This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of World Gaming magazine.
In American football coaches move their players around like pieces on a chessboard. Every player is part of a machine and if one part of the machine breaks down then the entire team grinds to a halt. Its unique and sophisticated set of rules make this sport highly addictive to sporting fanatics like myself.
The crunch of metal on metal and the shuddering sound of fibreglass crushing fibreglass. Welcome to American football. Don’t be fooled by those that claim these guys aren’t tough because they wear pads. It just means they hit harder. These athletes are big muscle-bound gladiators who throw themselves into each other with flagrant disregard for their personal safety. Baseball, basketball and ice hockey are all big team sports in the United States but they pale in significance compared to the country’s love affair with their own special brand of football.
Like most sports, the history of the game isn’t entirely clear. Obviously it developed in the United States and sporting historians do agree that the game grew out of traditional football and rugby. Some call it gridiron, which is not strictly correct, since the “gridiron” is the technical term used to describe the field on which the game is played.
Walter Camp is widely considered the godfather of American football. In the 1870s and 1880s this captain of the Yale football team proactively refined the rules. At this point American football was mainly played by American universities (or as they are usually referred to, colleges) and many of the college rivalries that exist today date back to this era.
In its early days American football was known as an incredibly violent game and in 1905 American President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to ban it if rule changes were not made. In 1906 the modern day game was born where players were permitted to throw the ball forward. The game continued to grow throughout the 20th century with both professional and college games growing in participation and popularity.
At any one time there are 22 players on the field, 11 from each team. In an American football team there are three teams within the team. One for offence (when you have the ball), one for defense (when the opposing team has the ball) and one called “special teams”, which comes onto the field when the ball is going to be kicked, not passed.
Unlike most ball sports the coaching staff play a role integral to the passage of play. They control the game from the sidelines by communicating their commands to their players. Every second of the game has been formulated and players act out a script that has been rehearsed and practiced to perfection. There are times when players must abort the script and act on instinct but this is usually when something goes wrong.
The game is broken down to many small elements called “plays”. Once a play is finished the players reset and get ready for the next play. The object of the game is to move the ball down the field and cross the opponent’s goal line with the ball in hand. When a team takes possession of the ball they get four plays during which their goal is to move the ball 10 yards downfield. These plays are called “downs”. Once a team moves the ball downfield 10 yards, the downs are reset and once again it becomes “1st down and 10”. This means the team has another four downs to move the required 10 yards to get another 1st down. If a team is unable to move the ball 10 yards on their first three downs they will usually elect to kick the ball on their 4th down.
If a team is close to their opponent’s goal line, the attacking team will often attempt a field goal. The kicker will kick the ball off the ground and in between the goal posts (also known as “uprights”), above the crossbar. If they are too far out to kick a field goal then they will “punt” the ball. This is similar to when a goalkeeper kicks the ball down the field in football.
If a team crosses their opponent’s goal line with the ball in hand they are awarded a “touchdown”. In American football the area behind the goal line is called the “end zone”. After a touchdown, a team has the option of kicking the ball off the ground (like a field goal) through the goal posts and this is called “converting the extra point”. The other option they can choose is to have one attempt to run or pass the ball into the end zone (a far harder and less used option), which is called a “twopoint conversion”.
The only other method of scoring is called a “safety”, and this only happens occasionally. A safety occurs when the defense tackles the attacking team behind the attacking team’s own goal line.
Touchdown: 6 points
Extra point: 1 point
Two-point conversion: 2 points
Field goal: 3 points
Safety: 2 points
Many American football fans prefer college football to the professional game. There are slight rule differences and the college game tends to be a higher scoring affair. The athletes are not paid which is a contentious issue but at least the lucrative sport scholarships on offer are a way that some disadvantaged Americans can receive an expensive first class tertiary education. After four years playing college football the best of the best are drafted into the professional ranks of the National Football League (NFL).
On 4 September 2010, over 113,000 fans packed Michigan Stadium to watch the University of Michigan take on the Connecticut Huskies. The game set the official crowd attendance record for a college football game although it is estimated that in the 1920s (before better records were kept) that some crowds reached over 120,000. There are six college football stadiums with capacities over 100,000 people and a massive 25 stadiums that can hold over 80,000. Fanatical crowds sell out most of these venues every week. There is no other amateur sport in the world that comes even close to these impressive numbers.
