‘A team is only as strong as its weakest link’. This is something that is epitomized by a football team. Each and every individual on the field needs to be on the same page with each other on the strategy at all points of the game to pull out a win and be successful.
In my last article I painted an outline about the sport that is American football, the objective of the game and just about scratched the surface at understanding the NFL organization. But, this is just the first piece of the puzzle. Moving forward, I will try and break down the finer aspects of the game starting with the three basic facets of each team – Offense, Defense and Special teams.
Nature of the Sport
American football is a very physically demanding sport and requires a combination of power, speed and toughness. At first sight, it might even resemble a scene at the sprawling coliseum in Rome with bloodthirsty gladiators fighting for blood and half-drunk spectators egging them on – ring a bell?
However, American football requires its fair share of mental skills and tactical acumen in order to succeed at the highest level. The prime example of this is something called the ‘Wonderlic test’ which is administered to every player as they enter the professional leagues from college. This is a cognitive ability test which measures your learning and problem solving abilities on the playing field.
The very fact that you have 22 players on the field at one time, each with a specific role in the team adds a new dimension of complexity to the sport altogether. This is one among the many reasons why American Football has piqued the interest of sports fans all over the world and is fast growing into a global phenomenon.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty details about the offense, it is important to understand the playing field to provide some context to the player roles on the team.
Sideline – The sideline is the 6-foot-wide (1.8-meter-wide) boundary line that runs the length of the field on either side.
End line – The end line is a 6-foot-wide boundary line that connects the two parallel sidelines. The end line and sideline compose the rectangular shape of the field. Two pylons flank the end of the end line.
End zone – The end zones are two 10-yard-wide (9-meter-wide) areas at each end of the field inside the end line. The end zone behind a team is their end zone, and the end zone ahead is the opponent’s. Each team scores 6 points when they take the ball into the opponent’s end zone.
Goal line – The goal line is an 8-inch-wide (20-cm-wide) line that runs across the front of the end zone. Two pylons flank the end of the goal line.
Yard line and Hashmarks – The individual hashmarks on the sideline represent a single yard, whereas solid white lines that run across the field represent 5 and 10 yards (Every 10th yard is painted on the field).
Goalposts – Centered at the back of the end zone is a pole that extends 10 feet (3 meters) high and connects with a horizontal cross bar.
Pieces of the Puzzle
A football team can be broadly classified into three groups – offense, defense and special teams. In this article we’ll elaborate a little on offensive gameplay, followed by defense and special teams in the set of articles to follow. First things first though, lets develop an understanding of the war zone and its key positions:
The Structure of an Offense
An offense, while in play, can field a maximum of 11 players. The following figure illustrates the important skill positions/ players in a typical offense. Every piece in the offense has its special role to play, which when disrupted, causes the opposing defense to gain an upper hand. The basic objective of the offense is to get the ball into the opposition’s end zone and score points. The simplest way to do this is by running with the ball into it or throwing it to your teammate who subsequently runs into the opposition’s end zone.
The key players in the offense are:
The Quarter Back (QB) – Without a question, the ‘quarterback’ is the most vital cog in the machine. The offense and sometimes whole teams are built around the player who plays this position. His role, simply put is to throw the ball to his ‘wide receivers’ or to hand the ball off to the ‘running back’ (called ‘tailback’ in the figure). A more important, yet under-emphasized part of his job description is to be able to read opposing defense in order to execute his play perfectly. But this is easier said than done, only a handful of ‘quarter backs’actually can do this on a consistent basis. Eg: Dinesh Kumar (Pune Marathas)
Offensive line (OL) – This is the cluster of five positions in the center of the figure in front of the ‘quarter back’. The offensive line consists of two tackles (categorized ‘left tackle’ and ‘right tackle’, for obvious reasons), two ‘guards’ next to the tackles, and a ‘center’. The primary objective of the line is to protect the quarter back. Eg: Preetesh Balyaya (Mumbai Gladiators)
Running Back (RB) – Marked as ‘tailback’ in the figure above, a ‘running back’s’ main job is to take the ball from the ‘quarter back’ and run it down the field. Players who play this position, are generally quite small (the lower center of gravity helps in maintaining balance) but immensely powerful, for they routinely are required to power through opposing tacklers. Eg: Roshan Lobo (Bangalore Warhawks)
Wide Receivers (WR) – ‘Wide receivers’ line up on either side of the ‘quarter back’ in different positions based on the offensive strategy. Their job is to catch the ball thrown to them by the ‘quarterback’. These role players are usually the faster, more athletically gifted players on the playing field as they need to be elusive while beating tackles. Eg: Navaneeth “Chamber” Shanta (Bangalore Warhawks)
Tight End (TE) – The ‘tight end’ position was primarily used to provide an extra blocker for the ‘quarterback’/ ‘running back’, but has evolved more into a ball catching role with time. There are two types of ‘tight ends’ – the one who blocks an onrushing defensive player from the opposite team and those who double up as receivers as well. It’s a hard skill for a tight end to be able to fit both roles as they are usually bigger and slower than the average ‘wide receiver’. As usual, there are many outliers who are freakishly good in both departments and disprove that myth. Eg: Amit “Happy” Lochab (Delhi Defenders)
The offensive team’s role is akin to a cricket team’s batting lineup in T20 games where their goal is to put up a huge total on the board. The bowling team then comes in and defends it which has the growing trend across the cricketing globe in the modern age. In addition to the offensive set of players, there are specialized coaches for each position that we looked at above. These coaches work on the offensive strategies that the team executes in order to move the ball down field and score points.
This is just the beginning in a set of articles about the offensive side of things in American Football. From describing the structure of the offensive team, we will move into describing how an offensive play works and shed some light on how these roles come to fruition in the next article.