Three resources for getting into football this season

It’s football season.

For my family, and many others across the country, this means a constant struggle in which the football fans in the house try to explain the rules and intricacies of the game to the more or less captive audience of everyone else.

Rest assured, every weekend for the next five months the TV channel will be glued to hulks, helmets and Hail Marys… and the occasional accidental karate kick to the face, which is (of course) a 15-yard penalty from the spot of the foul:


Football is a complicated game (the NFL’s own beginner’s guide is over 1700 words long) that is best understood as a combination of capture the flag and World War I. After what’s nearing two decades of being a self-described “football widow” between the months of September and February, my mother will tell you that she is now just starting to understand the game’s rules, norms and tactics. So why should you care? Well, for starters, football is is our country’s national pastime.  I know, you’ve been told it’s baseball. Well, whoever told you that either did so thirty years ago, or was wrong. In all seriousness, in terms of public opinion and league revenue, the NFL is the biggest slice of the American sports pie, and has been for quite a while.

Michael Sam kisses his boyfriend.

Michael Sam kisses his boyfriend on finding out he made the draft.

But especially now, and this year in particular, there has never been a better time for those on the political left to get into the game. The NFL is in a period of political flux on a number of issues progressives care about. The nation’s most popular sport sets the tone for how our country behaves itself, and from concussions to labor to domestic violence to race to LGBT acceptance, how that tone will be set is currently an open question. We should be adding ourselves to the conversation. Having said all of that, you may need a few resources for becoming familiarized with the game so that, when the time comes, you can speak the language. Here are a few football resources for new/non-football fans to get you started, broken down by what they’re useful for:

Tactics: New York Times 4th Down Bot

The most basic rule in football is the downs system: The team with the ball has four chances to advance the ball a total of ten yards. Each time it advances ten yards, it gets a fresh four chances to do it again; if it doesn’t make it ten yards, the other team gets the ball.

But there’s an added wrinkle: If after three tries a team hasn’t gotten the tenth yard, they can either go for it and risk giving the other team the ball farther up the field; they can try to kick a field goal, which will earn them three points if they make it or give the ball away where they currently stand if they miss; or they can punt the ball as far down the field as possible, ceding possession but making it harder for the other team to score.

Believe it or not, with one click of a button you can be better at making the punt/kick/go for it decision than nearly every NFL coach. All you need to do is follow and/or visit the New York Times’ 4th Down Bot.

Humans are risk-averse, and going for it on fourth down is a risky decision. NFL coaches, worried about being second-guessed by their fan base and, more importantly, their team’s front office in the event of a failed crucial fourth down attempt, often punt or kick when the numbers say they should go for it. And with years of historical data, the New York Times has put together an algorithm, personified in the form of a Twitter account, that calculates which decision is rational in a team’s given situation. It analyzes every fourth down in every NFL game every week, publishing its decisions in real time.

If you want a quick intro to one of the game’s central concepts, or if you just want to troll your traditionalist friends who shout data-less platitudes at their TV every Sunday, keep track of the Bot.

Stats vs. BS: Benjamin Morris

Benjamin Morris (@skepticalsports) is the lead writer for sports at FiveThirtyEight. And while Nate Silver’s brainchild is useful for pretty much everything, Morris’ work on the site is especially useful for breaking down football.

From a quantitative perspective, football is one of the more difficult sports to analyze because the datasets are so small. With 16 games to a regular season, and with so many players switching teams every year, it’s hard to say anything meaningful about a player’s or team’s performance. This being the case, a lot of the commentary you’ll hear on TV (“Team A won four out of six games decided by one possession or less last year”) will be completely meaningless.

Enter Morris. His ongoing division-by-division 2014 NFL preview is already starting to unpack some of the bigger misconceptions about the game’s best players and teams. If you want a football explainer with slightly more quantitative backing than former Jets’ coach Herman Edwards’ famous “YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME! IT’S THAT SIMPLE!” then give him a read.

Rules, context, activism and everything else: Chris Kluwe

The punter for the Minnesota Vikings until he was released for his pro-LGBT activism, Kluwe (@ChrisWarcraft) is the de-facto leader of the LGBT movement in pro sports, particularly the NFL. He’s also a brilliant, clear writer who often tweets during games with helpful explainers on game situations, rules and other intricacies of the game.

John has pointed out Kluwe for our readers before, but if you needed a refresher, here’s some of his best work.

