In the last two installments, the basic elements of gridiron football have been explained, the roots of high school level play showcased, and the wealth and tradition of college gridiron put on displayed.
Today, it’s all about the big boy, the wealthiest league in the world, and most influential organization in American sports: the National Football League.
The NFL in one word is BIG. Big players, big personalities, big contracts, big hype, and big stadiums. The NFL has 32 teams, much bigger than any football league yet the support for those teams doesn’t thin out at any point. Like college gridiron teams, NFL “franchises” as they are also known represent their cities, states, and region.
Many teams have names that present this identity. The New England Patriots represent the region of the US that goes from Maine to Connecticut, and the “Pats” are nicknamed as such to commemorate New England’s role in the American Revolution, (sorry about that one Brits…actually not sorry).
But while some teams represent whole regions, other parts of America are so big they warrant having two teams. New York City has two teams that divide the city in green (the Jets) and in blue (the Giants), the San Francisco Bay area has two teams that are equally famous and successful but gain those triumphs very differently.
The San Francisco 49ers (think goldminers), were the team of the 1980’s and early 1990’s winning five titles with flashy offensives that included many “Hall of Famers”, I’ll get to that later. Meanwhile their cross bay neighbors, the Oakland Raiders built their Silver and Black brand with being the “bad boys” of the league with their tough, very aggressive (almost criminal) defenses.
The league operates in a style that is the complete antithesis of football leagues all over the world. All 32 teams share the revenue the make, meaning that no matter how bad or good a team is, they’ll make money. NFL TV contracts are the largest in sports (we’re talking billions here), and everyone gets a bite. Also what make the league profitable is the “salary cap”.
Unlike in football leagues around the world whose teams spend millions of pounds, euros, or dollars on players, NFL teams are limited in how much they can spend on acquiring new talent. This “cap” makes it so a team can’t just buy the best players on both sides of the ball and therefore must be shroud accountants and talent agents finding hidden gems who won’t cost as much as already known stars.
Yet although all 32 teams have to abide by the salary cap, there isn’t as much parity as you think there’d be. Every year there are great teams, good teams, okay teams and bad teams, and sometimes there are really bad teams.
I mean historical win 1-2 games in a 16 game season bad. Or you could be the 2008 Detroit Lions, who lost every single game they played that season. That “team” was so bad, many honestly wondered if some college teams that year could beat them.
But, when your team stinks as bad as those “professionals”, don’t worry, because the system is made to help you! In football leagues not named MLS, when your team sucks enough, they get relegated, but in the NFL the worst teams actually get rewarded. In the NFL the worst teams are gifted draft picks as consolidation for being the worse of the worse in the league.
Now, the NFL Draft is an annual event held in New York where all 32 teams get to select players coming out of the college level. The worst team in the league always get the first pick every year unless some deal is made with another team for them to receive it, in exchange for money, other draft picks or player trades.
Many first picks in the draft work extremely well for their teams such as Andrew Luck has and probably will for the Indianapolis Colts, but there have also been many draft pick failures or “busts” as well, I’m looking at you JaMarcus Russell and Oakland.
After the teams acquire their new players by draft, trades or free agency and go through “training camp” to prepare to play together, it’s time for football. Like high school and college gridiron, the NFL begins play in August but it has a much longer season that culminates in ten team playoffs that culminate in the “Superbowl” championship game.
The Superbowl is the biggest sporting event in American sports. Think of it as America’s Champions League final with cities fighting it out for hosting rights and massive migration of fanbases to the selected city every year.
To determine a champion, the 32 teams play a 16 game schedule with games usually played on Sunday to end the weekend of football that usually starts with high school on Fridays and College on Saturdays. The 32 teams are divided in two conferences: American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC).
The two conferences are divided into four 4-team “divisions” each and those division have geographical names (AFC East, NFC North, etc.). But the not all the teams are tied by geographical limits. You have examples like the Indianapolis (a Midwestern city) Colts in the AFC South division, while the Dallas (a Southern city near the Gulf of Mexico) Cowboys in the NFC East division.
Each team has to play their “division” foes twice and the rest of their schedule is determined on a rotating master schedule created by the league. And after a 16 game schedule, the eight division win leaders automatically qualify for the playoffs. But also four more teams are allowed in but virtue of their “wild-card” spot.
The wild card spot is awarded to the best four teams (two for each conference) in the league who were not division winners, allowing very good teams who would otherwise not qualify due to a division opponent being superior a chance to win the whole thing). You may wonder why the league would allow these teams in, well many years the wild card winners have better records than some division winners so the wild card spot is the great equalizer.
In the playoffs the best two teams in each conference get a first round “bye”, meaning they already are in the second round and don’t have to play in the first round. When the best team from each conference is finally decided in the NFC and AFC championship games (yes, even our semifinals are championships), those two teams battle it out in the Super Bowl.
In the next installment, a simplified guide to the rules of the game will be provided, so that you may hopefully understand this game and get to enjoy we Yanks are bonkers about.