The point of this is to explain some basic strategy and why the people on the field do what they do. I will be writing on more particular aspects of the game as football season progresses.
1. Downs: Attempts to march down the field and score points
Imagine you had 22 people to entertain, and all you had was a strange oblong-shaped ball and a 100 yard rectangular field.
You could set the ball down mid-field, and divide your 22 into 2 squads of 11 each, assigning them a half of the field. You could then tell each team to fight for the ball, and take the ball however they like from each other but get it onto the extreme (“end zone” is the football term) of the other team’s side for points.
Modern American football starts from that very simple setup, and gets extraordinarily complicated very fast because of its premium on violence. If you just let the players play, they’d kill each other. The modern game involves people running 20 yards or more to hit each other full speed so as to get the other player to drop the ball (a “fumble,” whereby any team can claim possession).
So what happens is that both strategies and rules have developed to stop play and make the most out of those stoppages. The game occurs in moments, called “downs,” for the most part. The ball is set at some place on the field (“the line of scrimmage”) and the side having possession (“offense”) lines up with the opposing defense lined up on the other side. Typically the offense has to get the ball 10 yards down the field after it is snapped (put in play) by running or passing to get a set of more downs; play stops when the ball carrier is down (tackled by the other team) or a forward pass hasn’t been caught (“incomplete”) or he has caught it but run out of bounds or scored.
2. Why does everyone line up in that funny way? Why can’t you just have 11 people line up randomly?
OK. We’ve moved on to the question of strategy. The modern game uses a very particular strategy for offense; there are many other possibilities, but we’re just going to stick to what happens usually. A human wall (every team fields at least 5 linemen) is created, one member of the wall has the ball and “snaps” it on command to the quarterback (QB) unless the play says otherwise.
Everything on offense runs through the QB. Why is this? Because he’s the one member of the team surveying the field and seeing what the defense is doing.
Get the strategy? The idea is a human wall buys one guy on your team a little bit of time. With that time, he may make a forward pass, and the QB is therefore outfitted with specialized members of the offense to get yards for downs. He’ll have wide receivers, players that don’t line up with the linemen but line up closer to the sideline. (A pattern exists called an “out pattern” where the wide receiver runs up the sideline then makes a sharp cut to get out of bounds; the QB must deliver the ball to the receiver as he is approaching the sideline. Typically that window of time and space is very narrow, but the play almost can’t be defended.) He’ll have running backs, who on some plays could be handed the ball and just run upfield, depending on the blocking and the defense, but coming out of the backfield as opposed to from nearer the sideline, give the defense more to fight with. There are also players called “tight ends” who are almost a cross between a lineman and a receiver; they can be left in a play to block or sent upfield to run a route and make a catch.
2a. Why can’t every play be a running play?
My dad used to wonder why a team can’t just have lots of very good, overpaid offensive linemen, and give the ball to any old running back, and just run every down. The problem with this is obvious: all it takes is one guy coming free from the defense to blow up the play, and since one guy has to have the ball, 10 other linemen plus the one back means that you’d be in a prime position to lose yardage every down. That one guy unaccounted for is dangerous business.
2b. So how do teams get big running plays?
Since modern offensive personnel, lined up however, is already a tactic – you don’t know if they’re going to run or pass, they’re set up for both really – you set up plays where as they develop, linemen and tight ends and even wide receivers get multiple blocks in. Part of this setup involves getting the referees to put the ball closer to one sideline than another. Putting a receiver on that “near” sideline forces the defense to pay attention to that side of the field, even though it’s narrow. You could then fake a pass or run that side, and come back and run to the wider side of the field; the linemen would get multiple blocks b/c they block to sell the fake, then block as the running back moved out to the wider side of the field.
3. How is defense even possible? The fact you set up an offense that varied means a lot of things exist to throw you off in the first place…
Defense is possible because certain formations are more adept at doing things than others. For example, if the offense comes in with lots of linemen and tight ends and one wide receiver, it’s a safe bet they’re running.
Furthermore, modern defensive personnel are very specialized themselves. A QB has a lot of reading to before the snap, both on and off the field. Typically a defense lines up 4 linemen, who attack right at the line of scrimmage, linebackers, who patrol the middle of the field or come in to hit the QB, and the “secondary,” quick fast guys who run with wide receivers or patrol closer to the end zone. Usually, if your QB is your field general for the offense, a safety, a specialized member of the secondary, is your field general for the defense, since he sees everything going on in front of him.
To get an idea how effective most defenses are, I’d say look at how many yards the average running play in the NFL goes for. I think it’s 3 yards, last I checked. All a defense has to do is key in on you and hit you, even those the offense has what is called “initiative” and can dictate the tempo of the game. Here’s what I’m thinking to illustrate the efficiency of modern defense: you always get 4 downs when you get the ball back. If you ran three times you’d pick up 9 yards, but not get a new set of downs. You’d be facing using your last down and you could be stuck on your side of the field.
A large part of the modern game is field position. It’s a lot easier to go 40 yards than it is 80. So there are these things called “special teams” which come out every time field position is an issue.
A punting unit comes when an offense stalls midfield or in its own territory or is only shallowly in an opponent’s territory. The idea is to kick the ball away on 4th down and put the opposing offense in a bad spot.
There are also kickoff coverage units; every time an opponent scores, a team receives the ball by having it kicked to it. You obviously want to catch that ball and return it as far as possible.
Finally, there’s kicking a field goal, which is when you stall in an opponent’s territory but have someone talented on your team who can do this. Touchdowns that reach the end zone are worth 6 (with an extra kicked point, 7, with a two-point conversion, 8) and a field goal is worth 3.