The GIST's Guide to Football
Even if you only watch one game per year (the Super Bowl) and you mainly watch it for the commercials and halftime show (#tbt to Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s memorable performance) we promise there’s something for you in this guide.
To start, it’s important to know that football is really only played in North America where there are two main leagues: the National Football League (NFL) played in the U.S. and the Canadian Football League (CFL) played in Canada.
Let’s start by giving you #thegist of the NFL, the most popular football league in the world with elite players.
NFL football is played on a 100-yard field with goal posts (called uprights because the posts face into the sky rather than the ground like soccer) at each end. There are 11 players from each team on the field at once. Through passing or running the football, the point of the game is to score touchdowns and field goals to have the most points at the end of four quarters (this is the same in the CFL). Each team gets four attempts (called downs) to advance the ball 10 yards before the ball is turned over to the other team. TBH, we know this can be confusing, but stay with us! The rules are similar in the NFL and CFL BUT there are some key differences. Keep scrolling down to get #thegist on the CFL.
How’s it organized?
There are 32 teams in the NFL, which is divided into two conferences (NFC and AFC) and are further split up into four divisions (North, South, East and West). There are 16 regular season games leading to the playoffs which culminates with the Super Bowl. From the wildly overpriced commercials to the star-studded halftime show to eating until you faint and drinking your pain away when your team loses - this is an event like none other.
The best of the best
The best team from the 2018/2019 season was the New England Patriots who beat the Los Angeles (LA) Rams 13-3 (if you missed it, don’t fret, it was v. boring) giving the Pats their sixth win since 2001 - an NFL record. The Patriots are led by their exceptional quarterback, Tom Brady (who is married to the talented model Gisele Bundchen).
Determining who’s the best player in the NFL is tough because there are so many different positions that require different skills. Tom Brady is, quite literally, the greatest quarterback of all time, closely followed by rookie QB Patrick Mahomes (Kansas City).
Think football is a man’s sport? Think again! There’s actually three full-contact 11-on-11 leagues in the U.S., the biggest being the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA). Formed in 2009, the WFA has continued to expand and now includes 60 teams (!!!) across three divisions, each crowning its own champion at the end of every season.
And for those who dig the game but not the tackling, there’s always flag football - a similar game where players have to stop running when their flag is pulled off their belt rather than when they’re tackled to the ground.
Ramp up your trivia game
Only six teams have won a playoff game without scoring a touchdown (aka field goals only).
Brett Favre (of Green Bay Packers fame) and Tom Brady are the only 40 year olds to ever win a playoff game, and Brady is the only QB above 40 to win a Super Bowl.
Just 18 teams played in the NFL’s inaugural season way back in 1922. We’ve come so far!
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Okay, so we assume (and yes we know what “assume” means) that you’re popping onto this page from our general football guide above. Now that you have #thegist of football, let us break down how the CFL is different from the NFL:
A CFL field is 110 yards long vs. the 100 yard NFL field. It’s also a little bit wider.
The CFL has 12 players on the field at one time vs. 11 players in the NFL partially because the field is bigger.
In the CFL, teams only have three attempts (downs) to advance the ball 10 yards, vs. four attempts in the NFL. This often results in more turnovers (when one team is forced to give up the ball to the other team) and keeps things moving at a brisk pace.
How’s it organized?
There are nine teams in the CFL, which is divided into two divisions: East and West. There are 18 regular season games and then six teams make the postseason for the chance to win the Grey Cup. The season runs from June until the end of November, meaning the playoffs are generally played in sub-zero/snowy weather. Just check out the infamous 1996 Snow Bowl in Hamilton, Ont.!
The best of the best
The reigning Grey Cup champions are the Calgary Stampeders who beat the Ottawa Redblacks 27-16 in 2018. The Stampeders also made it to the Grey Cup in 2017 and 2016 but lost both of those games, so winning in 2018 was that much sweeter.
The first Grey Cup was won in 1909 (!!!) by the University of Toronto Varsity Blues, because back then it was awarded only to amateur teams. Today, the Grey Cup is property of the professional CFL, while the Vanier Cup is award to top amateur University teams across the country.
