Dummies Guide to American Gridiron Football

To make it more manageable for readers, I’ve divided this tutorial into two parts: a beginner’s guide to NFL football and a basic guide to fantasy football. I want to give readers a complete introduction to the sports of American football.

I’ll focus on the game played by the National Football League. While NCAA football is a fascinating subject with a lot of cool history and traditions, I want this article to help people wanting to learn quickly about watching the NFL on Sunday.

In the next few days, I’ll post a basic guide to fantasy football, too. The idea is to get total novices up-to-speed enough that they can enjoy watching the game with friends and family, or even competing against their loved ones (or hated enemies) at fantasy sports. I’ll even discuss the best way to approach daily fantasy sports, though that might be advanced stuff.

These articles should be useful to:

  • Beginners wanting to learn about football.
  • High school or college football fans wanting to read about the NFL game.
  • NFL fans who’ve joined a local fantasy football league.
  • Fantasy football owners who want to play on FanDuel or DraftKings.

I’m going to present the information in layers, tooled for those specific groups. The further you go down the page, the more detailed and specific the information will be. If some of the material is too basic for you, simply drop down to the next section. Keep scrolling down until you reach the point you want to know about.

When I’m talking about beginners, I’m talking about football 101 information. This information should be useful to:

  • Football Widows Wanting to Learn the Hobby
  • People in Office Pools
  • European Football Owners Wanting to Learn a New Sports.
  • 8-Year Old Football Fans, who are discouraged from reading the DFS material–LOL
  • Anyone wanting to pick up a new hobby or Sunday TV viewing option

For those wondering what a “football widow” is, that’s a wife, fiance, girlfriend, or other female companion of an NCAA and NFL football fans who is a virtual widow on autumn weekends, because their significant other can’t be pried away from the TV screen. If anything, it’s worse for the women involved with fantasy football owners, who take obsession to a new level.

Those women might want to compete at the hobby, so they can spend more time together. Or they might want to research the topic, so they know what’s hooked their companion. Even if they don’t, they might want to learn a bit about the NFL, so they don’t feel like a fool when the game is going. This is for you, ladies.

Part 1: NFL Football

NFL football started in 1920, to take advantage of the popularity of the much-older college football. The National Football League began as 14-team association in 1920. Of those teams, only two–the Decatur Staleys (Chicago Bears) and Chicago Cardinals (Arizona Cardinals)–remain in the league to this day. The rest came later, though teams like the New York Giants, Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Detroit Lions began within the first 10 to 20 years of the league’s inception.

Several waves of expansion happened, which brought teams like the Cleveland Browns into the game in the 1950s. The big expansion year was 1960. The NFL wanted to expand, because they heard a rival league (The American Football League) was placing franchises in cities. Thus, the NFL added teams like the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings in 1960, while the AFL added teams like the New York Jets, Oakland Raiders, and Buffalo Bills. The two leagues became major rivals for players by the mid-1960s. They eventually agreed to a yearly grudge match, which became known as the Super Bowl.

The NFL’s Green Bay Packers crushed the AFL team in the first two contests. In Super Bowl III, the New York Jets of the AFL stunned the Baltimore Colts (and the world), ending the NFL’s dominance. After the Kansas City Chiefs of the AFL defeated the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL the next year, the AFL gained acceptance and the two leagues merged in 1970. What resulted looked much like the NFL of 2015, though expansion brought the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Seattle Seahawks, Jacksonville Jaguars, Carolina Panthers, and Houston Texans. Also, a number of teams changed cities, which is how the Chicago Cardinals eventually become the Arizona Cardinals.

Scoring in Football

NFL football is played with two opposing sides with 11 men apiece. The idea is to move a spherical ball (“the football”) down the field, eventually moving it to the end of the field. If a team gets the ball across the “goal line”, which is called scoring a “touchdown”. If a team gets a touchdown, they score 6 points. Also, they get a chance to add a bonus point, if they kick an extra point through the goal posts at each end of the field. If successeful, this kick is worth 1 additonal point.

