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Football Terms

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  • 3-4 : A defensive formation with three down linemen (two ends and a nose guard) and four linebackers. This is a good formation to run if the defense has very large players who can take up more space allowing the extra linebacker to go after the quarterback or defend against the pass.
  • 4-3 : A defensive formation with four defensive linemen and three linebackers. This formation is best when facing an offense that prefers to run the ball between the tackles. This puts more defenders along the line of scrimmage.
  • 46 defense : This is a defense that is best used against conventional offensive formations, such as the “I”. The 46 defense can struggle against formations with 4 or 5 receivers spread out. The 46 is a defense architected by Buddy Ryan and named after NFL safety Doug Plank who was a main cog in the defense when Ryan originally used it on third down blitzing situations. Plank wore #46 on his jersey. Ryan worked this defense to perfection in 1985 for the Chicago Bears, as that team’s defensive unit is frequently thought of as one of the best ever.
  • ACL : Anterior Cruciate Ligament. A ligament in the knee that when torn requires surgery and 9-12 months of rehabilitation for a player to return.
  • Across the middle : Refers to running a pass route in the middle of the field. This can be a dangerous area for a receiver if the quarterback throws the ball in a place where the receiver needs to extend his arms to catch the ball because more defenders will be able to put a hit on the receiver. Receivers can prove their toughness by frequently catching passes across the middle.
  • Alligator arms : a receiver who does not fully extend his arms to catch a pass because he is afraid that he will be hit hard immediately upon touching the ball. The receiver is protecting himself from the hit and does not catch the pass.
  • American Football Conference: The NFL is split into two 16-team conferences. At the end of each regular season, the top six AFC teams will play off against each other in a bid to decide the AFC champion, who will then meet the NFC (National Football Conference) champion in the Super Bowl. 
  • Audible:  After a play is called on the sideline, a quarterback can change the play after the offense is set up depending on what he anticipates the defense doing. The quarterback will often shout the change to all of his teammates before starting the play so everyone is on the same page.
  • Backfield: The area behind the line of scrimmage where the running backs line up and the quarterback throws passes. Also the collective name for running backs and quarterbacks.
  • Ball: Smaller and considerably harder than a rugby ball, the American football is sphere-shaped and weighs between 14 and 15 ounces. The ball is covered in a grainy, tan-coloured leather and is often referred to as a pigskin.
  • Ball Control: A strategy that involves the offense keeping possession of the ball for long periods of time. The best way to do this is to run the ball often as the clock continues to count down on running plays, whereas incompletions on passing plays automatically stop the clock. The theory of a ball control attack is that the longer the offensive team has possession, the less time the opponent has to generate a scoring drive.
  • Belly : Running back runs the ball up the middle after taking the handoff from the quarterback with a reverse pivot.
  • Bench area: Each team has a bench area on opposite sides of the pitch. The area
  • Big uglies : Offensive linemen.
  • Bit : When a defender falls for a fake, Example
  • Blindside: The area outside the quarterback’s vision. This is the most dangerous place for a quarterback to receive a hit from a defender as he doesn’t see the pressure coming.
  • Blitz:  When an unusual number of defensive players, usually linebackers, go after the quarterback throwing the ball rather than staying in the backfield waiting to see where the quarterback throws it. A blitz is a high-risk, high-reward strategy for defenses.
  • Blitz : An aggressive play by the defense when they attack a specific play by the offense. A blitz can backfire if the offense is not running the play that the blitz was intended to stop.
  • Blocking: A key part of American football. Blocking is the legal effort by an offensive player to obstruct a defender in order to complete successful running or passing plays. On running plays, offensive players block defenders in order to stop them tackling the ball carrier. On passing plays, offensive linemen aim to prevent rushing defenders from reaching the quarterback as he throws downfield.
  • Bomb: A long pass completion.
  • Bootleg: A deceptive move by the quarterback where he fakes handing the ball to the running back and then hides the ball against his hip as he runs around one end of the line of scrimmage. After bootlegging to the end of the line, quarterbacks can either throw to open receivers or run downfield on their own.
