What It’s Like to Watch an NFL Game for the First Time
I've received a wide variety of reactions over the years when I say I don't watch football, ranging from, "laaaame" to "do you hate America?"
And you know what? That's fair. Football is the most-watched sport in the nation. As an avid health and fitness nut who's picked up a variety of sports as an adult, it feels hypocritical to be completely clueless about one of the country's most popular sports.
So I did it. I watched an entire football game and jotted down my first reactions — I watched the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Tennessee Titans, 20-16, on Amazon Prime. My colleague and sports fanatic, Tony Adame, has graciously answered all my dumbest football questions below.
Help me, Tony. I know not the ways of the ball of foot. Which brings me to my first question...
Q: Why Is It Called Football?
Dumbest question first. Look, I said I have zero football experience. Feel free to judge, but I have yet to see anyone kick the brown thing. Shouldn't the name imply contact between the ball and a foot? I've heard of a kicker, but I have yet to see anyone kick the football. Wouldn't handball make more sense? Egg ball? Tackle ball? Make it make sense.
A: Did You Skip Kickoff?
It's worth pointing out that anywhere else in the world if you call it football they will think you're talking about soccer and football's etymology traces directly back to soccer.
That being said, you must have skipped the opening kickoff.
Q: Is There an Official Snack?
I don't care if this is an additional stupid question. I'm trying to do this correctly. I feel like I should eat wings but all I had was pumpkin-flavored beer, Sun Chips and guac. Should I have picked up wings? Ranch? Brats? Pizza?!
Also, what the hell is a tailgate party? I have heard of them. I do not know what they are. When you learn to drive, tailgating is what you're taught not to do, but in sports, it's...fun? I have so much to learn.
A: Wings, Wings and More Wings
This isn't a stupid question. It might be the most important question. Food and drink are an inextricable part of football. I have to compliment you on at least getting your hands on some beer — you're well on your way to being a football fan. While it's never been made official, I can say with 100 percent clarity that yes, my friend, chicken wings are the unofficial official football snack.
Tailgate parties are the parties people have in the parking lot at the stadiums before games. They're also where you'll find the very best food and drinks, in my opinion. It's a good time and one of the big, unifying things about being a football fan. Tailgating can also be a sport unto itself.
Q: How Does One Decide Who to Root for?
The fact that I initially thought, "Who am I supposed to be voting for?" is probably not a great sign. I've mostly followed individualized sports. When it comes to team sports, how does one pick a favorite? I'd assume you'd automatically go with the team that represents your hometown or state, but what if they lose?
Do you keep watching the rest of the season and cheer on your second favorite team? Are you primarily loyal to a city, an entire team or favorite players? My nine-year-old just selected a favorite based on the color of their uniforms and that feels solidly incorrect.
A: Follow Your Heart
You nailed this one. Most fans pick their teams based on geography; you like the team closest to where you grew up. I would allow for some level of parental influence that's not directly geography-based. For example, if one of your parents grows up in Florida as a Miami Dolphins fan and then moves to California, there's a pretty big chance you might also end up being a Dolphins fan by proxy.
Colors are fine as well.
Q: Wait, the Quarters Are Only 15 Minutes Long?!
This entire time, I was under the impression that football games took hours. I am confused. Google has informed me that each game is made up of four 15-minute quarters, yet the average NFL game is three hours and 12 minutes. If they're only actually playing for about 60 minutes, what the hell is happening for the additional 132 minutes?! Commercials, I guess?
If you're watching it from the stands, does that mean there's a bunch of sitting around waiting for people to start playing again? Maybe that's where the official snacks come in. I'd probably be more patient with wings. I knew I did this wrong.
A: That's Not Long Enough?
The correlation between game length and snacks never really hit home until just right now.
It's not so much the commercials as the stoppage in play: the clock doesn't continue to run like in a soccer game and can stop for any number of reasons. There are also timeouts and halftime. At the college and pro levels, commercials definitely add to the length of the games. That means physically going to a game can be quite a test of endurance. Remember that the beginning of the season is right around the hottest time of the year and the end of the season is the coldest time of the year in some states.
It's also worth pointing out that while college and pro quarters last 15 minutes, it's 12-minute quarters in high school.
Q: I'm Assuming There Are Rules for Tackling, Right?
I think I've sorted out how tackling works to some extent. It looks like someone can only be tackled if they have the ball? Maybe? Is it cheating if I Google that too? My real question is what's allowed and what isn't. The objective of tackling is simply to stop the opposing team from progressing down the field or scoring, yes? Kind of?
It seems counterintuitive to try to actually hurt people and I need someone to tell that to my fourth grader. We got bored during a commercial break and tried to play pretend football. The ball was a Beanie Baby, no one caught it and I think there's a dent in the wall from my left shoulder. On the upside, if the kid needs to take someone down, she has a shot as long as they're not over about 5'3. Maybe 5'6 if she's allowed to bite.
A: There Didn't Used To Be!
Your daughter would have fit right in on a football field ... until the last 20 years or so.
For the 100 years of football before that, when it came to tackling the person with the ball there really were no rules aside from grabbing the face mask. You could bite. You could grab hair. You could grab them by the collar. You could hit them while they were defenseless. The league was built on this type of violence.
Now, the emphasis is almost entirely on protecting quarterbacks and wide receivers, who are the most vulnerable people on the field. Any variation of the old way of tackling will almost certainly get you thrown out of the game.
