American football

For the band, see American Football (band).
The ball used in American football has a pointed prolate spheroid (also known as vesica piscis) shape, and has a large set of stitches along one side.
The ball used in American football has a pointed prolate spheroid (also known as vesica piscis) shape, and has a large set of stitches along one side.

American football, known in the United States and Canada simply as football, is a competitive team sport. The object of the game is to score points by advancing the football into the opposing team's end zone. The ball can be advanced by carrying the ball, or by throwing or handing it from one teammate to the other. Points can be scored in a variety of ways, including carrying the ball over the goal line, throwing the ball to another player past the goal line or kicking it through the goal posts on the opposing side. The winner is the team with the most points when the time expires and the last play ends. However, tied games can occur if the score remains tied after the conclusion of an overtime period.

Outside of the United States and Canada, the sport is usually referred to as American football (or sometimes as gridiron or gridiron football) to differentiate it from other football games.

Contents

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Popularity

Organized football is played almost exclusively by men and boys, although a few amateur and semi-professional women's leagues have begun play in recent years. American football is the most popular spectator sport in the United States. In surveys of Americans, pluralities of respondents consider it to be their favorite sport. Football's American TV viewership ratings far surpass those of other sports. The NFL championship game, entitled the "Super Bowl", continually scores the highest ratings of any televised event on American television.[1][2]

The 32-team National Football League (NFL) is the only major professional American football league. Its championship game, the Super Bowl, is watched by nearly half of U.S. television households and is also televised in over 150 other countries. The day of the game, Super Bowl Sunday is a day when many fans host game watching parties and invite friends and family over to eat and watch the game.[3] It is considered by many to be the year's biggest day for "stay at home parties."[4]

A Colorado State University player runs with the ball as an Air Force Academy player lines up a tackle.
A Colorado State University player runs with the ball as an Air Force Academy player lines up a tackle.

College football is also popular throughout North America. Four college football stadiums (Michigan Stadium, Beaver Stadium, Neyland Stadium, Ohio Stadium), seat more than 100,000 fans and regularly sell out. Even high school football games can attract more than 10,000 people in some areas. The weekly autumn ritual of college and high-school football—which includes marching bands, cheerleaders, homecoming, and parties (including the ubiquitous tailgate party)—is an important part of the culture in much of smalltown America.

It is a long-standing tradition in the United States (though not universally observed) that high school football games are played on Friday, college games on Saturday, and professional games on Sunday (with an additional professional game on Monday nights and occasional Thursday nights). Following the end of the college football regular season, the NFL begins scheduling some games on Saturdays.

Certain fall and winter holidays—most notably Thanksgiving and New Years' Day—have traditional football games associated with them.

Football is played recreationally by amateur club and youth teams (e.g., the Pop Warner little-league programs). There are also many "semi-pro" teams in leagues where the players are paid to play but at a small enough salary that they generally must also hold a full-time job.

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Outside of the United States

The NFL operates a developmental league, NFL Europa, with teams in five German cities and one in the Netherlands. The professional Canadian Football League plays under Canadian rules. The sport is popular as an amateur activity in Mexico and American Samoa and to a lesser extent in Japan, Europe, Korea, New Zealand and Australia.

Despite this, the game has been slow to catch on in countries where soccer is already established as the most popular sport[citation needed]. Chief among criticisms of the gridiron game is the amount of time elapsing between plays and the number of interruptions in the game for time outs, penalties, out-of-bounds plays, etc.[citation needed]

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Rules

The object of American football is to score more points than the opposing team within a set time limit.

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Field and players

The numbers on the field indicate the number of yards to the nearest end zone.
The numbers on the field indicate the number of yards to the nearest end zone.
American football is played on a rectangular field 120 yards (110 meters) long by 53 1/3 yards (49 meters) wide. The longer boundary lines are sidelines, while the shorter boundary lines are end lines. Near each end of the field is a goal line; they are 100 yards apart. A scoring area called an end zone extends 10 yards beyond each goal line to each end line.