From Kluwe’s viral letter to Maryland state delegate Emmet C. Burns, Jr. in response to Delegate Burns, Jr.’s not-so-subtle insinuation that the Baltimore Ravens should prohibit linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo from speaking out in favor of a ballot initiative for marriage equality:

I can assure you that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life. They won’t come into your house and steal your children. They won’t magically turn you into a lustful c*ckmonster. They won’t even overthrow the government in an orgy of hedonistic debauchery because all of a sudden they have the same legal rights as the other 90 percent of our population—rights like Social Security benefits, child care tax credits, Family and Medical Leave to take care of loved ones, and COBRA healthcare for spouses and children. You know what having these rights will make gays? Full-fledged American citizens just like everyone else, with the freedom to pursue happiness and all that entails. Do the civil-rights struggles of the past 200 years mean absolutely nothing to you?

From his response to a Minneapolis Start-Tribune op-ed written by Riley Balling entitled “Why same-sex marriage affects my marriage”:

When you state that “As we have seen, and understandably so, people in homosexual relationships are trying to change society to more readily embrace and promote their view of their identity. This is possible largely due to the disassociation between sexual relationships and procreation.”, what you’re really saying is “Those gay people do sex things that I find icky, and we should oppress them because they can’t have babies.” You completely ignore the fact that “people in homosexual relationships are trying to change society” not just because they want to have teh buttsecks (or rise and grind for the ladies), but also to avoid, oh I don’t know, things like being tortured and tied to a fencepost until you die (Matthew Shepard), shot to death while attending school (Lawrence King), shot to death for being transgender (Moses King), committing suicide by hanging due to repeated bullying and taunting (Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover), shot to death and burned while standing military guard (Seaman August Provost), stabbed to death after serving in the Vietnam War (James Zappalorti) – every single one of these attacks because of the victim’s sexuality. Let’s not even get into the over 1100 federal benefits gay couples are legally unable to obtain in this state because they can’t get married – things like health care, survivor benefits, legacies to pass on to their families (including children); things like tolerance, acceptance, and compassion.

And from his account of the events that preceded his release from the Vikings:

It’s my belief, based on everything that happened over the course of 2012, that I was fired by Mike Priefer, a bigot who didn’t agree with the cause I was working for, and two cowards, Leslie Frazier and Rick Spielman, both of whom knew I was a good punter and would remain a good punter for the foreseeable future, as my numbers over my eight-year career had shown, but who lacked the fortitude to disagree with Mike Priefer on a touchy subject matter…One of the main coaching points I’ve heard throughout my entire life is, “How you respond to difficult situations defines your character,” and I think it’s a good saying. I also think it applies to more than just the players.

Basically, Chris Kluwe is a must-read/must-follow for anyone who cares about anything related to LGBT issues, and keeping track of what he says comes with the added benefit of learning a ton about football.

So there you have it. If you’re new to the game and want to pick up a basic understanding without watching John Madden draw a phallus with the telestrator, here’s where to start.

Are you ready for some football?

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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31 Responses to “Three resources for getting into football this season”

  1. EasterBEspino says:

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  2. Guest says:

    Funny. I visited this site like … 4 years ago? And I remember a verbose commenter with a Guy Fawkes icon and a nasty attitude haunting the thread. He’s just like that.

  3. Amen :)

  4. Drew2u says:

    Don’t forget everything that Minneapolis had to concede in order to win the bid for the Super Bowl:

    The NFL has the “option to install ATMs that accept NFL preferred credit/debit cards in exchange for cash” and to cover up other ATMs.
    Team hotels must agree to televise the NFL Network for one year leading up to the Super Bowl
    If cellular service is too weak at the team hotels (based on the “sole discretion of the NFL”), the Host Committee must install boosters and/or cell antennas.
    “Local enforcement officers will be provided to the NFL” for anti-counterfeit enforcement teams “at not cost to the NFL.”
    Full tax exemption from city, state and local taxes for tickets sold to the Super Bowl (and also the NFL Experience, the NFL Honors show and “other NFL Official Events”).
    “The NFL shall receive priority over all other ice and snow removal projects, except those that directly threaten life or public safety.”
    Tons of advertising for the NFL Experience: 1,500 ratings points on TV stations, 20 pages of color ads in local newspapers and a 12-page fan guide inserted twice, 250 live or pre-recorded radio spots on six local stations and 10 billboards.
    Under “additional facilities” the NFL requires the usage of three golf courses and two bowling lanes:

  5. 1jetpackangel says:

    My grandmother was a lifelong Detroit Tigers fan, to the point where in her very late eighties, above her nursing home bed was a framed, autographed letter and photograph of her with the team’s [owner, might just be some dude important to the team, I don’t remember, it went to my aunt’s house]. And my aunt’s husband (and their kids, and their kids) are all sports nuts. Me and most of my mom’s side, we’d rather watch paint dry than watch baseball, though watching football or hockey is kinda fun in the same way as watching mean kids in bumper cars.