Finally, a team in possession of the ball has the option of trying to kick the football through the goal posts at any time, even if they cannot score a touchdown. If this kick is successful, they score 3 points. If it’s unsuccessful, the opposing team gets the ball at the spot of the kick. Also, if a team which is holding the ball is tackled beyond their own goal line, this is worth 2 points. The team with the most points at the end of the game wins.

Length of the Game

Each NFL game is 60-minutes long, though the clocked can be stopped and thus most games take 3 hours to play. The 60 minutes are divided into four 15-minute quarters. Between the 2nd and 3rd Quarters, a short halftime occurs, in which each team rests and plots new strategies. If the two teams are tied after 60 minutes, an additional 15 minute quarter occurs. With some exceptions, the first team to score in this overtime period wins. If no one scores in that extra period, then the game ends in a tie. In the playoffs, play would continue until one team scored.

Basic NFL Offense and Defense

Each team takes turns possessing the football. The side possessing the ball is said to be on offense, because they dictate play and try to drive the field. The side which does not possess the ball is called defense, because they react to the offense by trying to stop them (by tackling them) or by taking the ball from them. They can take the ball by forcing a fumble and recovering it, or they can intercept the ball when the quarterback throws to his receiver. A fumble recovery or an interception is considered a “turnover”.

The offense is given 4 play to reach 10 yards on the field. If they do so in the allotted plays, then a new set of 4 downs are triggered. If they cannot, then the defense gains possession at the spot of the ball. Since that is undesireable to most teams, most offensive teams prefer to punt the ball to their opponent on 4th down, instead of going for it. This is done because a punt tends to move the ball 40 to 50 yards downlfield, making it harder for the opponent to drive the field and score.

Offensive and Defensive Units

In the modern NFL, different units are used for each general task. There is an offensive unit, a defensive unit, and a special teams unit. “Special teams” refers to units which are neither explicitely offense or defense, but are instead involved in the kicking game. The kickoff unit, the kick return unit, the punting unit, the punt return unit, the field goal kicking unit, and the field goal blocking unit are considered the special teams units.

Below is a detailed description of the various player positions, depending on units.

Offensive Skill Position Players

This is the complete list of NFL offensive players, beginning with the “skill position” players. Skill position players are those who handle the football: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and tight end. Then I’ll discuss the lunchpale guys on the offensive line.

