For years I was interested in soccer, even though I knew nothing about it. I didn't know the rules or the teams or even when the games were played. But then, last fall Grantland debuted and I at last discovered a resource that opened the Premier League to me like a Doctor Who parallel universe. I can't get enough.
And it occurred to me - what if there is someone out there like me asking the same questions about American gridiron football? I got a little taste of that following the BBC Super Bowl coverage on Twitter as fans several timezones away watched the game and tried to figure out what was happening. But how could they properly enjoy it when they had no background, when they didn't have a baseline on which to judge what they were seeing? How were they supposed to know who to root for? And should I have felt sorry that they missed all the Super Bowl commercials!?
There are a LOT of NFL writers out there, but so many of them deal with the HERE and the NOW with lots of NAMES and NUMBERS and technical strategic jargon. I wanted to try breaking it down to more basic pieces and parts, much like the Men In Blazers did for me. If you happen to stumble across this page and have any questions or interest, I encourage you to ask (post a comment or email me, address is in the sidebar) and I'll do my best to answer. It may not be 'the beautiful game' but it is the Greatest Show on Turf.
WHAT IS THE NFL?
It stands for National Football League. The League is made up of two conferences, the National Football Conference (NFC) and the American Football Conference (AFC). The history behind this is boring, so let's just keep going.
There are 32 teams in the league, 16 in each conference. Each conference is broken into 4 divisions by geography: North, South, East, West. I've learned SO MUCH about British geography since I started following the Premier League, so maybe this could help tutor American geography in a similar way, if one was inclined to learn. The teams all kind of reflect the culture of their city, too. Like how old married couples end up looking alike.
WHAT TEAMS ARE IN THE LEAGUE?
Well, over the decades, this has changed, even though American sports don't do "relegation" the way leagues in other parts of the world do. American teams are very businessy, so teams will occasionally move from city to city in search of better markets - technically the team is the same, but it might be called something different. We can get into that nitty-gritty later, but here's how the league has looked for about the last ten years:
WHEN IS THE NFL SEASON AND HOW DOES IT WORK?
I'm so glad you asked! The season is just starting!
The NFL season is broken into three parts: Preseason, Regular Season, and Playoffs.
Preseason includes four games, one game a week, usually during the month of August. These preseason games are mainly for new players to 'audition' to make the team. The star players rarely play in these, and the wins/losses do not count.
The Regular Season is 17 weeks, running roughly from the first week in September through Christmas/New Years. Teams play one game a week for a total of 16 games, with one week off in the middle there somewhere (it varies). Weeks off are called "bye" weeks.
The Playoffs are the fun part. The winner of each AFC and NFC division qualifies, plus two "wild card" teams from each conference for a total of 12 playoff teams. The teams are ranked 1-6 for each conference and there are brackets to decide who plays who. If you win, you advance, if you lose your season is over. The winners from each conference play each other in the Super Bowl, usually the first weekend in February.
Most games are played on Sundays, but there is always one game on Monday nights and I believe starting this year, they also have one game every Thursday night as well. The "big" game each week is televised at 8pm EST Sunday.
Sorry, that section had a lot of math. Let's try to have a little more fun from here on.
SO... HOW DO I KNOW WHO'S GOOD?
An excellent and timely question!
Really, it varies quite a bit from season to season, but some teams seem to always find a way to get the job done. However, even for bad teams there is always hope. No one gets relegated - in fact, the losing teams are almost rewarded, in a way - they get first pick of the new kids coming off the college football teams. It is not unusual for a team to 'bottom out' in order to acquire new talent in the draft.
Another way the NFL differs from European soccer - by rule all teams have the same amount of money to play with, so you can't just assume the New York teams will be good because they are rich. Everyone starts out with equal footing. From there, it becomes a chess match of tactics, executing game plans, and choosing the best talent. Some teams are obviously better at this than others. Perhaps a few lines on the culture of each team - all based on my very biased opinion.
MEET THE TEAMS
* Baltimore Ravens - Famous for having a very good defense. A relatively new team. They wear purple. Baltimore is a bit of a defensive fanbase in that they seem eager to perceive slights and react venomously. But they are great fans who love their team - and know how to properly hate some other teams (specifically Pittsburgh and Indianapolis).
* Cincinnati Bengals - Famous for being bad even when they're kind of good. Are often teased for their tiger-striped uniforms. Their quarterback Andy Dalton has such red hair that it is sometimes hard to tell if his orange helmet is on his head. This season they are very young and (I think) very enticing. Also, Cincy is my husband's favorite team, so I'm forced to follow them, no matter how dreary it gets.
* Cleveland Browns - An odd team in that it is both a very old team and the league's newest team. The Browns existed for decades in the industrial town of Cleveland; their stadium was full of rabid fans and was affectionately known as 'The Dog Pound' - but the owner actually moved the original "Browns" to Baltimore, renamed them the "Ravens", and then the NFL popped a brand new team there in its place. Why didn't they just plop a new team in Baltimore and leave the old Browns alone? I have no idea. But now the new Browns and the old Browns/Ravens play each other twice a year and the Ravens almost always win. Cleveland is a very depressed sports town with dreadful, dreadful luck.
