The NFL now stages one franchise game a season in the United Kingdom
For the majority of us sports fans, football makes perfect sense - that is one of its joys. Well not all of it does. Nobody really understands anything that Jose Mourinho says, or why Fabio Capello insisted on giving pitch time to Emile Heskey at the last World Cup. But for the most part it’s pretty easy: you kick a ball with your foot in an attempt to score points. The clue is in the name right? Right?

Actually it turns out that for a few select places ‘football’ means something a little different*. The NFL preseason has begun and for many across the pond, Sunday evening will be spent watching large men in armour and leggings smash into each other at pulverising velocities.

American Football is a game so utterly alien to us that everything from the shoving match that occurs every play to the silly chants they all do when they’ve done something right all seem a little otherworldly. The players even look a little like aliens with their brightly coloured helmets and suits of body armour.

But the weirdest thing of all? With just a little knowledge, American Football is actually really good fun.

One of the biggest misconceptions about American Football is that the game is slow. `Of course games take a long time, but this is because they are broken down into dozens of individual ‘plays’. Here the offensive side tries to outwit or simply pummel the defensive side into submission.

To paraphrase an often used truism, ‘American Football is chess played by giants’. But there is more to it than that. Every single play in the game can potentially break for a score (touchdown) which means that games can get hair-pullingly tense. With less than 10 seconds to go, teams have been known to suddenly rush up the pitch and score, grasping victory from the jaws of defeat

Much is also made of American Football’s complexity which is great if you are the sports fan equivalent of a trainspotter but not much use for the casual viewer. Actually it’s pretty easy to understand.

There is an offensive team and defensive team. The offensive team scores by getting the ball to the opponents endzone. They can do this by running with it or throwing it, but the ball can only be thrown forwards once every play and it has to be thrown from behind the place that it begun the play. Easy.

But what about all that pushing and shoving? Why are people who don’t even have the ball knocking the daylights out of each other? Why are those obese monsters sumo wrestling in the middle of the field? Herein lies the crucial difference to our own ball game.

In American Football you can use your body and hands to push and shove anybody. This is called blocking. As long as you don’t actually grapple them or wrap them up it’s pretty much all fair game**. This means that if you have the ball, its not always best to be in front of your team. In fact it is usually better to be behind some other players who can push your would-be tacklers out of the way for you.

All you have to do is be patient until you see blue sky ahead, sprint all the way down the pitch and score a dazzling touchdown. Good eh?

Unfortunately the defenders have other ideas. When you first watch American Football it’s natural to spend most of your time looking at the quarterback. They’re the stars after all and let’s be honest they’re probably the only position you’ve heard of.

Feel free to do that, though you will miss out on a lot. In football, the defence has some of the best athletes in the game. Larger and stronger than the offence, they are brutal tackling machines- but that is a given. Better than that they are often faster and devilishly smart.

Picture the scene. A quarterback sees a receiver running completely open. His blockers are being pushed back and he has a split second to make a move unless he wants to be tackled by one of the 140kg monsters getting ready to charge at him. He draws back his arm and throws a bullet: perfect timing, perfect speed, perfect accuracy. The ball hurtles through the air, spinning towards the receiver’s outstretched hands…

Suddenly a defender appears out of nowhere and plucks the ball from the air. He has been waiting like a shark in the blind spots created by the receiver’s helmet. He knew that the quarterback was under pressure and set a trap. Suddenly the game has turned to confusion. The offensive team are not quick enough in realising that everything has changed but the defenders planned this all along. The linebacker (defensive player) charges down the pitch towards the endzone ready to enact devastating humiliation on his opponents….

WHAM! Out of nowhere one of the running backs ploughs into the linebacker with the force of a charging bull. At these speeds even his pads will not save him and he crumples. The ball pops out of his hands and a triumphant offensive player grabs it from the floor and…

Well, you see what I mean.

American Football can be complex, frustrating and offensively glitzy but there is a reason why it is the favourite sport of a country of 380 million people. My best advice for watching the games is to choose a side. There is a fantastic website to help you do this (www.nfl360.com).

Each team has their own unique pageantry, strengths and weaknesses. You might want a stellar quarterback like Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts, a lightning fast running back like Dexter McCluster of the Kansas City Chiefs or a brutal defender like Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens.

The season begins on September 8th when previous champions the New Orleans Saints challenge the crown of current champs, the Green Bay Packers. It’s sure to be a fantastic game.

You can catch the NFL on Sky Sports and ESPN America. The Superbowl is always broadcast on the BBC (advert free!) and makes for a great night of entertainment. Stock up on some burgers, pizza and Budweiser and watch one of the most exciting sporting competitions on the planet.

*The Australians have some sort of ball basketball/cricket/quidditch hybrid they call football but at least here you score all your points by kicking.
** Actually there’s quite a lot of rules to this, but you can look them up later.

                                                                      Jacob Hatton

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