  • Quarterback – This player snaps the ball each play. As he begins each play with the ball in his hand, he is quite pivotal. The quarterback (QB) either hands off the ball to the running back, or he passes the ball down the field to his receivers, hoping to advance the ball towards the goal line (or at least a first down market). This is considered the most important position, especially in the NFL of 2015.
  • Running Back – About half the time, teams choose to “run the ball” instead of pass it. The quarterback hands the ball to a player, called a running back (RB) or halfback, who tries to run through the middle of the defense or around the edge of the line. Some teams use a fullback to block in front of the RB. This would be the player closer to the line, but still behind the quarterback. Fullbacks sometimes run or catch the ball, but it’s rare, because they are bigger and slower. Their main use is slamming into linebackers and safeties, opening holes for the running back. Running the ball (1) is a safe way to gain yardage, (2) runs more time off the clock, (3) wears down the defense, because the big offensive linemen get to lean on or smash the (usually) smaller defenders, (4) keep the defense honest, i.e. keep their pass rushers from focusing on the quarterback or double-teaming the best receivers, and (5) sets up a play-action pass, in which the team fakes a run and throws the ball deep, after defensive backs are sucked towards the line to stop the runner. Traditionally, teams with good running games have been championship contenders, because it keeps the team from making big mistakes and also saves the team’s defense from getting fatigued.
  • Wide Receiver – These are the thinner, faster players who play on the edge of the field. Wide receivers (WR) are often the fastest players who make the most exciting plays. Some pass catchers are tall, which allows them to leap up for the ball over defensive backs. Some wideouts are smaller, allowing them to make quick moves to get separation from defenders. In the NFL of 2015, the rules give the advantage to receivers, because the defense cannot touch them more than 5 yards from the line of scrimmage. Prior to 2004, a certain amount of contact was allowed, so the passing records have been broken several times since then. Prior to 1984, defenders could be very physical down the field, so the passing records prior to 1984 were much smaller than they were in the 1984-2004 era. Wide receivers tend to be considered flashy and selfish at times, because they need the QB to throw them the ball and therefore are often seen calling for a pass to be made to them. At the same time, they can be game-changers, because their plays cause excitement and momentum shifts.
  • Tight End – A tight end is a hybrid between a wide receiver and an offensive lineman. The tight end is seen on the end of the offensive line, but he can run out in a pattern and catch balls (unlike linemen). He is therefore bigger, so he can block, but not so big he can’t run routes. A tight end might weigh 250-260 pounds, while receiver weighs 180-220 pounds and an offensive lineman weighs 300 pounds or more. Even among this position, there is big differences. Pass-catching tight ends are the stars, while most teams have one or more blocking tight ends. A tight end who can both block and catch (well) is highly valued, but rare.
  • Left Tackle  (Offensive Lineman) – The left tackle is the lineman on the far left of the offensive line. left tackle is the biggest and most athletic player on the offensive line. He is charged with blocking the other team’s best pass rusher, who is placed on the quarterback’s blind side (or the weakside of the defense). The weakside is the side opposite of the tight end, meaning the pass rusher doesn’t have as far to go to rush the quarterback. This usually on the left tackle’s side, because the quarterback is right-handed. For all these reasons, the LT is generally the highest-paid and most important player on the offensive line.
  • Right Tackle (Offensive Lineman) – The right tackle is the lineman on the far right of the offensive line, along with the LT as a bookend player. He guards against players rushing the quarterback from the right end of the line, so he is considered important. Because the tight end often lines up on this side of the line, this is often the point-of-attack for the running game, so the right tackle is usually required to be a good run blocker first. Like the left tackle, he needs to be bigger than the guards, with arms long enough to control pass rushers.
  • Offensive Guards (Offensive Linemen) – The left guard and right guard are the two linemen who line up inside the tackles, on either side of the center. The guards are considered more important for rushing the ball, because they block the biggest defensive players inside the tackles. These players are often massive, but they might not be as tall and their arms might not be as long. When it’s time to get short yardage, running backs often run behind the guards. Also, these are the players who “pull”, meaning the sprint outside on sweeps and screen plays, or pull inside on trap plays. This is required to add more blockers at the point of attack and create mismatches. Therefore, the best guards need to have a quick burst (of speed) and football smarts, to find the right defender to kick out. Some NFL teams prefer smaller guards, so they can handle these mobile plays better.
  • Center (Offensive Lineman) – This is the anchor of the offensive line, sitting in the middle of the formation. He is also the player who snaps the ball to the quarterback. In most cases, the center calls out blocking assignments to the other linemen, once they reach the line of scrimmage (where the ball’s snapped).

Other Offensive Positions

  • H-Back – An H-back is used by teams who prefer lots of different formations and movement at the line of scrimmage, to confuse defenses and mask their intentions. The H-back is a hybrid between a tight end and a fullback. He is a bit smaller and more mobile than the standard tight end. He is a bit bigger, not as good of a runner, and a better pass catcher than a standard fullback. Often, if a team uses an H-back, they do not use a fullback.
  • Slot Receiver – Many teams these days use a third receiver “in the slot”, instead of a fullback or an H-back. This is a receiver who lines up between the wide receiver and the end of the offensive line. This area is called “the slot”, because it’s a treacherous area of underneath coverage where safeties and linebackers roam. Slot receivers are ususally of the small and quick variety, like Wes Welker or Cole Beasley. Not all are small, though. This player has to be quick and clever, to make quick moves or find the seam in the zone coverage. He also has to be tough and toughminded. He is tough, because he takes hits from linebackers. He is toughminded, because he has to focus on catching the ball while a linebacker or safety comes to hit him very hard. If a team has a good slot receiver, it can drive defenses batty, as they move the chains (pick up 1st downs) on third downs a lot.

A Note on Defenses

Defenses can be complicated for the beginner, because two main types of defense exist: the 3-4 defense and the 4-3 defense.