Did you know…
There used to be some American teams in the CFL? The first team from the U.S., the Sacramento Gold Miners, was admitted to the league in 1993. American teams only played in the CFL for three seasons during the glory days of the early 90s.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have made the most Grey Cup appearances (24), while the Toronto Argonauts have won the most championships (17).
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Football is played in four quarters lasting 15 minutes each.
In NFL you get four downs (attempts) to get ten yards. In the CFL you get only three.
A touchdown is worth six points. The touchdown zone is the big area at either end of the football field that the teams are trying to get to, or trying to prevent the opposing team from getting to. Football is known for some wacky TD celebrations. Check out some of these sick cellys.
There are yellow goal posts that look like a T + H had a baby in the touchdown zones. It’s the kicker’s job to get the back between those two posts (called uprights).
A field goal after a touchdown is worth three points, while a field goal kicked at any other point is worth three points.
The area of the field that’s between the 20-yard line and the touchdown zone. It’s called the red zone because there’s a higher probability for the offensive team to score when they’re this close to the touchdown line.
One point convert:
After a touchdown, the kicker needs to kick the ball through the uprights to get an additional point.
Two point convert:
If a team really needs points, they’ll sometimes go for a two point convert instead. This is when the team sets up a play from the two-yard line to get back into the touchdown zone. This is MUCH harder to do and a riskier play, but sometimes every little point matters.
If a team doesn’t make it the ten yards they need to, they usually punt the ball to the other team on their last available down.
A punt is when the football gets snapped back to a kicker and they drop kick it as far down the field as they can (the farther they kick it, the farther down the field their opponent has to start from).
The player the quarterback gets up close and personal with all game. They’re the ones who pass the ball backwards between their legs to start a play.
The beginning of each football game (and after every touchdown) is a kickoff, with the defending team kicking the ball to the offensive team. Normally you want to kick it as far as you can so the other team has farther to bring the ball back and score.
An “onside” kick is when the team kicks the ball really short on purpose with the HOPE of recovering the ball and keeping possession. This is normally a tactic that happens at the end of the game if a team is down by points and has very little time to score. It’s also v. risky because if the opposing team still recovers the ball, they have amazing field position.
Football has two main types of plays: Passing (the ball is thrown through the air to gain yards) and running (the ball is handed off to a player who runs with it to gain yards).
Desperate times come for desperate measures. This is when the ball is CHUCKED as far as possible and the team can only pray that someone catches it and scores a touchdown. Also how legendary moments like these plays are made.
Foul (Flag on the play):
Like a penalty in hockey, referees throw their flags in order to call a foul when a rule is broken. The refs then move the team BACK (away from the precious touchdown zone) by a certain amount of yards - 5, 10 or 15 depending on how big of a rule break it was.
The head coach of each team can “challenge” a call twice a game when they disagree with the referee’s call. They can call a challenge by throwing out a red flag onto the field. If they lose a challenge, they lose a time out.
When one team’s quarterback throws the ball, but the other team catches it. Accidents happen even to the pros.
When there’s an interception and the other team is able to run it all the way back to get a touchdown (and the six points).
This is when the defence tackles the quarterback before they’re able to throw the ball. This is HUGE because it often means the offensive team loses yards on the play.
The biggest football game of the year. This is where the best team from the AFC squares off against the best team from the NFC to be named the NFL champion. The Super Bowl is also known for the insanely overpriced commercials, the usually star-studded halftime show, eating until you faint, and drinking your pain away when your team loses.
AFC & NFC:
Stands for American Football Conference and National Football Conference. The AFC and NFC have 16 NFL football teams in each, further split into divisions.
History check: There once was two professional leagues in the States - the American and National Football Leagues. They combined to form the NFL as we know it today in 1966, but maintained the two separate conferences.
On our side of the border, the CFL (Canadian Football League) teams play for the Grey Cup. The best team in the East and the best team in the West go toe to toe to win the coveted trophy. Although the party is not as rowdy, the Grey Cup still has halftime entertainment and an impressive turnout.
Calling an audible:
Refers to changing the play on the fly. Players usually huddle up (gather) to decide on a play — run, pass, trick play etc. BUT sometimes the quarterback will change their mind and yell out a slogan or reference to inform his team that the play is changing IN REAL TIME. You might also hear people use the phrase “calling an audible” for last minute changes they make IRL.
