Steve Roberts Talks Football…American Football That Is!

Steve Roberts, one of our many valued customers and friend to American Soda, has been kind enough to write up a nice little introduction to the Superbowl for the uninitiated. In case you didn’t know, Superbowl 47 takes place on Sunday (February 3rd) and pits the Baltimore Ravens against the San Francisco 49ers. It’s a big deal across the pond. A very big deal. And the NFL’s popularity is growing over here.

With all this in mind we have given Alan Stone a day off (Steve’s piece was way, way better actually and his NFL team is the Tennessee Titans, so what does he know about it?! – Ed) and have given the blog floor to Steve and his Superbowl round up. Over to you, Steve!

It’s that time of year again when America unites to watch television and stuff their faces with copious amounts of the amazing products we all clearly love so much (okay, so they probably do that everyday, but hey, they’re watching the same channel this weekend…) and the grand spectacle that is the Superbowl. There’s almost no chance that this worldwide event is an entirely foreign concept for you (it is after all, the most watched single sporting event in the world,) but there is a good chance the ins and outs of it mean absolutely nothing to you. And that my friends, is where I come in. I hope I can break down the event for you and perhaps entice a few people to give it a go.

The Superbowl

49ers v Ravens, Superbowl 47Just in case you’re totally unaware, I’ll explain just what the Superbowl is. The Superbowl is like a combination of the Premier League championship and the FA Cup (just, you know, not full of cheating and theatrical, Olympic level diving.) The NFL is actually two separate football leagues that were unified many years ago. There was the National Football League and the American Football League. These two were governed by separate bodies and had their own rules and regulation. Before these two united to form the NFL, it was suggested after many years of individual championships, that a one off game should be held between the champions of each league to see which league was the best (in a super simplified version of events.)

Nowadays, the two conferences (NFC and AFC) play almost separately throughout the season, which is a loose translation of a league system as we know it, then the best few teams enter the playoffs, which comprises of one-off games to see who progresses, and who’s done for the season. Ultimately, the champions of each conference face off in The Superbowl, the ultimate destiny, the ultimate test. For the Ultimate Warriors (but not the wrestler.)

A Superbowl Guide For Uninterested

For those of you with no interest in it, who don’t really care, but for some reason are reading this, I’ll give you my Superbowl guide for the uninterested…

There will be a mini show, a bit of a music concert, then someone will sing the National Anthem, then a bunch of guys will throw a ball about, run with it, catch it sometimes, hit people and get hurt. Then they’ll get off the field and they’ll bring out a stage, on which will be that Beyoncé woman, who will put on her own little concert and will make a big show out of it. It’ll probably be good if you like that sort of thing and she’ll sing those songs we all know, like… uh, okay, you got me… She’ll probably have a few special guests, too.

Then those guys from before will come back out and do more of the same as they did before the pop concert. Then they’ll all cry, some will be sad tears, some will be happy tears. Then there will be a bunch of confetti raining down on the field over the winners. Some of those guys who did that there sports thing might even become famous actors one day and entertain you… The Rock (injury prevented NFL career), Bubba Smith (The big fella from ‘Police Academy’), Lawrence “My Hero” Taylor (The Waterboy, Any Given Sunday, Shaft), Terry Crewes (The Longest Yard, Training Day, Click, Everybody Hates Chris), John Matuszak (Sloth from The Goonies), Carl Weathers (Rocky, Predator, Arrested Development, Action Jackson, Happy Gilmore), OJ Simpson (that car chase… what?), Mark Harmon (NCIS, injury prevented NFL career), Dean Caine (that Superman one with Teri Hatcher), Burt Reynolds (injury prevented NFL career), Ed O’Neil (Married with Children, Modern Family), and most famously, acting wise, John Wayne (another injury that prevented an NFL career.)  Thank you for reading, enjoy your weekend.

An American Football Q&A

Now for those of you who are still interested. I know many people in this country of ours have a, let’s say, negative view on American Football, so allow me to start by addressing a few of those ‘issues’ that many of you have with this majestic sport.

“Why call it football, they hardly ever kick the ball, shouldn’t it be called Hand-Egg?”

