A Super Bowl primer for people of many lands

In America, football comes in many shapes and sizes, as shown in this Syracuse, N.Y., Dick's Sporting Goods store.

In America, football comes in many sizes, as shown in this Syracuse, N.Y., Dick’s Sporting Goods store.

It seems like every man, woman and child in America watches the Super Bowl, no?

The championship game for the National Football League has become a national holiday. Edition XLVIII, as the NFL has come to list each game, features the Denver Broncos vs. the Seattle Seahawks this Sunday, in MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

Peyton Manning barking “Omaha” before threading passes into tiny spaces vs. Russell Wilson surveying the landscape before scooting between defenders for another first down.

Lose your breath in anticipation, yet?

Around the world, I figure, there is a somewhat lower level of excitement and great potential for bewilderment.

Oh, folks can watch if they choose. NFL.com reports that the game has been broadcast to 230 countries in 34 languages, including English.

That means in many lands, in many customs, people will be figuratively scratching their heads over American football. It is not the easiest game to comprehend if you haven’t been born talking about tackles, turnovers and touchdowns.

There is a rhyme and plenty of reasons behind those short bursts of action between longer dead time.

The world is in need of a football primer. I know this as fact, because my friend Rachel, also known as lundygirl and author of a WordPress blog I like very much, Could Do Worse, told me so.

Rachel and her husband, Steve, will stay up late in London to watch the Super Bowl this Sunday. With the five-hour time difference, that means it will be 11:30 p.m. London time before the BBC beams the opening kickoff.

Bruno Mars and Red Hot Chili Peppers will not start their odd halftime mashup of pop and rock until after 1 a.m. in London.

A winner will not be decided until after 3 a.m. on the other side of the pond.

I hope I have not convinced you to give up before the start, Rachel.

Without further ado, here, from a New York Jets fan in Syracuse, N.Y., comes an international guide to better enjoying the 48th Super Bowl. Feel free to read on in Philly or Phoenix, too, if you’re not a regular football fan.

I sure could have used something like this when I attempted to watch cricket on TV in Bermuda. Hello, world.

We can buy teams jerseys, team hats, team shirts, and so much NFL stuff, as displayed in this Syracuse, N.Y., The Sports Authority store.

We can buy teams jerseys, team hats, team shirts, and so much NFL stuff, as displayed in this Syracuse, N.Y., The Sports Authority store.

Football? Really?

We know. We borrowed the name from the most popular sport in the world.

In American, we call your football soccer, to avoid confusion.

In our football, feet are still important, but in a different way. The ball is kicked, by players called place-kickers and punters. Those players are special, because when they are called on the field, they are joined by fellow players that are called the special team.

And the feet are needed to run up and down the field with much speed and daring.

The Ball

Your football is round, which is very handy for the manner in which it is handled by the feet. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Shoot. Caught or knocked aside by the goalie. Repeat. Repeat. Goal. Repeat. Game over.

Round creates sure bounces and geometric strategy.

Our football is oblong.

When it does hit the ground, its bounces are unpredictable.

Most of our strategy revolves around keeping the football from hitting the ground.


There are two ways to score points.

A player can carry the ball across the goal line. That is called a touchdown. It counts as six points. Sometimes a player runs across the goal line while on his feet. Many times a player dives across the goal line with defenders draped along his body, attempting to keep him from stretching his arms out and placing the ball over the line. In either case, a touchdown signals a wild celebration by the players on the team that scored.

The place-kicker can boot the ball between the two vertical bars of what is called the uprights, the U-on-a-pole at each end of the playing field. A try is awarded after each touchdown, and is worth one point if successful. A team that is behind, or feeling feisty, can also choose to try to run or pass the ball over the goal line instead of this extra-point kick. Success is worth two points. The place-kicker also can be summoned when the team did not get the ball across the goal line and is close enough to try a field goal. A field goal is worth three points. Really long ones are considered 50 yards and out from the spot it is kicked.

The NFL record is 64 yards, a boot just made this past December, coincidently, by Matt Prater of the Denver Broncos, who will be playing Sunday. The mark of 63 yards had stood since 1970.

First downs

The team with the ball keeps it as long as it obtains what is called a first down. The offense must move the ball 10 yards in four plays to make a first down.

These yards are gained by running backs, who take the ball directly from the quarterback in what is called a handoff, or receivers, who catch a thrown ball from the quarterback, which is called a pass.

This can be done several times in succession until a touchdown is scored and the players start celebrating.

However, on the fourth down, unless there is a short distance to attain and the coach is feeling feisty, the place-kicker can be sent out to attempt a field goal.

