7 Things the Average NFL Fan Should Understand About the Game

Alessandro Miglio@@AlexMiglioFeatured ColumnistJune 22, 2012

7 Things the Average NFL Fan Should Understand About the Game

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    Football is a complex sport, but it isn't chess, lest it be inaccessible to the masses. Still, there are aspects of the game that tend to hover over the average fan's head.

    Here, I attempt to explain seven things that I feel the average fan should understand about the NFL. If you already do, congratulations: you are no casual fan.

The Brutality of the Sport

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    “Football! There’s murder in that game. Sparring! It doesn’t compare in roughness or danger with football.” - John L. Sullivan

    Football is entertainment. For football players, it is pain.

    It is easy to say from the comfort of your couch or office chair that many professional football players make too much money, but their bodies would tell you otherwise.

    A recent study commissioned by the NFLPA puts the average age of application for disability benefits at 38.2, a staggering revelation. What other employment puts their employees on disability at such a young age?

    It is a sport that chews up and spits out hundreds of players more than you hear about on SportsCenter. It leaves its veterans hobbled and broken. 

    Lately, it seems as though the NFL itself ignored or misunderstood the viciousness of its own game. The league is embroiled in a legal tussle about concussions that could wind up crippling it.

    At the core of the concussion litigation is the allegation that the NFL failed to act sooner about the concussion problem, choosing to ignore the problem.

    Concussions are not the only injury issues players deal with, either.

    Veterans deal with pain from a wide range of injuries for all of their lives thanks to the brutality of the sport. 

Real Football Before Fake

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    It is Week 16. Your team is playing for their playoff lives, and they are in peril.

    They are up 21-17, but the opposing team is knocking on the door with 30 seconds left. If your team loses, they will surely miss the playoffs.

    If the opposing quarterback throws a touchdown, however, your fantasy squad, "All Roads Lead to Romo," will clinch the championship in your most important league.

    Who do you root for?

    If you answered the opposing quarterback, perhaps a priority re-evaluation is in order.

    This is a hard and fast rule that every fantasy football owner should follow. Unless your big money fantasy football team is in the championship game and your favorite team is completely out of the playoff hunt, there is no excuse to cheer against your real-life team. Even then, it would be questionable.

    Perhaps you were born on an army base in Europe and have no strong ties to a team. That might be a viable excuse as well.

    Jokes aside, this ties into the brutality of the game as well. How many times have you seen an injury report fly by your Twitter or news feed and thought, "Oh, no, my fantasy football team!" This is their livelihood, their bodies.

Quarterbacks Don't Win Games, Teams Do

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    "He just wins."

    "He has the 'it' factor."

    One of the more absurd evaluations for a player in team sports is his or her ability to win games. True, in football quarterbacks have to do their job well—sometimes in critical situations—to help lead their team to victory.

    But so do the other 10 guys on the field and the ones on the sidelines waiting to come in and play defense or special teams.

    Where would Tim Tebow have been without his defense or some key miscues by the other team? What if Dwight Clark had made The Drop instead of The Catch? When would Tom Brady have wrested the starting job from Drew Bledsoe had the latter not sheared a blood vessel in his leg?

    Football is a symphony—or a cacophony, depending on which team you follow—more so than any other major sport. Quarterbacks are integral to the game, but they are the concertmasters, not the orchestra.

    True, the concertmaster is becoming ever more important in today's pass-happy NFL. With rules that seem to favor quarterbacks and receivers more each day, it is no wonder three quarterbacks surpassed the 5,000-yard mark last season when just two had done it before in the history of the NFL.

    The importance must not be overstated, however. There is a reason some quarterbacks take their offensive lines out to dinner.

The Myth of the Lead Back

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    Search your memory. When was the last time an elite running back helped lead his team to a Super Bowl?

    If you came up with Marshall Faulk and the Rams, you are correct. That was 13 years ago, and he represents the end of an era.

    Once upon a time, running backs were important to achieve championship success. The '90s alone offered us Emmitt Smith, Terrell Davis and Marshall Faulk as examples of elite running backs who won titles.

    What has become of them since then? 

    Evolution.

    Namely, the game has slowly shifted to favor the passing game over the years. The advent of rules that limit what defensive backs can do while defending receivers has been a boon to quarterbacks and receivers alike. More stringent rules on hitting quarterbacks have done their part as well.

    The evolution of football has conspired to make the lead back irrelevant. Look at some of the great running back performances over the past decade—LaDainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson, Shaun Alexander and Chris Johnson, to name a few—and place them in context. None of those guys helped get their team to a Super Bowl.

