Nigel Aplin: Why I love the NFL

Why I love the National Football League

By Nigel Aplin
Sports Editor
True North Perspective

Twenty-two well-padded football players take their places on the line of scrimmage for the first play (after the opening kick-off) of an NFL game. The eleven offensive players — five offensive linemen, a tight end, two wide receivers, a running back, a fullback and a quarterback — are trying to advance the football from their own 20 yard line with 10 yards required for a “first down” (which allows them to continue trying to advance the ball) and 80 yards needed for a touchdown.

The defensive players are usually aligned in their “base” package with four men lined up opposite the offensive line, three linebackers, two cornerbacks and two safeties. The defensive players have two responsibilities when the offense snaps the ball: they need to very quickly identify the play as the offense tries to execute it and then need to stop it with the offense gaining as few yards as possible.  In other words, half of the twenty-two players know the play that’s coming and the other half are trying to guess it. As the game moves on, that guessing can sometimes become easier. But often, the guessing is the easy part and the stopping is the hard part. Or, both become easy. Or, both become hard.

Why do I and so many North American sports fan like the NFL so much when there’s clearly plenty about it not to like. Why is this violent, contrived, militaristic sport with endless interruptions and ridiculously complicated rules so compelling? Well, I can think of a few reasons. I’m not sure how good they are individually but when combined, they seem to be enough to generate television viewership, live attendance, and general interest like no other part of American sports culture can touch.

Back to the first play from scrimmage: What can happen? Well, pretty much anything. After the play has finished, either team could have scored a touchdown. Either team could be in possession of the ball at any place on the field of play. The defensive team could have given up a disheartening 30-yard running play, bringing the offensive team out to mid-field. Or, they could have sacked the quarterback for a 15-yard loss, giving the offense a second-down play from its own 5-yard line with 25 yards needed for a first down. The quarterback may have been injured, as could any of the twenty-two. Or, the offense might have completed a nine-yard running play, leaving them with a second-down play with one yard to gain for a first down. If that happened, the defense might line up for that second-down play wondering if the offense might try a deep pass play knowing that they still have a third (and, in some cases a fourth) down play to gain that one yard and extend their drive. The offense knows the play they’ll run and the defense doesn’t. But the defense may have their own plan on that second-down play where they might suspect the deep pass is coming and allocate all efforts to sacking the quarterback. But the offense might suspect that defensive strategy is coming and try another running play. And so it goes: each side guessing and reacting.

Each NFL team plays 16 regular season games over a four month period. That’s it. Baseball teams play 10 times that number and hockey and basketball teams play five times as many games.  Yet the NFL generates interest, and not just from a hard core base, throughout the seven months without any games (playoffs and the Superbowl account for another month). The scarcity of games makes each one so critical to each team and with a week between each game, the pundits and fans have plenty of time to ruminate on the game just played and anticipate the one to come. The weekly schedule lends itself to and thrives on commiseration, prognostication and over-analysis. Then, after digesting all of the information and opinion, we tune in for the game on Sunday.

NFL football is a game which was made for television. The natural flow of a football game involves a series of stops and starts. The average NFL game includes about 165 plays in total with 135 of those being plays from scrimmage while another 30 are “special teams” plays like kick-offs, punts and field goal attempts. These 165 interruptions of play in each NFL game serve not only to build a sense of anticipation and import for each play before it takes place, but they also allow television networks to easily fit in commercials during these breaks without interfering much with the natural flow of the game. Between commercial breaks, the broadcast style and camera angles used by the networks to present the look of an NFL football stadium, field and players creates an aura of great drama featuring epic battles between iconic teams and players, all within the quasi-military objectives of the game.

I have always enjoyed following and watching each of North America’s professional sports but I generally limit my engagement to games involving the teams I root for (except for playoffs and championships). I will watch a Maple Leafs regular season hockey game but I will not watch a non-playoff NHL game that does not involve the Maple Leafs. I have the same Toronto-centric attitude toward baseball with the Blue Jays and basketball with the Raptors but, with the NFL, I will generally watch any game on television, whether it involves my team (the Buffalo Bills) or not.

Watching an NFL game on television is one thing but being in the stadium on game day is something else entirely. I always encourage even those who have no interest in, or even a disdain for professional sports, and who have never experienced a live NFL game, to try it once. It represents a slice of American culture that is fascinating in its own right. It reminds me of my one (and very likely only) trip to Las Vegas. I don’t gamble. I don’t particularly like crowded spaces and certainly don’t like opulent displays of excessive wealth, but I found the 24 hours I spent walking around the strip in Vegas a few years ago to be entirely interesting and worthwhile, mainly from a cultural perspective.

For me, attending a three hour NFL game takes an entire day. I arrive in the stadium parking lot as early as three hours before kick-off where I join 75,000 fellow pilgrims in drinking, barbecuing and building our collective sense of anticipation as game time approaches. Like Vegas, it isn’t always pretty and I often witness some regrettable behaviour but that’s all part of the experience. Once inside, the crowd noise is contagious. A natural bonding among the fans takes place as we share the experience together, making as much noise as possible to disrupt the opposing team’s offensive play calling and celebrating our team’s scoring plays.

As Noam Chomsky said, professional sports and the time which Americans spend following and watching their teams, takes their attention away from issues that actually do matter in their lives. As a native of Philadelphia however, Chomsky knows in his heart that his Eagles will need better quarterback play this season if they are to challenge for a playoff position.         

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