If the team is too far away from the uprights, the punter is called upon to boot the ball as far as he can in hopes of making the other team’s offense start on first down as close to the other end of the field as possible. A return man is stationed way back there by the team receiving the punt. The hopes are that he’ll not only be able to catch the ball cleanly, but also be able to run with the ball many yards back toward the punter without being tackled.

Be wary, though, because on every play, the defense will be trying to knock the ball loose. That is called a fumble. When the ball hits the ground, everybody on the field dives for it. It’s a free-for-all. The man who ends up clutching the football earns possession for his team.

It's no surprise spotting a wall mural tribute to football in Dick's Sporting Goods.

It’s no surprise spotting a wall mural tribute to football in Dick’s Sporting Goods.

The huddle

You will notice that American football is a game of stop-and-start.

Between plays, the team with the football may group together in what is called a huddle, with the quarterback telling his 10 teammates what to do on the next play.

The Denver Broncos, though, have made a practice of sending the 11 men on offense immediately up to the line of scrimmage. Quarterback Peyton Manning will stand behind the center, looking at the way the 11 defenders are lined up, and considering whether a running play or a passing play will work best. Peyton Manning will shout out code words, secret stuff that tells his teammates what to do. Microphones are quite close to the field. In the two playoff victories that clinched this Super Bowl appearance, Manning shouted the word “Omaha” many times. Still, nobody is quite sure if he will hand the ball off to a running back, or what receiver he will attempt to successfully hit if he decides to throw the ball.

Length of the game

The game is broken into four quarters, each consisting of 15 minutes of playing time.

The clock continues to run after a play unless the ball carrier crosses the sideline out of bounds instead of being tackled in the field. The clock also stops if the quarterback attempts to throw the ball to a receiver, but the ball is knocked away, dropped, or was thrown too inaccurately.

Out of bounds plays and incomplete passes happen frequently. That’s why 60 minutes of playing time always takes longer than 3 hours of real time.


After the first two quarters, it is the Super Bowl tradition for the NFL to put a big stage on the middle of the field and summon some of the biggest names in show business to perform songs for those in the crowd in the stadium and the TV audience.

The Rolling Stones have played. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band have performed. Beyonce reunited with Destiny’s Child last year. Janet Jackson caused a huge stir when she sang and danced and had one of her boobs fall out of her shirt. This has since become known in America as a wardrobe malfunction.

Don't these chicken wings look good? (From laaloosh.com)

Don’t these chicken wings look good? (From laaloosh.com)

At home traditions

People in the States hold big Super Bowl parties, stock the fridge with many beverages, and prepare lots of food.

This is, after all, the culmination of a 16-game regular season in which everybody has a favorite among the 32 teams in the NFL. As the three rounds of the playoffs leading up to the
Super Bowl unfold, fans of the eliminated teams tend to pick somebody still playing for a rooting interest.

And then there are the gambling boards, grassroots 100-square grids drawn up in countless places of business, that allow folks to throw down a few bucks and hope that the two random numbers they draw from zero to nine show up together on the scoreboard at the end of a quarter, half, or, for the biggest prize, the final score. Yeah, it’s illegal here, but widespread nevertheless.

In Syracuse, N.Y., many people think chicken wings are the perfect Super Bowl food. They are called Buffalo wings by some, because the crispy stems and flappers with a spicy sauce are said to have been first cooked and devoured in Buffalo, 150 miles to the west of Syracuse. They are served at many take-out establishments. Some pizza places are also known for great chicken wings. Lines on Super Bowl Sunday are long, though, and anybody sent to retrieve the food can miss huge chunks of the important game.

My dear wife Karen suggests I offer a link for the recipe to make your own chicken wings.

So here we go, from the Seahawks’ hometown Seattle Times site. It also includes recipes for chili, chowder and more.

Source for wings photo

The short version

Want to seem smart?

You can tell your friends about how this Super Bowl just across the river from New York City is a rare one because it’s being played in a cold weather city. Normally, the NFL chooses warm weather cities or cities with domed stadiums. This stadium has no roof. The early forecast is for a “wintry mix.” Just say: No matter. Both teams have to play in it.

Or relate how Peyton Manning can become the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl with two different teams. He won the big prize previously with the Indianapolis Colts. Then the Colts released him after a bad neck injury that required several surgeries and caused Manning to miss a whole season. For extra credit, say: And Peyton’s younger brother, Eli, won the Super Bowl quarterbacking the New York Giants. Twice.

You can offer that the Seattle Seahawks are in their second Super Bowl, and that they lost their first one to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The good folks at CNN.com have put together a quite tidy collection of handy facts about Sunday’s game. You can click here if you want to learn even more.

But really, no matter where you are, just watch.

Enjoy the combination of athletic grace and power, and hope that nobody gets seriously injured — on the field from the many inevitable high-speed collisions, or at home from too much drink, food and serious rooting for one team or the other.

