Skinning the Pig: An Abridged Guide to Football Jargon
"It's weird. People say they're not like apes. Now how do you explain football, then?" - Mitch Hedberg (misinformed human being/hilarious comedian)
Many people have no effing clue what the hell is happening during a football game - which, as it turns out, actually stands to reason. To the uninformed eye, it would appear that a large group of men who happen to be in impossibly good shape are chaotically sprinting into one another without any definitive purpose. Yet almost any football fan will tell you that this is not the case, that gridiron success depends upon an absurd amount of nuanced strategy. In fact, if you happen to be watching ESPN on any given day between late June and April, you will likely see a group of aging men in snappy suits insisting that football is the most complicated entity ever created by man. They will tell you that it is more complicated than chess, more complicated than third world economics, more complicated than the spectrum of human emotion. They will tell you all of these things and more. And they won't be that far off when they do.
Of course, at its very core, American football isn't really all that complicated. The object of the game is to use eleven individuals to somehow move a conical leather ball past eleven other individuals and across an arbitrarily placed white line. Every time the offensive team gains at least ten yards toward their goal (assuming they haven't lost any yardage due to penalties or unsuccessful plays, which would obviously increase the necessary yardage), they're allowed four more chances to do it again (this is referred to as a first down), until they either fail to do so or cross the aforementioned line. If they accomplish this surprisingly difficult task, they're given six points and an opportunity for a seventh (or a seventh and an eighth if they're feeling especially frisky). Then it's the other team's turn.
It's how a successful scoring drive (or defense thereof) is actually achieved that makes football such a difficult sport to understand. The players often make the gameplay look simple, but there are dozens, if not hundreds, of theoretical approaches that go into every single game. The basic rules make following a game relatively simple, but to gain a degree of true mastery over the of the sport requires a lifetime dedicated to the violent beauty of a child's game. Since explaining the near Newtonian complexity of schematic football philosophy could be a college major, we simply don't have enough time to go over the entirety of the sport. Still, for those of you who want to pretend you have something in common with your better half or waste time around the water coolers on Monday morning (or both!), here's a primer on some of the more esoteric jargon that you might hear this Sunday.
Line of Scrimmage
With the exception of the "Kickoff," the origin of every football play is the line of scrimmage. Technically, it is the imaginary demarcation point that spreads horizontally on each side of the ball, extending all the way to the out-of-bounds line. Once the final member of the offensive team has taken his place, neither team is allowed to cross this boundary until the ball is snapped and the play begins.
As a means of establishing a sense of order, the line of scrimmage is vital to the sport. Football is a strange game in that most of the action occurs in 3-4 second salvos, but each of these skirmishes need to be planned, so in between plays, each team forms a group called a huddle to plan the next clash. While the players are plotting their upcoming strategy, the head linesman (a member of the referee crew) places the ball in its correct position based on the area of the field where the previous play ended.
Think of the line of scrimmage as the epicenter of an earthquake and every event that occurs during the play as ripple effects of the seismic activity.
Logistically speaking, there are essentially three layers to most defensive configurations. The defensive line is situated closest to the ball in a resting position before the snap. Their primary job is to attempt to attack the quarterback or, in the event of a running play, disallow the offensive line from creating alleys for the ball carrier to run through. There is nothing at all reactionary about the defensive line. They are basically in attack mode at all times.
Behind these players, are the second and third tiers of defense, the former being the linebackers and the latter being the secondary, which consists of cornerbacks who guard the receivers and safeties who are usually the last form of protection against big plays. Traditionally, these positions are going to base what they do on how the offense attempts to gain yardage. They are highly reactionary, so they are usually stocked with extremely athletic personnel.
A blitz, therefore, is a scripted play in which any non-defensive linemen attempt to attack the ball-carrier behind the aforementioned line of scrimmage. This can be an especially effective tactic when disguised correctly, that is to say, when the offense doesn't see it coming. The primary reason for this is stunningly simple: It forces the offensive line to block more players than it is capable of in its standard configuration.
