Sports Breakdown: Football

OSU redshirt junior Jake Luton hands off the ball to sophomore wide receiver Tyjon Lindsey. 

With over five million viewers on average for college’s bowl season and  16 million viewers on average for a regular season professional game, the season culminating in one grand Super Bowl event that draws in 102 million people watching at home makes one thing clear. 

Football is one of the biggest American sports. Its average viewership for a regular season professional game rivals that of championship events for leagues like the NBA and MLB. It is one of the country’s most desirable sporting pastimes, but it can also be one of the most confusing.

The surface level premise of the sport is easy enough. One team tries to move the ball as far as they can with the objective of scoring points, while the other team is trying their best to stop the team from moving at all. It’s a simple enough concept, but confusion often arises when the sport’s many intricacies, jargon and rules come to the forefront.

Football can be one of the trickiest sports to learn, but it does not have to be. With a healthy understanding of the sport’s basics, many of the advanced concepts start to fall into place, making football easy enough to follow along with. 

Jargon & Measuring Success:

At its basics, a successful drive in football is easy to identify. If your team is on offense, they are successful when they score. For defense, if they hold the offense scoreless, it is a success. When the opposites happen, the offense and defense need to reassess for improvement on their next drive. 

But there are ways to measure a team’s success on a more micro level, such as judging a player’s success. There are ways to identify good games from bad for each team and position.

For the quarterback position, it is not quite as simple as pointing to one game statistic to determine how they performed. More than anywhere else on the field, much of a quarterback’s performance depends on the play of their teammates, whether the offensive line struggled to pass protect or whether the receivers and tight ends had trouble catching the ball all make a big difference. 

But there are still stats available that help to understand how a quarterback played on a basic level. These include touchdowns thrown compared to interceptions, how many yards they passed for and how many of the passes they threw were completed.

Many of these stats are meaningless without context, so take Oregon State quarterback Jake Luton for reference. One of Luton’s best games from 2019 came against the Arizona State Sun Devils, where the quarterback completed 74% of his passes and threw for 288 yards and four touchdowns.

All of those stats were above Luton’s season average, but they were also great numbers compared to the rest of football. If Luton had played at that same level for each of his 11 games in 2019, he would have had the fifth-most passing yards, second-most touchdowns and highest completion percentage in the PAC-12 conference.

A few similar stats can be used to measure success at other offensive positions, like total touchdowns and yards gained, but it’s important to keep it relative to the position. 

Running backs also have an important metric oftentimes used to measure success called yards per carry, which averages how many yards a player gains every time they run the ball. Last season, Oregon State senior running back Artavis Pierce measured great in this stat, finishing 23rd in the country with 5.98 yards a carry.

Each position group has its own set of important stats that can be used to get an idea of success, same with the team as a whole. Football is a constantly evolving sport, so success will differ from year to year, but stats like these can provide a basic idea of what went right and wrong in a game.

Personnel Groups:

Teams will always be allowed 11 players on offense and defense, but the way those players line up will look different based on the team and situation.

Starting with defense, there are two basic lineups that teams like to use. There is the 3-4 defense, where a team will lineup with three players on the defensive line and four linebackers. Or there is the 4-3, which is the reverse with four defensive linemen and three linebackers.

These are not the only two defensive lineups, of course. Some teams will come out in a 3-3-5 with five defensive backs and three players will be lined up at linebacker and defensive line. Some teams will ‘stack the box’ where they only lineup three defensive backs in situations where they want to get as many people to the quarterback and running back as quickly as possible, oftentimes in cases of an obvious running situation by the offense. Much of it depends on countering what they believe the offense is going to do.

Just like on defense, there are many different ways an offense can line up during a play. There will almost always be one quarterback and five offensive linemen, so much of what varies on offense comes down to how many running backs, tight ends, and receivers take the field.

For example, most standard offenses play with three wide receivers, one running back and one tight end. This grouping is called 11 personnel, which indicates one player at running back and one at tight end. The number adjusts based on how many running backs and tight ends take the field at once. If there were two running backs, three tight ends, and zero receivers on the field, that lineup would be called 23 personnel. 

Offensive personnel groups often change based on the situation. If an offense wanted to move the ball a short distance, they might come out in 13 or 23 personnel so that they have extra blockers close to the offensive line. If they needed to move the ball far, the lineup might look more like 10 personnel so they could send many receivers on deep routes. Like these personnel groups, much of what happens in football is situational.

Situational Decisions:

There is never one right answer for when to punt, go for it on fourth down, onside kick or perform any other reactionary decisions that go into football, but there are ways to determine when the best time is to do one thing over another.

Typically, there are only a select amount of situations where a team would decide to try and convert a fourth down. They want to be in a short yardage situation until their first down, about one to three or four yards away and a good distance away from their opponent’s endzone.

Running a play on fourth down rather than punting can be detrimental if the offense does not get the first down, as they give the opposing team the ball in favorable field position without the advantage of punting, so teams traditionally like to make sure they roll the dice on a fourth down when the odds are in their favor.

Similar to attempting a fourth down, calling an onside kick after a score rather than kicking the ball off deep is typically rare with how dangerous it can be. While it allows the kicking team a chance to get the ball back, it also gives the opposing team the ball close to the endzone if the kickoff team does not recover.

Typically, coaches will only elect to kick the ball onside if they are losing a close game without much time left, since getting the ball back is their last realistic chance to score. In some rare instances, coaches will elect to kick the ball onside either to capitalize on offensive momentum, like how Oregon State did this year against UCLA, or to catch the receiving team off guard or even to keep the ball away from a strong opposing offense.

Football is a very situational sport. Strategies adapt from play to play and team to team so much that it can be hard to grasp why teams are making certain decisions. There is so much to learn about the sport, but this guide may make the game easier to understand going forward.

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