Yard lines cross the field every 5 yards, and are numbered from each goal line to the 50-yard line, or midfield (similar to a typical rugby league field). Two rows of lines, known as inbounds lines or hash marks, parallel the side lines near the middle of the field. All plays start with the ball on or between the hash marks.

At the back of each end zone are two goal posts (also called uprights) that are 18.5 feet (5.6 m) apart (24 feet (7.3 m) in high school). The posts are connected by a crossbar 10 feet (3 m) from the ground.

Each team has 11 players on the field at a time. However, teams may substitute for any or all of their players, if time allows, during the break between plays. As a result, players have very specialized roles, and almost all of the 46 active players on an NFL team will play in any given game. Thus, teams are divided into three separate units: the offense, the defense and the special teams.

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Game duration

A standard football game consists of four 15-minute (typically 12 minutes in high school football) quarters, with a half-time intermission after the second quarter. The clock stops after certain plays; therefore, a game can last considerably longer (often more than three hours in real time). If an NFL game is tied after four quarters, the teams play an additional period lasting up to 15 minutes. In an NFL overtime game, the first team that scores wins, even if the other team does not get a possession—this is referred to as sudden death. In a regular-season NFL game, if neither team scores in overtime, the game is a tie. In an NFL playoff game, additional overtime periods are played, as needed, to determine a winner. College overtime rules are more complicated and are described in Overtime (sport).

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Advancing the ball

Advancing the ball in American football resembles the six-tackle rule and the play-the-ball in rugby league. The team that takes possession of the ball (the offense) has four attempts, called downs, to advance the ball 10 yards towards their opponent's (the defense's) end zone. When the offense gains 10 yards, it gets a first down, which means the team has another set of four downs to gain yet another 10 yards or score with. If the offense fails to gain a first down (10 yards) after 4 downs, it loses possession of the ball.

Except at the beginning of halves and after scores, the ball is always put into play by a snap. Offensive players line up facing defensive players at the line of scrimmage (the position on the field where the play begins). One offensive player, the center, then passes (or "snaps") the ball between his legs to a teammate, usually the quarterback.

Players can then advance the ball in two ways:

  1. By running with the ball, also known as rushing. One ball-carrier can hand the ball to another; this is known as a handoff.
  2. By throwing the ball to a teammate, known as a forward pass or as passing the football. The forward pass is a key factor distinguishing American and Canadian football from other football sports. The offense can throw the ball forward only once on a play and only from behind the line of scrimmage. The ball can be thrown, pitched, or tossed sideways or backwards at any time. This last type of pass is known as a lateral and is less common in American football than in rugby league or rugby union, where only backwards passes are permitted.

A down ends, and the ball becomes dead, after any of the following:

Officials blow a whistle to notify all players that the down is over.

Before each down, each team chooses a play, or coordinated movements and actions, that the players should follow on a down. Sometimes, downs themselves are referred to as "plays."

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Change of possession

The offense maintains possession of the ball unless one of the following things happens:

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Scoring

A team scores points by the following plays:

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Kickoffs and free kicks

Each half begins with a kickoff. Teams also kick off after scoring touchdowns and field goals. The ball is kicked using a kicking tee from the team's own 30-yard line in the NFL or from the 35-yard line in college football. The other team's kick returner tries to catch the ball and advance it as far as possible. Where he is stopped is the point where the offense will begin its drive, or series of offensive plays. If the kick returner catches the ball in his own end zone, he can either run with the ball, or elect for a touchback by kneeling in the end zone, in which case the receiving team then starts its offensive drive from its own 20-yard line. A touchback also occurs when the kick goes out of the end zone. Punts and turnovers in the end zone can also end in touchbacks.

After safeties, the team that gave up the 2 points puts the ball into play with a punt or placekick from its own 20-yard line.