Well, as you might know, American Football derived from our sport, Rugby. Many years ago, Rugby was a sport played in many American colleges, but rather than stick dogmatically to the rules of Rugby as we know it, they decided to adapt it, just as they did with rounders (baseball). The biggest adaptation they made was introducing the forward pass. This change essentially transformed the game wholesale and they never looked back… pun most definitely intended. So, why football? Well, the actual name for Rugby, is Rugby Football, so our American cousins had a choice, either call it football, or name it after a town in Warwickshire that was the birthplace of Rugby, a town they probably don’t know even exists… I think they chose wisely.

“With all that armo(u)r they wear, isn’t it just Rugby for softies?”

No. In fact, quite the opposite. On the surface, I’m sure the padding they wear looks as though it is designed to protect the players, and, while in some part this is true, its existence in the sport is designed primarily as a weapon. It allows the spectacular hits that aren’t seen very often in Rugby [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJY07J9P7fg].

In fact, if it could be described as a soft version of anything, it would be Australian Rules Football (but we all know the Aussies are borderline insane…). You see, American Football is a game of possession, far more than most sports. Controlling the ball means controlling the clock, and that is a big part of the game. The longer the offense has possession of the ball, the better their chances are of winning the game. The defense’s job is not only to stop the opposing offense from scoring, but to strive to create “turnovers”. Whilst the defenses can score themselves, this is a pretty rare occurrence.

“They spend half their time standing around waiting to play, the game takes 4 hours, can’t they speed that up?”

Sure, they could speed it up, but if they did, it would be a much less intricate sport. Think of American Football as a game of chess, or a battle in a war. Much of that time spent between plays allows the coaches of each team to draw up the plays to such a fine degree that execution must be 100% accurate for that play to work (here’s 132 pages of mind boggling information that even I don’t understand) and, bear in mind, every player has to know every one of these plays like the back of their hand so they don’t run the wrong way, or leave a great big gap for the defense to get through.

Defensively, the coaches are looking at the tendencies of the offense to try and create a perfect counterbalance to what the offense is likely to do next. Each player is a piece on the chessboard and the coaches get paid a lot of money to see 5 moves ahead and use each piece individually to instigate an unstoppable attack. Of course, with another grand master on the opposing side, being able to orchestrate such a plan is never straightforward. The other huge part of the game is the battle for field position. Imagine the defensive coach is a general controlling his troops to hold position against an onslaught of firepower. If they give up too much land, the enemy will be in striking distance of their base (endzone) and be in prime position to win the war. And besides, aren’t all those breaks in play the perfect time to go and grab another pack of Cheetos or can of A&W Root Beer?

“What’s all this 3rd and 8, 1st and 19, and 17th and -37 then?”

These numbers are the staple of the game. On each possession, the offense has 4 downs (attempts) to gain 10 yards. It is a game of downs and distance. If you think of it like Rugby League, rather than Union, it may give you an idea. If the offense fails to make it 10 yards (at least) on those 4 attempts, then the ball is turned over to the opposition. If, during those 4 attempts, the offense manages to move the ball forward 10 yards (from its starting position when they gained possession,) they will receive a “fresh set of downs” and will have another 4 attempts to move it another 10 yards, until, theoretically, they move it into the endzone for a touchdown (TD.)

American Football is a game of feet and inches. Heck, even a few millimetres can be the difference between winning and losing. Because of this, what you will usually see on 4th down is either a punt, or, if the team feels they are close enough to the endzone, a field goal to take points. The punt is designed to hand over possession, but in a much better field position (ideally on the opponent’s 1 yard line!) Of course, the opposition has other plans and they want to return that punt as far as possible, either to score, or to set themselves up to score.

“Why do they call themselves World Champions, it’s not like any other country plays. Isn’t that arrogant?”

Other countries do play… just not very well. So really, they are, without doubt, the best in the world that year… Having said that, it’s actually a tradition that comes from baseball. You’ve heard of The World Series, right? Baseball’s championship? You have the same argument, I’m sure. But, it’s actually called The World Series because of its original sponsor. It was in fact, called The World’s Series. The inter-conference championship game which united the two separate conferences to see who really was the best. And, it was so called, because it was sponsored (and created) by The World, a newspaper which circulated nationally at the time. It was The World’s thing, and it was a series of games. It was The World’s Series. And so this tradition has found its way into the other US sports, too.

