New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady throwing a pass against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. Photo credits: Bob Levey, Getty Images

The New Fan’s Guide to the NFL: The basics of the game you need to know for the new season

The National Football League, the world’s premier spectacle of gridiron football, is back for yet another season. Waking up on Sunday mornings getting ready to watch your team is coming back. Thanksgiving Day games are coming back. The Super Bowl (and its ridiculously entertaining commercials) is back!

Let me slow my roll, though. I’m certain there are going to be at least a few people who are pretty confused as to what I’m talking about. What’s the significance of all this, and how can I get into the NFL?

Well, that’s what I’m here for. We’re going to explain the basics you need to know about the game of American football so that you can have a stronger understanding and love for the United States’ most popular sport, pick your team, and develop a passion for the NFL!

The Players

When you first glance at an NFL game, you’ll notice what appears to be 100,000 people on the sidelines all wearing the same jersey. Teams are, in fact, extremely elaborate and each position seems to have several backups. However, on the field, 22 players are involved in the action, 11 per team.

American football teams are composed of offensive and defensive teams. Unlike in association football (soccer), however, defenders and attackers aren’t on the field at the same time. When a team has the ball, the 11 offensive players that the coach chooses to put out takes the field against the opposing team’s defense. Much like other sports, of course, the offense’s goal is to score, and the defense’s goal is to prevent the offense from scoring.

But unlike in other sports, gridiron teams have a third component: special teams. They say everything’s bigger in America, and it holds true with special teams. There’s a whole separate team of eleven that takes charge of field goals, post-touchdown conversions (we’ll get to those in a bit), and starting and restarting off the game with kickoffs. I guess you could say they’re called “special” because you typically only see them in action for about 20% of the game.

The Length

Just like most gridiron leagues around the world, NFL games are split into four quarters of 15-minute lengths. However, games usually take far more than an hour to complete, given timeouts, constant stoppages after play, and a potential overtime period (or more, if it’s a postseason game). Adding up all of this makes for what’s usually a three-hour game. But don’t let the length fool you. NFL games are tight contests and make for a thrilling spectacle.

The Positions

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Within each section of a full gridiron football squad, each player is given their own position.

Offense

Quarterback – Comparable to a point guard in basketball or a CAM/playmaker in association football. The heart of the team. Every play and call goes through him. He can either decide to run the ball forward or pass it to either his running back or wide receivers. (Examples: Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes)

Linemen – Composed of the center (who snaps the ball to the quarterback beginning the play), tackles, and guards, these six guys have the job of protecting the quarterback at all times and not letting the defense sack, or tackle, him. (Sacking is specifically tackling a quarterback, to avoid confusion.) (Examples: David Bakhtiari, Tyron Smith, Mike McGlinchey)

Wide receivers – Some of the quickest and most agile guys on the field, the two wide receivers have the job of catching the ball if the quarterback decides to go long. Usually the guys on the end of throwing touchdowns. (Examples: Michael Thomas, DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones)

Running backs – Running backs have the job to execute a rushing play, which means they are directly given the ball (a hand-off) and run forward, although sometimes they have the option of being on the end of a throw if need be. Usually, there are one or two running backs on the field. (Examples: Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley)

Tight end – The tight end is a hybrid player, meaning they have the responsibility of carrying out the roles of both a wide receiver and offensive line. They usually line up with the offensive line, but are able to qualify as a receiver. (Examples: George Kittle, Travis Kelce, Rob Gronkowski)

Defense

Defensive linemen – Opposite their offensive counterparts, defensive linemen have the task of stopping plays from going through the middle of the line of scrimmage (which I’ll explain in a bit) and rushing the quarterback in order to try and sack him. (Examples: Aaron Donald, Cameron Heyward, DeForest Buckner)

Defensive backs – You may hear them called the “secondary”. D-backs have the job of defending against pass plays, particularly to the wide receivers. Composed of the cornerbacks (who cover the wide receivers) and safeties (responsible for coverage of deeper passes), they are the last line of defense against other plays, such as run plays. (Examples: Stephon Gilmore, Richard Sherman, Jalen Ramsey)

Linebackers – Considered the most important defensive position, linebackers have all sorts of defensive duties, because they basically do all the things that the other positions do. Their versatility is what makes them key to any defense in the game. (Examples: Bobby Wagner, Eric Kendricks, Leighton Vander Esch)

Special Teams (three main positions)

Kicker – Responsible for kicking offensive goals and kickoffs to restart the game. (Examples: Stephen Gostkowski, Adam Vinatieri, Justin Tucker)

Punter – Responsible for punting the ball back to the other team when their turn is up (we’ll explain why deeper into this post). (Examples: Thomas Morstead, Andy Lee, Sam Koch)

Kick returner – Responsible for catching a kickoff and running towards the opposite end zone. Sometimes, teams play their cornerbacks or wide receivers as their kick returners.