* Pittsburgh Steelers - A very old, very successful team in another 'blue collar' town. The Steelers are one of those teams that's almost always good no matter what happens. If you saw the movie THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, the scene where they destroy the football stadium was filmed in the Steelers' stadium - and the football player that was running as the field collapsed around him was retired Steeler wide receiver Hines Ward.
* Houston Texans - One of those teams you kind of root for because you feel like they're overachieving and underachieving at the same time. There's just something a little adorable about them. This is another relatively 'new' team still building its legacy in the league.
* Indianapolis Colts - This is my team. Why did I choose them? Because I grew up near Indianapolis. Luckily for me, the team has been both likeable and successful through the majority of my fanhood (it was not always the case). The Colts are best known for two things: 1) They used to be Baltimore's team, and they were stolen in the dead of night in the early 1980's (accounting for why that fanbase seems rather sensitive even still - they STILL hate us, and I give them full marks for commitment). 2) Superstar quarterback Peyton Manning played for the Colts from 1998-2010 leading to several record breaking seasons. Though he's a Bronco now, he is still much, much beloved.
* Jacksonville Jaguars - Another relatively new team, founded in the mid-1990s. Sadly, the Jags are best known for having low attendance and constantly being rumored to be moving somewhere else (usually Los Angeles - America's second largest city does not have a team at the moment). They may become known as London's team - they'll be playing one game a year in Wembley for the next several years. They are primarily known for being an excellent rushing team (meaning they don't throw the ball a whole lot).
* Tennessee Titans - They are, unfortunately, best known for ALMOST winning the Superbowl that one time. They were stopped one yard from the winning score as the clock expired. They are sometimes good but always seem to be solidly mediocre.
* Buffalo Bills - A very old team in a very small town, tucked away in upper New York state. They are nothing at all like New York City. They have much more in common with Canada, and actually the Bills play some games in Toronto. Buffalo is known for lots and lots of snow. In the 1990s the Bills made it to the Super Bowl four years in a row. They lost all four of them.
* Miami Dolphins - Once a very proud franchise recently fallen on hard times. In 1972, the Dolphins recorded the only perfect season in league history. In the 80's and 90's, they had superstar quarterback Dan Marino, who set a ton of records but never won a Super Bowl. They've struggled to win ever since Marino retired.
* New England Patriots - In 2001 they won the Super Bowl as an underdog; since then, they've been a juggernaut. Their coach dresses in a gray hoodie and is often referred to as Yoda (he may be the closest thing the NFL has to an Alex Ferguson). Their quarterback Tom Brady is married to one of the world's top super models. They were once accused of cheating and responded by destroying the entire league that season (and came within about one minute of besting the 1972 Dolphins unbeaten record). They have a definite "eff you" chip on their shoulder, fitting nicely with the rest of the greater Boston area. And this season they have an exceptionally easy schedule. I hate the Patriots.
* New York Jets - The Jets are kind of the little brother New York Team. It's fun to make fun of the Jets. They're usually worth making fun of. If you heard of the mythical, magical "Tebow" last season, you can find him on the Jets now. Enjoy the show.
* Denver Broncos - A team I've always enjoyed, ever since they had quarterback John Elway back in the 80's and 90's. Now they have my Peyton Manning, so I like them even more. Probably the most interesting thing about Denver is their stadium - the city of Denver is literally one mile above sea level. The air is thinner. Kicked balls behave differently than they do in other cities. Crazy things happen at Mile High.
* Kansas City Chiefs - Kansas City was once thought to be one of the toughest stadiums to play in. Their home fans are fantastic. However, they have struggled for a long time, so that crown may have passed (see Seattle farther down). To be honest... I don't know much about the Chiefs.
* Oakland Raiders - Their home stadium is known as "the black hole". I find Raiders fans terrifying. For those not as familiar with American geography, Oakland is right next to San Francisco, connected by the Golden Gate Bridge. But the two communities are very different. Oakland has something of a more, shall we say, 'thuggish' reputation. The Raiders are another team that's been rather miserable to follow for awhile.
* San Diego Chargers - Quite possibly the best uniforms in the league. Also known for being chronically slow starting, chronically underachieving, and in my opinion, a little unlikeable. I've heard several people say that their coach should have been fired several years ago, and yet here he is. I enjoy watching them collapse, but I'm a bad person.
* Chicago Bears - A very old, very popular team famous for it's defense. For years, YEARS they could not find a quarterback (like, they still reference their best quarterback as being a dude who played in the 1940's). Now, they may have finally found a guy - Jay Cutler, who I've referenced several times on this blog as being most fun to watch when things are going badly. Also their coach is named "Lovie" and is just as huggable as he sounds.
* Detroit Lions - A cursed franchise! I enjoy a good franchise curse. Has the curse finally been broken? Too early to tell. But they're a team who plays dirty and is having trouble being unlikeable at the moment, so I'd give that curse at least a little more time.