  • Bootleg : when a quarterback runs out of the pocket with the ball looking to pass the ball as his first priority, but run with it if he can’t find an open receiver.
  • Borges, Ron : Cranky Boston Globe football columnist whose criticism of the Patriots for their lack of a run game combined with simultaneous praise for the 2002 Raiders for their lack of a run game inspired the initial statistical work that led to creation of Football Outsiders. Also one of America’s best boxing journalists.
  • BSG : Acronym used to refer to ESPN.com writer Bill Simmons, who before ESPN was known as the Boston Sports Guy.
  • Bump and run: A defensive technique employed by the cornerbacks covering opposing wide receivers. The defender hits the receiver as he comes off the line and then runs downfield with him. The technique is aimed at disrupting the finely-tuned timing between a wide receiver and his quarterback.
  • Bump and run : a defensive technique where the defender will initially hit the receiver at the snap of the ball and then run with him in coverage. This technique is used against offenses that rely on timing with the expectation that a receiver will be in a spot on the field at an exact time. Defenders may only bump the receiver in the first five yards forward from the line of scrimmage.
  • Cadence : The words or sounds a quarterback makes prior to receiving the ball from the center. One sound or word is usually the indication to the offense to begin the play.
  • Canton, Ohio : Home of the Professional Football Hall of Fame. Why Canton? Representatives from the Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, and Dayton Triangles met at the Jordan and Hupmobile Auto Showroom in Canton on August 20, 1920. and formed the American Professional Football Conference, which in 1922 became the National Football League.
  • Capology : The study of the NFL’s salary cap system. Confusing to most and understood by few.
  • Center: The player in the middle of the offensive line who snaps the ball between his legs to the quarterback. Is the man charged with calling out blocking assignments for the offensive linemen.
  • Chain gang: A group of six men who assist the officials in yardage marking. The chains measure 10 yards in length and have a post at each end. The first post sits on the line of scrimmage and then the chain stretches 10 yards to the second post, which signifies the line needed to pass to pick up a first down.
  • Chain gang : The officials on the sideline that hold the yardage markers. Referred to as the chain gang because the first down markers are held together by a 10 yard metal chain.
  • Cheat sheet : A paper the quarterback has on his wristband to easily see plays to be called.
  • Check down : See "safety valve".
  • Chop block : A block where the offensive player throws himself at a defender’s legs to take him down, but does not tackle.
  • Clip/clipping : A penalty where an offensive player blocks a defensive player in the back. Results in a 15 yard penalty.
  • Clipping: A dangerous and illegal block in which a player takes out his opponent from behind.
  • Coffin Corner:  Often referred when a punter kicks the ball out of bounds between the opponents' end zone and 5-yard line. It is named "coffin corner" because of the difficulty of the punt and the fact that the offense has to start backed up by its own end zone, which can lead to further problems.
  • Coffin corner : A punt where the punter is trying to kick the ball out of bounds as closely as he can to the end zone without letting the ball go into the end zone or fly over the end zone. Great coffin corner punts go out of bounds between the 5-yard line and the goal line.
  • Coin toss: A pre-game ceremony to determine who kicks off, who receives the ball and in which direction the teams will play.
  • Commissioner: The head man in the National Football League and arguably the most powerful man in sports. Paul Tagliabue has held the position of NFL Commissioner since November 1989, when he succeeded Pete Rozelle, who held the post from 1960 to 1989.
  • Completion: A forward pass that is successfully caught by an eligible receiver.
  • Cornerback: A defender charged with covering the opposing team’s wide receiver. There are usually two cornerbacks
  • Counter : A play where the offense runs the ball in the opposite direction that the defense expects. Usually preceded by a fake in the opposite direction of the actual play.