    In fact, the last several Super Bowl winners have featured rather poor rushing attacks on the whole—the Giants had the fewest rushing yards in the league last season, for example—let alone from one running backs.

    This is a big reason why drafting Trent Richardson with the third overall pick may have been problematic for the Browns. He could be all-world in the same vein as Adrian Peterson, but recent history has shown that will not pay off.

    As a fantasy football addict, the extinction of the lead back has been evident for years.

Who Are Mike, Will and Sam?

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    You may have heard or read the terms "Mike", "Will" and "Sam" when referring to linebackers. For years the definitions were lost on me—I knew Mike meant "middle" and that was about it.

    A deeper understanding of those positions might help you enjoy the game a bit more, at least if my experience is indication.

    Simply put, Mike, Will and Sam stand for middle, weak-side and strong-side linebacker in a traditional 4-3 defense.

    Also known as the quarterback of the defense, the middle linebacker must generally be the most versatile and intelligent of the group. His title means he obviously lines up in the middle of the defense.

    He needs to be big and strong enough to fill gaps and make tackles against the run, but quick and agile enough to drop back into coverage or shadow the running back out of the backfield.

    Ray Lewis is the quintessential Mike linebacker, though age has limited him and forced the Ravens into a hybrid defense.

    Strong-side linebackers line up across from the tight end if there is one on the field, otherwise he lines up between the offensive tackle and slot receiver.

    They have similar roles as middle linebackers, except they are not in the middle of the defense and their coverage assignments are either the tight end or slot receiver.

    Of course, if an offense has manipulated the defense into covering the slot receiver with the Sam linebacker, it has won that play more often than not. 

    Weak-side linebackers tend to cover slot receivers as well—namely because they typically do not line up across from a tight end—but they are better-suited to do so because they should be the most athletic of the trio.

Base Defensive Formations—A Thing of the Past?

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    Of course, Mike, Will and Sam are only relevant in 4-3 formations.

    Aside from the 46 variant that Buddy Ryan pioneered in the '80s, the two base defenses you have dealt with in your lifetime are the 4-3 and 3-4. You probably have a good idea what the difference is between a the two.

    In general terms, the 4-3 defensive alignment has four down linemen and three linebackers at its core—those guys Mike, Will and Sam. The scheme was conceived in the 1950s, though its inventor is disputed.

    Some credit Tom Landry for the invention when he was the defensive coordinator for the Giants, while others give Hall of Fame linebacker Bill George the credit.

    As you might imagine, if you did not already know, the 3-4 features three down linemen and four linebackers. In addition to the aforementioned three linebackers, a fourth "Joker" or "Rush" linebacker is added to the bunch, playing on the weak side as well.

    As you can glean from his name, he acts as a pass-rusher much of the time, though he will drop into coverage as well.

    The differences between the formations are not trivial. 

    4-3 defenses generally require their linemen to be quick and disruptive, filling the gaps between the offensive linemen. 3-4 defenses want bigger linemen to take on multiple blockers and keep the offensive line away from the linebackers.

    Nowadays, while teams employ a "base defense" of one or the other, the reality has become many defenses are a hybrid of some sort. Bill Belichick brought us the "Big Nickel" a few years ago, where teams bring on an extra safety to play as a linebacker, a formation that is gaining popularity to combat the rise of the tight ends.

    Teams are trending away from traditional defenses, so calling them strict 4-3 or 3-4 is a bit of a fallacy. It has made finding the right personnel a bit of a challenge, since the traditional rules for players do not apply.

Efficiency Trumps Volume

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    "A particular shot or way of moving the ball can be a player's personal signature, but efficiency of performance is what wins the game for the team." - Pat Riley

    Raw numbers can be beautiful.

    At first blush, Drew Brees had a better season than Aaron Rodgers in 2011. The Saint shattered the single-season yardage record and threw the most touchdowns in the league at 46. 

    Those numbers look great, but Aaron Rodgers was masterful by comparison.

    Aside from breaking the single-season record for highest NFL rating at 122.5, Rodgers obliterated the league with a nine percent touchdown rate and 13.5 yards per completion. 

    To put his statistics into perspective, if Rodgers had thrown 156 more passes to match Brees’ attempt count, he would have thrown for 6,094 yards and 59 touchdowns based on his season yards-per-attempt and touchdown rates. 

    Though some coaches believe stats are for losers, others with Super Bowl pedigrees understand the significance of efficiency over volume. Things like pass rating differential and average depth of target tell you much more than simply passing yardage given up or yards per catch.

    Efficiency is a better predictor of success or failure than volume. It weeds out the anomalies. It does your homework. It washes your car.

    You get the picture.

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