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The Super Bowl : A Viewer’s Guide

Updated on January 21, 2013
Super Bowl Sunday: another excuse to overeat
Super Bowl Sunday: another excuse to overeat
The Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, site of Super Bowl XLVII
The Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, site of Super Bowl XLVII

In the United States, the National Football League (NFL) pairs the champions of the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC) in the annual clash known as the Super Bowl. Although the stadium is bowl-shaped, the two teams do not play inside a bowl, and although the media hypes the game superbly for a fortnight, the game is often not that super. This year’s game, Super Bowl XLVII, pits the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens and will take place at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans where rain, wind, and weather will not affect the outcome of the game since hurricane season is four months away.

The Super Bowl is big money. Tickets for the game start at $1,968 each through online ticket sellers (a. k. a. “scalpers”), and the best seat goes for a mere $401,513, which includes a free game program and maybe a beer and some nachos. With nearly 90% of American households tuning in to the game (in contrast to the 39% who tuned in to last fall’s presidential debates) and Americans betting nearly $75 million on the game’s outcome, Super Bowl Sunday is obviously a big deal to electric power companies and Las Vegas. The Super Bowl is so big that approximately 1.5 million Americans will call in sick and another 5 million will be late to work on “Super Bowl Hangover Monday,” costing American businesses about $820 million in lost productivity.

"Cheese-heads" and other rabid fans preparing for a Green Bay Packers game
"Cheese-heads" and other rabid fans preparing for a Green Bay Packers game

The Super Bowl is pure entertainment. Scantily dressed women shake pom-poms and themselves in front of cameras instead of in front of the fans, and the halftime show sometimes has wardrobe malfunctions that go viral on the Internet. The halftime show also keeps 80,000 fans from getting to the concession stands because they have to hold up boards, signs, and lights so some old school musicians can have a last hurrah. Think of the opening and closing ceremonies at the London Olympics, shorten them to fifteen minutes, and take out most of the excitement—that is the Super Bowl halftime show. Most Americans also enjoy watching the commercials (selling for a record $4 million for 30 seconds this year), though they are not sure if these commercials actually sell a product or not. Sad to say, but these frivolous and humorous commercials are often more entertaining than the game itself. Americans will also shell out over $1 billion for snacks, drinks, and delivery pizza for Super Bowl parties and consume around 100 million pounds (45,359,237 kilograms) of chicken wings and 4,687,500 gallons (3,903,159 imperial gallons) of beer before, during, and after the game. The Super Bowl is “the world’s largest indoor tailgate party” and costs about $2 billion overall, which is roughly one American dollar for every person watching the game worldwide.

The Vince Lombardi Trophy, awarded to the winner of the Super Bowl
The Vince Lombardi Trophy, awarded to the winner of the Super Bowl

The object of the game

One team tries to score more points than the other team so it can win a shiny, 22-inch (56-centimeter) sterling silver trophy (made by Tiffany & Company) that weighs seven pounds (3.2 kg). The game lasts only 60 minutes on the official clock but can last up to ten hours of real time with a superfluous six-hour pregame show, humorous commercials, meaningless commentary, the halftime show, more meaningless commentary, more humorous commercials, sideline reports, the trophy ceremony, and more useless commentary after the game. All this nonsense, of course, proves Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, especially gravitational time dilation, which states that clocks run more slowly in deeper gravitational wells—and the Super Bowl is one such extremely deep well.

The first permanent football stadium in the United States at Harvard University in 1903
The first permanent football stadium in the United States at Harvard University in 1903

The football and the field

During the game, teams try to move a brown leather spheroid weighing 14-15 ounces (400-430 grams) around a huge green field, sometimes made of actual grass but most likely made of synthetic turf. The field is 100 yards (91.4 meters) long and 53 1/3 yards (48.8 meters) wide with two 10-yard-wide end zones. The field has these dimensions because of Harvard University, which built the first permanent football stadium in 1903. Harvard did not want to expand its field to something reasonable and easy to measure, and other Ivy League schools followed suit. The football can be kicked, drop-kicked, thrown, pitched, lateraled, hiked, shot-gunned, snapped, tossed, handed off, shoveled, received, spun, downed, intercepted, fumbled, muffed, tipped, batted down, and spiked. The ball is very busy on this “Ivy League” field. Watching the ball travel in ten-yard increments down the field is similar to watching spilled milk creeping slowly towards a low spot on the floor. If the game is a defensive struggle, watching the ball not travel anywhere is like watching an extremely slow game of ping pong only the ball is brown and bounces in unpredictable ways.