The 4-3 Defense

is the traditional alignment, with 4 defensive linemen and 3 linebackers. In this alignment, 2 defensive tackles control the line of scrimmage, stopping inside run plays. Meanwhile, the 2 defensive ends are thinner and quicker pass rushers, trying to get to the quarterback on passing downs. The linebackers control the gaps and provide a combination of run supports in the running game, along with coverage of tight ends and running backs in the passing game.

The 3-4 Defense

The 3-4 defense uses 3 defensive linemen and 4 linebackers. This alignment which came about in the 1980s on the defensives of Bill Parcells’s New York Giants. Parcells and his defensive coordinator, Bill Belichick, designed a defense to take advantage of the unique talents of Lawrence Taylor, their outside linebacker. Lawrence Taylor had a rare (history-changing) ability to rush the passer, but he was too small to be a traditional defensive end. Parcells and Belichick designed a defense which would free Taylor to rush the passer, while protecting him from being targeted in the running game (as much). The 3-4 does away with the 2 defensive tackles and replaces him with a nose tackle, who lines up on the center (instead of offset on the guards). The nose tackle is a massive player meant to take on doubleteams and still hold his ground. The defensive ends are hybrids between the traditional defensive ends and the old-fashioned defensive tackles. Their job is to set the edge and take on blockers. In many ways, the 3 defensive lineman act as “blockers” for the team’s linebackers, assuring the squad of 4 athletic linebackers can get to the ball and make plays. The outside linebackers in this alignment must be able to rush the passer (they are the chief pass rushers), while also being able to move out in coverage on certain pass plays. In this way, it is hard for the offense to know where the fourth pass rusher is coming from, because either OLB might drop back in coverage (or rush). Both might rush, creating a “blitz” situation (when 5 or more defenders rush the quarterback). The 2 middle linebackers are bigger than the traditional linebacker, because they often have to take on offensive guards. They are meant to tackle the running back, while the nose tackle and ends soak up the blockers. The 3-4 tends to be a better pass rushing alignment, if the right personnel can be found. At the same time, because the main tacklers are a little off the ball, it can be weaker against the running game at times.

Teams occasionally try to move from the 4-3 to the 3-4 or vice versa, such as the 2015 Buffalo Bills or the 2015 Chicago Bears. When they do, the first year of transition can be ugly, because the team doesn’t have the right personnel in place at each position yet.

With all that in mind, I’ll try to explain what each position does on defense. This might get a little complicated, but hopefully it’s not too convoluted. Here is a diagram to help with the next section.

4-3 and 3-4 Defense - Gaps

Zero is the Center, the 2s are the Guards, the 4s are the Tackles, and the 6s are the Tight Ends. This Depicts a Two Tight End Set. The Gaps are 1-3-5-7-9.

Defensive Linemen

  • Defensive End  (Defensive Lineman) – Traditionally, the 2 defensive ends sit at each end of the defensive line, often just outside the offensive tackles (called a 5-technique defensive end). In the 4-3, they are the main pass rushers, with the speed and power to blow up plays. In the 3-4, they are a little bigger and are charged with stopping the run a little more. In the 3-4, they sit inside the tackles in the B-gap. These are called 3-techique defensive ends. If the “X-technique” terminology confuses you, simply imagine the center being 0 in the count and each opposing lineman or the gap between them being counted 1. As you go out from the center in either direction, the gap between the center and guard would be “1”, while the guard would be “2”. The gap between the guard and tackle would be “3”, and the tackle would be “4”. The gap between tackle and tight end would be “5”, while the tight end would be “6”. Lining up outside the tight end would be “7”. In this scenario, calling someone a 3-technique defensive end simple means they line up between the guard and tackle. Being a 5-technique defensive end means they line up between the tackle and tight end, or outside the tackle if no tight end is on that side of the offense.
  • Defensive Tackle (Defensive Lineman) – In the 4-3, the defensive tackles are the biggest players on the defense, charged with stopping the run. If they are particularly explosive, these players are also know for rushing the passer, as is the case with Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald or, before them, John Randle and Warren Sapp. Teams with solid run-stuffing tackles make running on them near-impossible. Examples of such players include Minnesota Vikings’ “Williams Brothers” (Kevin & Pat–not really brothers), Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa of the early 2000s Baltimore Ravens, or Dana Stubblefield and Bryant Young of the 1990s San Francisco 49ers. In the 3-4, standard defensive tackles do not exist. They are replaced by the nose tackle.
  • Nose Tackle (Defensive Lineman) – The nose tackle plays the grittiest position in football. He is the lone tackle in a 3-4 defensive scheme, usually play over the center (or offset on the center). He usually gets double-teamed. If he cannot hold the point of attack, the 3-4 defense becomes a sieve against the run. These players often stand at 350 pounds, though some 290-300 lb players have manned the position with effectiveness. Traditionally, players like Michael Carter, Tim Krumrie, Dave Butz, Ted Washington, and Gilbert Brown have been lauded nose tackles. These days, Dontari Poe or Vince Wilfork are top NTs.

