding it. Sometimes the defending team just flatten the Quarterback before they have a chance to throw it. The attacking team throw it or run with it, and once you get into the rhythm of it, it flicks between breathless excitement, or fascinating tactical mind-games.
Who does what?
In UK football, we have two teams of 11 players that do their thing for 90 minutes. In the NFL, it isn’t like that. Think about cricket – you know how both teams aren’t on the pitch for the whole match? It is like that. You have an ‘offence’ and a ‘defence’, both spoken awkwardly by UK fans with the American pronunciation of ‘oh-fence‘ and ‘dee-fence‘. One team’s offence does the attacking, the other’s defence tries to stop them. When possession changes hands, they swap, so the offence that’s been stood on the sideline come on, and the other team’s defence swap with their offence. It’s like cricket when the fielders come on after they’ve finished batting.
What positions are there? There seems to be a lot!
There are, and for the newbie, you don’t have to worry about most of them. Like any sport, there’s a lot of jargon. Think about UK football when people blart on about ‘False 9s’ and ‘wing-backs’. You don’t necessarily need to know what these mean to get excited about someone running like the clappers with the ball in their possession.
In the NFL, each team has 50-odd people in their squad, so that’s a lot of stuff to remember. The people you’ll be most interested in are as follows:
Quarterback (QB) — That’s the bloke who throws the ball and calls the plays. Sometimes they run with the ball themselves. They’ve got a line of players in-front of them, trying to protect them from being clobbered by the opposition. When they’re at the line of scrimmage, the QB will shout a load of numbers and words before the famous ‘hut hut!‘ Basically, these are codes, so when the QB receives the ball, his team-mates know where to run and what to do.
Wide Receiver (WR) — They’re the people who catch passes, and when they score a touchdown, are likely to do a fancy dance or throw the ball into the turf while everyone screams and shouts around them. When they’re not scoring a TD, they’re catching the ball to try and get a new set of ‘downs’. American Football is all about making steady progress up the field, remember.
Running back (RB) — Running backs cause a lot of excitement. What you’ll be interested in, is when the QB gives them the ball, and they charge at the opposition like they’re playing British Bulldog in a primary school playground. Sometimes they get battered to the ground – sometimes they break through with everyone chasing them like a Benny Hill sketch. It is incredibly exciting.
The rest — Basically, everyone else is designed to be immovable objects or try and stop anyone from catching the ball. Some people are hired just to kick it through the posts – if you think that looks like a weird and lonely job, you’re right. You’ll pick it up easily enough, while you’re watching it.
What are the commentators talking about then?
They’ve got a lot of time to fill, so sometimes, they’ll talk about absolutely anything. Again, the things you’ll be mostly interested in are easy to pick up.
Touchdowns — You definitely know what these are. Once a team does one of these, they get themselves 6 points. You get a bonus point after it, if your kicker gets the ball through the posts, just like they have in rugby.
Downs – That’s your four goes. You need to get 10 yards with the ball in your possession, to get a new set of downs.
Sack — This is when the Quarterback gets flattened by an opponent without throwing the ball to one of his mates. When this happens, the defensive player might dance around like they’ve won the lottery – that’s because they don’t tend to get the opportunity to score a touchdown, so hurting the most famous player on the other team is as good as it gets.
Interception — This is dead easy – if you catch a ball thrown by the opposing QB, you not only wreck their chances of scoring, but you also get possession for your team. If you catch it right, the defensive player can run with the ball and try and score a touchdown for themselves.
Fumble — This means what you think it means – it is when someone who has the ball, drops it. When this happens, all the players dive on top of each other and have a pile-on.
Incompletion — The QB throws the ball, but no-one catches it. That means the team lose one of their downs.
Run this ‘downs’ thing by me again…
Right. Your first play sees you trying to get 10 yards up the field. That means you’re ‘1st & 10’. It doesn’t matter where you are on the pitch, because your aim is to take the ball 10 yards further, so it doesn’t refer to whereabouts you are on the field. Your first down can be on your own 20 yard line. It can also be 31 yards from the end-zone. Once you progress ten yards, you get another first down.