The scoreboard at Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots
The scoreboard at Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots

The scoring system

The scoring system is fairly simple. Three points are awarded for a field goal when the kicker “splits the uprights” or goalposts, which are 10 feet high and 18.5 feet wide (3 meters high and 5.6 meters wide) with a ball launched from under the nervous fingers of a holder. It is not nearly as exciting as it sounds—unless the ball misses the goalposts or the kick is blocked or the kick ends the game. Six points are awarded for touchdowns, which occur when a member of the offensive (or defensive) team carries the ball across goal lines on either end of the field. You will get to see this goal line in slow motion from every possible camera angle during the game. The goal line is sacred and must be filmed in super slow motion high definition often or it becomes cranky. One point (the “extra point”) is awarded with a kick through the uprights after a touchdown. This is similar to a free throw in basketball and involves a pair of netted hands “catching” the ball before it assaults a fan in the stands. Two points are awarded for something called a “two-point conversion,” a rare occurrence in the NFL, when a team carries or passes the ball into the end zone after a touchdown. Two points are also awarded for a “safety,” which occurs when an offensive player carrying the ball inside the end zone is tackled or falls over his own two feet or the punter steps out of the end zone or a quarterback intentionally grounds the ball while throwing from the end zone or a punt is blocked out of the end zone or an offensive lineman is flagged for holding in the end zone—okay, the scoring system is not that simple after all, especially for safeties.

The players

A professional American football team consists of 53 millionaires, 11 of which take the field at a time. These players are paid an average of $1.9 million a year for only 16 regular season games. Most players are paid bonuses if the team makes the playoffs, and all make some nice change (about $88,000) for winning the Super Bowl.

Aaron “double-check” Rodgers (#12), quarterback of the Green Bay Packers
Aaron “double-check” Rodgers (#12), quarterback of the Green Bay Packers

The quarterback

The quarterback is the field general of the offense, the player’s voice you will hear most if the television commentators would stop talking before the snap of the ball. The quarterback calls the plays in the huddle, changes the play several times before the snap by calling “audibles,” (explanation in the A-Z guide below), hands the ball off to running backs or wide receivers, runs the ball himself, throws passes to his own players, throws passes on occasion to his opponents, slides onto the ground to avoid earning concussions, runs out of bounds, and generally runs for his life throughout the game. He sometimes takes sacks (see below) or throws the ball out of bounds, into the stands, or into the ground for no apparent reason. For this “work” he makes up to $13.5 million a year not counting endorsements for insurance companies and the odd car dealership.

Ladainian Tomlinson, running back (retired) for the San Diego Chargers and the New York Jets
Ladainian Tomlinson, running back (retired) for the San Diego Chargers and the New York Jets

The running back

A running back must be able to run, catch, and block. Some running backs have “fumble-itis” at least once in their careers, especially when they only use one hand to hold the ball while running since that is what all the running backs on video games do. When they contract “fumble-itis,” running backs often find themselves “in the doghouse” or on the bench or on the practice squad or on a bus or plane to another team or out of football entirely.

James Jones, wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers
James Jones, wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers

The wide receiver

Wide receivers and tight ends must be able to block, catch, run, leap, take vicious hits from defensive safeties and linebackers, keep both sets of their toes in bounds at all times, and have their own reality TV shows once no one wants their football services anymore. These are the men who fly through the air with the greatest of ease--before a defensive player slams them unceremoniously into the turf.

Robert Turner, center for the New York Jets and the St. Louis Rams
Robert Turner, center for the New York Jets and the St. Louis Rams

The offensive lineman

Linemen block for everyone and take up space. They are easy to spot when they make “false starts” (moving before the snap of the ball). You might find it hard to keep still if you were 6-5 and weighed 350 pounds, too. Nothing happens until the center snaps the ball, which makes the center the most important player on the field. Linemen are supposed to protect the quarterback by shielding the quarterback’s “blind side” or the side opposite the quarterback’s throwing hand. Linemen are often called for holding defensive linemen and blitzing linebackers in order to protect a man that makes twice their salary or more. It is occasionally ironic that they do this.