An American Football Game For Beginners

So, that’s all well and good, but the chances are if you do happen to watch the game, it won’t make a lick of sense to you. Well, allow me to give you a beginner’s guide to what is going on.

They start, much as many sports, with a kick-off. It’s all pretty simple so far, the team kicks off and chases down the ball to attempt to prevent the opposition from returning it (remember the field position battle!) The better a job they do at this, the further the opposition has to drive the ball to score.

What you’ll see here is two teams trying their best to out scheme the other on the fly. The returning team will create a wedge, or wall, to block for the returner and the kick-off team have to do their best to break through that wedge/wall to limit his ability to get into open space and get a good return. The kick-off, whilst it may seem boring, can be one of the most exciting plays in football. When the return team get it right and create a running lane for the returner (usually a lightning fast guy) he has a great chance to take it all the way home and score a touchdown right off the bat (as was the case with this 2006 Superbowl opening kick return).

Okay, so it’s kicked off, but nothing from that point on makes any sense, right? What ARE all these guys doing? Here’s my breakdown of the two types of offensive plays and players positions and what each man’s job is.

The Passing Play. The ball is “snapped” from the line of scrimmage (where the ball is placed pre-play) and the quarterback drops back with the ball and surveys the field ahead of him, before selecting which of his targets to throw to. Those targets, or receivers, will each have run a specific route so the quarterback will know where each one (up to 6) is at any moment. He must release the ball behind the line of scrimmage; if he crosses in front of that and attempts to throw forward, he will incur a penalty. He can, however, pitch the ball backwards to another player. Pretty simple in explanation – far, far from simple in execution.

The Running Play. This one is more straightforward. After the snap, the quarterback hands the ball off to the running back (or pitches it), who then proceeds up field (hopefully) following his blocking. These are often designed for short gains and used to control possession and/or tire out the defense.

The Positions

The Quarterback (QB). He’s that stoic young man in all those college films who puts the team first and is dedicated to his role. Or, if you watch high school stuff, he’s the good looking guy who’s a jerk to everyone, then his nice farmboy understudy comes along after he’s injured and becomes the school darling…(don’t you just hate these saccharine, clichéd underdog stories?).

His job is the most complicated on the field. He must know what every player is about to do. He must look at the defense and predict what they are about to do and adjust accordingly. It’s simple to say his job is to throw the ball, but it’s much, much more complicated than that. He has the ability to change the play that the coach has called if he sees something on the defense that stacks up against what they are about to do, he can move his players around before the snap, he can alert his players to what he sees. He’s the eyes, ears and voice of the offense.

The Running Back (RB). Typically the smallest guy on the offense in terms of height, his job is primarily taking a direct hand off from the quarterback, but that’s not all. If they play calls for it, he can act as a last line of protection for his quarterback on a passing play, or become a receiver himself. The ball must be handed or tossed backwards, or it is considered a pass.

The Offensive Line (O-Line). These are the big guys who are crouched down at the start of each play. I won’t break the positions down individually, suffice to say, their job is to block. Either to protect the QB from the onslaught of defenders who are trying to get to him, or block forwards for a running play and open up some lanes for the RB to break a big play. This tends to be the least glamorous position and the one that gets the least credit, but arguably is the most important part of the offense. Without the time created by the blockers, nothing happens.

The Wide Receivers (WR). These guys are usually the tallest, fastest guys on the field. Their job is to create space for themselves from the defenders to allow the QB to pass to them and get big chunks of field position at a time. They are also useful on running plays and can act as blockers, either out wide near the sidelines or up field if the runner has made it that far. A good block from a WR down field can be the difference between a big run and a big run for a touchdown.

The Tight End (TE). These guys are a hybrid between the offensive line and a wide receiver. They come in equal parts big and strong, and fast and agile. They can either be used to block or as an extra target for the QB. These days, the tendency is to use the TE as a weapon.