4-3 Linebackers

  • Middle Linebacker – The middle linebacker or is one of the glamor positions in football. At the same time, it is one of the grittiest positions. In a tough sport like football, it has a lot to do with the glamor. The Chicago Bears have been known for their string of top MLBs, such as Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, and Brian Urlacher. Ray Nitschke, Jack Lambert, and Ray Lewis are all examples of this time-honored position on defense. Because he’s in the center of the defense and he sees the field best, the middle linebacker often calls out signals and is seen as the quarterback of the defense. He’s in a position to make the big tackles, roaming from sideline-to-sideline following halfbacks and running quarterbacks wherever they might go. In the 3-4, this designation is replaced by two players: the inside linebackers.
  • Strongside Linebacker – The SLB in a 4-3 defense follows the tight end and plays over him. Often, a safety covers the tight end when he goes out on routes, but the strongside linebacker sometimes has to pick up this coverage (or cover a running back). His main duty is to be strong at the point of attack in the running game. He takes on the tight end, sheds the blocker, and sets the edge (doesn’t let the running outside him on sweeps).
  • Weakside Linebacker – The WLB in a 4-3 defense is not covered by a tight end, meaning the offense isn’t going to run the ball his way as much. On running plays, his job is to maintain containment, meaning he sets the edge on the other side of the field, assuring no one gets outside on a pitch play to his side, a reverse, or a cutback. He often takes on running backs in the passing game. Quicker and more agile than the strongside linebacker (on average), his role sometimes involves rushing the passer on blitz packages. A classic case of a weakside linebacker in this scenario is Wilber Marshall, who played the weakside linebacker position on the 1985 Chicago Bears Defense. Wilber Marshall played in the “46 Defense” designed by Buddy Ryan. While Richard Dent, Steve McMichael, Dan Hampton, and William “The Refrigerator” Perry formed a fiece defensive line and Mike Singletary got big press for his role as the intense leader of the unit, it was often Wilber Marshall who created the most chaos for opposing offenses.

3-4 Linebackers

  • Inside Linebacker: Jack and Mike – The inside linebacker is divided into two positions: the Mike linebacker and the Jack position. The Jack linebacker is a big thumper who takes on guards and keeps the Mike linebacker clean. A classic Jack linebacker is Bart Scott with the Baltimore Ravens (after they moved to a 3-4). Jack has to be strong at the point of attack. The Mike linebacker is usually a little quicker and smaller and his job is to make tackles. He prefers not to engage lineacker. Instead, his job is to follow his instincts, blow up plays, and wreak havoc and chaos in the opposing offense. After the Ravens moved to a 3-4 defense, Ray Lewis played this position. Also, Patrick Willis was a great Jack linebacker, while Navarro Bowman remains a top Mike linebacker in San Francisco.
  • Outside Linebacker: Sam and Elephant – The outside linebacker position in the 3-4 is divided into two positions: the Sam linebacker and Elephant positions. “Sam” refers to the strongside linebacker position in the 3-4. Once again, he lines up over the tight end (or outside him) and must be strong at the point of attack on running plays. On passing plays, he sometimes drops back in coverage, and sometimes rushes the passer on a blitz play. The Elephant position plays a role similar to the Weakside linebacker in the 4-3: he tends to rush the passer and create havoc. That being said, the Elephant must be able to drop back in coverage against running back or in a zone scheme. The idea behind all the 3-4 linebackers is to be versatile and athletic. If they can do everything well, then it leaves the offensive coordinator and quarterback on the other side guessing about what is coming next.