Fans at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia even boo this statue of a punter.
Fans at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia even boo this statue of a punter.

The kicker and punter

A kicker is a small man with a big foot. He does not want to kick the ball wide right or wide left. Sometimes he wears one football shoe and one soccer shoe. This helps the little guy stand out. The kicker’s counterpart, the punter, usually has the thickest thighs on the team. His job is to kick the ball far down field or drop it in close to the goal line, avoid "shanking" (kicking it wildly to the left or right) the ball into the stands or getting it blocked, and fall down whether any defender is around him or not. Punters and kickers are the best actors on the field.

Kick and punt returners generally have death wishes unless they wave one hand to heaven. They generally do not last long in the NFL. They race up the field at 20 miles an hour (32.2 kilometers an hour) and collide viciously with opponents moving at the same rate. The collisions often end in injury, time-outs, and endless gruesome replays from every possible angle.

Ray Lewis, middle linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens
Ray Lewis, middle linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens

The defense

The defense is a tattooed army of 11 men bent on annihilating the offense. The middle linebacker is the quarterback of the defense. He makes many bone-crushing and teeth-loosening tackles and has a harder head than the helmet he wears. Linebackers as a rule love to separate wide receivers from the football and to fold them completely in half. In front of them are the defensive ends and tackles, fierce men who have been raised on a diet of raw meat, broken glass, and nails. Despite this manly diet, defensive linemen often pirouette and spin gracefully on their way to taking off the quarterback’s head before doing rhythmic and ceremonial dances after each tackle or sack. These dances will remind you of New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team doing a haka, a ceremonial Maori dance. Behind the “beef” of the defense is a group of headhunters called defensive backs. Cornerbacks, usually the smallest defenders, often have to cover tall receivers. They sometimes get “burned” (beaten on pass plays), cause deflections or make interceptions, and occasionally they will rush the quarterback and record sacks. Anchoring this fleet crew are the safeties, rugged, linebacker-sized human spheroids that punish any offensive player. “Safety” is never on their minds.

Mike Tomlin, head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, winners of the most Super Bowls with six
Mike Tomlin, head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, winners of the most Super Bowls with six

The coaching staff

Every team has up to 20 coaches for 53 players, a student to teacher ratio five times better than the average American public school. Surprisingly (or not), many coaches have never played competitive football in their lives. It sometimes shows.

The head coach, who curses the most on camera, does not play a single minute in the game but earns credit for the victory or the defeat. Head coaches make decisions based on what their assistant coaches tell them, and there are plenty to advise him from the strength and conditioning coach to position coaches, from something called “offensive quality control” to offensive, defensive, and special teams coordinators, from the team doctor to the team dietician. Head coaches have many assistants so they have plenty of people to blame when they lose.

Television cameras love to focus on coaches during the game, especially when an important play is occurring on the field. Usually surly and cursing, the head coach wears a headset that often flies through the air. Offensive and defensive coordinators sit in posh sky-boxes during the game to get a bird’s eye view of the action. They call plays which are signaled to the middle linebacker or quarterback using mimes and other men who flap their arms as if trying to fly. These coordinators often call the wrong plays or “cover schemes” at the most inopportune times. You will see them losing their tempers in those posh sky-boxes, but they will rarely spill their drinks. Special teams coaches lose their tempers evidently because they can. They are usually the loudest, craziest coaches on the sidelines. Quarterback coaches surround the quarterback with snapshots of the action, something akin to having your vehicle’s license plate snapped by a “red light camera,” and massage his ego as much as they can. Line coaches generally curse the finish off their linemen’s helmets while strength and conditioning coaches, trainers, team doctors, sycophants, retired players, retired sycophants, water boys and girls, the team owner, cheerleaders, the media, guys with sticks and chains, guys with cameras and satellite dishes—it is a very crowded place, the sideline—generally block the view of anyone who paid top dollar for a front-row seat.

