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The Roar

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Welcome to the NFL, rookie: Basics of the game

The Broncos defence got them through to Super Bowl 50, but Manning also kept possession well. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Roar Rookie
8th August, 2014
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It’s early August in Australia, and as those miserable seven-degree days start to turn into 17-degree days. It’s a sure sign that finals football – for almost every major code in this country – is right around the corner.

But for those football junkies with one eye on the other side of the world, the change of seasons marks another exciting event – the kick off to the National Football League.

For tragics like myself, it’s been encouraging to see a steady rise in Aussie NFL fandom since the day I first saw the Steelers clinch Super Bowl XL with a glorious Hines Ward touchdown. That was eight and a half years ago, and since that time, the NFL has become the hallmark sporting season on my already-crammed calendar.

Some refer to it the ultimate game of chess…except instead of being played with handheld pieces of wood and marble, the tools are the fastest, nastiest men in the world.

Others point to the weekly dramatics, theatrics and athletics, calling it the most addictive reality show ever conceived. However you choose to spin it, every NFL season is a wild ride.

With just under a until most teams play their first meaningful game, I’ve set out to write a short series of articles introducing this wonderful game as simply as possible to all you fence-sitters out there.

Essential rules

Offense
Every play in the NFL involves 22 men: 11 on one team’s offense and 11 on the opposing team’s defence. The offense’s job is to move themselves ten yards up the field within four tackles (known as ‘downs’).

If you can advance past the 10-yard marker, the marker moves another ten yards upfield and your ‘downs’ count restarts. The offense can advance the ball with either a run, the safer option which keeps the ball in a pair of hands as a runner crashes and bashes his way forward, or a pass, a riskier play that involves the quarterback throwing the ball forward to a receiver.

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Defence
Wait, ten yards? What a cinch! Well, so it would seem, and here’s where the defence comes in. Made up of a combination of big fat dudes designed to stop the runner in his tracks, fast skinny dudes designed to intercept the ball, and muscle-bound freaks of nature programmed to break your quarterback’s ribs, it’s the defence’s job to layeth the smackdown on those fancy-pants offensive players.

Want some proof? Look no further than the final game of last year, Super Bowl XLVIII, as the Seattle Seahawks pounded the Denver Broncos into submission en route to a 43-8 drubbing.

Scoring and turnovers
If you’re good enough to move the ball all the way down the field and into the opponent’s goal (called the ‘endzone’), congratulations, you’ve just scored a touchdown and earned your team six points.

Following the score is the conversion. The ball is placed at the two-yard line and the scoring team is given a choice. Kick it through the uprights from right in front for one point, or try a run or pass play from the same position for two points.

99 per cent of the time, the one point kick is taken. That second option is generally left only for tying the game up in the dying seconds, or embarrassing your friends in Madden.

If your drive stalls and the defence forces you into forth down (essentially ‘fifth tackle’ in the NRL), you have three options. Attempt another run or pass play to make it over the marker, kick the ball away, or, if you’re close enough, attempt a three-point field goal. A missed kick turns the ball over, and gives the opposition offense possession from where the kick took place.

Speaking of which, it’s often said the game is won or lost on turnovers. When they do happen, they can send crowds into a frenzy and give the team that won the ball that extra bit of momentum they need to win the game.

Most turnovers occur by way of intercepting a quarterback’s pass, and while there’s no such thing as a knock-on in NFL, knocking a ball out of someone’s hands (known as ‘causing a fumble’) makes it fair game for anyone to pick up.

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How can I learn more about this wonderful sport?
If you’re like me, immediately head down to your nearest video game store, pick up a second-hand copy of any Madden game from 2004-present. Get to work learning the rules, plays and teams.

If games aren’t your thing, some online highlights of last year’s finals series – called the ‘playoffs’ – would be a great place to start. Happy NFLing to all, and be sure to keep checking in over the coming days as I break down the more specific aspects of the sport.

Still to come
-Season schedule and layout
-Player positions
-Teams (Part 1)
-Teams (Part 2)
-What to watch for in 2014

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