Defensive Backs

The defensive backfield consists of two types of players: the cornerbacks and the safeties. Most defenses use 2 cornerbacks and 2 safeties, but more cornerbacks are employed when the offense uses 3-wide receiver and 4-wide receiver sets. As the passing game has become more emphasized in recent years, the Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals have experimented with taking out one linebacker and replacing him with a safety, so these positions can be fluid at times. Those in the fantasy football world might remember confusion trying to figure out if Tyrann Mathieu (“Honey Badger”), Rashad Johnson, or Tony Jefferson were the Cardinals’ starting safeties. In a way, all three of them are.

  • Cornerback – These players sit on either side of the defense, at the corner of the alignment. The two cornerbacks line up over the 2 wide receivers. Their goal is to lock up receivers from the line of scrimmage. In man-to-man coverage (called “man coverage”), the cornerback simply follows the wide receiver around the field, wherever he goes. In zone coverage, the cornerback covers his side of the field from the hash marks to the sideline, with some help from the safety “over the top” (further down the field). While the cornerback is a coverage player, he is also expected to be a reliable tackler on the corner, when sweeps happen. Some, like Deion Sanders, are known to prefer not to tackle, because they tend to be the smallest defensive player on the field. (Deion Sanders called it “a business decision”.) In coverage, the cornerback has two main options. He can either get in the receiver’s face and jam him at the line, disrupting his route running. Or he can “play off” the line, assuring the wide receiver does not get behind him. When jamming, he can be quite disruptive, but if he missing on the jam, the wide receiver can have big plays. In the more conservative alignment, the corner tries to keep everything in front of him, but he better be a sure tackler, because he’s often on an island.
  • Free Safety – The free safety is a rover who sits in the back end of the defense. The term “safety” means these players are the team’s safety net. They make sure to clean up the mess of the other players, tackling receivers and running backs as the last line of defense. The free safety is supposed to apply double-coverage on most plays, helping one cornerback or the other. On other plays, he roams deep behind the line of scrimmage, trying to read the quarterbacks’ eyes and get an interception. If he can’t intercept the ball, he tries to arrive at the receiver at the same instant he is catching the ball, hitting him hard enough to jar him lose of the ball. The free safety is supposed to be fast and a sure tackler, because he often makes touchdown-saving plays. Ed Reed is a good example of a free safety, though the two positions were often interchangeable with the Ravens. Merton Hanks of the 1990s San Francisco 49ers, a converted cornerback, also was a skilled free safety.
  • Strong Safety – The strong safety plays closer to the line of scrimmage than the free safety. The term strong means he plays at the point of attack on the strongside of the field (where the tight end lines up). Thus, he tends to be bigger than the free safety. As Bill Parcells once said of Cowboys SS Roy Williams, he was “a biscuit away from being a linebacker”. The strong safety is a fearsome player on the defense, often supplying the biggest hits in the running game and passing game. They also blitz the quarterback at times. The list of star players at the strong safety position is lengthy: Donnie Shell, Ken Shell, Jack Tatum, Ronnie Lott (later on in his career), Steve Atwater, Darren Woodson, John Lynch, Rodney Harrison, and Troy Polamalu are a few which come to mind.
  • Slot Corner – The slot cornerback is not a starter, but in the current NFL, he might as well be. Most teams need a third cover corner, because most NFL offenses use the slot receiver a lot. This can be a fatal weakness, if your third corner isn’t good. These players tend to be either young cornerbacks trying to learn the NFL game or underpriced veterans who might not have been big enough or quick enough to be considered a starting outside cornerback. They need to be quick, to cover their opponent’s moves.

Special Teams Players

Finally, we have the special teams player. Several of these positions exist, though NFL fans and media often give them little attention. Some NFL teams give them lesser attention, which is often to their detriment. The special teams units often decide games, or have big plays which change the momentum of the game. Former Dallas Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson said, to win a game, a team had to win the battle on 2 of the 3 units: offense, defense, and special teams. That’s how important it can be, though these units are often an afterthought.