The least appreciated men at the Super Bowl
The least appreciated men at the Super Bowl

The officials

Referees, field judges, linesmen, and umpires, the so-called “zebras” (though the stripes are wrong), attempt to control the game. They blow whistles (or not), throw yellow flags for infractions (or not), get run over by players (resulting in great ovations and excessive slow-motion replays), and normally try to be in the right position (or not) on every play. When this group of men “blows a call,” one team’s fans will boo. When this call is overturned by the replay official, the other team’s fans will boo. Booing to a referee is as frequent as cheering is to a player—unless the player is from Philadelphia.

These men are paid by the word, so the more they speak, the more they make--and the less they make sense.
These men are paid by the word, so the more they speak, the more they make--and the less they make sense.

Commentators and announcers

The Super Bowl has more commentators and announcers per square yard (meter) than any other sporting event in the world—including the Olympics—and all of them demand to be heard. The men in the studio or in front of long tables near the field of play are the highest paid and most famous commentators. Many of them used to play football, and they are occasionally insightful as they wax poetic and nostalgic about the “good old days.” Color commentators in the booth tell irrelevant stories during the game and are responsible for many of the meaningless phrases listed below. You will try to ignore them. Field reporters will do everything they can to arouse your sympathy because they stand the entire game in rain, snow, sleet, heat, or intense air conditioning. They usually have nothing of value to say. You will try to ignore them, too. You can try but you cannot possibly ignore the play-by-play announcer. He will talk like an auctioneer the entire game. He will tell you what you might see during the next play, he will describe what you do see during the play, and he will tell you what you saw in the replay at least three times before the next live play. A good play-by-play announcer has to assume that you are really not watching. The word “redundant” will cross your mind often as you watch the game, mute button at the ready.

Festive Super Bowl snacks
Festive Super Bowl snacks

Super Bowl commentary from A-Z

During the game, you will hear terms and phrases specific to American football. Here is only a sampling of what you might hear:

Athleticism: A football player has lots of this. He is not athletic. He possesses athleticism. It is something that mere fans do not possess. Football players are not faster, stronger, or more skilled than the average man—they have more athleticism. Some players are born with it and some have developed it, but they are all full of it whenever it suits an announcer to tell us.

Audible, audibled, audibilizing, audibilized: These are nonsense words that describe what a quarterback does when he is confused or wants to confuse the defense, his teammates, the announcers, his coaches, himself, and the fans by changing the original play. An audible is a play the quarterback calls at the line of scrimmage. It may supersede a play he called in the huddle, often to the consternation of his teammates, the coaches, the owner, the fans, and the announcers. When a quarterback audibilizes correctly, the world loves him. When he audibilizes incorrectly, he ends up on injured reserve (see “injured reserve” below) or on the bench. A quarterback normally calls a specific play in the huddle, which is a safe, circular place where he attempts to create team unity. Unfortunately for his trusting teammates, the quarterback often has no intentions of running the play he called in the huddle. Perhaps he does not trust his teammates to remember the original play. Perhaps he likes playing pranks on them. Perhaps he is only keeping his teammates on their toes by barking a series of letters, numbers, grunts, and gibberish that even he does not fully comprehend. Audibilizing, though, is why a quarterback makes the big bucks.

Blitz: Not to be confused with the Blitz (1940-1941), a blitz occurs when the defense sends more players to smite the quarterback than the offense has to block them. “Blitzers” (yet another nonsense word) try to tackle the quarterback with extreme violence before he can throw the ball while running backs try to “pick up the blitz” (block the blitzers) by “submarining” (hitting them low). It is all very warlike, similar in scope to Attila and his Huns sweeping down the Italian peninsula.

“Blow the play dead”: A man in stripes blows his whistle to stop play, but this play sometimes continues on your television screen for many more seconds until the player with the ball tosses it to another man in stripes. The fans cheer, roar, toast each other, and spill their beer—and the play comes harmlessly back to where yet another man in stripes is standing. It is all so highly anticlimactic.

The bomb: The bomb is a long pass that often lands harmlessly out of bounds or beyond the reach of receivers’ fingertips. “The bomb,” however, transforms into the heavenly “Hail Mary” if the pass occurs late in the half or at the end of the game. There is, of course, no logical explanation for this transformation.