The American football season is short and some teams may only play six or seven home games. This makes the atmosphere at these games electric, with cheerleaders and marching bands part of the show. Even watching a college football game on television is an amazing spectacle. There are some incredible rivalries which have developed over decades of fierce competition. It is one of the roughest and toughest games played but ill-discipline is dealt with very harshly so there is little foul play.
American President, Barack Obama, is on record as saying that college football needs a playoff system. College football currently works on a ranking system, and a team’s ranking changes throughout the year. This system has its supporters and its critics and is always discussed at great length by officials, the media and fans. At the end of the year the two highest ranked teams play off in the National Championship with the winner crowned the best team for that year in college football.
Other highly ranked teams are invited to play in what are known as “bowl” games. These bowl games are the biggest of the season and they are unique for many reasons. Many of the players are coming to the end of their college education, meaning they will never play for these teams again. Also, as American football is an expensive game to operate it does not have a culture like rugby or football where players can play for clubs at a lower level. So for the majority of college players in their senior year (who understand they will not be drafted into the NFL) they will be lacing up their football boots for the last time. Imagine the passion of having so many players in the one game playing what they know will be their last ever game of football.
The NFL is the most professional sporting competition in the world. The clubs are all privately owned and it is big business. Movies like Any Given Sunday show just how cut-throat the industry is and the attitude is “play well and win or go and find another job”.
There are 32 franchises and they are divided into two 16-team conferences called the AFC (American Football Conference) and the NFC (National Football Conference). These are the remnants of the two professional football leagues that joined together in the 1960s to form the NFL. These 16-team conferences are divided into four divisions of four teams each. Each team plays 16 games in the regular season including two games against each of their divisional rivals.
The top six teams from each conference make the playoffs, and with such a short season every game can be the difference between making the finals and just missing out. The winner of each conference then plays the all-important “Super Bowl”. The Super Bowl is the biggest sporting event held every year in the US and each year it breaks its own national television ratings record.
Betting on American football
Punters have been betting on sports in the US for well over 100 years and it is the most competitive market in the world. Historically, the industry was one of the biggest contributors to organized crime, which made the operation well run, if not a little unsavory. Football betting is growing year by year especially with the internet gaming revolution.
American football has three major betting types. The most popular is the handicap bet known as the “line bet” which gives one team a certain number of points head start. The second most opted-for bet is on the “totals”. The totals is a bet on the total amount of points scored by both teams during the game. This is a great bet if you think the handicap is too close to call. Both of these bets are usually booked at just under even money. The last of the major betting types is called the “money line”, which is just a bet on the outright winner of the game, at a particular price, odds, or (as Americans call it) money line.
College tips for 2011/12 season
The big question is who is going to win the National Championship game which is going to be held in Indianapolis on January 9. At the time of going to press it looks like the only team that should certainly be selected to play for the title is the Louisiana State University (LSU) Tigers. The other possible chances to take on LSU include the The Alabama Crimson Tide and the Oklahoma Sooners. There isn’t much between these teams but I tend to lean towards Alabama. LSU are a good team but there is good value betting against them in the biggest game of the year, as they are far from unbeatable. Betting on all the bowl games is great fun and you will find plenty of information and tips on the internet.
Last year’s winner, the Green Bay Packers, are once again going to be tough to beat. Their quarterback Aaron Rodgers is brilliant and reliable, and they have proven themselves in big games. Their rivals in the NFC include the New Orleans Saints, Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys and the young Detroit Lions. The two teams I like the most to challenge the Packers are the San Francisco 49ers, who have finally come good after a decade of bad results, and the Atlanta Falcons who are well-coached and ready to take the next step to make a Super Bowl.
In the AFC the New England Patriots continue to dominate. The team of coach Belichick and quarterback Brady play boring (but accountable) football that wins games. Pittsburgh and Baltimore appear to be the Patriots’ biggest threats. Other AFC chances include the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders, although the interesting team is the Houston Texans who have cruised through to the playoffs for the first time in their history. The problem for them is they are in the weakest division in football and time will tell if they are seriously good or just making up the numbers.