A halfback leads fellow backs through an agility drill
A halfback leads fellow backs through an agility drill
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Penalties

Since rule violations can cause inequity or physical harm, they are punished with varying penalties. Most penalties result in moving the football either towards the defense's end zone in the case of a defensive penalty, or away from the defense's end zone in the case of an offensive penalty. If the penalty would move the ball more than half the distance to the defense's end zone, the penalty becomes half the distance to the goal instead of its normal value.

Most penalties result in replaying the down. Some defensive penalties give the offense an automatic first down. Conversely, some offensive penalties result in the automatic loss of a down. If a penalty gives the offensive team enough yardage to gain a first down, they get a first down, as usual.

If a penalty occurs during a play, an official throws a yellow flag near the spot of the foul. When the play ends, the team that did not commit the penalty has the option of accepting the penalty or accepting the result of the play without the penalty.

A few of the most-common penalties include:

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Variations

Some variations on these basic rules exist, particularly touch and flag football, which are designed as non-contact or limited-contact alternatives to the relative violence of regular American football. In touch and flag football, tackling is not permitted. Offensive players are "tackled" when a defender tags them or removes a flag from their body, respectively. Both of these varieties are played mainly in informal settings such as intramural or youth games. Professional, intercollegiate, and varsity-level high school football invariably use the standard tackling rules.

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Players

Most football players have highly specialized roles. At the college and NFL levels, most play only offense or only defense.

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Offense

At least seven players must line up on the line of scrimmage on every offensive play. The other players may line up anywhere behind the line. The exact number of running backs, wide receivers and tight ends may differ on any given play. For example, if the team needs only 1 yard, it may use three tight ends, two running backs and no wide receivers. On the other hand, if it needs 20 yards, it may replace all of its running backs and tight ends with wide receivers.

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Defense

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Special teams

The units of players who handle kicking plays are known as "special teams". Two important special-teams players are the "punter", who handles punts, and the "placekicker" or "kicker", who kicks off and attempts field goals and extra points. Kickers in the NFL are numbered like the quarterbacks, using numbers from 1 to 19, but in college and high school they can have any number they want.

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Basic strategy

To some fans, the chief draw of football is the strategy that goes on between the two coaching staffs. Each team has a playbook of dozens to hundreds of plays. Ideally, each play is a scripted, strategically sound team-coordinated endeavor. Some plays are very safe; they are likely to get only a few yards. Other plays have the potential for long gains but at a greater risk of a loss of yardage or a turnover.

Generally speaking, rushing plays are less risky than passing plays. However, there are relatively safe passing plays and risky running plays. To deceive the other team, some passing plays are designed to resemble running plays and vice versa. There are many trick or gadget plays, such as when a team lines up as if it intends to punt and then tries to run or pass for a first down. Such high-risk plays are a great thrill to the fans when they work. However, they can spell disaster if the opposing team realizes the deception and acts accordingly.

Many hours of preparation and strategizing, including film review by both players and coaches, go into the days between football games. This, along with the demanding physicality (see below) of football, is why teams play at most one game per week.

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Physicality

American football is a contact sport. To stop the offense from advancing the ball, the defense must tackle the player with the ball by knocking him down. As such, defensive players must use some form of physical contact to bring the ball-carrier to the ground, within certain rules and guidelines. Tacklers cannot kick, punch or trip the runner. They also cannot grab the face mask of the runner's helmet or lead into a tackle with their own helmet. Despite these and other rules regarding unnecessary roughness, most other forms of tackling are legal. Blockers and defenders trying to evade them also have wide leeway in trying to force their opponents out of the way. Quarterbacks are regularly hit by defenders coming on full speed from outside the quarterback's field of vision.

