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Everything you wanted to know about American football but were afraid to ask

The42′s basic introduction to the NFL.

Tom Brady is one of the best quarterbacks to have ever played the game.
Tom Brady is one of the best quarterbacks to have ever played the game.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

FOR SOME OF you, tonight’s Super Bowl LII could well be your first experience of American football, or at least the first time you’ve watched it since last year’s Super Bowl.

With that in mind, we’ve put together this handy guide to help you learn the difference between offence and defence, between a touchdown and a field goal and — perhaps most confusingly — between a safety (the play) and a safety (the player).

The league:
The NFL contains 32 teams split into two conferences, the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC). Each conference is separated into four divisions, North, South, East and West with four teams in each. You can find a breakdown of each division here.

The field:

Seahawks Football Stadium A groundskeeper marks the numbers on the field. Source: AP/Press Association Images

An American football pitch (or field as it is known) is 120 yards long and 53.3 yards wide. The most important parts are the two end zones, with one located at either end of the field. The ten yards between the front and back of the end zone is where touchdowns are scored.

The teams:
Each team has specialists on offence, defence and special teams but never have more than 11 players on the field at one time. In the NFL there are 46 active players allowed on game day which is why you see so many people standing along the sidelines.

The offence is made up of:

  • The offensive line (two guards, two tackles and a centre who protect the quarterback and running backs from being tackled).
  • Two/four wide receivers who catch the ball or block on running plays.
  • One/two tight ends who catch the ball or block on certain passing and running plays.
  • One/two running backs who run and catch the ball while also blocking for the quarterback on some plays.
  • The quarterback, who can pass, run with, or hand the football to the running back.

The defence is made up of:

  • The defensive line who try to stop the quarterback and running back from moving the football.
  • Linebackers who push forward to try and stop the running back and tackle the quarterback.
  • Cornerbacks and safeties who, primarily, try to stop the receivers from catching the ball.

The play:
Possession in American football is similar to rugby league, with each offence having four ‘downs’ to advance the ball ten yards. When the offence succeeds in moving the ball at least ten yards, they are awarded with a fresh set of downs, meaning they have four more attempts.

To move the ball, a team can choose to run or throw, but only one forward pass is allowed in each play.

The quarterback is perhaps the most well-known position in American football and, like an on-field general, he touches the ball on almost every play. With the help of the offensive coordinator he also decides if a play will involve a run, a pass or, in some cases, both.

In most cases, if a team has failed to move the ball forward ten yards on the first three downs, they punt the ball away (like kicking for position in rugby) or kick a field goal (worth 3 points) on the fourth.

Scoring:

Source: NFL Gamepass

Instead of field goals, most teams want to score touchdowns like the one Tom Brady scores above. These are registered when a team either runs or passes the ball into the end zone and are worth six points, with the point after (think conversion in rugby) worth one.

You can also go for a two-point conversion by running or throwing into the end zone.

While it is usually the offence that scores, the defence can get in on the action too. If the defence intercepts a pass (a pick) or forces an opposition player to fumble the football, they can run the ball into their opponent’s end zone for six points.

Defences can also force a safety (we told you we’d get to it). This is worth two points and occurs if they tackle an offensive player in the offence’s own end zone.

The clock:
Games are divided into four 15-minute quarters, separated by a 12-minute break at halftime. There are also two-minute breaks at the end of the first and third quarters as teams change ends of the field. At the end of the first and third quarters, the team with the ball retains possession heading into the following quarter.

Each offensive team has 40 seconds from the end of a given play until they snap the ball for the start of the next play, otherwise they will be penalised.

The clock stops at the end of incomplete passing plays, when a player goes out of bounds, or when a penalty is called. The clock starts again when the ball is re-spotted by an official.

If a game is a draw (tied) at the end of 60 minutes, a 15-minute overtime period will be played. In the NFL, the first team to score a touchdown wins. A field goal can also win a game in overtime but only if both teams have had possession of the football.

Basics:

So, that’s the basics of American football covered but there’s a lot more goes on during a game than we can deal with here. However, we will be covering as much of it as we can in the coming weeks before the new season gets under way.

You can also check out the rest of our Super Bowl LII coverage here.

A version of this article first appeared on 28 January 2013.

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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