  6. RMNCB says:

    >Are you ready for some football?


  7. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    I played football in high school. I wasn’t very good, but it was a small school. No wonder my parents were confused. I attended a Big Ten university and had no chance of playing for it’s team. Then I discovered intramural football.

  8. petewestcentral says:

    I liked football in high school. I worked at the concession stand, which was just fun. Sometimes I sat with the glee or pep club (I forget what it was called). It made me laugh because a girl would cue me when it was time to cheer for something. Also there was a boy on the team who had made passes at me and I always liked looking at him. Nice memories. What the game was about? Um.

  9. Jim Olson says:

    I can’t describe to you how much I do not care about football. It takes them 20 – 30 minutes to play the last three minutes of a game, with time outs and commercials. The obsessive fandom. The corruption of the NFL itself. Oh, and the homophobia. Atrocious.

  10. crazymonkeylady says:

    Football has always been barbaric. Time to go.

  11. Griffon says:

    “Did you read my post? I conceded the point, so why the f*** did you act like I didn’t?”

    You ‘conceded’ the point larded with caveats, beginning with the complete irrelevancy that Nicho said it was a recent article though it’s almost five years old, which is more an indication of attempts at face-saving than honest ‘concession.’

    “My major point was that the superfluous stuff is important to the fans.”

    Nicho’s point, again, was that you could watch the game in less than 15 minutes. Also that the amount of actual game-play is deceptive and around 11 minutes, which is correct according to the article. The particular importance of the peripheral fluff, commentator jibber-jabber, cheerleaders, injuries, coaches standing around and insurance commercials is a separate and subjective issue.

  12. Indigo says:

    The imagination boggles.

  13. docsterx says:

    I was working in a Pittsburgh area hospital in 1980 when the Steelers were playing in the Superbowl. The normally packed ER emptied out before the game started and the usual endless wave of patients stopped – not slowed, stopped. ER looked like a bus stop at 3 AM in subzero weather. No one came in for hours.

    About 10 minutes after the Steelers won, the tsunami hit: ambulances, cars, walk-ins, helicopters. Heart attacks – patients who had been having chest pain for HOURS but didn’t want to miss the game. Party heartiers who had gotten wasted, fallen down stairs and broken bones, refusing to be moved till the game ended. Women in labor, waiting at home till the last play, then almost delivering in cars and ambulances en route. Fistfights in bars and homes. One guy was stabbed in a bar held a towel over the wound as he bled, refusing treatment. Hypothermia, people ran to the river and jumped in to “celebrate” the win. Most of the patients had Steeler shirts on. Some of the staff were saying “Looks like number 89 has a fractured skull.” Or “‘Bradshaw’s’ having chest pain again.”
    It was surreal.

  14. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    That was the only way to get my husband to watch football.

  15. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    I lost mine in a traffic accident. I have had my dentures for 16 years. The dentures look a lot better than the originals, but for some reason, my husband often asked me to take them out.

  16. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    Did you read my post? I conceded the point, so why the f*** did you act like I didn’t? My major point was that the superfluous stuff is important to the fans. Fans find ……. oh hell, I’m not going to repeat what I already wrote.

    If you want to argue with someone, go find Bill Perdue.

  17. Griffon says:

    “Nicho said it was a recent article”

    Irrelevant since the point was made and your claim of 15 minutes of play; “that’s play,” was wrong. The clock runs during regrouping, standing around and letting the clock run out, etc. According to the article, the ball is in play after a snap an average of 4 seconds, but the team has 40 seconds after the play is whistled dead to snap the ball again.

    Ratio of inaction to action: 10 to 1.

    The point, of course, is that the time the ball is actually in play during the entire game averaged 11 minutes. That you didn’t believe it only means the slick production has you fooled into thinking you’re getting much more than you actually are; Capitalism 101.

  18. Indigo says:

    No problem with that, I’ve worn dentures since I damaged and lost my teeth in a surfing wipe-out during a hurricane years ago.

  19. BeccaM says:

    My relief because I can’t stand all that stuff is not to turn on the TV to watch football at all. ;-)

  20. Sam_Handwich says:

    I don’t like the game…..the pants, however…

  21. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    Nicho said it was a recent article. It’s almost five years old, but I will concede that things probably haven’t changed much. Many of the things that he says aren’t part of game would be considered essential by the fans. We want the replays and to hear the refs stating what the penalties are. We even want to see the coach’s face.

