Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Field, Scoring, Timing and Starting the Game


Today’s lesson is the first effort to give you basic facts about how football is played.  I will get into more detail into all of the topics discuss below in later posts.  However, after reading this, you should be able to watch a game and at least understand what is happening. 

First, a word of encouragement.  Please don’t be discouraged if the workings of football aren’t easy to grasp in the beginning.  It’s not as straight-forward as other sports like basketball, tennis, golf.  There are a lot of things happening at once, strange terms being thrown out by the announcers, and penalties that are sometimes hard to see. 

Tangent:  After graduating college, I went backpacking with friends through Europe for a few weeks.  We were able to get tickets for a preseason game between the Chicago Bears and the Pittsburgh Steelers in Dublin.*  When we arrived in the middle of the second quarter, we were surprised to see that people were already leaving.  Compared to soccer and hurling, two fast-moving sports popular in the UK, football seemed very slow.  But they were also confused.  For example, the people sitting around us couldn’t understand why every once in a while all of the players on the field would leave and be replaced by other players (“Aye, where are they getting’ to?  Are they winded?”).  (As I will explain, this will occur when possession changes.)  No, the only thing the Dubliners liked about football were doing the wave and the cheerleaders (who weren’t even NFL cheerleaders but local stand-ins).  SO, don’t feel alone.  There are lots of nice, intelligent Irishmen who are in the same boat.

OK, now to the basics of football… 

The Field.  The game is played on a rectangular field that measures 120 yards long by 53 yards wide.  “Wait!” you might say, “What is she talking about?  I thought a football field was 100 yards long!?!”  Well, smarty pants, the 120 yards includes the two end zones, one at each end of the field, which each measure 10 yards long.  The playing field is the 100 yards between the goal lines, which are the lines that separate the end zones from the rest of the field.  It looks roughly like this:

0     2
0     3
0    4
0    3
0    2
0    1

Scoring.  The object of the game, naturally, is to score more points than your opponent in the allotted time.  There are three ways to score points: (1) touchdown; (2) field goal; and (3) safety. 

A touchdown is scored when the team that has the ball, the offense, gets the ball into the other team’s end zone.  This can be done by running the ball into the end zone, or throwing the ball to a teammate who is already in the end zone or subsequently runs into the end zone.  A touchdown gives a team six points.  Then, the team can collect either one or two extra points.  It will get one extra point if its kicker can kick the ball through a set of uprights positioned at the back and center of the end zone (they look like a big block “Y”).  A team will earn two points if it manages to get the ball into the end zone again, by running or throwing, from a few yards outside of the end zone.
A field goal is scored when the team's kicker manages to kick the ball from the playing field through the uprights at the back of the end zone.  A field goal nets a team three points; there is no extra point attempt after a field goal.
A safety is one way a defense can score during the game, and is worth two points.  This a bit complicated--click here for my post on safeties.

Duration and Timing.  At the professional level, each game consists of four 15-minute quarters, with a halftime break after the end of the second quarter.  If the game ends in a tie, an overtime period begins (more on overtime in a future post).  At the start of each quarter, the game clock will count down from 15:00.  There are several events that will stop the game clock, such as: a time out called by either team; an incomplete pass; the player with the ball running out of bounds; and an injury.  In the NFL, the officials will call stop the clock when there are two minutes left in the second and fourth quarter (or, if a play starts at, say, 2:01, the clock will stop after that play ends).  This is called the two-minute warning.

Start of Game Play.  The game begins with the captains on each team meeting for a coin toss.  The winner of the coin toss decides either (1) whether his team will receive or kick the opening kickoff; or (2) which end zone his team will defend.  The loser makes the other election.    In that case, the winner’s choices are given to the loser. 

Why would the winner decide not to make the choice at the start of the game?  There are many reasons and theories about this.  For one thing, the team may decide that it’s better to have control over the start of the second half, when they have had an opportunity to adjust its game strategy during half time.  Also, since the loser of the coin toss will likely decide to receive the kickoff, a team with a strong defense may want to defer if it thinks they can stymie the opponent’s offense and set the tone for the rest of the game.

Once the coin toss decisions are made, the game begins with the kickoff.  The team kicking off will place the ball on a kicking tee at its 35-yard line (35 yards outside the end zone it is defending).  The team’s place kicker will then kick the ball toward the other team.  A player on the other team will either catch it as it returns to earth, or pick it up after it has hit the ground, and run toward the opponent’s end zone.  Once a player has the ball, he is called the “runner”.  If the runner is stopped before reaching the opponent’s end zone, the place where he is stopped is called the line of scrimmage and the offense can now begin its drive to the opponent’s end zone.  Kickoffs occur at the beginning of the first and third quarters, and after each score.

Whew.  I think that’s enough to get you started for now.  Next time, a little more about how to advance the ball on offense, including the meaning of that vague term “First and 10.”

*The NFL has been staging preseason games in foreign countries for years in an effort to promote the sport internationally.  Now, there is a commitment to have at least one regular season game held abroad each year.

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