Counting the goal areas (both of which are ten yards deep), an American football field is 120 yards long and 53 yards wide. Although it looks vast on television, when you consider the size and speed of the participants, a football field is actually a pretty crowded place - especially when a team gets close to the opposing team's goal (more commonly known as the end zone).
The area between the 20-yard-line and the end zone is called the red zone. This is where the magic happens, folks. The offensive team knows they're close, so the pressure always mounts. Not only that, but like I said, it's extremely claustrophobic in this area, which means it can be difficult for receivers to get open or for ball-carriers to gain any space to build up forward momentum.
If there's one thing to keep in mind when discussing the red zone, it's that good teams are usually measured by their success in this part of the field.
Once upon a time, there was no passing in football. Men simply line up across from one another and pushed as hard as they could while ball carriers did their best to look for "lanes" to run through. At this time, football was much more akin to rugby than the game we know today. That changed in 1905 when a rules committee met to discuss possible options for decreasing the brutality of the game (18 players had died nationwide the year before). One of the rule changes enacted was that a team now had to move the ball ten yards instead of five in order to gain a first down. To make this a slightly more attainable goal, they legalized the forward pass, paving the way for the modern game.
Initially, a forward pass could only be thrown to a player within the center hash marks of the field, and an incomplete pass resulted in either a penalty or a change of possession. Slowly, those rules were abandoned, and football is now heavily predicated on the passing game. As such, it's not uncommon for an offense to line up with four or five receivers, leading the defense to the assumption that a pass is coming. In this instance, they're forced to sacrifice one linebacker and add another player from their secondary, leaving them with a grand total of five at the position - hence the name "Nickel." (A less cleverly named variation of this defensive set is the "Dime," in which the defense will add not one, but two players from their secondary. Six does not equal ten, but no one ever accused football players of being mathematicians.)
Yes, this is the name of a Sandra Bullock movie. More importantly, it is the name of a book written by Michael Lewis that said Sandra Bullock movie is based on. Even more importantly, said book actually has a dual narrative. One portion of it is based on the real-life story of Baltimore Ravens' All-Pro Left Tackle, Michael Oher. Most important of all, the other portion of the book details a league-wide schematic revolution that overtook the NFL in the 1980s thanks to one player: Lawrence Taylor.
During the 1980s, Lawrence Taylor played outside linebacker for the New York Giants. No one had ever witnessed a player with such a vicious combination of size and speed. Upon entering the league after a celebrated college career at the University of North Carolina, Taylor immediately began disrupting offenses throughout the NFL and putting up statistics that people didn't think were possible. He was unblockable; the only question was whether he would run around a player or through him. To utilize his ridiculous skill set, the Giants would line Taylor up opposite the dominant throwing hand of the quarterback. This ensured that when he blitzed around the end, he would arrive at the quarterback's back unannounced. With no warning of the impending destruction, the quarterback was suddenly immensely prone to injury. Drastic defensive measures were necessary.
Because of Lawrence Taylor, and his popularization of a "blind side" rush linebacker, a team's Left Tackle (the offensive position guarding the quarterback's rear) suddenly became the most important position in football, maybe in all of sports. Because of the violence inherent in football, defense means two things: 1) to figuratively defend your team's territory from oppositional penetration, and 2) to literally protect your most important player. To that end, think of the Lawrence Taylors of the NFL as nuclear missiles and Left Tackles as long distance missile defense systems. Consider the potential catastrophe if the latter had never been invented.
The first three overall draft picks in last year's NFL draft were Left Tackles. This is why Michael Oher, not Sandra Bullock, is supremely important.
American football is more popular than it's ever been, and why wouldn't it be? These men have perfected barbarism to such an extent that it is now considered equal parts sport and science. For especially rabid fans, the ceaseless debate over strategy legitimizes the sport and excuses their obsession with a child's game. Still, it's not necessary to understand every single aspect of a football game to enjoy the action. Take some time to brush up on these terms, and you'll have unlimited access to the largest unofficial fraternity in the United States.
Or, it's entirely possible that you recognize football for the juvenile entertainment it is and simply don't give a damn about it on any level. In which case, I simultaneously pity and salute you.