The NFL for British Newbies

By Chris Brown @vivabrownie

Chris argues why you should give the often maligned sport a chance this season

If you switch the television on and catch the beginning of an opening NFL game, just stop what you’re doing and allow yourself to absorb the scene for a moment. Notice the colour, the fireworks, the cheerleaders, the smoke, the razzmatazz – this is big time spectacle sport, this is the NFL.

Some people will watch the NFL and be unperturbed by the splendour. The bright colours will appear garish, the orchestrated crowd behaviours will seem crass and the comments from the TV pundits will seem ludicrously hyperbolic. To those people I say let your hair down and enjoy it. I treat the NFL as American fast food. You can go through life eating salads, dining out at Michelin star restaurants and ordering the quail’s eggs on a bed of spinach but who doesn’t like to abandon pretension every now and then and enjoy the occasional cheeseburger, fries and milkshake at their local American restaurant?

That’s the NFL. You can pick holes in it and criticise all day, but it’s really good fun.

Don’t get me wrong, I was once like you, scoffing at this ‘American rubbish’. Using the tired, worn out [and unfunny] ‘rugby for wimps’ catchphrases; complaining about the constant ad breaks; ridiculing just how fat the defenders were; getting irked every time one of these defenders performed a celebration dance just for tackling somebody.

What’s he dancing for? All he’s done is trip somebody up‘, I would murmur in bemusement.

I hadn’t bothered to learn the rules of the game, nor did I know anything about the players, the characters in the contests, the mind games, the histories of the teams. Sporting jingoism kicked in and I joined the hordes of other British people who just blindly dismiss the game as being inferior to our sports.

It is extremely easy to just reject American Football outright for two main reasons:

Firstly, the game is incredibly complex. Even the refs don’t seem to understand the rules a lot of the time. Add these complicated rules to a wall of incomprehensible jargon [PAT, scrimmage, screen pass, icing the kicker] and you’re left with something that takes a lot of patience and learning to understand.

Even after two years of watching, I still probably understand about 50 per cent of the game [enough to enjoy it] and I’ve got no doubt that should a proper NFL fan read this article they’ll be cringing at my terminology. I can only imagine it’s the equivalent of an American guy talking about this new game ‘Soccer’ and calling the box ‘the square’ , the penalty spot ‘the penalty dot’ and so on [to those people let me prematurely apologise.]

I think the other reason there’s a bit of hostility towards the sport in the UK generally is that…..well….the type of British people who love NFL are generally deemed to be quite ‘odd’.

Whenever the Super Bowl coverage on the BBC or Sky switches to check in at the ‘Super Bowl party in London’ and these people in replica XXL jerseys emerge to be interviewed, it’s usually as if ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ and the geeks from ‘Beauty and the Geek’ have collided to engender a horrifying new spectacle.

As if a Games Workshop store decided to lock the clientele in one night, on a total whim, and turned the place into a disco.

I’m sure the attendees of the NFL UK events are all nice people, and I’d get on with them if I ever made the pilgrimage down there in February – but I can’t help feeling that they slightly hurt the image of the game in the UK and cement its status as a niche interest.

If you give NFL a chance, learn the rules and the jargon and you gloss over the existence of the Super Bowl London fans…you can learn to love this sport, because it’s genuinely brilliant.

I got into the sport because I had a gambling problem of sorts. The rain was a tappin’ on my window pane, the hour was 1am and I’d exhausted all bets on the total number of corners in the Israeli Premier Division match between Maccabi Haifa and a team whose name escapes me but it was nought but a succession of vowels.

But  down there, an NFL match was about to begin. I blindly threw a fiver at the Denver Broncos – 7. Woke up the next morning and my money had doubled. A few more bets over the coming weeks and I was watching the matches broadcast on Sky and Channel Four. The Denver Broncos would be the team I’d support.

