As I described in my post about the basics, the object of the game is to advance the ball toward the opponent’s end zone in an effort to score touchdowns and field goals. The player in charge of getting the ball down the field on a play-by-play basis is the quarterback (QB). You can think of the quarterback as the general, captain, foreman, manager, all-around boss of the offense. On each play, he will throw the ball to a receiver, hand it to a runner, or keep the ball himself and run with it. Before each play, the quarterback receives a signal from the head coach (via headphones in his helmet) on which play to run. However, each play includes options that the quarterback can choose based on how the opponent is positioned or reacts to the actions of the offense. For example, on a passing play, each receiver on the field will run a different route. The quarterback can decide who to throw the ball to based on which receiver has the best chance of catching the ball, or scoring. Therefore, a quarterback must not only be athletic and accurate with his throwing, but he also needs to be intelligent and able to process what he sees within a few seconds.
Since the quarterback is so important, it seems like a good strategy for the defense would be to chase him around, pressure him, or even tackle him so he can’t throw or might even drop the ball. Right? Right! That’s why the quarterback is protected on each and every play by the offensive line. The offensive line consists of: the center; right and left guards; and right and left tackles. These athletes are typically very large in stature (tall AND weighty) and very strong.
The center is where you’d expect him to be: in the middle of the five players. The quarterback stands behind the center at the beginning of every play, and the center’s primary job is to deliver the ball to the quarterback to start the play. This delivery is called the snap. The center will standing in a squat with one hand on the football, which is resting on the ground just in front of him. At a predetermined signal given by the quarterback, the center brings the ball behind him, through his legs, and gives it to the quarterback. The quarterback can either be right behind the center with his hands palms-open between the center’s legs (no giggling, please), or he will be standing a few yards behind the center (called the shotgun formation), where he will catch the ball from the air.
The rest of the offensive line will line up shoulder-to-shoulder with the center along an imaginary line behind the football (called the line of scrimmage). Next to the center are the right and left guards, with the right and left tackles at the ends of the line. All five will stay in a squatting position, typically in a “three-point stance” (i.e., with two feet and one hand on the ground) until the snap. If they move at all before the snap, a penalty called a false start will be called, and the offense will be moved back five yards.*
At the snap, the offensive line will lunge forward and make contact with the players on the other team whose job it is to “rush” the quarterback by breaking through the offensive line and attempt to tackle the quarterback (or, failing that, give chase). The offensive line wants to prevent this and will attempt to push those players back away from the quarterback (called blocking). You’re probably wondering why they don’t just grab hold of the players on defense and throw them to the ground. If they do, they commit a penalty called, appropriately, holding. In football, it is illegal for a player on offense (other than the player with the ball) to grab and hold an opponent in an attempt to impede his progress. To minimize the risk of committing this penalty, an offensive lineman should keep his hands inside the frame of his opponent (in other words, not grabbing him by the shoulders, wrapping his arms around his waist, etc.). A holding penalty costs the offense ten yards, which are marked off from the point where the holding occurred (the line of scrimmage when committed by an offensive lineman).
So, this is what happens within the first few seconds of each play, and the players critical to these precious moments. There are several other key actors, and potential penalties, related to the offense, but all in good time…
*Remember the discussion about downs? If it’s first and ten and the offense commits a false start penalty, they will be moved back five yards and it will then be first and fifteen.