Do you have any suggestions for folks worldwide who might be watching the Super Bowl as a spectacle?

28 thoughts on “A Super Bowl primer for people of many lands

  1. Well, this was informative, Chum. My eyes did not glaze over, I promise. I was listening and reading intently. Giggle. You are very good at explaining soccer. Heehee. Kidding, of course. Here’s what I don’t get. They seriously use their own ball during each possession? How did I never know? I find that interesting. ..surprising.


  2. Aw, this was a really nice post. Taking the time and actual effort to produce a very good article…
    but what can I say… I put things off a whole lot and never manage to
    get anything done.


  3. Hey I know this is off topic but I was wondering if you
    knew of any widgets I could add to my blog that automatically tweet my newest
    twitter updates. I’ve been looking for a plug-in like this
    for quite some time and was hoping maybe you would have some experience with something like this.

    Please let me know if you run into anything. I truly enjoy reading
    your blog and I look forward to your new updates.


    • I don’t link my Twitter feed to my blog, so, sorry, I can’t help you there.

      What I would do if I were you would be write a post with the title ‘Can you help me add a Twitter feed widget to my blog?’ and ask for help in the comment section. In the body of the post, I’d add: “If you think one of your followers might be able to help me with this, please reblog this post.”

      Thank you for your kind words about my blog.


  4. Dude what can I say, a great post and I’m far more enlightened about American rugby than I was before 🙂 I say rugby, because there is only one football, and that is British Football … and your football is far more like rugby than our football !

    Sorry I didn’t reply to your email earlier, I was away in London that week and was manic busy.

    Warm regards



  5. Reblogged this on markbialczak and commented:

    OK, Super Bowl neophytes everywhere. Here is your chance to feel more at ease with the big game Sunday. I first posted this on Monday, but with the weekend approaching, wanted to give everybody another crack at the primer.


  6. Pingback: A Super Bowl primer for people of many lands | markbialczak

  7. Mark, this is the best guide to american football – ever. Thank you for going to so much trouble to explain points of the game that have always left me bewildered.
    I need to work out what we will want to be snacking on at 2am. It’s a long time since I had a midnight feast.


    • You are quite welcome, Rachel. I shall now consider it mission accomplished because I have shed some light into our complicated American football for my London friend. As for the 2 a.m. snack, the chicken wings or chili might be a tad too much. Karen suggests that pizza may be better as an early breakfast!


      • I’m thinking of starting off with chicken wings in a pre super bowl tea (about 8pm ish). pizza for breakfast sounds like a possibility.


  8. Yes, those buffalo wings look delicious. The Super Bowl is a big enough deal to warrant showing the game each year on the twenty foot-wide screen in our auditorium (sans beer) at church. Granted, watching Beyonce cavort around in little more than panties at halftime was a bit unsettling, but a lot of folks showed up to watch the game, and it will be another full house come Sunday. For extra credit, I would also add that while Peyton was very clever in his SNL sketches, Eli clearly got the better head of hair and normal human-sized forehead.


  9. first things, first. many thanks to karen for suggesting the wings recipe, it’s really not a Super Bowl until the wings make their appearance. i think you’ve explained it quite well, the facts mixed in with the realities of the game. people all over should be well prepared now, and if not, they should get out right away to get their snacks and begs. we hung out with the fans from both sides during the Super Bowl in detroit a few years back, but the steelers fans took it to a whole new level of fandom. i’m excited for it, as always, and don’t forget the commercials, and look forward to losing it all in my game pool once again, as is tradition ) beth


    • That must have been fun hosting the Super Bowl in Detroit, Beth, and mixing with the fanatics. We have a Steelers bar just down the block here in Syracuse, so the wild streak stretches far from the Steel City. Enjoy the wings, commercials, Bruno Mars and good luck breaking tradition to see your numbers come up on the board!


  10. Of course, I am a Steelers fan. Yes, even after this season.

    I want to know, what do think about the potential storms and the impact on how or where the game will be played? I only caught a little bit of that discussion before I left the house this morning.


    • I think the plans have been made, the tickets bought. I hope the weather allows everybody to get to New Jersey in time to have a good and proper Super Bowl spectacle. As for bad weather and the game, I personally dig watching football played in the snow … from the comfort of my own living room, of course, Sheena.


      • Right. The little bit I heard was they would only postpone if it was deemed too dangerous and an emergency declared by the state.

        I love watching snow and rain games. Did you hear that, baseball? People can actually play in the rain!


      • We do not want everybody flocking to the game if there’s a state of emergency, that’s for sure, Sheena.

        I can take your rain thing further, too. I want NASCAR to let the crews put tread tires on, equip the cars with windshield wipers, and drive on, dudes!


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