  • Cover 2 : See article, a defense where cornerbacks cover the wide receivers for the first 10-15 yards off the line of scrimmage, but then the safeties take over if the WR continues deep. This allows the defensive linemen and linebackers to contain a running play, short dump-off passes and get after the quarterback. This defense requires players that are fast and good at covering receivers. This defense can be beaten with deep passes up the middle of the field, as long as the quarterback as the necessary time for the receiver to get that far.
  • Crackback block : On a running play, this is when a wide receiver comes from the outside and blocks to the inside. Opposite of a kickout block.
  • Cut: The term used to describe a player changing direction on the pitch.
  • Delay of Game: A 5-yard penalty that occurs when the offense fails to snap the ball into play within the 40-second window allowed from the end of the previous play.
  • Dime:  A type of defensive formation where six defensive backs are used instead of the normal four. Dime packages are used only in obvious passing situations to maximize coverage.
  • Dime : Similar to the nickel defense, but where the defense removes another linebacker or defensive lineman and replaces him with a sixth defensive back. Only used in obvious passing situations. Very similar to a prevent defense.
  • Dink and dunk : A short passing game. Passes that can frustrate a defense as they are usually less than 5 yards, but a succession of short passes lead to first downs and uses up the clock.
  • Dive play : A run up the middle where the offense is hoping for at least minimal yardage. Usually used when the offense needs 2 yards or less to gain a first down or touchdown.
  • Double (teamed/coverage): Two defenders covering one receiver.
  • Down: A play from scrimmage
  • Down by contact : The ball carried is ruled down when any part of his body is touching the ground (other than his feet or hands) and he is touched by a defender.
  • Downhill runner: Term for a straight-ahead running power back who hits the hole quickly.
  • Draft: The annual process in which the leading college players from across America are selected by the 32 NFL teams. There are seven rounds in the draft
  • Drag : A route where the receiver runs downfield and breaks in towards the center of the field on a 90 degree angle. The opposite of an out. Not to be confused with Nathan Lane's character in "The Birdcage".
  • Draw: A fake pass play that ends up being a run. The quarterback drops back to pass and his offensive linemen drop back in pass protection. But the quarterback then hands the ball to a running back who runs upfield in the space created by defenders who are going after the quarterback.
  • Draw : An offensive play where the quarterback drops back or stands in the pocket as if to pass and then runs the ball himself or hands it off to a running back.
  • Drop: 1. The movement of the quarterback after the snap as he retreats into the backfield to set up to pass. 2. The movement of a defender as he retreats to cover a receiver downfield. 3. When the receiver lets the ball hit the ground after it has hit his hands on a forward pass.
  • Eligible receiver : A player who is legally allowed to touch the ball when thrown forward over the line of scrimmage. Eligible receivers are any player who is not lined up at the offensive center, guard or tackle position, unless they first tell the referee that they are an eligible receiver for that play only.
  • Encroachment:  When a defensive player crosses the line of scrimmage and makes contact with an offensive player before the play begins. Encroachment often occurs when a defensive player tries to anticipate when the ball is going to be snapped and rushes too early.
  • Encroachment : A penalty where a defender is in the neutral zone before the ball is snapped. Result upon acceptance of the penalty is 5 yards.
  • End around : A running play where a wide receiver carries the ball around the end of his offensive line.
  • End zone:  A 10-yard-long area at both ends of the field — the promised land for a football player. You score a touchdown when you enter the end zone in control of the football. If you’re tackled in your own end zone while in possession of the football, the other team gets a safety.
  • Extra point:  A kick, worth one point, that’s typically attempted after every touchdown (it’s also known as the point after touchdown, or PAT). The ball is placed on either the 2-yard line (NFL) or the 3-yard line (college and high school) and generally is kicked from inside the 10-yard line after being snapped to the holder. It must sail between the uprights and above the crossbar of the goalpost to be considered good.
  • Face mask: The protective cage or bars on the front of a player’s helmet. Tackling a player by grabbing his face mask is a penalty ranging from 5 to 15 yards depending on the severity.