If you only carry the ball 3 yards, then you’re ‘2nd and 7’, which means you’re on your second down, with seven yards to go before your next first down.
If your QB runs backwards to avoid being hit by the opposition, but gets tackled anyway, you can lose yards. So, from a ‘1st and 10’, you can end up with a ‘2nd and 13’. Teams have to decide if they want to slowly make their way up the field by getting as many first downs as possible, or decide to throw it long to get closer to the ‘end zone’, faster. If you throw it long, there’s a greater chance of the opposition intercepting it.
There’s also ‘1st and Goal’, which basically means you’re so close to the ‘end zone’, that if you carried the ball 10 yards, you’d score a touchdown, so there’s no point worrying about how many yards there are to go. When you get to a 4th down, you hope you’re close enough for your kicker to send it through the goalposts for some points, or, you have to kick it down the field to the opposition, as it’s their go.
Either way, all that padding and stuff – its for soft lads, eh?
Humans are idiots. When we put a motorbike helmet on, our first compulsion is to whack ourselves to make sure it works. American Footballers are no different, and they do it day-in, day-out. What we end up with is a sport that sees humans with no basic regard for their own safety. The helmets may protect, but they’re also used as a weapon.
Rugby players – who are usually brought up in this instance as ‘proper tough guys’ – have spoken about the appalling impacts that American footballers suffer during games, and NFL players go through such physical abuse, that people have made films and documentaries about it all. Players have ended up with brain damage and clinical depression thanks to this sport, and there’s a lot of worry regarding concussions, which aren’t treated properly, which sees athletes getting chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which has been the cause of dementia and in some cases, suicide.
A game for wimps, it most certainly isn’t.
I’ve heard about this ‘draft’ – what’s that?
In soccer, players get bought like cattle. In the NFL, things are different. Basically, the college teams have players who are ranked from best to worst. The teams who are considered the worst in the NFL get to pick the best players from the colleges before everyone else.
The idea is that you don’t end up with monopolies, like you do in football. It also means the richest teams don’t end up squashing the competition with their chequebooks. That means, a team who is bad now could win the Super Bowl in a few years. It also means that, take for instance the San Francisco 49ers, franchises that were once amazing are now not that good at all. They’ll get their turn again, as they get the better picks from the draft now that they’re garbage.
Basically, unless you’re a Detroit Lions fan, there’s always hope that your team will have a moment in the sun, thanks to the fairness of the draft system.
Who do I want to win in Super Bowl LI then?
It boils down to this – do you want to support the successful team or the underdog? Even though this should be a pretty even match, the Patriots have been here before. They’re very good. They’re annoyingly consistent too, and have one of the greatest Quarterbacks in NFL history in Tom Brady. Head coach Bill Belichick is also a living legend.
However, it feels like everyone who isn’t a Patriots fan wants the Falcons to win. You know how everyone apart from Manchester United fans want them to lose all the time? It’s exactly like that with the Pats. The Falcons are very exciting to watch, and don’t have the history that the Patriots do, so you might want to cheer for Julio Jones, one of the most exciting wide-receivers in the NFL. The pre-game build-up will fill you in on who and what to watch out for.
Of course, you don’t have to pick a team and just enjoy the spectacle for what it is, or make an arbitrary decision based on the logos on their helmets, or whatever. It’s entirely up to you.
Give me the once over again…
Okay – two teams take it in turns to try and score points. They’ll either slowly make their way up the field by getting first downs, or they’ll get desperate or flashy, and try and throw it long, or get one of their players to leg it as fast as they can. There might be trick plays as well, which are always great. At some point, someone will take such a heavy blow in a tackle, that’ll you’ll wince… and possibly cheer as the referee announces ‘unnecessary roughness’.
There’s totally over-the-top renditions of various patriotic American anthems, and there’ll be a half-time show, and a preposterous amount of fireworks.
You’ll gorge yourself on food and drink, and have to stay up late – kick off is Sunday, 5th February 5.30pm local time, which translates to 11.30pm over here.
It’ll be shown LIVE AT RILEYS, and it’ll be on into the wee-small hours, but well worth it because there’s nothing quite like the Super Bowl.