And those are the staples of the offense. Of course, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and in American Football, that will be the defense. The Defense, or “D”,  (or “D-With a picture of a fence next to it…) is far more complicated a beast than the offense. Most hardcore Football fans (myself included) much prefer seeing good defensive play than offense. That being said, I’ll break it down a little for you. As well as a positional guide.

Much like the offense, there are two basic types of defensive play. Though these two staples are often merged together in the same plays, for the sake of explanation, I’ll keep them separate.

Man-Coverage. This involves each defender (apart from the defensive line, explanation coming up…) to shadow their opposing player. Each defender is responsible for one man, in an attempt to prevent anyone on the offense from getting separation and allowing a successful drive. These plays rely heavily on your man being better than his assigned opponent and a 1% difference is speed or guile can mean the difference between a play working or failing.

Zone-Coverage. This involves each defender being responsible for defending a specific area of the field. As offensive players enter their zone, they press-up to cover them, but if that player leaves their zone, they will often turn their attention elsewhere. This is often used in situations where you are willing to allow the offense to gain a small distance, but prevent them from “going deep” on you. Or, in goal line situations (when the offense is within a few yards of the endzone to score) where there is very little room to manoeuvre.

The Defensive Line (D-Line): These guys are the counterparts to the offensive line. Their job is to disrupt the O-Line. This comprises either 4 linemen, or 3, depending on which scheme the defense runs. The two linemen on the edge are typically the guys with more agility and speed [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MhIGYUi3l8U] and are often tasked with getting to the quarterback before he manages to get off his pass (sacking), but they are also important in containing run plays that go around the edge of the lines. The one or two interior linemen are the big, nasty guys, the ones who use brute strength and size to plug the gaps in the O-Line. They are paramount in stopping inside run plays.

The Linebackers (LB’s): These are the mean guys, the big, ripped, hard tackling man-beasts that roam the plains of the defense and are ready to chew out anyone who comes near them. They do it all, cover receivers, chase down the running back and close in on the quarterback. As standard, there are either 3 or 4 of these guys. If the D-Line has 4 guys, there will be 3 LB’s, if the D-Line has 3 guys, there will be 4 LB’s. For the sake of explanation, I’ll work on the 4-3 defense (4 D-Line, 3 LB’s). The man in the middle is the quarterback of the defense. He runs the D on field and reacts to any changes the offense might make.

The two linebackers on the edge tend to be faster guys, often tasked with rushing the quarterback, or playing man-coverage on the speedy running back or wide receivers. But they have to be strong enough to break off from the big offensive line players too. In many respects, these are the most rounded athletes you’ll see in football.  [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0fJ_H7omzY]

The Cornerbacks (CB’s): These guys are quick. Real quick. Their prime task is to cover the wide receivers. Usually smaller than their offensive counterparts, they rely on quick feet and an ability to spring into the air like a pop-up pirate. The amount on the field usually depends on how likely the coach thinks the offense is going to pass.

The Safeties (S): The last line of defense, as the name suggests. The two safeties (usually) provide deep coverage in case any cornerbacks or linebackers need help, or have been beaten completely. Though they tend to be smaller guys, they still pack one heck of a punch and are often used to provide an extra help to stopping the run, or bringing pressure on the quarterback.

Now, there is another phase to the game, knows as Special Teams, but this doesn’t really need a proper explanation. The punter punts and the kicker kicks off and kicks the field goals. There’s a lot more to it, you’ve got coverage specialists and guys who come on just because they can snap the ball a long distance to the punter/kicker, but that’s not super important to know about.

Hopefully that has broken the game down a little, and will maybe help make some of the insanity that happens on field on every play a little more chewable, like Wonka’s Nerds, rather than a Jolly Rancher. So what about this Superbowl? What should you look out for and what can we expect to see? (Please do not hold me, or American Soda responsible for any lost bets you may incur from reading this. I have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m just writing this in the hope it might score me a free packet of Orville Redenbacher, I don’t even know what this Football thing is…)

My Superbowl Prediction

Baltimore 19-13 San Francisco

These two teams are defensive juggernauts (despite my beloved Giants scoring 26 on them this season and holding them to 3 points! You can’t berate me for that, either, Niners fans, you’re in the Superbowl and we missed the playoffs, you win… for now.) The score will most likely be kept pretty low. Two amazing sets of linebackers, each led by the two best interior linebackers in the league right now, one at the end of his career, slower and less agile, but still the heart and soul of that team in Baltimore’s #52, Ray Lewis. The other, the pretender to his throne, young, quick, fierce and incredibly smart, but, lacking that same level of spark in San Francisco’s #52, Patrick Willis.