  • Fair Catch:  During a kick or a punt, the return specialist can signal for a fair catch and be allowed to catch the football without the threat of being tackled. If a fair catch is signaled, a returner cannot advance the ball past the spot where he caught it.
  • Fair catch : A call by a kick returner where he waives his arm in the air prior to catching the ball to indicate that he will not run after catching the ball and that he can not be touched by a defender. It is a penalty if the receiver makes any motion to advance the ball after calling a fair catch. If the receiver touches the ball and drops it, contact may then be made by the defender.
  • False start: A penalty called when a player on offense begins to move out of his set stance before the ball has been snapped into play.
  • Fantasy football (a.k.a. roto football): A game for geeks (including every Football Outsider) where NFL players are drafted or auctioned prior to the start of the season, and gain points each week based on performance.
  • FG : The abbreviation for a field goal. A play where the ball is place kicked through the uprights. Results in three points for the kicking team.
  • Field: The field
  • Field goal: A score worth three points. The kicker scores three points when he sends the ball through the posts and over the crossbar, in much the same way as a penalty kick in rugby. However, unlike rugby, the opposing team rushes the kicker in an attempt to block the kicks.
  • Field position : The yard line that the ball is on. Many games are won because a team continually has better starting field position.
  • Flag: The yellow duster thrown on the pitch by any of the seven officials means a penalty has been committed during the play.
  • Flag pattern : The course that a wide receiver runs where he starts running straight downfield and then turns and runs diagonally toward the back corner of the end zone.
  • Flanker : A receiver who doesn’t line up on the line of scrimmage. May line up just a step behind the line or in the offensive backfield.
  • Flat: The area on either side of the line of scrimmage between the final offensive lineman and the sideline. An area where short passes are often thrown to running backs coming out of the backfield.
  • Flat : An area on the field outside the hashmarks and 0-10 yards forward of the line of scrimmage to the offense.
  • Flea Flicker : A trick play where the quarterback hands the ball off to the running back straight up the middle, but then the running back stops, and tosses the ball back to the quarterback behind him who then throws the ball deep downfield to a receiver.
  • Flood : Multiple receivers in the same area of the field.
  • Formation: The alignment of offensive and defensive players on a given play.
  • Franchise tag : A ploy by an NFL team during negotiations with one of their own free agents. If a team puts the franchise tag on a player, that player is under contract for a period of one year at a salary equal to the average of the top five players at his position. A team may apply the franchise tag to only one player at a time. The team and player may renegotiate at any time and remove the franchise tag from the player.
  • Freak : A really cool sounding nickname given to Jevon Kearse.
  • Free agent: A player who is out of contract and can be signed by any NFL team.
  • Front four : The four down defensive linemen in a 4-3 defense. The primary run stoppers.
  • Front seven : The linemen and linebackers in a defense. Does not include the four defensive backs.
  • Fullback : The running back closer to the offensive line when there are multiple running backs in a formation. Usually used as a blocker for the tailback, but can also carry the ball and catch passes.
  • Fumble:  The act of losing possession of the ball while running with it or being tackled. Members of the offense and defense can recover a fumble. If the defense recovers the fumble, the fumble is called a turnover.
  • Gameplan: The strategy a team will employ during an upcoming match. Includes plays they think will work best against that week’s opponent and more general tactics such as running the ball more against one team and passing more against another.
  • Gap : The space between offensive linemen. Gaps are usually specified areas where a running back will carry the ball, or a defensive lineman/linebacker will attempt to run through when chasing the ball carrier.
  • Goal line: The line that marks the start of the end zone. A player scores a touchdown when any part of the ball is above or over the goal line.
  • Gridiron : Just another term for the football field.
  • Guard: Two offensive linemen situated either side of the center.
  • Gunner:  A special teams player who often lines up near the sideline and is trained to race downfield after a kick or punt and tackle the return specialist as quickly as possible.
