What Do You Know About Football? Part 2: American Football

gem asdaniCorrespondent IOctober 10, 2008

Think you know football? Think again…This is a multi-part series explaining the different codes of football, their origins, current state and future. Most football fans follow only one code, and this series aims to expand their knowledge of the different football games out there.

American Football: America's Favorite Game (sorry baseball...)

We begin our alphabetically-ordered journey through football with American football. While many associate America with baseball, American Football (aka Gridiron Football or Pigskin or just “football” in the US) is now considered the national sport. How big has it become? Well american football is the most watched sport in the country, ahead of NASCAR at second place and baseball at third. The most watched sporting event in America is the championship known as the Super bowl. Fantasy football and gambling have brought millions of fans in the US to the game and away from baseball. Not only has the professional game become the biggest sport in America, but college and high school levels game are also huge in all parts of the nation. The game has struggled to gain fans outside of the US however, with only Canada showing interest in the sport because they have a very similar game (Canadian Football). To many outside the US, it may seem strange that Americans show all of this interest in a game that has long been described as “rugby mixed with chess and padding”. But to truly understand the sport and its grip on the American public, we must look at how the game was invented by Walter Camp:  “the father of American football”.

Quick history refresher: Walter Camp and the 1958 NFL Championship

It is obvious even to the casual observer that American football holds many similarities with Rugby Football. That is because it was invented by an American rugby player named Walter Camp. Walter Camp dominated almost every sport at Yale University in the 1870’s, but rugby was his most cherished of sports. Perhaps the only thing he loved more than rugby was chess, and it was this chess-rugby duality of Walter Camp that gave birth to American football. He loved taking the time to setup a strategy and then execute it in a play just like chess players do, but he realized that rugby was a free flowing sport where players relied more on a mixture of raw toughness, improvisation and athleticism than any carefully pre-planned strategies like in chess.  Walter Camp decided to make a new code of football that used the rugby rules but inserted elements of chess such as start-stop plays and tightly specialized positions. Many will tell you that this fits the American psyche perfectly, as many Americans describe the game in terms of coaches as generals, who lead their highly specialized well-armoured soldiers into a battle where strategic planning is paramount. From players like tight-end Killen Winslow saying they’re “a firkin’ soldier” to coaches using war metaphors to describe their plan for the game to "blitz" and “gain territory”, the sport has earned its stripes as America’s favourite metaphor for war. From here on the game began its rise, first being a game of primarily Midwest industrial town but slowly expanding elsewhere. Many attribute its current popularity to the 1958 NFL Championship game which was the first overtime NFL game is history and created the “sudden death” overtime that became so popular nationwide. Journalist Tex Maule said of the contest:  "This, for the first time, was a truly epic game which inflamed the imagination of a national audience." Today “Bowl Games”, a college tradition, get nationwide audience and are boosted by old-standing traditions between colleges.

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The basic differences between American football and Rugby football

So how did the game change from its predecessor Rugby football? Well a lot. American football generally last much longer than rugby football, between 3-4 hours as opposed to rugby’s 1 hour and 20 minutes. Because the field is reset after each tackle in American football, it is much slower pace than the more hectic rugby league, in which play stops for only as long as it takes the tackled player to get back to his feet and return the ball to play. Along with the slower pace, there is more strategizing in American football, and more players on the team with specialized roles. An obvious difference is that forward passing is allowed in American football, but disallowed in rugby. Another obvious difference is that rugby disallows helmets (although shock absorbing headgear is allowed) and has almost none of the padding that is so prevalent in American football.

While the sports share many position names, the positions differ in their use and generally American football positions are much more specialized.

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The basic setup of the game

The game of American football is unique in the football world in both that it is not a free-flowing game and that it is about gaining territory as much as scoring goals (field goals) or tries (touchdowns). Both teams try to invade the territory of the other team while defending their own territory, until eventually they gain the entire territory of the opposing side by getting to the other sides’ end zone (called a touchdown as from early days of ruby, a misnomer because in American football you don’t actually have to touch the ball to the ground like in Rugby) or get a field goal (one of the few kicking elements in the game).

The ball is oval shaped and between 11-11.5 inches long, the field is 120 yards (110 m) long and 53 yards, 1 foot (49 m) wide, and is divided into a gridiron shape with markers every 10 yards.

The game play

The National Football League (NFL) is considered to be the regulatory body for the rules of American football.