Bootleg: Based on American bootlegging from the 1920s until the present, this is a play where the quarterback hides the ball on his hip (like a hip flask full of moonshine) and runs away from the flow of the play in an attempt to fool the defense. It does not often work because it is really hard to hide a football.

Bump-and-run coverage, jamming: These terms are not to be confused with “bump and grind” or anything remotely musical though they sometimes resemble a dance. A cornerback first wrestles a wide receiver at the line of scrimmage and then chases the wide receiver down the field. Though receivers usually win the race to the ball, this coverage is still illogically in use. No one knows why.

“Carrying his team, putting the team on his back”: This is not a literal statement, of course, but it means “making the team go, win, or be successful.” With 11 players working together on each side during every play, this statement is, of course, ludicrous. It does, however, make sense to color commentators who have nothing useful to say.

Referees measuring for a first down without the benefit of the yellow line
Referees measuring for a first down without the benefit of the yellow line

Chain gang: Though dressed in stripes like Depression-era convicts from actual Georgia chain gangs, these men will run onto the field carrying their sticks and the 10-yard (3.3-meter) chain to measure for first downs. Because of the yellow line, instant replay, and eagle-eyed commentators who like to make predictions for the making (or not making) of every first down, the chain gang really is not that important to the game anymore.

Check down receiver: A receiver the quarterback throws the ball at (not to) whenever he feels that his health, safety, and life are in danger, the “check down” receiver is usually a running back. If the quarterback does not find the check down receiver, the quarterback has to scramble (a. k. a. “do the Lindy”) before he is sacked like Rome and planted into the ground like the flags at Iwo Jima.

Chippy play: This phrase, stolen from hockey announcers this year because of the NHL (National Hockey League) strike, denotes rough stuff on the field. Though every play is rough, this stuff is rougher. Players question each other’s humanity, use colorful, polysyllabic language, do some raucous pushing and shoving, and point fingers. This unsportsmanlike play often results in flags, ejections, fights, YouTube videos, lawsuits, and improved ratings.

Coach’s challenge flag: This is a red flag launched by the head coach at referees’ heads to get their attention. This flag, which often flies further than the football does, signifies that the coach is questioning the referee’s ruling on the field. This, of course, endears the head coach completely to the referee, who really likes it when a head coach questions his decisions. Historically, the head coach loses these challenges two-thirds of the time and has the nerve to wonder why.

Completion: What looks like a completion (or completed pass) to you will not be a completion to the announcers—and vice versa. Even the “indisputable video evidence” will not help much. The NFL currently has no plans to adopt democratic measures to have viewers vote on “completion or no completion” as only 57% of registered American voters cast their votes in the 2012 presidential election.

Cutback, jump cut: What a running back does so he is not tackled. “Cut back!” (two words) is what many fans yell in vain from in front of their television sets or in the stands during a game. The running back, of course, cannot hear them.

Defenseless receiver: When a defender crumples a receiver who cannot protect himself, often in mid-air, referees charge the defender with hitting a defenseless receiver. These receivers, however, have often already made themselves defenseless by removing their knee pads to become somewhat speedier. The quarterback should also share some of the blame for these brutal hits, especially when they throw high passes most basketball players could not catch.

Delay of game: When the play clock counts down to zero, the offense is penalized five yards for being tardy. Sometimes you will see double zeroes on the play clock and no yellow flag in the air. There is no logical explanation for this. Other delays of the game include players cramping, player injuries, referee injuries, coaches’ tirades, clock malfunctions, light malfunctions, streakers, and plays under review (see below).

Double coverage/double teaming: An unfair but effective way of shutting down a good receiver with two defenders. This leaves an unknown receiver wide open to be Super Bowl MVP.

Draw: A draw occurs when the quarterback drops back as if to pass and sneaks the ball to a running back. The play is supposed to draw the defense forward and past the running back. It works about five percent of the time. A draw, which usually ends in a draw, is similar to the screen pass where the quarterback throws the ball to a running back or receiver hiding among the offensive linemen. Often, however, the quarterback throws the ball into the ground or off an offensive lineman’s rear end instead. It is quite a circus to watch.