  • Hail Mary: A desperation pass downfield usually employed at the end of a half or game. A team will send four or five receivers to one side of the field and have them run downfield into the same area of the end zone. The quarterback will then throw a high pass into the area in the hope that one of his receivers will come down with the football amidst the confusion in the end zone.
  • Half the distance : The amount of yardage penalized when the normal distance would exceed half the yards between where the ball is spotted and the end zone. For example an offensive holding penalty would ordinarily result in a 10-yard penalty, but if a team is on its own 15 it would result instead in only half the yards to the end zone assessed and the penalty would take the ball back to the area of the 7 ½ yard line.
  • Halfback: The featured ball carrier among the two running backs lined up behind the quarterback. Generally, the halfback is the fastest member of the backfield and can also catch passes to pose a double threat to defenders.
  • Halftime: The break between the second and third quarters. Last 12 minutes during the regular season and 20 minutes during the Super Bowl. A time for coaches to prepare second half strategy.
  • Handoff: Giving the ball
  • Hands to the face : A penalty where a defender uses his hands to strike an offensive player’s face mask.
  • Hang time : The amount of time that a punt stays in the air. Longer is better for the punting team as the tacklers then get more time to get to where the ball will be coming down. A combination of a long punt with a long hang time is optimal on most punts.
  • Hard count : When a quarterback calls out one sound or word more loudly than the others during his cadence in an attempt to get the defense to jump offsides. Not used very often, since it can also make his own linemen jump early and draw a false start penalty.
  • Hash marks:  The lines on the center of the field that signify 1 yard on the field. Before every play, the ball is spotted between the hash marks or on the hash marks, depending on where the ball carrier was tackled on the preceding play.
  • Heisman : The award given to the best college football player in the country by the Downtown Athletic Club (DAC) in New York City. Named after John W. Heisman, the first director of the DAC. Warren Mulrey of Fordham University modeled for the pose of the trophy.
  • Helmet: Protective equipment worn to protect a player’s head. Used to be made of leather in the early days of the NFL and did not have face masks for added protection. Now made to the highest safety standards possible to prevent serious injury and even death.
  • Hidden Game of Football : The best book ever written about NFL statistics, and the book that got Aaron started in thinking about how to evaluate football plays and players. Written by Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer and John Thorn.
  • Hitch : A part of a pass route that causes a defender to stumble. Frequently will be a faked stop by the receiver, who then continues on to another part of the field.
  • Holder: One player (the holder) is allowed to prop the ball up for the kicker on field goal and extra point attempts. The holder kneels seven yards behind the line, receives the snap from the center and places the ball on the ground for the kicker to send flying through the posts. The holder is usually a backup quarterback or the punter.
  • Holding: A penalty called for the illegal grabbing or grasping of another player. Usually called on offensive linemen attempting to block defenders.
  • Hole: The space opened by blockers for a ball carrier.
  • Hook and lateral : Seen as a trick play where a receiver will run a pass route that is straight down the field, stop and turns back to face the quarterback where he catches the pass. Without trying to advance the ball, he immediately throws the ball to a teammate who is not forward of him. Used by the Miami Dolphins to score a touchdown on the last play of the first half against the San Diego Chargers on January 2, 1982, in the AFC divisional playoff game that some consider the greatest NFL game ever played. (Maryland residents consider this blasphemy.)
  • Hook : A pass route where the receiver runs down field approximately 12 yards and turns back to face the quarterback to catch the pass.
  • Horse Collar Tackle:  A type of tackle where a defender catches the ball carrier from behind, grabs them by the collar of their jersey and pulls them backward to the ground. The method was banned in the NFL due to several leg injuries, most notably to star receiver Terrell Owens.
  • Huddle: The brief gatherings of the offense and defence between plays to outline what the next play will be.
  • Huddle : The grouping of players on offense and defense to call a play.
  • I-formation : Offensive formation where two running backs line up in a straight line behind the quarterback.