The Rules

Photo credits: WHIO

If you look at any gridiron field, you’ll see lines on the field, marking each yard. The team on the offense has four tries (known as downs) to attempt to gain ten yards from the line where the ball started, known as the line of scrimmage. If they do so, they get four new tries. If they don’t, however, they turn the ball over to the other team wherever they’re stopped. That’s why offenses usually bring out their punters to punt the ball back into the other team’s side of the field to set them further away from their goal. However, if coaches believe it’s the right play, the offense will “go for it” and attempt to finish off their ten-yard push with their last play.

For example, if a team is on 2nd and 5, this means that they are on their second down (try), and have two tries to go to advance five yards, where they will gain another set of downs.

However, if a team or player commits an offense, they will be “flagged” (this comes from the literal flag that the referees throw on the field) and given a penalty, which usually results in a loss of downs, yards, or both.

The main goal for each team, of course, is to score more points. The main way to do this, and the way which will earn the most points, is by scoring a touchdown. This is when the offensive team legally ends up with the ball in the other team’s end zone. For the play to be deemed a touchdown, the nose (tip) of the ball must cross the end zone line. This play will earn six points.

After a touchdown is scored, teams have two options to score extra points, or PATs, points after touchdown. The far more common option is having the kicker kick the ball between the goalposts, which earns one point. However, teams have the far riskier option of playing a down, identical to the manner of a normal play, which will earn two points if scored in the manner of a touchdown. Teams usually use the latter when they’re down late in a game and are trying to catch up.

When teams are on fourth down (the last play) and are close enough to the end zone to get some points, they will bring out their kicker for a field goal, which is when the kicker attempts a kick in the manner of an extra point. However, a field goal scores three points when successful, and is a tactic used to obtain points as much as possible.

A far less common occurrence is the safety, when an offensive player is tackled within their own end zone. These earn two points, and the team that scored the safety gets the ball back, similar to when a team scores in rugby.

The League

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The National Football League (NFL) is comprised of 32 teams scattered all across the country. These teams are divided into two conferences, the American Football Conference (AFC) and National Football Conference (NFC). These conferences are subsequently divided into geographical divisions: North, South, East, and West.

Teams play 16 regular season games spread out during 17 weeks (each team has a bye)*. The way the schedule’s formed is a bit complex, so we’ll cover that in a later article. When the season ends, the top seven teams from each conference go to the playoffs*. (*This is the last season where 16 games will be played. The NFL made a change where teams will play 17 games from the 2021 season. Also, this is the first season where the fourteen-team playoff berth is coming into effect.)

In the playoffs, there are four rounds of single-elimination games. In the first round, the Wild Card, the bottom six teams (based on record) in each conference play a game against another one to advance to the next round, the Divisional Round, where they will meet either the top seed in the conference or the winner of the other Wild Card game, depending on seeding. The winners of the Divisional Rounds meet in the conference championship games, and the winners of those advance to the Super Bowl, which occurs every late January-early February, and the team who wins the Super Bowl is crowned as the NFL champion for that season.

The team with the most championships is the Green Bay Packers, with 13 (including years where the Super Bowl wasn’t a thing yet). However, since the Super Bowl was created in 1967, the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots share the record for most wins, with six. The current champions are the Kansas City Chiefs, who defeated the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV in February 2020 to win their first championship in 50 years.

Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the 2020 season

Naturally, this season will look a little different for new NFL fans. The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the world, and has changed society indefinitely, especially sports. The NFL is no exception, and the league has made some changes to adapt adequately. The most obvious will be that there will be much limited capacity at games, with all spectators being required to wear a mask at games. Furthermore, the league will not conduct international games, usually played in the United Kingdom and Mexico.

Regardless of how this season might look, it’s going to be exciting to see the NFL back and to see how the season progresses, and more importantly, who wins!

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