* Green Bay Packers - A very, very old team in a very, very small town. One of the premier teams in the league. Their fans in Northern Wisconsin are known as "cheeseheads" because the area is famous for its dairy farms. Arguably the best player in the league right now is Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. I'd pick the Packers to win the championship this year.
* Minnesota Vikings - Another tortured fanbase! I don't recall the entire sad history, but I do know that two seasons ago their stadium roof collapsed under the weight of too much snow (the stadium was empty at the time) and their best player, a running back, is recovering from a torn ACL (knee injury). Another team rumored to possibly move to Los Angeles. At one time or another, every team has been rumored to be moving to Los Angeles. It's like a threat: Shape up or we'll move you to Los Angeles!!
* Atlanta Falcons - I don't know what it is about Atlanta, but their teams in all sports are always pretty good, and I still see them a blobs of beige. I apologize to Atlanta fans, but I know nothing about your teams and I have trouble even feeling bad about it. The best I've got is "Their quarterback is nicknamed 'Matty Ice' for reasons that aren't clear."
* Carolina Panthers - a relatively new team that lost to the Patriots a few years back during a Super Bowl best known for Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction. And now they have young quarterback sensation Cam Newton, which means just last year they were bad enough to earn the number one draft pick.
* New Orleans Saints - I have a special place in my heart for this team. One, they have Drew Brees, who went to my college, has been an exemplary citizen, and is just really fun to watch. Two, the team and the city were devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and it's been nothing short of miraculous to see what they've done since then. Three, they were one of the worst teams in the league for, like, 40 years. Now, they're rather scandalized because their defense is accused of purposefully trying to injure opposing players and paying bonuses for it - but there seems to be some argument on whether there is actually any evidence to back up this claim. All I know is I still love 'em. I choose to believe it's not true, for now at least.
* Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Their stadium is shaped like a pirate ship and when they score, they shoot off cannons. What more do you really need to know? Okay, as a bonus, I give you retired player Terry Tate.
* Dallas Cowboys - Probably the most famous team in the league. They are the richest team, have the coolest stadium, and often the biggest soap opera dramas. Their owner Jerry Jones is arguably more famous than any of the players. The Cowboys are always in the mix, but lately they've consistently fallen short.
* New York Giants - I thoroughly enjoy the Giants. Anything can happen at any time. You can win the lottery, you can end up in jail - and you won't know which is happening until the very last minute. Ladies and gentlemen: your defending Super Bowl Champs! They've already lost a game they were expected to win; they've got us right where they want us!
* Philadelphia Eagles - Some of the meanest, most passionate fans in American sports. Seriously, these fans once booed Santa Claus. Philly (the City of Brotherly Love) is a tough, tough place to play. Last year, they assembled what some called a "dream team" of star players... and they didn't even make the playoffs. Par for the course.
* Washington Redskins - Our team in the nation's capital. I'm sure they've been good in the past, but not while I've been paying attention. Their new quarterback is a twenty-two year old kid named Robert Griffin the Third, who could have been a world class hurdler but instead trained for football. They call him "RG3." His backup is former Super Bowl quarterback Rex Grossman, who I've heard some Redskins fans call "RG2." That is hilarious.
* Arizona Cardinals - Annnd we've reached the NFC West division, which has been painful to watch for several years now. Umm... Arizona plays on real grass, even though their stadium has a roof. The grass is wheeled outside during the day to get natural light and then wheeled back inside for the games. So that's pretty good, right?
* San Francisco 49ers - A team with a very rich tradition. Lots and lots of wins. They had two hall of fame quarterbacks in a row (Joe Montana and Steve Young). A former dynasty team. Now, they have the chance to be great again - they came within a dropped ball or two of the Super Bowl last year.
* Seattle Seahawks - The Seahawks as a team don't have a ton of interesting history that I know of, but their fans are amazing. Their outdoor stadium was specially constructed to maximize crowd noise down on the field, making it nearly impossible for visiting teams to hear each other. The last time the Seahawks were in a playoff game, the crowd was so loud that it registered on the Richtor Scale. And, at least according to Sports Guy Bill Simmons, they are underrated.
* St. Louis Rams - About ten years ago, they were known as "the greatest show on turf" - a powerhouse championship team that could score any time they wanted. Now... well, now they're finishing at the bottom of the league pretty consistently and have the honor of traveling all the way to Wembley in London to most likely get pounded by the Patriots. Their championship players retired and moved on, and they just haven't been able to rebuild as of yet. Rams receiver Danny Amendola actually helped host the BBC's Super Bowl coverage last season. Based on this alone, I drafted Danny for my fantasy team. Don't let me down, Danny.
Well, that's plenty for a first installment. If you watch only one game this week, watch Denver vs Pittsburgh Sept 9th 8pm EST - Peyton Manning's first game back from multiple neck surgeries and a year-and-a-half away from football. He's a hero and a treasure and I purchased many kleenex boxes for the occasion. There will be emotions.