To see the full details of rules, see: NFL Rulebook

The game is divided into individual plays (generally lasting no longer than 10 seconds) where the team with possession tries to move the ball to the opposite side while the other team tries to prevent them. Each play begins by both teams having to be behind the line of scrimmage, a variation of the offside line. Every time a team takes possession of the ball, it is given a set of 4 downs, or attempts, to move the ball 10 yards forward before being stopped by the defence. If the team can move the ball 10 yards or more within four downs, the team gets another set of four downs to go another 10 yards, and so on. If they fail to do so by the 3rd down, they can either punt kick the ball forward as far as possible or go for the fourth down attempt (and turn over the ball if they fail). Many teams choose to punt kick because it pushes the opposing team back a long way and forces them to cover a lot of ground. If the offensive team does get to the end zone, they receive a touchdown. After each touchdown the team also gets an extra point or “PAT” for kicking the ball through the goal.  The “goal line” is considered the line at which the end zone starts, and like in all football codes the teams are trying to get the ball over this goal line. The teams can in addition choose to go for a field goal, which is kicking the ball from anywhere on the field through the opponents goal like in association football (although there is no goalkeeper and the goal is 10 feet above ground).  There are also safeties and 2-point conversion as a means of increasing the score. The complete outlay of scoring opportunities is as follow:

  • Touchdown (6 points) – Ball is carried into opposing end zone.
  • Field Goal (3 points) – Ball is kicked through the goal at any time in the game.
  • Extra point (1 point) – After a touchdown, ball is kicked through the upright of opponents goal.
  • 22-point Conversion (2 points…duh) Ball is carried into the opposing zone after a touchdown in one try.
  • Safety (2 points) – A player tackles the opposing player in his own end zone.


 The positions

Each team can have 53 players, but only 11 at a time are allowed on the field. The entire team actually consists of specialized subsets: the offensive, the defensive and the special teams. Unlike other football codes, there is high specialization and often each player does only one thing in one particular role with little improvisation or freedom to do tasks from other roles.

The offensive team’s responsibility is to score touchdowns, by either passing it to a player running towards the end zone or running the ball with a running back.

  1. Quarterback– Also known as the "field general," because he's the on-the-field leader.  This player touches the ball on every play, and is responsible for distributing the ball to either wide receivers or running backs.
  2. Offensive linemen - These players provide blocking for the quarterback and running backs.
  3. Receivers – Receivers run down the field and catch a ball thrown from the quarterback. They are often the most popular and athletic players on the field.
  4. Running backs – Running backs take the ball from the Quarterback and run forward looking to get to the end zone.  They may be called tailback, halfback or fullback (a position derived from rugby) depending on formation.

The defence team tries to either snatch the ball from the air or tackle the opposing teams’ defence:

  1. Defensive linemen – The defensive linemen try to stop the quarterback from passing the ball and stop the running backs from running with the ball forwards.
  2. Linebackers - When there are four linemen, there is a middle linebacker and two outside linebackers. When there are three linemen, there are two inside linebackers and two outside linebackers. Their job is to back up the linemen, as well as contain runners.
  3. Cornerbacks –This player tries to prevent the receivers from catching the ball.
  4. Safeties – Safeties as their name suggest are meant to stay back and prevent any balls from going deep towards their end zone.

Special Teams

Special teams are units that are on the field during kickoffs, free kicks, punts, field goal and extra point attempts.

  1. Kicker - The placekicker kicks the ball through the goalposts to score points and kicks the ball to the other team to start the game and after each scoring possession. Although being on the field for only a few minutes, they dominate the top scorers table every season.
  2. Punter – Executes punt kicks to the opposing team to limit any field position advantage.
  3. Kick Returner - During a kickoff or punt, the returner tries to catch the ball and return it as far as he can towards the end zone. They can also be known as return specialists.

The organization of American football

There is no single national governing body for American football in the United States or a continental governing body for North America, other than the National Football League (NFL) in the USA. There actually is an international governing body, the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), but doesn’t have much influence on the game itself since the sport doesn’t get much recognition outside the USA. For all purposes, the sports administration is tied to the NFL, the only major American football league in existence. The current commissioner of the NFL is Roger Goodell.

