2 min read

The Secret to Understanding Football

This Sunday, you might find yourself watching the Super Bowl even though you have absolutely no interest in football. I didn’t either until a Sunday afternoon eight years ago. I was watching the coaches with their bulky headsets directing players on the field when it clicked for me…

Football is a war simulation.

Like all war, football is about controlling territory. The ball is a bomb. The endzone is the enemy base. Downs are battles. Coaches are generals. Players, suited in armor, are soldiers, each with a different body type to suit his specific role.

The quarterback is the captain, relaying orders and fighting alongside his men (he actually has a radio in his helmet). The average height of a NFL quarterback is 6’3” – he needs to see and throw over the players in front of him. 1

Linemen are the front line of the battle. The offensive line (or “O-Line”) protects the quarterback from a defensive counter attack, called a “blitz.” The D-line forms a wall to block the ground attack. Linemen start at 300 pounds.

The running back is a tank – short, thick, explosive, but not necessarily the fastest unit on the field. He needs to burst through the enemy wall, then keep pumping his legs after a couple of 250 pound dudes latch onto him. 2

Wide receivers are the fighter jets. They’re built for speed – lean and tall with freakishly large hands. They need to break away and fly downfield before the defense gets to the quarterback. 3

Kickers are artillery – totally defenseless, but able to strike the base from a distance.

Football has been described as “opposing coaches playing chess with human pieces.” No other sport matches its strategic complexity, and no other sport comes close to its brutality and injuries. Not even MMA. Football is a violent game for a country that has an affinity for war. They are our gladiators.

George Carlin puts it brilliantly in his bit on the differences between football and baseball:

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.

In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! - I hope I’ll be safe at home!

Once I understood the metaphor, I began to appreciate football as more than “guy throws the ball and other guy either catches it or he doesn’t.” Unfortunately, the tight camera shots used in TV obscure a lot of strategy, but if you’ve ever been into RTS games, you can probably learn to enjoy watching football.

If you’re going to a Super Bowl party on Sunday but don’t know much about the rules of the game, watch this funny three minute cartoon which starts off with “The story of American football is the story of America herself: a tale of taking other people’s land by force.”

  1. Seattle’s quarterback, Russell Wilson, is an exception to the rule at 5’11”. Denver’s Peyton Manning is 6’5” and is considered one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. He broke most of the single-season passing records this year, and if he wins on Sunday, he will be the first quarterback in history to lead two teams to a NFL championship. learn more
  2. Only two of the top 10 running backs in 2012 were over six feet tall. learn more
  3. Wide receivers are typically taller. A notable exception is 5’9” Wes Welker who, over the last six years, has caught more passes than any other receiver in the NFL. He will be playing for the Broncos on Sunday. learn more