  • Field Goal Kicker – This player kicks field goals when touchdown drives stall out on the opposing team’s side of the field. This player often is the kickoff specialist, too. The field goal kicker decided many games with a late kick, often to the chagrin of offensive and defensive players. Anything inside 40 yards is supposed to be automatic, while 40 to 50 yards field goals are where the best kickers make their money. A few kickers can make FGs beyond 50 yards on a regular basis, but anything beyond 50 is considered iffy in most circumstances. The all-time record is 64 yards, held by Matt Prater of the Detroit Lions. He was with the Denver Broncos, and thus kicking in the lighter air at Mile High Stadium, at the time.
  • Punter – The punter is considered even less relevant than the place kicker. The punter punts the ball on 4th down, trying to establish better field position. A 45-yard punt is considered average, though anything from 40 to 55 is common enough. Much of the skill is kicking it high enough to allow teammates to cover the punt well enough, or kicking it directionally to pin the punt returner in one corner of the field. Also, punting the ball inside the 10-yard line without kicking it into the endzone is considered a particular skill. The punter might be the most forgotten player on a football team.
  • Punt Returner – This player returns punts. If they are really good, these can be difference makers. Devin Hester and Josh Cribbs are recent examples of superior punt returners. These players are usually backup wide receivers or running backs, but they can be defensive backs, too.
  • Kickoff Returner – As you might have guessed, this player returns kickoffs. This is considered one of the most dangerous positions to play in the NFL, because opponents get a long run from a dead start and bodies crash into one another at great speeds. That’s why NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell chose to change the rules to make sure more kickoffs end in touchbacks, which go to the 20 yard line. Despite that, the kickoff return for a touchdown is still one of the biggest players in football…as evidenced by the breakout season rookie wide receiver Tyler Lockett of the Seattle Seahawks is having. Again, KR artists tend to be wide receivers, running backs, and defensive backs. This position can be filled by the punt returner, in which case they are a kick return specialist like Hester or Cribbs.
  • The Holder – The holder is a player who kneels on field goals and extra points, catches the ball which is snapped, and places it on the ground for the field goal kickers. This is a forgotten job, though it can get awfully important at times (see: Tony Romo in the 2007 Seahawks playoff game). The holder is usually a quarterback or punter, but can be anyone on the team.
  • Deep Snapper – On punts and field goals, this is the person who snaps the ball way back to the punter or holder. This might sound basic, but a handful of NFL players have made a whole career as a deep snapper. Dale Hellestrae played in the NFL from 1985 until 2001, based on his role as a deep snapper. He even appeared on the David Letterman Show once, snapping footballs into moving cabs.
  • Gunner – The gunner lines up on the outside on punts, much like a wide receiver would. He tries to run down the field and tackle the punt returner, while maintaining containment on his side. The gunner is covered by one player on the other unit, and sometimes two players. This player needs high energy, determination, and discipline.

