Downs and Tight Ends: A Confused Brit’s View Of American Football

Seahawks vs. Broncos: Brits dig the eyeliner, but the padding is a bit much. (Photo: AP/Ted S. Warren)

Seahawks vs. Broncos: Brits dig the eyeliner, but the padding is a bit much. (Photo: AP/Ted S. Warren)

Since moving to the U.S. in 2007, I have found myself on more than a handful of occasions engaged in lively debate with American sports fans over which of our respective nations plays the better version of football.

My argument is always anchored by this fact: “soccer” is by far the most popular game on the planet and the reason is its simple beauty. “So long as you have a ball,” I wax lyrical, “you can play anywhere!”

The case most often put forward to me by Americans is that their brand of football is clearly the best because it’s highly strategic and akin to watching a life-size game of chess.

“Chess?” comes my always-startled response, “but I’d rather poke my own eye out with a hotdog than watch a game of chess!  This is how you’re selling it to me?  With chess?”

After agreeing to disagree, the discussion invariably turns to semantics. Brits have a tendency to be over-protective of the word “football” and turn their nose up in snobbery whenever they hear an American using the word “soccer.” Conversely, I’ve discovered that you can quite satisfactorily upset an American by proposing that perhaps a more apt term for their sport would be “eggball” or, if you really want to guarantee exclusion from future Super Bowl parties, simply suggest “rugby for wimps” as the game’s new moniker. Come on, they don’t really need all that padding, do they?

Speaking of Super Bowl parties (or as I like to call them: Annual Attempts to Understand the Rules of American Football), I’ve been to a handful now and always had a splendid time: bottomless mounds of chips and dips, all the light beer you can drink, ingeniously creative commercials, raucous half-time shows from rock and roll legends… Yep, the whole Super Bowl shebang is a spectacle not to be missed.

Did I forget something?  It feels like I forgot something.

Oh yeah, the actual game.

I have a few issues, but I’d like to begin with: length-of-game-to-excitement-ratio.

It feels like an unfair return to give up 3-4 hours of the day for 30 seconds of actual drama.  And while I appreciate a scoreless tie in soccer may not be the most exciting thing since sliced burger buns, at least viewers’ homes aren’t being invaded by a cockney lizard trying to sell us car insurance 17 times per game.

And this brings us rather nicely to the issue of the clock, which seems to pay no regard whatsoever to anything that’s going on on the field.  Sometimes it stops when the ball goes out of bounds, but other times it’s in a rush and decides to carry on ticking, unless it’s during the last two minutes of the quarter or something.  And then, when it hits zero, and you think it’s all over, the guys keep playing until the ball goes out of bounds.  It’s all terribly confusing.

But let’s not get bogged down in all this start/stop/slowy nonsense because England, after all, is the home of cricket: where a single game can last seven years and still end in a tie.

Now, if I may, I’d like to ask a logistical question, which I’m sure fans of American football will scoff at, but I feel bears a certain amount of legitimacy, so at the risk of sounding like a posh English toff, here goes:

Why on earth don’t they pass more?

I’ve checked and it’s in the rules: during each down, after one forward pass, players may pass backward at any time. At any time! And here I was thinking that teams were limited to one pass per play.  Why aren’t the players using this rule to their advantage in a fashion not unlike rugby? Not only would it give all 467 players on the roster a chance to actually touch the ball, it would also confuse the bejesus out of the opponent.

I challenge anyone to watch the following clip and tell me it’s not the most exciting passage of play in American football they’ve ever seen (the commentators certainly think so):

Finally, I’d like to suggest one small wardrobe change. I’m a big fan of the eyeliner; I think that it looks fantastic, but spectators can’t see it too well because of the motorcycle helmets. So I would recommend losing the helmets, which will simultaneously make the rest of the world think you’re tougher and prettier.

Arguably, the mistake Brits (and the rest of the world for that matter) are making, is the constant comparison of American football to sports we’re familiar with: soccer, rugby, wrestling, and so on, when what we really should be doing is trying to appreciate the game on its own merits.  After all, who doesn’t love to settle down on the couch with a six-pack of Bud Light and watch an incredible game of chess?

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