Wide receivers (WR):
An offensive position in both the NFL and the CFL. Also referred to as wideouts or simply as receivers, these players tend to be the fastest on the field and are the best at catching the football.
Running backs (RB):
Another important type of offensive player, but instead of catching the ball, they’re main job is to run it. Running backs need to be quick and agile in order to find gaps in the defence. But like a big game of Red Rover, these guys also take a lot of hits and need to be built like a tank rather than the leaner builds of a wide receiver
Tight ends (TE):
Also sometimes called a full back, this position is a bit of an offensive hybrid because they play a roll similar to a wide receiver, but are built like an offensive lineman (ie. bigger, taller, stronger). One of the best in recent memory is forever jokester Rob Gronkowski.
When it comes to kickers, there’s punters and then there’s field goal specialists. A punter drop kicks the ball when the possession is about to turn over on downs, while a field goal specialist kicks from the ground on a kick off or for a (you guessed it) field goal.
Stands for injured reserve. When players get hurt in the NFL, they can go onto what’s called the “IR”. When they get put on this list it “frees up” a spot on the roster so that another player can be called up.
The distance of a completed pass a quarterback throws. This includes the distance that player runs after catching the ball, not just how far the ball travels through the air.
The total number of yards a single player runs as a result of a rushing play. A rushing play is where a player carries the football, as opposed to receiving it from a pass.
Dropping the ball (literally). When they ball is fumbled, whichever teams picks it up takes possession, even if it happens to be the same team that dropped it.
Blocked kicks are v. unlikely BUT this can happen when a player is kicking a convert or a field goal and the defensive team manages to stick up a hand and block the football from going through the goalposts. Impressive.
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Guide | Glossary | FAQs | Grey Cup | Fantasy | Superbowl LII | Back to Top
What does the “pocket” refer to in football?
You might often hear the announcers in a football game say the word pocket. If you’re thinking: ‘It doesn’t look like those tight football pants have pockets???"‘ you would be correct! A pocket is this safe little space, created by the offensive linemen, where the quarterback stands to throw the football.
Okay, so what do the announcers mean when they say “scramble”?
QBs can scramble around and leave the safety of the pocket to try throwing at a different angle, but they run a way higher risk of being sacked. Stress level 100.
How do those bigger players run so fast?
The bigger players often play on the offensive line or defensive line! Their job is either to protect their own quarterback or to go after the opposing team’s quarterback. They might not look like it, but they are quick like cheetahs and agile AF. They don’t need to run forever, they only need to take a handful of v. quick steps and then rest before the next play.
Why is the CFL not as popular as the NFL? Is it becoming more popular?
The CFL (Canadian Football League) isn’t as popular for a couple of reasons. First, the CFL is seen as a lower tier of the sport. Generally, when players don’t make the NFL, they try to play in the CFL — we’re looking at you Johnny Manziel. Secondly, the NFL is just playing to a MUCH BIGGER market (think 325M in the States vs. 40M people in Canada). More people watching means more money, more ad dollars and more popularity. Money makes the world go ‘round, eh?
Why is college football not really a thing in Canada? Because I love Friday Night Lights!
Ugh, us too. College football in the US is literally like a religion. Some of the most popular teams actually pull a bigger audience than the NFL!
College football does exist in Canada, but on a much, much smaller level. In fact, Canadian university teams from coast-to-coast compete for the Vanier Cup every year — the championship of Canadian university football. You might not find Tim Riggins or Matt Saracen BUT we’d still recommend going to support the ol’ Alma Mater.
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The GIST's Guide to Fantasy Football
We’ll start off with a quick PSA because (as much as we all want it to be), Fantasy Football has nothing to do with The Bachelor’s Fantasy Suite. Sad, we know.