I’ve always liked the idea of Colorado. It’s not East Coast, it’s not West Coast, and so to the average Brit it remains quite a mysterious kind of place. I also like ‘proper’ weather. Apparently in Colorado they get non-stop snow from about October to April, and then in the summer months it’s routinely 30 degrees plus.

That sounds fantastic.

White Christmases and boiling summers, one extreme or the other. My kind of place. None of this cloud and mediocre drizzle we get here.

Then factor in that Colorado is the home of South Park. The Broncos are the team of Cartman, Randy, Stan, Mrs Garrison, Chef, Butters and co.

Their logo is a horse that looks like its head’s on fire and their quarterback is the greatest QB of all time – Peyton Manning, a guy who is incomparable to any one character in our football. Someone who is class personified. A walking manifestation of old school America. I guess he’d be the equivalent of Zinedine Zidane’s ability and Clarence Seedorf’s charm.

When the Denver Broncos faced the Seattle Seahawks in last year’s Super Bowl, the old me would have seen just two faceless teams. However, on knowing a bit about the sport, two faceless teams became the story of Peyton Manning [the ageing, all-time great] attempting to secure his legacy and bring a Super Bowl to Denver, facing off against Seattle who are famed for having the best defence in the NFL, hilariously nicknamed the ‘Legion of Boom’ for their crunching tackles.

Once you know that background information, a sterile match between two teams becomes quite an enthralling contest. Would Peyton Manning be protected long enough to throw the ball, or would the Legion of Boom and friends get to him and break his ageing bones?

As it happened Seattle thrashed Denver in a shocking turn of affairs. Seattle’s defensive monsters trampled all over Denver and Peyton Manning was roughed up to the point of physical abuse, getting no protection from his offensive line.

In American Football the offensive line are the chubby guys who stand in front of the quarterback and try to stop the defenders from crunching him. They’re bodyguards simply put.

Imagine Peyton Manning is the Queen. Seattle’s defenders are Mike Tyson, Ya Ya Toure and Joe Calzaghe, and they’re trying to beat up the Queen. The only people attempting to stop that from happening are the offensive line. If Seattle’s defence was personified as Mike Tyson, Denver’s offensive line was Tyrion off Game of Thrones. A total mismatch.

On Friday 5th September the journey to Super Bowl XLIX begins as reigning champions the Seattle Seahawks host the attractively uniformed Green Bay Packers with their yellow helmets, green jerseys and yellow trousers in a matchup perfectly suited to catch the attention of any newbie fan. Seattle are famed for having the most impressive home form in the league [think Pulis’s Stoke], playing in a cold, wind-swept stadium where the fans regularly scream so loud they’ve caused minor earthquakes in the past.

Green Bay are hotly tipped to make the Super Bowl this year after addressing their defensive concerns and holding onto one of the most explosive offences in the NFL led by the brilliant Aaron Rodgers.

Unfortunately given our time differences the game isn’t being shown until the wee hours of the morning, so Sky + this contest if you’ve got to get up in the morning.

Once you understand the basic rules and you become aware of the characters like Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and the Legion of Boom, the sport really does enrich a weekend’s afternoon.

You quickly realise that the fat guys are fat for a reason – to protect their quarterbacks with their bodies. The ad breaks in America are great because they allow us to listen to the brilliant and often funny views of pundits like Iron Mike Carlson in the studio. The timeouts aren’t boring, but are actually used as a tactic, and if they’re misused it can be the difference between a team winning and losing.

Once you get your head around the idea that our football and the NFL are beyond comparison, just as Jazz music is to Pop, you can enjoy both types of sport. The non-stop and the tactical.

Good luck in taking your first step into the sporting Disney World that is the NFL – and if you can pick a team using better reasons than ‘colour of uniforms’ and ‘weather’ then you’re a better man than me.

* The NFL starts on Friday 5th September at 1am on Sky Sports 1 with reigning champions Seattle Seahawks facing off against Aaron Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers*

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