Encroachment: From the French meaning “big word for a defensive lineman making an equally big offensive lineman flinch,” this is the longest word you will hear during the Super Bowl broadcast. Hearing this word should make you laugh.

A football facemask from 1937 that would have made the player cross-eyed
A football facemask from 1937 that would have made the player cross-eyed

Face mask: Every player has a face mask, some more intricate than others. Some face masks look like whale baleen while others look like gap-toothed smiles. Others are covered in clear Plexiglas to keep bugs at bay like bug guards on a vehicle.

Fair catch: A kick returner calls a “fair catch” by waving his hand towards the heavens so he is not decapitated by a fast-moving defender. He is then allowed to catch a punted or kicked ball peacefully and without a big audience. This does not mean he will actually catch it. Missing a punt, even with a fair catch signal, is called a “muff,” an American football term with no known etymology, rhyme, or reason. It may derive from “muffle,” but it is anyone’s guess.

Field position: Field position is good when the offensive team starts closer to the defensive team’s goal line. Field position is bad when the offensive team starts closer to its own goal line. “It’s a game of field position” is a completely meaningless phrase because the game of American football is a game of scoring and keeping the other team from scoring, no matter where either team is on the field.

Fly pattern, slant, fly, hook, out, post pattern, skinny post, double move, slip screen, crossing pattern: These are creative names for the patterns receivers run. A “telestrator,” utilized ad nauseum by commentators who should not be allowed to play with Crayons, will draw these yellow patterns over replays to the delight of finger-painting three-year-olds everywhere.

Forward progress: Forward progress is usually defined as where the ball is located forward of the player. The point of the football must touch or cross the goal line for a touchdown or the first down line for a first down. Sometimes the referees “swallow their whistles” so that 1,200 pounds (544 kilograms) of humanity (a. k. a. “the offensive line”) can push the ball carrier over the line. This is a type of rugby scrum only much heavier.

Gang tackle: A gang tackle occurs when the defensive team smothers an opposing ball carrier so that you cannot see the opposing player until players leave the pile. This is a misapplied, violent term applied to American football as real American gangs do not tackle anyone in this fashion.

Good hands team: The good hands team goes out to field an onside kick, a bouncing, kicked ball on the kickoff that usually ends up out-of-bounds or yards short of the necessary 10 yards for it to be a valid kick. Teams often perform onside kicks in desperation. Onside kicks, then, are perhaps the most dramatic plays of the entire game. You may only see this thrilling play once.

“He can do that”: This is a phrase usually spewed by a commentator after the player has done whatever “that” is. Announcers, who obviously get paid by the word, use this phrase as meaningless filler.

“He has the hot hand,” “he’s hot,” “he’s on fire,” “he’s on a roll,” “he’s the go-to guy”: These filler phrases drone at us as if we have not been paying attention to the game. We know he is doing well because of the unending profusion of statistics concerning him after every single play. “We are masters of the obvious” is a commentator’s motto.

Helmet-to-helmet contact: This occurs on nearly every play, especially at the line of scrimmage. However, this occurrence becomes a penalty when a defender contacts an offensive player carrying, catching, or throwing the ball. This rule is ironic, hypocritical, and counterproductive at best.

“He shouldn’t have done that”: Always said after he has done that, this is more drivel vomited at viewers by commentators who like to be right all the time. It is obviously good for their self-esteem.

Holder: The least paid player on the team, this man tries not to get his fingers sent sailing through the goal posts during a kick. He must have quick hands and the ability to spin a football so the laces face the goalposts. This man is indeed a magician.

Horse collar tackle: This type of tackle occurs when a defender grabs a ball carrier behind the neck and slings him to the ground. This has nothing to do with steroids or their possible use in the NFL. Really.

Hurry-up offense, up-tempo offense, “going tempo”: This style of offense allegedly wears out the defense. It also wears out the offense. It is designed to keep the defense “on the field” (Where else would they be?) and prohibits “situation substitutions,” usually of “nickel backs,” not to be confused with the rock group of the same name. Nickelback’s appearance on the field, however, would certainly spice up this game.

“I don’t like the call”: This phrase is always said by a commentator after a play or before a team decides not to “go for it” on 4th and short, as if what the commentator says really matters to anyone but his agent.

