A Beginner’s Guide to American Football
What is the most popular sport in America? It’s American football and specifically the National Football League (NFL)! And don’t worry if you’re not particularly keen on the sport. We’re here to break it down for you. Because if #culturematters, then understanding American football matters too.

“In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.”

– George Carlin, American stand-up comedian, actor, and author, on
The Difference Between Football and Baseball

What is the most popular sport in America? It’s American football and specifically the National Football League (NFL)!

The Super Bowl, the championship game of the NFL, is one of the most-watched television events in the United States each year. In fact, according to Nielsen, 50 million households across the US watched Super Bowl LVII between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs in 2023.

“Super Bowl Sunday” currently takes place on the second Sunday in February. It’s the culmination of a season where 32 teams (16 in the American Football Conference or AFC and 16 in the National Football Conference or NFC) play 17 games each. We’ll help you with the math. That’s 272 games!

And don’t worry if you’re not particularly keen on the sport. There’s also the commercials, food, and halftime show to keep you entertained. For example, the ~70 clever commercials are a huge part of watching the game. Advertisers pay an average of $7M USD to air a 30-second commercial. Or, you can indulge in the ~16bn USD worth of food, drinks, apparel, and decorations. If that’s still not enough, there’s always the halftime show performance, which can cost $10M USD or more to produce.

American football is a complex game that even many Americans would struggle to explain. We’re here to break it down for you though. Because if #culturematters, then understanding American football matters too.

The Coin Toss

Before the game begins, the referee and team captains from each team gather at the center of the field for the coin toss. The winning team chooses whether to kick off or receive the ball, or they can choose which end of the field they want to defend.

The Lay of the Land

Then it all starts with two teams of 11 players on a 100-yard, rectangular field of play. Each team has four chances, called “downs,” to move the ball 10 yards closer to the other team’s end zone. If they succeed, they get another set of four downs. When the team with the ball makes it all the way to the end zone, they score a touchdown (six points).

After a touchdown, the team can try to kick the ball through the goalposts to get an extra point. Or, they can try to run or pass the ball into the end zone again for a two-point conversion. If a team is close to scoring but can’t make it to the end zone, they can try to kick the ball through the goalposts for three points (field goal).

Who Does What?

It’s game time! Here’s each player’s “job description”:

🏈 Quarterback: The leader on the field and often the most crucial player on the team. They are usually the ones who throw the ball to their teammates and make important decisions about which plays to use.

🏈 Running Back: Responsible for carrying the ball and gaining yards by running through the defense. They also catch passes from the quarterback. Think fast, agile, and strong.

🏈 Wide Receiver: Catch passes from the quarterback. It’s all about the speed and hands.

🏈 Offensive Linemen: The offensive line consists of several positions, including the center, guards, and tackles. Their main job is to protect the quarterback and create openings for the running back by blocking the defensive players.

🏈 Defensive Linemen: These players line up on the opposite side of the ball from the offensive line. Their main goal is to stop the running back and put pressure on the quarterback.

🏈 Tight End: A bit like a mix between offensive linemen and wide receivers. Big, strong, help with blocking, but can also catch passes.

🏈 Linebacker: Versatile players who can defend against the run and the pass. They are positioned behind the defensive line and are often involved in tackling the running back or covering the opposing team’s receivers.

🏈 Cornerback: They defend against wide receivers. Speed, agility, and one-on-one coverage skills prevent the opposing team’s receivers from catching the ball.

🏈 Safety: The last line of defense. They help defend against deep passes and support in stopping the run.

🏈 Kicker: Kicks the ball for field goals and extra points.

🏈 Punter: Called in for those high and far kicks to give the ball to the other team without allowing them to get too close to your end zone.

By the Numbers

It’s a lot to remember, so keep these uniform numbers in mind while watching the game:

1-19: Quarterback, Kicker, Punter, Wide Receiver, Running Back
20-29: Running Back, Cornerback, Safety
30-39: Running Back, Cornerback, Safety
40-49: Running Back, Tight End, Cornerback, Safety
50-59: Offensive Line, Defensive Line, Linebacker
60-69: Offensive Line, Defensive Line
70-79: Offensive Line, Defensive Line
80-89: Wide Receiver, Tight End
90-99: Defensive Line, Linebacker

Is It Over Yet? 😉

Even though the time on the clock for a football game is 60 minutes (four 15-minute quarters), it usually takes about three hours to play.

The NFL has never canceled a game on account of weather. However, there have been instances where games were postponed or rescheduled due to severe weather conditions. For example, the 2010 game between the Minnesota Vikings and the NY Giants at the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis was moved to the next night in Detroit after the Metrodome roof partially collapsed under the weight of snow from a blizzard.

“Huddle Around” for a Fun Fact

The huddle, where football players gather closely together to discuss strategy, started with the Gallaudet University football team in the late 19th century. (Gallaudet University is a university for the deaf and hard of hearing located in Washington, D.C.) The team huddled to prevent the opposing team from seeing their sign language signals and gaining a tactical advantage. This innovation eventually spread to other football teams, and today, the huddle is a standard part of the game!

“American” Football Across Cultures

How could we wrap up without looking at other countries where American football has gained some level of popularity? Although it may not be as widespread as sports like soccer or rugby, it has become so popular internationally that a handful of regular season games are played each year in the UK and Germany. And there are also organized leagues and teams in places including:

🇨🇦 Canada: While the game played in Canada is similar to American football, there are some rule differences. The Canadian Football League (CFL) is a professional league in Canada.

🇲🇽 Mexico: American football has a following in Mexico, and there is a professional league called the Liga de Fútbol Americano Profesional (LFA).

🇯🇵 Japan: American football has been played in Japan for several decades, and there is a strong college football culture. The X-League is a semi-professional league that includes teams from various companies.

🇪🇺 Europe: American football leagues and teams exist in various European countries. There’s an annual European championship known as the Eurobowl.

🇦🇺 Australia: While Australian rules football is more popular, there is a growing interest in American football. The sport is played at the amateur level, and there are local leagues.