For players without the ball, there are all kinds of ways you can hurt someone ... but any form of tackling will get you called for a penalty.
Q: Are Football Teams Huge Because of How Often Players Are Injured?
By my count, there are 11 players on the field for each team at a time, but way more on the team overall. A few questions there.
- How is it decided which players are put in the game first? Do they all get similar playing time throughout the season or is it based on some kind of ranking?
- If there are roughly five times the number of players on the team than are actually in play, is that just because they get injured often enough that they need dozens of backups?
- Out of curiosity, what's the most common injury among football players? I'd imagine it depends, in part, on the position they play.
A: Now That You Mention It ... Yes
1. The starters — the people on the field to begin the game — can change throughout the year but are largely determined in the preseason and in the training camps the teams have before the season starts. No, there is no guarantee for an equal amount of playing time.
2. In 40 years of being heavily invested in football I have never thought of it this way ... but I believe this is actually accurate.
3. I think the most common injury for football players, regardless of position, are concussions.
Q: Why Do I Feel Like I'm Watching a Violent Game of Chess?
The longer I watch this game, the more I understand why I haven't gotten into it before. The tackling part I can totally get behind. That looks fun. Behind the violence, however, it's a game of strategy. This, I did not realize. I feel very stupid, because this now seems obvious.
Does the coach plan the entire strategy? If that's the case, is football basically a collection of coaches playing chess with living chess pieces? Dark. I like it. I lost a chess game against a bot in the beginner setting, however, so I don't think there's much hope for me.
A: You're Starting To Catch On
This is such a great way to look at the game.
Game strategy is taken on by the entire coaching staff but the big decisions are usually split between three people: the head coach, the offensive coordinator and the defensive coordinator, with the head coach getting the final say.
In some very rare cases, a quarterback will be so good and have proven themselves so many times that they will become in charge of the offense to a higher level than even the offensive coordinator. The players that come to mind are people like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. It's pretty rare but it happens.
Q: Why Isn't Football an Olympic Sport?
It has only just occurred to me that tons of other team sports are current Olympic Sports. Soccer, baseball, basketball, volleyball, but not football. It's arguably the most popular of the bunch in the U.S., so why isn't it an Olympic Sport?
A: Because It Would Be a Bloodbath
Outside of the U.S., all of the sports you listed have their own players and usually their own professional leagues to draw from for the Olympics. With football, very rarely do players outside of the United States make it to the college or professional level. And the sport isn't played in many other countries.
There's a reason everywhere else in the world calls it "American football."
Q: Do Players Ever Change Positions?
Not during the course of a game, but in the long term. How are positions chosen to begin with? If you're a gymnast, the events you compete in are the same whether you're 4'9 or 5'8, but those two competitors are only going head-to-head in a figurative sense.
In football, are positions selected just based on size? At what point in a player's career is that set in stone? Have any players ever switched after going pro?
A: Yes, and Sometimes It's Awesome
Players switch positions on a pretty regular basis but it usually happens from high school to college. By the time a player makes it to the pros, they are almost always playing the same position they played in college.
If they do switch, it's usually a running quarterback who becomes a wide receiver, much like former New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman and current New Orleans Saints utility player Taysom Hill. Both were quarterbacks in college and switched positions in the NFL.
Q: Do All Teams Have the Same Resources?
I did say I was a football newb, so cut me some slack. It's common knowledge that football teams have owners, but I had no idea how much it actually costs to own a football team. According to an article by Yahoo in 2020, if you want to invest in a football franchise, $3 billion is the bare minimum. As of 2023, it looks like the Dallas Cowboys are worth $9 billion, while the Cincinnati Bengals are worth a mere $3.5 billion.
There is such a substantial financial disparity between the top franchises and the least valuable in the league — does that have any impact the quality of training? I'd hope that revenue would be equally distributed for both training expenses and player salaries, but I don't actually know how it works.
A: Money Is Always the Key, Isn’t It?
While teams have the same guidelines and rules for drafting and signing players, when it comes to resources there are definitely the haves and have-nots.
For the two teams you named, it's easy to see that disparity. Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, has a reported net worth of approximately $13-14 billion. Mike Brown, the owner of the Cincinnati Bengals, has a reported net worth of approximately $2 billion.
Q: What Are Your Top Five Tips for Other Newbs?
Seriously, as much as I've poked fun at the sport, I respect it. Aside from the tremendous athleticism required, any sport that fuels nationwide camaraderie and (hopefully friendly) competition is one I can get behind. That said, tonight's game was the first one I've ever actually paid attention to.
I understand how it works much better than I did this morning, but I still need to know: If you had to give someone your top tips to sound like they know what they're talking about at a Super Bowl party, what would they be? Teach us your ways.
A: It Starts With Picking Your Favorite Team
1. Pick a team to root for. Stick with them whether they win or lose.
2. Pick a favorite player. Learn a few important facts about them like height and weight and where they went to college. Or who they're dating.
3. Pick a team you hate. Hopefully this just comes naturally. Part of being a football fan is feeling a deep-seated loathing for teams you can't stand. It's almost as important as picking a favorite team.
4. Get some gear. Get a shirt or a hoodie or a hat from your favorite team. The NFL has every kind of clothing imaginable — for men and women — for every single team. This will be your Bat-Signal to other football fans, essentially.
5. Don't gloat too much when you win. It always comes back around.