Inadvertent whistle: A referee blows his whistle before the play is truly over, and pandemonium ensues. A referee cannot un-blow his whistle. This usually results in excessive cursing from coaches, players, and fans, especially if the result would have been a touchdown. A referee with the hiccups, though humorous, would seriously affect the integrity of the game.

Ineligible receiver: This is usually a man with numbers 50-79, a receiver who goes out of bounds and returns to the field of play to catch a ball, or a married receiver. Occasionally it is a lineman who is in the wrong place at the right time. Some linemen, you will notice, have better hands than the receivers do.

Intentional grounding: This occurs when the quarterback throws the ball into the ground so he is not sacked or planted into the ground. If the quarterback is outside the white hash marks in the middle of the field, he is allowed to throw the ball just about anywhere he pleases. However, it is not intentional grounding for the quarterback to “spike” or throw the ball directly to the ground just after the snap of the ball to “kill the clock” between the hash marks. This exception makes the entire rule suspicious.

Interference: Called on just about every pass play these days, this rule keeps defensive backs from doing their jobs effectively and pampers receivers more than they already are. This rule, however, often vanishes at the end of the game when both receiver and defender fight to the death for the ball and yellow flags do not fly. A commentator will call this “incidental contact” and “letting them play” when it is, indeed, interference.

The field often becomes littered with these yellow "hankies"
The field often becomes littered with these yellow "hankies"

Late flag: Referees and other men in stripes sometimes throw their flags long after a play is over, usually in response to a coach or player making a fuss from the sidelines or the field. Sometimes another “zebra” will throw his flag to “second the motion” of the first or flags will fly at intervals during chippy play. Consider these flags the warm-up to the fireworks (and several tons of confetti) after the game.

Live ball, dead ball: The balls are already dead, of course, and a really live ball would be exciting to watch, especially if they greased it first. Some fouls occur when the ball is “dead.” These are usually personal fouls or fouls for unsportsmanlike conduct, which results in the referee performing some interesting mime maneuvers, one of which makes him into a nifty letter T. Why this “T-formation” stands for unsportsmanlike conduct is a mystery.

Man in motion: Unlike Canadian football, only one man is allowed to move before the snap, and he must run parallel or behind the line of scrimmage before the snap. You will sometimes see two men moving long before the snap. They are only confused about where they have to be. Once they settle down, no one on offense is supposed to move. Oh, right, the center moves the ball and the quarterback wanders around, but they are not in motion for some odd reason. This is one of the deepest mysteries in the NFL.

Neutral zone: This is the space between the offensive and defensive linemen, the zone where these beasts of men discuss the important topics of the day before the snap. A better name might be the “Chaos zone,” but the NFL (No Fun League) would not want to make anything about the game even remotely fun.

Offsetting penalties: This is the NFL’s version of creative math. According to NFL (No Freaking Logic) rules, if both teams commit a penalty, the penalties cancel out or offset. A five-yard penalty for defensive offsides, holding, or illegal contact, then, is allowed to negate a 10-yard offensive holding penalty or a 15-yard offensive clipping penalty. The offense, though more offensive in these instances, gets an unfair break. No wonder defensive players are so angry. Perhaps that is what the NFL wants to provoke for greater ratings.

On injured reserve or “on the IR”: A player who has a knee, hamstring, hip-pointer, rotator cuff, ankle, quad, triceps, biceps, or rib injury or the infamous “turf toe” (a toe that hurts because of contact with the turf) is set aside from play on a list that crawls incessantly across the bottom of ESPN channels. These players are still getting paid for doing nothing but standing on crutches on the sidelines. What they are actually reserved for is anyone’s guess.

Overtime: When the game is tied at the end of regulation, teams square off for 15 more minutes of play. Each team gets a chance to score. It is similar, perhaps, to “last call” in a bar or pub.

Power sweep, student body right, toss sweep: This play begins with a pitch to a running back who has many blockers in front of him, usually but not always to the wide side of the field. Similar to a rapidly moving rugby scrum, a sweep involves one ton of beef hitting another ton of beef and often ends after one thrilling yard (91 centimeters) is gained.