Here’s the deal: fantasy exists in any-kind-of-sport (yup, there’s fantasy hockey, baseball, etc.) and is kinda like a computer game with real-world counterparts. We all know that football exists IRL and we all cheer for our favourite teams/players. BUT, as viewers, we don’t have any decision-making power or skin in the game — players are chosen by the teams’ owners/management, and viewers don’t have a choice in who the teams sign. That’s where “fantasy” comes in! So us regular folk can create our ideal team — our “fantasy” team, if you will. The catch is, this team is built online. You choose players from across the league that make up your dream team. Your fantasy team then squares off against other people’s fantasy teams. What’s cool is that as much as your fantasy team exists online, the statistics of actual players in real life games dictate how your fantasy team does.
Still with us? Great! This may sound a little bit complicated, but you really don’t need to be a die-hard fan to participate in fantasy sports. Having a basic understanding won’t make you basic; any smart and strategic babe (that’s you!) can take it all. Before we get into it, there are a lot of football references in this guide (duh), so make sure you brush up on your football 101 before diving in.
Why is fantasy such a big deal?
As we at The GIST say all the time, sports have a unique way of uniting people, and fantasy sports are no different. It allows fans to feel like they’ve got a bigger stake in the game; like they knew a rookie would have an incredible season before anyone else, or to claim bragging rights in a part of their life that brings them so much joy. There’s also the less poetic aspect of having cash money on the line. And everybody likes winning money.
In fact, the market for fantasy football is so huge there’s an entire TV show dedicated to it. There are radio stations dedicated solely to fantasy football and the NFL website has its own fantasy football section. Basically, FF is a BFD, so it’s time to get on board.
Okay, but what’s a sports pool and what’s fantasy?
In terms of betting on sports IRL against other people, there’s generally pools and then fantasy. A “pool” in sports typically means you’re picking one team to beat the other. “Fantasy” on the other hand usually means you’re picking players to make up your team, which will then face other fantasy teams.
To start, the simplest type of pool is a standard pick ‘em. That means you just pick who you think is going to win in each head-to-head match-up each week. The person in the pool who guesses the most victories wins that week.
Another type of pool is a survivor pool. Each week, you check the matchups and pick one team that you think will win their game. For example, if the New England Patriots (all-around awesomeness) are playing the Cincinnati Bengals (general sad pandas), you would choose the team you thought was going to win and then hopefully move on to glory. As long as the team you choose wins, you move on. The catch is you can only choose each team once throughout the 17 week season, so you may not want to choose all the obvious winners upfront. Oooo some strategy, we love it. Choosing a wrong team means you’re kicked out of the pool. Bye Felicia!
Now, it’s time for fantasy standard draft leagues. These require more effort and understanding, but once you get it, it’s hella fun! Let’s base things off Yahoo Fantasy because it’s the most common website used.
First you draft your team, which means selecting (usually) 16 players. These are real pro football players who are top-dogs at their positions. Imagine an all-star season of your favourite reality show: only the best are worthy.
This is what the Yahoo draft page looks like once it’s live:
While this dashboard looks a little complicated, here are all the parts you need to know:
Time in the top left corner: How much time you have to make a player selection. You only get 1-2 minutes to make your selection, which sounds like a lot, but it goes fast!
Red bar underneath: Your spot in the drafting order (see below on how that’s decided).
Draft order: This is where all the teams in your league are listed, so you can see the order in which each team will select their player.
Middle top: When you click on a player, this is where his face and stats pop up. If they haven’t been drafted yet and you want to pick him, you can click “Add to Queue,” which is basically a waiting spot on the top right of the screen. This makes it easier to find the players you’re interested in.
Middle of the screen: This is where all the available players are — you can search by position to make it easier to navigate. If they have a little red plus sign, it means they’re injured.
Top right: If you’ve added players you want to your queue, this is where you’ll see them. If someone drafts them before you can, they’ll disappear from there.
Middle right: This is where you’ll see the players you’ve taken that make up your team!
Drafting works as a snake. What the heck do snakes have to do with sports? Let’s say your league has 10 people. The computer uses an algorithm (#math) to randomly assign you a number from 1-10 and then the order for picking your player will go from person 1 to person 10, then start with person 10 down to person 1, and then repeat, until everyone has filled their rosters. So if you’re drafting 8th, 9th or 10th, you should have two picks ready to go cause that snake moves fast.
