American Football Strategy: You Make the Call

Learning by doing is perhaps the best way to master most things. And mastering American football strategy is no exception. So let's get to it.

football huddle with cellphone

Let's say the game is almost over (maybe a minute to go in the fourth quarter), and you're behind by a touchdown (7 points assuming the "point after," i.e., the free kick allowed after the touchdown, was successful), and you're on the other team's forty-yard line, that is, you are forty yards away from their goal line. You haven't used up any of your four downs, so it's first and ten on the forty (don't you love the jargon? It's about as complicated as naming a town on the banks of a river "Edgewater").

But we digress. Point is, with a minute to go on their forty-yard line, what would you do?

First, let's note that it's actually possible to run quite a few plays in even that short a time. Still, if you start running around, as noted in the American football strategy overview, you could use up a lot of time without getting very far. Oh, your runner might slip through a hole in the defense and actually go all the way for a touchdown. Or not.

On the other hand, if you throw the ball, and your receiver catches it, you might get a lot further down the field a lot faster. Also, you should know that if the receive misses the ball, the time clock gets stopped until everybody gets back to where the play began (the "line of scrimmage," seen in the photograph).

line of scrimmage

As you can see, then, passing the ball gives you twice the chance that running it would, especially when you're running out of time.

On the other hand, if the defense is expecting you to throw the ball, you might do better using the element of surprise and catch them offguard with a running play.

And if you do score, what then? Do you kick the safe single point after for a tie? Or - you can also try running or passing the ball across the goal line, which would give you two points and a win.

But the odds are not as good as kicking the point after, so if you don't make the two points (called a two point conversion), you lose. Game over.

Unless. Even if you have only seconds left in the game, instead of just giving up, you can try an onside kick. Throughout the game when you changed possession,i.e., when you weren't able to move the ball the necessary ten yards in your first three tries and had to turn it over to your opponent on the fourth down, the idea was to kick the ball as far as possible away from your own goal line. But with an onside kick, you try kicking the ball only ten yards so that you can grab it back for yourself.

Of course, the other team is trying to grab the ball, too, so it doesn't work all that often. But it is possible. So. On the play before that, are you going for the win or the tie?

See? Isn't this fun?

At the beginning of the game, of course, your 'football strategy' is more or less seeing what the other team's got. Testing for weaknesses, looking at their football strategy. Although professional football players and coaches have already been watching their opponents on video until their eyes crossed.

But since you haven't, you start watching at the opening kickoff (or once you've set out the guacamole and Bud Light, as the case may be). Notice their over-all football strategy: what plays are called . . . no, not whether it's West Coast or Run and Shoot; just whether they pass or run. We'll save the fancy stuff for later. Meanwhile, watch how well they do with each option.

After a few plays, you'll begin to see a pattern to their football strategy. Maybe the defense has been crushing the quarterback, who is usually the guy throwing the ball, or his receivers have not been catching his passes. So now, when you get back to that fourth quarter scenario, you know that the passing game may not be that great an option after all.

Ditto if the defense has been stopping the running game. So this American football strategy business may depend first on where you are on the field, and second on what time is left in the game, but also on what you've observed in the course of the game about the strengths and weaknesses of both your team and the opposition.

The coach, having watched all those videos with his players, comes into the game with a set strategy. Even so, just like you, he has to watch how his scheme is working out, so by the fourth quarter, he may be improvising right along with you!

What say you give it a try, maybe next Sunday night. Watch who does what in the first quarter. Then, in the second quarter, try making a call or two.

For some more American football strategy rehearsal, let's say your team is on the the opposition's thirty-yard line, i.e., they have thirty yards to go in order to score. It's third down with four yards to go. Do you want your quarterback to throw a pass?

What if it's only a yard to go? Remember,a pass can always be intercepted by the defense. Still want to try it? Or do you think a running play ("keeping it on the ground") might be safer? Although there's always the chance of a fumble.

And let's not forget that you can score three points with a field goal, i.e., kicking the ball over the goal posts. Maybe you'd just like to be sure you can move it a few feet closer so your field goal kicker has a better chance to succeed.

But. The score matters, too. What if you're losing by a lot? Maybe (ouch!) three touchdowns? Still want to settle for a field goal? Of course, a sure field goal will still get you some much-needed points.

Which brings us back to the time grid. It certainly makes a difference whether you're down by three touchdowns in the fourth quarter or the second quarter, yes?

so what's your call in the second quarter? In the fourth? With two minutes left in the game?

Anyway, give it a try next time you're watching a game. It feels good when you get it right. And you will. Although even the top coaches don't always. And consider this: if the coach doesn't call the plays you would have, and his team loses the game, who can say if he'd done it your way, his team wouldn't have won?

Oh, you smart cookie, you!

So maybe it's time we took football strategy to the next level: pre-designed plays.

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