Prevent defense: Usually employed near the end of the half or the end of the game, this type of defense commonly prevents little and allows the offense to drive down the field with ease. Defenders try “to keep the play in front of them” and not let anyone “go deep.” This type of defense seems to work better in child daycare centers.

Red zone: An arbitrary red zone that will appear on your television screen when the offense breaches the 20-yard-line closest to their intended goal. This is allegedly the area from where most touchdowns are scored. These red lines, akin to the lights in red light districts, ensure that viewers pay more attention to the game.

In the shotgun is Matt Hasselbeck, quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks, and Tennessee Titans--not all at once, of course.
In the shotgun is Matt Hasselbeck, quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks, and Tennessee Titans--not all at once, of course.

Shotgun or pistol formation: Because of the United States Constitution and the Second Amendment, Americans are allowed to name football formations after guns. It is their God-given right to do so. Thus it is lawful for a quarterback in the shotgun to throw a bomb or to throw a “bullet” from the pistol.

Star, stud, all-star, all-pro: This is the main player on a team, the “face” of the team or franchise. Usually the highest paid and with an ego to match, this player takes credit for victories and often gets (but does not take) the blame for losses. Some of these stars enjoy tweeting how bad their teammates and coaches are, how unappreciated they are, and how much they want to be traded and paid more than any single human has ever been worth. These are the men fans are supposed to worship and pray to. These are, chillingly, role models for American children.

“That (fill-in-the-blank) was ill-advised”: This is another way of saying, “In retrospect, that was an unfortunate thing to do.” Commentators say this after bad passes that end up in interceptions or plays (particularly on 4th down and short) that do not result in first downs. This is similar to “I wouldn’t have done that” only with a more refined vocabulary. Perhaps the commentator actually finished college or a book.

The official review--the best time to refill your plate and your cup during the Super Bowl
The official review--the best time to refill your plate and your cup during the Super Bowl

“The play is under review”: As this usually leads to a series of commercials, this is your cue to get another beer, fill your plate, use the rest room, read a book, change the oil in your car, or do your taxes. What the referee is actually saying is this: “We did not really see what happened and we would like to get it right. We would also like you to see several strange commercials so our sponsors will be happy, and we are really tired and need a break. We do not possess the athleticism of these guys, you know. Besides, the network spent a lot of money on all this video equipment, so we might as well make use of it. We could do this after every play if we wanted to, but we won’t. Enjoy your beer, finish that doctoral dissertation, and we’ll be right back.”

“The call has been reversed,” “the call has been confirmed,” “there is no indisputable video evidence”: These are legal-sounding phrases the referee will share during the game. A football field is like a really big, green courtroom. One side will always hate the verdict. All these decisions are based on high definition slow-motion footage (the NFL’s version of DNA) from every conceivable angle including outer space. In the bad old days, the game would simply continue. Some fans miss the good old days.

Time-out: Teams call these to stop the clock and save time. This often makes the final two minutes of the half or game last an hour. This is another good time to get a beer or refill your plate.

“Trickeration”: This is the general term for gadget or trick plays designed to fool and confuse the defense. These include reverses, double reverses, flea-flickers, the “hook and ladder,” the “fumble-rooskie,” fake field goals and punts, and the ancient Statue of Liberty play, which has only fooled immigrants since the turn of the 20th century. All is fair in love, war, and American football.

Uncatchable ball: Every ball is catchable if you really think about it. Some guys on the sidelines and fans in the stands make great catches of errant passes. If the quarterback is particularly bad, all of his throws are uncatchable.

Wildcat formation: In this formation, a running back or wide receiver takes the snap instead of the quarterback and runs the ball. With rare exceptions, this formation fools no one because the “stand-in quarterback” rarely passes the ball. This formation may exist to give the quarterback’s voice a rest from barking so many audibles.

Zone coverage: This coverage, also known as the “Swiss cheese coverage,” allows receivers to run through the defensive secondary with impunity, settle down in wide open spaces, and make easy catches, particularly over the middle and nearly always at the end of the game when it really matters. As with many of the terms and phrases on this list, there is little rhyme or reason for doing this.

The Super Bowl is indeed a strange game full of mystery and mayhem. It is a shame—and also a blessing—that it only occurs once a year.


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