  • Immaculate Reception : 12/23/1972, AFC divisional playoff, with 10 seconds left in the game, the Raiders led the Steelers 10-6 and the Steelers had the ball on 4th and 10. QB Terry Bradshaw threw to John “Frenchy” Fuqua but Raider safety Jack Tatum hit Fuqua at the same time as the ball arrived, knocking the ball loose. RB Franco Harris caught the deflection just inches from the ground and then raced 42 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
  • In motion/motion/motion man : An offensive player who moves around the backfield prior to the snap of the ball. Rules state that the player may not be moving toward the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball and may only have one man in motion up until one second before the snap of the ball.
  • In the grasp : When a play is ended by an official because the quarterback is being held by a defender and in the official’s opinion the quarterback is no longer attempting to complete the play. This call is to protect a quarterback from getting unnecessarily slammed to the ground.
    In the box : the defensive area between the offensive tackles extending approximately seven yards deep in the defensive backfield. The defense will put more players “in the box” the more intent they are on stopping a running play.
    Incomplete pass: A pass that has neither been caught by a member of the offense or intercepted by a member of the defence.
  • Ineligible receiver: A player who cannot legally catch a forward pass. This includes all offensive linemen (centers, guards and tackles) and any receiver who has stepped out of bounds during the play and then comes back onto the pitch to make a catch.
  • Instant Replay: System where televison replays are used to establish the outcome of disputed plays. TV cameras can show the play in question from several different angles, allowing the official looking at a monitor down on the pitch to make his decision.
  • Intentional grounding : A penalty when a quarterback intentionally throws the ball in a place where none of his receivers can catch it or in an area without any receivers in an attempt to avoid being tackled for a loss of yardage. In addition, for this play to be a penalty, he must have thrown the ball while being in the tackle box and the ball must make it to at least the line of scrimmage. The penalty is 10 yards and a loss of down.
  • Interception:  A pass that’s caught by a defensive player, ending the offense’s possession of the ball.
  • Interference: A penalty called when a player impedes an opponent as he attempts to catch a pass.
  • Jacked and pumped : See “pumped and jacked”.
  • Jacked Up!:  A term popularized by ESPN where a player is the victim of an aggressive tackle or block that looks painful to outsiders.
  • James, Bill : The man who coined the word “sabermetrics” and led the revolution in statistical analysis of baseball with his annual Baseball Abstract books in the 1980s. The model for our NFL analysis.
  • Kicker: Specialist who comes onto the field just to handle kickoffs, field goal and extra point attempts. 
  • Kickoff:  A free kick (the receiving team can’t make an attempt to block it) that puts the ball into play. A kickoff is used at the start of the first and third periods and after every touchdown and successful field goal.
  • Kickout block : On a running play, this blocker is running parallel to the line of scrimmage and his job is to to keep the outside edge rusher (usually a DE or OLB) from crashing to the inside. It's almost always a fullback or a pulling guard who does the kickout block. Opposite of a crackback block.
  • Kneel Down:  A play used by a team who's winning the game late and only needs to run off the rest of the clock. When an offense kneels on the ball, there is no chance at a fumble or an interception and the clock will continue to run.
  • Lateral:  Most commonly defined as when a ball carrier throws the ball to a teammate. A team is allowed one forward lateral (a pass) per play, but there is no limit to the number of backward laterals allowed.
  • Leading with the head : Any hit by a defender where the first contact is with the helmet. A penalty.
  • Leg whip : An illegal play where a player on the ground swings his leg at a player in an attempt to tackle or block.
  • Levitra : Drug which cures male impotence by annoying football fans so much with commercials that fans shut off television and take out wives for romantic dinner followed by sex. Spokesman for company is “Iron Mike” Ditka.
  • Line of scrimmage : An imaginary line extending from sideline to sideline where the ball is spotted.
  • Linebacker: Athletic versatile defenders (usually three on the field at any one time) who line up in the middle of the defence behind the defensive linemen and in front of the cornerbacks and safeties who make up the secondary. Linebackers have several tasks including stopping opponent’s running plays, covering receivers on passing plays or pressuring the quarterback into mistakes.