NFL Coaches, Staff, and Front Officer Personnel

  • Head Coach – The man who makes lineup decisions, replay challenges, and time management decisions on gameday. He complains to the refs and holds press conferences several times in the week for the sports media. In the offseason, he hires a coaching staff, sets up the OTA schedule, and training camp schedule. The head coach usually gains a reputation as an offensive coordinator or defensive coordinator first. Occasionally, a line coach, quarterbacks coach, or special teams coach (John Harbaugh) is elevated to head coach, but that is rare. Dan Campbell of the Miami Dolphins was a tight ends coach until he received the promotion. So was Mike Tice, though I hope Campbell’s tenure works out better. Sometimes, hotshot college football coaches are hired to become an NFL head coach, and this occasionally even works out.
  • Offensive Coordinator – He holds offensive unit meetings and usually calls the plays on offense on Sunday. The offensive coordinator tends to have a trademark offensive scheme they use: the Pro Style, the West Coast, the Option-Read, (rarely) the Wildcat, the Run-and-Shoot, the Spread Offense. Sometimes, these have informal names, like Air Coryell, Student-Body-Left, or smash mouth football. In the old days, the wishbone, the option, and the I-formation were prominent in college. If a head coach was an offensive coordinator, then he might “run the offense” and the OC might be more of a figurehead.
  • Defensive Coordinator – He holds defensive unit meetings and usually calls defensive coverages and blitzes on Sunday. The defensive coordinators tends to have a trademark defensive scheme he uses: the 4-3, the 3-4, the Cover 2, or the 46 Defense. Like the OC, the defensive coordinator is sometimes a bit of a figurehead, if his head coach was a DC when he was an assistant.
  • Offensive Line Coach – He coaches the center, guards, and tackles in practice. He also discusses in-game adjustments on the sidelines.
  • Quarterbacks Coach – Goes over game film and works on mechanics with the team’s quarterbacks.
  • Running Backs Coach – Goes over game films and works on technique in practice with the team’s running backs.
  • Wide Receivers Coach – Goes over game films and works on route running with the wide receiving corps.
  • Tight Ends Coach – A new position, he works with the team’s 3 or 4 tight ends.
  • Defensive Line Coach – He goes over gap technique in meetings and discusses in-game adjustments on the sidelines.
  • Linebackers Coach – He coaches up the linebacking corps in practices and on gameday.
  • Defensive Backs Coach – He instructs the DBs on coverage schemes and coverage techniques, which can be complicated in the NFL.
  • Special Teams Coach – He coaches the kickoff return unit, the kickoff coverage unit, the punt return unit, the punt coverage unit, and the field goal units. Often seems to be highly emotional.
  • Strength & Conditioning Coach – He overseas the weight training program in the offseason and during the season. If the team appears weak on either the offensive line or defensive front seven, this can cost him his job.
  • Trainers – The trainer is to an NFL football team as the medic is to a military unit. He deals with treating players during the game, while getting them prepared to fight through hurts and injuries during the week. He is not a trained doctor, but the team uses a “team doctor” who is usually not seen on the sideline.

NFL Front Office Personnel

The “Front Office” refers to the executives and their staff members. These people don’t take the practice field to coach players, but handle personnel decisions, corporate deals, NFL business, public relations, vendors, merchandising, and marketing.  They run the day-to-day business of the team.

The head coach might be considered a front office member, but I divide duties between the General Manager’s staff and the Coaching Staff, as I would do it, if I were an NFL team owner. 🙂

  • General Manager – This is the executive sitting in the press box. The General Manager of an NFL team sets the direction for the whole organization. The GM hires the head coach, drafts players during the NFL Draft, makes trades, and conducts free agent signings. He also makes the final decision on personnel moves like who gets waived. This executive managers the salary cap and also oversees the scouts.
  • Scout – A scout can fill one of several roles. A college scout watches college football players (live) and grades them on their talent level. An NFL scout watches the team’s upcoming opponents (live) and looks for weaknesses to exploit (or strengths to fear/gameplan for). Each NFL team has a “Director of Scouting” who overseas these staff members. This position is often a prerequisite for becoming a general manager, though teams also hire ex-head coaches for such a position.
  • Owner – The franchise owner is the man (or woman) who owns a majority share of the team. He or she hires the General Manager. If the owner is particularly powerful (or meddlesome), then he or she ends up hiring and firing coaches or makes personnel decisions. This is usually seen as an amateur meddling in football business, which is learned through decades of playing, coaching, or scouting. Jerry Jones is the Dallas Cowboys’ general manager, for instance. Mike Brown of the Cincinnati Bengals, who inherited the franchise from his father, the legendary Paul Brown, also is a GM. Daniel Snyder is not a general manager, but he might as well be sometimes. Of course, that might be preferable to many fans to an owner like the Arizona Cardinals’ Bill Bidwell, who once could not be troubled to attend his teams’ playoff games, despite the team making the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. Bidwell was vacationing in the South of France, instead.

This ends the beginner’s guide to NFL football. I’m only half-finished, though. One of these days, I’m going to write a complete history of the NFL for this website, but that’s going to have to wait for the offseason. For now, if you want to continue on to read about playing fantasy football, please keep reading at How to Start Your Own Fantasy Football League, The Basic Guide to Fantasy Football, and How to Win at Daily Fantasy Football.