But, I have to give the edge to Baltimore on this one; they have proven veteran winners across their defense and I believe, in the biggest show, veteran leadership will trump rookie passion. Both teams have pretty good offenses too, Baltimore have had a resurgence this season with the addition of their young wide receiver Torrie Smith (who, for those who don’t know, lost his younger brother during the season in a car accident, which has given the team an extra push for unity and desire to win). Their young quarterback Joe Flacco has shown an extra level of ability this season as well as an increased ability to act as a leader, both on and off the field. They have a solid running game, and their running back Ray Rice is one of the more solid performers at that position in the league.

San Francisco, in many ways, show great similarities in this area. Their running game has been solid for many years, with their own consistent performer being Frank Gore. In fact, both running backs are almost carbon copies of each other, both powerful and quick. They too, have extra help at wide receiver this season, having brought back veteran receiver Randy Moss and taken one of last year’s Superbowl heroes, Mario Manningham, from my Giants. (boo).

But the biggest offensive story of either of these teams is San Francisco’s rookie quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. Having taken over mid-season, Kaepernick has shown flashes of brilliance and has, as the NFL is trending towards these days, the ability to make plays by pulling in the ball and running with it. This running quarterback is somewhat of an evolution of the league over the last few seasons, and, whilst there have always been QB’s with great speed and quickness (Niner fans are well versed in these dynamic guys, having had two great ones in the 80’s when they were the leagues dominant team in Joe Montana and Steve Young,) offenses are tending to build gameplans around their QB’s ability to run with the ball.

In many ways, this game could well come down to how well Baltimore’s veterans can react to the dual-threat that Kaepernick poses [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fm9dYZYzvEg] . They may lack the speed to contain him, but they should make up for that in positional awareness.

In another bizarre angle on this year’s Superbowl, or Harbaughbowl as it’s being called (by me, I guess some others too, I dunno…), for the first time in history the opposing teams Head Coaches are in fact, brothers. John (Ravens) and Jim (49ers) Harbaugh are two of the younger coaches in the league and both have found early success in playoff appearances already. Some might say that their situations were helped by both inheriting already good football teams, but there’s still obviously something that Mr and Mrs Harbaugh fed these two lads that has spurred them on to become duelling Superbowl head coaches. I’m guessing a steady influx of Mountain Dew, Twizzlers and Apple Jacks myself. At least, that’s the excuse I use to keep stuffing my face with them, anyway.

But perhaps the biggest story of this year’s Superbowl is the fact that it will be Ray Lewis’ last ever game. He is, almost certainly, the best middle linebacker to ever play the game and possibly the most inspirational player to ever play. He may not be the player he once was at the age of 37, coming off a torn bicep earlier in this season and the countless other injuries he’s had over the last few years, but it’s one more ride, one more pep talk

One more shot at the biggest prize in football.

He will leave his body on the field, he will give everything he has, physically, but more importantly for this game, emotionally. The NFL has a history of these rare breed exceptional players who lead inspiring their teams to championships in their finalé seasons. Jerome Bettis for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Michael Strahan for the amazing New York Giants, and John Elway with the Denver Broncos for example. I believe that Ray will find a way.

Well, there you have it. My guide to the greatest sport in the world and its greatest game. I hope anyone who has managed to stick with me this far has either learned a little something that might make the game more appealing or understandable to them, or, at the very least, enjoyed the little videos I peppered in. For those of you who intend to watch the big show, I hope you enjoy it, I hope it shows off what this sport can be, and most of all, I hope whoever you are rooting for wins… Because the Giants aren’t in it, so I couldn’t care less. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to sulk for the next 6 months.

Thanks a lot for this, Steve, we all learned a lot. Not that we needed to learn it, yo understand. Umm. Yeah.

Image Credit: cartoonaday.com