    There is now relief for those who can’t stand that stuff. That’s the NFL Redzone. It only shows the highlights of all the games – live. I find it disconcerting, but I use it to follow teams that aren’t televised in my are.

  22. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    You don’t like guys with missing teeth?

  23. Griffon says:

    But here’s something even dedicated students of the game may not fully appreciate: There’s very little actual football in a football game. (link)

    According to a Wall Street Journal study of four recent broadcasts, and similar estimates by researchers, the average amount of time the ball is in play on the field during an NFL game is about 11 minutes.

    In other words, if you tally up everything that happens between the time the ball is snapped and the play is whistled dead by the officials, there’s barely enough time to prepare a hard-boiled egg. In fact, the average telecast devotes 56% more time to showing replays.

    So what do the networks do with the other 174 minutes in a typical broadcast? Not surprisingly, commercials take up about an hour. As many as 75 minutes, or about 60% of the total air time, excluding commercials, is spent on shots of players huddling, standing at the line of scrimmage or just generally milling about between snaps. In the four broadcasts The Journal studied, injured players got six more seconds of camera time than celebrating players. While the network announcers showed up on screen for just 30 seconds, shots of the head coaches and referees took up about 7% of the average show.

  24. Naja pallida says:


  25. Indigo says:

    That’s all very interesting but I don’t follow hockey.

  26. jomicur says:

    I remember a Ted Rall cartoon from a few years ago. A bunch of cigar-chewing guys are sitting around a table in a smoke-filled room. One of them says, “Hey, let’s pump a bunch of fat morons full of steroids and watch them ram into each other for two hours. That’ll be really entertaining!” I’ve never come across a better description of football.

  27. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    Baseball is a different story. I would much rather stab myself in the eye with a fork than watch a baseball game on TV. However, take me down to the ballpark, and I suddenly love the game.

  28. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    You’re going to have to pony up with the name or the link to that study. The game is divided into four quarters and each quarter has 15 minutes of play. That’s play. The players are on the field and the ball is in play for those 15 minutes. No, I am not watching the cheerleaders bounce around. Although, to be quite honest, I do like to look at the players’ asses. That’s just a perk.

  29. nicho says:

    Baseball needs some fine tuning too. They really need to stop visits to the mound — except to replace the pitcher. Most of those are just time wasters to give the reliever time to warm up. They need to stop the batter from stepping out of the box to adjust his batting gloves — for the 15,000th time — between pitches. If they just took out the praying, they could save a half hour on the game. There is no need for a pitcher to come out, kneel down on the mound, and go through some religious exercise while writing bible verses in the dirt. f they need this, put a chapel in the club house.

  30. Nylund says:

    And when you watch the French Connection, just fast-forward to the car chase.

    Also, the study I presume you’re citing talks about how little they show cheerleaders. Some networks never show them. Others show them for just a few seconds at a time. (only if they’re a “famous” squad like the Dallas Cheerleaders).

    This critique applies to many sports in general. The vast majority of Olympic events are also like this. MLB has the option of watching a “condensed” game that whittles a 2-4 hour baseball game down to 15 minutes. Watching that though is pretty emotionless. It loses the drama.

    Plus, I am not sure these low-action sports (football and baseball) are necessarily less entertaining than “constant action” sports like soccer or hockey. Yes, players are moving all over the place all the time and the ball/puck is always in motion, but it rarely amounts to any scoring. It’s just passed back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Some people find that incredibly boring. A true fan would tell you that there’s a lot of fun and interesting stuff in all that back and forth.

    That’s true for the slow games as well (football, baseball, etc.) Some might find all the downtime boring, but others revel in the details and decisions made during those non-action times, be it positioning, play-calling, formation, pitch selections, pitching changes, and all the other decision making that goes into the stop-start type sports. It adds a chess-like dimension to the game. If you’ve ever played chess, you’d realize that it’s a pretty bad critique of the game to point out that players don’t move their pieces as quickly as they do in games like shoots and ladders.

  31. nicho says:

    A recent study showed that the average NFL game contains 11 minutes of action. The rest is commercials, cheerleaders jiggling their tits, commentator bullshit, and people standing around. So the best way to watch it is to DVR it so you can FF through the crap and watch the whole thing in less than 15 minutes — 18 if you’re attracted by the tit jiggling.

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