In addition to the NFL there is the Arena Football League (AFL) and Canadian Football League (CFL) but both have slightly different rules. Every year there is a “draft” where teams get to recruit college and AFL players. The teams get to pick from a pool of candidates, with the last year’s championship winner getting the last pick and worse teams getting higher picks. It should also be noted that there is no promotion or relegation system, and teams share the revenues from the league, allowing more parity than in other codes.

The college level of America football is controlled by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and has three levels. College football is extremely popular in America, where the largest stadiums in college towns sell out routinely. The sport in generally strongly tied to the local communities, with tailgating (parties that occur in a parking lot of a stadium), cheerleaders, marching bands and homecomings playing an important part of the experience. The most people ever to attend a college football game was 114,000, for the Army-Navy game which ended in a 21-21 tie.

There are also several women’s American football leagues. The National Women's Football Association (NWFA) was formed in 2000, and now consists of 34 teams across the nation. The Independent Women's Football League (IWFL) was also formed in 2000 and currently consists of 40 teams nationwide.

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The Levels

American football’s highest level is the NFL. The NFL has no promotion or development league; it gets its players from college or potentially from the Canadian Football League.

The Super Bowl which pits the best two teams in the NFL is generally considered the world championship.

Popularity and range

This code is the most popular code in the US, with Canada also showing interest in the sport along with Canadian Football. Generally the most watched and most followed sport in America is American Football.  Big games can get tens of millions of viewers, and the Super Bowl generally gets between 90-100 million viewers. The sport is also broadcast in many countries in Europe, South American and Asia, but unfortunately there hasn’t become an established fan base.

Outside the US, the game has been unpopular at the spectatorship level but has managed to create amateur leagues in over 50 countries worldwide. IFAF claims to represent “23 million athletes worldwide”. In the UK, 46 teams play in the British American Football League (BAFL). Hungary, Germany, Japan, France, Norway, New Zealand, Argentina, Italy and many other have American football leagues and are part of the IFAF.

American football has been present around the world for years, with the World League of American Football and NFL Europe both being closed down after years of loses. The current strategy at spreading the sport focuses at playing NFL regular season games in Europe. There was a game between the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins played in London that sold 40,000 tickets in 90 minutes, with only 10,000 of those request coming from America.

It should also be noted there has been an American Football World Cup since 1999, but has not generated the interest required to make it a big event like the association and rugby football World Cups. In addition, American football is not an Olympic sport, although there is a campaign to get the IOC to consider it as a demonstration sport.

The future of the sport

At its present rate, there are several large cities in America that don’t have a professional team; a good example would be Los Angeles.  Although there is no indication of expansion of the NFL into LA or other American cities like San Antonio in the short term, there still is the option of creating a team in these large cities. But even with this, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledges that the game’s
“future success will depend in large part on our ability to globalize”. While NFL Europe folded and attempts at growing the game around the world have largely left people bored and baffled, the sport has many options of transferring its excitement from home to the games abroad by hosting regular season games. Regular season games were hosted in both England and Mexico, and the Buffalo Bills have signed a contract to play one game a year in Toronto, Canada. In fact, Roger Goodell has said that in the future the NFL may host the Super bowl in London. All of these options are likely to be much better at getting a larger fan base then the past attempts at growing home-grown leagues that drew little excitement.

Online fantasy football has been a huge part the increase in the sports appeal over the recent years, with the sports statistical nature being the perfect sport for armchair coaches. The NFL entered into a reported five-year, $600 million deal in 2006 with Sprint that was driven at least in part because of fantasy sports, allowing subscribers to draft and monitor their teams with their cell phones. I would expect to see more integration between the broadcasts and fantasy elements. One interesting note is that management games for American football are almost non-existent, while fantasy pools remain popular. Also while the Madden series of games remains extremely popular in the nation, there is no alternative which may also change as Konami and other video game manufacturers enter the field.


So there you have it, our first venture into a code of football that has managed to capture the American public’s imagination and has a good future ahead. The sport is perhaps the perfect sport for those who imagine they are coaches while watching sport and want to strategize along with the play. The games start-stop nature allows individual plays to be carefully planned and choreographed, right down to the very last detail of where each player is meant to stand, go and what to do. The NFL playbook of each team contains pretty much every situation imaginable and can extend into hundreds of pages, giving our viewers a wealth of strategic options to choose from. Perhaps this chess-rugby duality which allows both warlike strategy of chess and brutality of rugby that has caused it to be the most dominant sport in America. It’s truly a completely unique game and once you learn all its intrincities, it will dawn on you just how great it can be:

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