A newbies guide to the NFL

Tyrod Taylor of the Buffalo Bills throws a ball against the New York Jets. Pic Getty
Tyrod Taylor of the Buffalo Bills throws a ball against the New York Jets. Pic Getty

Sacrilege I know but during 2015's Rugby World Cup I fell in love with NFL football. A friend had alerted me to a new free-to-air TVNZ pop-up (Duke) channel that was showing live NFL (National Football League) games.

There were no free-to-air RWC games at that stage so in lieu of watching the All Blacks preliminary rounds I tuned into NFL - and I haven't looked back. (The ABs did ok without me right?).

Previously the only thing I knew about gridiron was what I'd gleaned watching box sets of Friday Night Lights. I had a rough idea of what a quarterback did (and wasn't one of them married to Giselle?), but the other positions and the actual rules of the game (why are they stopping all the time?) remained a mystery.

But after watching a couple of games I was up with the play. Despite the seven officiating refs, a myriad of on-screen stats, flags, playbooks and in-helmet radios - boil it down and the game is a simple one - the ball-carrying team (the offence) get four chances to advance ten yards (just over nine metres). The opposing team (the defence) has to stop them. The best thing one of these guys can do - short of intercepting a pass and running in a touchdown (worth 6-points which you don't actually have to touch down by the way) - is sack the quarterback.

That is pummel him into the ground with ball in hand while he's behind the line of scrimmage. That's the blue line on your screen, the yellow one is the one they have to get to.

If the team with the ball doesn't get 10 yards in four attempts (or downs) they usually kick it as far as they can down field on the 4th down (think rugby league with helmets and forward passes).

If they do get the 10 it's first down again and the drive continues till they score a touchdown, get in range for a field goal, lose the ball or are stopped inside of the four by the defence.

Newbies note - each team is really two teams - an offence and a defence (let's not get into special teams just yet), which are sent on the field as required. Up to 46 players can dress out for a game and - unlike league or rugby - unlimited substitutions are allowed.

That said - only 11 players are allowed on the field at any one time - any more or less (between plays there's a constant shifting of personnel) and it's a penalty - signalled when a referee throws down a yellow flag onto the field. (Cooler than blowing a whistle, right?)

The head ref then explains the decision to the crowd and the yardage penalty imposed.
There are lots of other reasons for penalties (holding, pass interference, illegal formation), but it doesn't take too long to figure these out - Google them in the constant ad breaks (which the NFL schedule in to the games).

On the TVNZ channel we get a static graphic announcing that coverage will resume in a couple of minutes.

That's partly why games can last over three hours while the official playing time is just four 15 minute quarters (if it's tied at the end they go into overtime). Actual on-field action can be less than 15 minutes, perfect for the age where double screening rules. Check your tweets between plays.

And the truth is no sport is better suited to TV than the NFL.

The game is a gladiatorial spectacle, beautiful and brutal - giving young men from (often) America's poorest communities the chance to lay body and brain on the line for the glory of the franchise and millions of dollars.

The mounting brain injury scandal and other problems associated with off-field player conduct are dark clouds on the horizon, but many believe the game is too big to fail (Forbes recently estimated that an average NFL team is worth $2 billion, the richest, if not the best, were The Dallas Cowboys at $4 billion).

Each season over 17 million fans pour through the mostly franchise-owned stadium gates, and that's not even getting into the enormous sponsorship and screening rights deals.

And the league is expanding internationally. A 2015 clash between the Miami Dolphins and the New York Giants sold out Wembley stadium, not even the English football team could do that.

Watch the NFL 2016/17 season on Duke

NFL basics
- Touchdowns are worth 6, field goals 3, safeties (catching a defending player in their end-zone) 2. A touchdown conversion is worth 1.
- The essence of the game - a team gets four chances to get ten yards (just over 9-metres). The other team's job is to stop them.
- An NFL game consists of four 15-minute quarters. That said an NFL game - once ad breaks, half-time, timeouts and stoppages are taken into account regularly runs more than three hours.
- 11 players per team, but unlimited substitutions allowed and 46 players can dress out for a game.
- In the 19th century American Football began as a spin-off from rugby.
- The 2015 Super Bowl was America's most-watched television programme ever.

- NZ Herald

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