Standard leagues draft the following positions: quarterbacks (QB), wide receivers (WR), running backs (RB), tight ends (TE), kickers, and a team defence (meaning you choose the whole Green Bay Packers defence, not an individual player). Some leagues will allow you to draft two WRs and two RBs as opposed to just the one.
W-R-T means you can fill that spot with either a WR, RB or TE — it kind of acts like a wildcard. BN is your bench. The bench is like a holding spot for the players you aren’t using that week. IR stands for injured reserve — the place you put #1 pick David Johnson when he dislocates his wrist in the season opener. Welp. The IR is strictly reserved for players that are hurt, so there’s no chance you could play them anyway.
Once you draft your players, you set your roster each week. Yes, you’ve got to pick a roster EACH week! Also, FYI: The football week is Thursday to Monday with usually one game on Thursday, 14 on Sunday and one on Monday. Setting your lineup means deciding who you think is going to get you the most points. So, if one of your running backs is facing a team that has a killer defence, it might be better to bench him for the week. Yahoo provides predictions to help you out.
How Do You Get Points?
Your commissioner (a fancy way to say organizer of the league) can change how each player earns your team points, but the standard Yahoo scoring is super easy to understand. Here’s a quick breakdown:
|Player||Gets points for:||Loses points for:|
|QB||Passing yards |
|RB||Rushing yards |
|WR||Receiving yards |
*Some leagues are PPR, which means you might get a Point Per Reception
*Sometimes leagues will also allow for running points, but this more rare
|Anybody||Returned touchdown from a punt |
Offensive fumble returned for a touchdown - this means that the team on offense fumbles the ball and the team on defence picks it up for a touchdown. As a result, only the team on defence could win this point.
|Kickers||Field goals (the longer the kick, the more points)|
|Defence||Points allowed (less scoring allowed = more points for you)|
Kickoff and punt return touchdowns
Extra point returned
|Example: if your defence allows more than 35 points, you lose 4 points|
There are two kinds of standard leagues: head-to-head and total points. Head-to-head means your team faces off against another team in your league each week, and whichever team gets the most points, wins that week. Total points leagues are similar, but instead of a winner and loser each week, your team’s total points are counted over the entire season to determine placing.
Here is an example of what a head-to-head matchup could look like:
TBH, it sounds more complicated reading it than it is actually playing it.
First time? Here are some tips and tricks:
Step One: come up with the best team name ever! A common formula is a player’s name plus something culturally relevant. Some examples include Turn Down for Watt, Pimpin’ Ain’t Breesy and Diggs in a Blanket. Think outside the box!
Next, you need to do some research – don’t think of it as boring, going to the library, citing your sources research; but rather using your incredible intellect to assess the scene of the NFL. Plus, there are a lot of websites that kind of do everything for you. These include:
Each site has articles, lists, projections and rankings. Don’t feel like you need to read everything and try not to feel overwhelmed — most of these sites say the same things. They’re valuable for newbies to get an idea of who’s hot and who’s not (although we all know Tom Brady is hot hot hot). Once you have a basic knowledge of who’s injured, sleeper picks (those guys who are fairly low key, but could have high potential to get you a lot of points), the top defences etc., you’re ready to draft!!
Some hot tips to get you started:
Most importantly, it’s key not to stress too much during the draft because nothing is really permanent. You have the ability to drop and add different players throughout the season, or even trade with other people in your league. If you took someone you regret, do some more research after the draft and drop that player for another one. If your QB gets injured or that one RB just isn’t performing well, get some new ones! You learn a lot as you go.
Don’t pick a quarterback first! While he may be Queen Bee (but not the real Queen Bey), there will be a lot of good ones available.
Go for RBs and WRs first. They do most of the scoring.
Take your defence second-last and your kicker dead-last. Some leagues will even eliminate the kicking category because it’s the least important!
Don’t take too many players from one team. Each team gets a bye week (a week off), so you’ll be f***ed if they’re all on your bench.
Stay relaxed, especially if the player you want gets taken, cause it’s def going to happen. Have a few lined up so you’re always ready. Remember, you only have a certain amount of time to choose each player.
Bonus: watch out for injuries during the season. If any player goes down, whether they’re yours or not, try and get their backup!
Good luck and have fun, GISTers!
Written with Guest Writer: Kara Steyn
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