To compensate for this, players must wear special protective equipment, such as a padded plastic helmet, shoulder pads, hip pads and knee pads. These protective pads were introduced decades ago and have improved ever since to help minimize lasting injury to players. An unintended consequence of all the safety equipment has resulted in increasing levels of violence in the game. Players may now hurl themselves at one another at high speeds without a significant chance of injury. Unfortunately, the injuries that do result tend to be severe and often season or career-ending and sometimes fatal. In previous years with less padding, tackling more closely resembled tackles in Rugby, with less severe impacts and less injuries. Better helmets have allowed players to use their helmets as weapons. All this has caused the various leagues, especially the NFL, to implement a complicated series of penalties for various types of contact. Most recently, virtually any contact with the helmet of a defensive player on the quarterback, or any contact to the quarterback's head, is now a foul.

Despite protective equipment and rule changes to emphasize safety, injuries remain very common in football. It is increasingly rare, for example, for NFL quarterbacks or running backs (who take the most direct hits) to make it through an entire season without missing some time to injury. Additionally, twenty-eight football players, mostly high schoolers, died from injuries directly related to football from 2000-05, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research.[5] Concussions are common, with about 41,000 suffered every year among high school players according to the Brain Injury Association of Arizona.[6]

The danger of football and the equipment required to reduce it make regulation football impractical for casual play. Flag football and touch football are less-violent variants of the game popular among recreational players.

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History

Both American football and soccer have their origins in varieties of football played in the United Kingdom in the mid-19th century, and American football is directly descended from rugby football. The majority of the plays in a typical American football game involve handling the ball rather than kicking it.

Rutgers University and Princeton University played the first game of college football on Nov. 6, 1869 in New Brunswick, N.J. Rutgers won that first game, 6-4. From the 1820s to around 1890, Dartmouth College students played a football-like game now known as "Old Division Football," to which they published rules in 1871.

Encouraged by Yale University's Walter Camp, the schools began to adopt more standardized rules that would differentiate American football from rugby in the 1880s. The scrimmage was introduced in 1880 and the system of downs in 1882.

By the turn of the 20th century, football had become notoriously dangerous; 18 college players died in 1905 alone. Colleges responded with a series of rule changes to open up the game, most importantly the forward pass, along with outlawing dangerous formations such as the "flying wedge", and introducing and requiring better equipment such as helmets.

The game had achieved its modern form by 1912, when the field was changed to its current size, the value of a touchdown increased to 6 points, and a fourth down added to each possession. Originally dominated by the Ivy League, football soon captured the interest of colleges nationwide. By 1916, when the Rose Bowl game matching eastern and western teams became an annual event, football had developed a national following second only to baseball among team sports.

Professional football developed in the mill towns of Pennsylvania and the American Midwest in the early years of the 20th century. The NFL was founded in 1920 in Canton, Ohio. Professional football remained a largely regional sport of secondary importance until after World War II, when television broadcasts boosted NFL football's national appeal. The pro game surpassed both college football and baseball in popularity in the 1960s. The first Super Bowl—between the champions of the NFL and the rival American Football League—was played in 1967, and the two leagues merged in 1970.

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See also

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Notes

  1. MacCambridge, Michael. America's Game, Random House, 2004.
  2. "Professional Football Continues to Be the Nation's Favorite Sport", PR Newswire, 27 December 2006. Retrieved on 2006-10-27.
  3. Pilato, Donna. Planning your Super Bowl party. About.com. Retrieved on 2006-10-27.
  4. Davis, Os. "Super Bowl Sunday Partying, Eating and Consumption Statistics", AssociatedContent, 1 February 2006. Retrieved on 2006-10-27.
  5. Annual Survey of Football Injury Research 1931 - 2005, National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research. Updated January 18, 2006. Accessed October 31, 2006
  6. Studies Suggest 10% of Arizona High School Football Players Will Suffer a Concussion During This Coming Season PR Newswire press release from the Brain Injury Association of Arizona, August 23, 2005. Accessed October 31, 2006
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References

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Further reading

Sports Illustrated magazine dated December 4, 2005; "Football America", a series of articles attesting to the pervasive popularity of American football in America at all levels.

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