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Getting down with some football

I'm going to fess up to this: I used to disdain all things football. The game seemed like three hours of waiting around with approximately two minutes of action interspersed in 10-second bursts. I didn't understand how running two feet before being tackled could count for anything or be remotely interesting to watch.

Football was simply something that distracted the menfolk on Thanksgiving and gave them an excuse for not helping in the kitchen. I felt that people should be focusing on issues like income inequality, climate change and public school curriculum instead of a bunch of highly paid athletes in helmets and tight pants.

I was, quite frankly, better than all that.

Then my son came along. Now 10 years old, Jack has become a Ravens fan even though until a few years ago we didn't even have a TV that got reception. He would come home from school spouting off the names of players and explaining why they were good or bad. He'd be devastated by a Ravens loss and elated by a win. My puzzlement over this ("What's the difference? Your life doesn't change based on the outcome.") affected him not at all.

But I decided that the opportunities for spending time with my kid dwindle every year and it would be better to hop on the football train than try to derail it.

Turns out, I really like watching the Ravens. To the point of being hoarse by the end of a game. I can't believe he caught that pass! I can't believe he missed that pass! Throw it, throw it, throw it — aw, sacked! Go, go, go — yes! I've clearly become hooked on the bread and circuses.

The key to enjoying football, I've found, (aside from beer and junk food) is to learn the basics of the game. Once you sort of know what's going on, it's much more compelling. And with the regular season starting Thursday, I wanted a refresher. So I asked The Baltimore Sun's Ravens editor, Monique Jones, to further enlighten me — and maybe others — on the fundamentals of the game.

Because I kid you not, even though the Ravens are Super Bowl champs and it may seem that being able to discuss football is now embedded in all Baltimoreans' DNA, there are those lurking amongst you who really don't know this stuff as well as you think.

Down as a noun

Understanding downs is at least half the battle when it comes to football comprehension. (This is the part where a player runs for two seconds then gets tackled and fans cheer as if something consequential has happened.)

The offense (those would be the ones trying to make a touchdown) get four tries to advance 10 yards. As the first try is about to get under way, they haven't gone anywhere yet so it's "first and 10." That is, first down with 10 yards to go. If they advance three yards, they now have seven yards to go on their second try, so this will be called the second and seven. That's pretty simple, right?

(The networks now helpfully superimpose the down lines on the screen so it's easy to see if a player has made it the 10 yards. This is an awesome technological advancement that I would say is on par with the invention of GPS directions and the Chipotle app on my phone.)

If after four tries they haven't made it 10 yards, they have to give the ball to the other team. If they do make it at least 10 yards, they get to keep the ball and start another set of downs. All the while, of course, they are trying to get closer to the end zone, which is where they can score a touchdown and dance.

Fourth Down

When the players are about to start the fourth down, they have a choice. They can "go for it" and attempt to collect the yards needed for a first down or they can punt (kick) the ball down the field so the opposing team has farther to go when it gets the ball. This is basically saying, "We probably wouldn't have made it all 10 yards and would have to give you the ball anyway, but we're going to make it as hard for you as possible. Ha-ha." Another option is to kick the ball and try to score a "field goal" — that's when they kick it into that Y-shaped thing; it's worth three points.

It's not a free-for-all

One of the things that really threw me when I started paying attention to football was all the penalties. I mean, these huge, meaty guys are out there slamming into each other with bone-crunch ferocity, and suddenly the game stops because one player grabbed another player's shirt. Are you kidding me?

"People think of football as this grueling gladiator type of sport — and it is — but there are still rules," Jones said.

Players can't grab another guy's face mask. They can't mess with a player who's trying to catch a ball (that's "pass interference"), but they can try to horn in and catch that ball themselves (an "interception"). A player on the offensive line can't move until the ball has been snapped (passed to the quarterback) — this is a "false start." A defensive player can't tackle or hold onto a player unless the person being tackled has the ball, and an offensive player can't grab onto a defensive player who is attempting to make a tackle — these actions are called "holding."

Of course, in reality they do these things all the time, but it's a matter of getting caught.


It's kind of hard to have lived in the United States for any length of time and not know that the point of football is to score a touchdown, and that they are worth six points each. After getting a touchdown, the team has the chance to kick the ball through the Y-shaped thing for an extra point (like a field goal but not worth as much). Or they can go for a two-point conversion, which is sort of like making another touchdown from just outside the end zone. If you want to really sound like know what you're talking about, be sure to work the word "conversion" into your football conversations as much as possible without being obvious.

Want to know more?

I accidentally learned a lot about football by watching the show "Friday Night Lights," which was recommended by a friend who actively hates football but loved this program. I also loved it (that Tim Riggins is too dreamy!) and the play-by-play during the games was written with a general audience in mind and actually serves as a mini primer. Jones said many people have also learned a lot about the sport by playing the video game Madden.

"Football might be intimidating for people who don't know a lot about it, but a lot of people don't know as much as they think they do," Jones said. "Don't be intimidated. Once you get the basics down, it all starts to make sense."

Also, it really is a good way to get out of helping in the kitchen.

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