  • Locker room: The American term for the dressing room. Much like football dressing rooms except much bigger and generally much fancier.
  • Lombardi Trophy : The trophy given to the team that wins the NFL’s Super Bowl. Named after former Green Bay Packer coach Vince Lombardi.
  • Looking into the backfield : A mistake made by a defensive back when he watches the quarterback and tries to guess what he is going to do instead of covering his man. This is what allowed Muhsin Muhammed to get behind the Patriots defense for an 85-yard touchdown catch in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
  • LT : In the 1980’s, LT was New York Giant linebacker Lawrence Taylor, but now LT is slowly becoming the moniker for LaDainian Tomlinson of the Chargers.
  • Man to man (coverage/defense)-: A defender is assigned a specific player to cover regardless of where the offensive player goes.
  • MCL : Medial Collateral Ligament. A ligament in the knee that when torn may not require surgery for a player to return.
  • Mike, Sam, Will:  In a 4-3 defense (four linemen, three linebackers), each linebacker is given a moniker based on where they play. The Mike linebacker plays the middle, the Sam linebacker plays on the strong side and the Will linebacker plays on the weak side. The strong side is whatever side of the field has more offensive players lined up before a play.
  • MNF : Acronym for Monday Night Football. Broadcast by ABC and hosted by Al Michaels and John Madden.
  • Motion: The moving of an offensive player from one position on the field to another prior to the snap which signifies the start of the play. Receivers, tight ends and running backs are the players most likely to go in motion to confuse the defence.
  • Muff : A muff is the drop of a punt that was never under control. Not to be confused with a fumble.
  • Music City Miracle : Play to end the 2000 AFC Championship game where the Buffalo Bills kicked off to the Tennessee Titans, Frank Wycheck received the kick and then immediately and legally threw the ball to Kevin Dyson who ran the ball for a game winning touchdown.
  • Naked bootleg : A running play where all the blockers run in one direction and the quarterback carries the ball in the other direction.
  • National Football Conference: The other 16-team conference that makes up the NFL. See American Football Conference for more details.
  • Neutral zone: The space (the length of the ball) between the offensive and defensive lines at the start of each play.
  • Neutral zone : The area of the field between the offense and defense when both are lined up read for the snap of the ball. Defined as the length of the football.
  • Nickel defence: A defensive formation adopted in situations where the offense is expected to pass. A fifth defensive back is brought onto the field to cover opposing wide receivers, usually at the expense of a linebacker.
  • Nickel : A defensive formation where the defense will remove a linebacker and put a fifth defensive back on the field. Used in obvious passing situations such as third and long.
  • Nose Tackle:  In a 3-4 defense (three linemen, four linebackers), the nose tackle is the middle lineman who lines up over the offensive center.
  • Offense: The team with the ball.
  • Officials: The NFL uses seven officials to control games led by the referee and then the umpire, head linesman, line judge, back judge, side judge and the field judge.
  • Offsetting penalties : Penalties by players on offense and defense on the same play that cancel out. Results in a repeated down with same distance to go.
  • Offside: A penalty called when any part of a player’s body is across the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped into play.
  • Off-tackle : An offensive running play where the running back attempts to carry the ball to the outside of the offensive tackle and inside of a tight end, if present.
  • Onside Kick:  When the kicking team attempts to get the ball back during the kickoff by tapping a short kick. The kicking team can get the ball back only if the kick goes more than 10 yards, so kickers often practice kicking the ball into the ground and forcing a big bounce that covers the 10 yards and gives the kicking team a chance to gain possession.
  • Option pass: A trick play where the quarterback hands the ball to a running back and the ball carrier has the option to either run with the ball or throw it to a receiver downfield.
  • Option : An offensive play rarely used in professional football where the quarterback will run with the ball, but pitches it to a running back behind him if he’s about to be tackled. Used frequently by Nebraska Cornhuskers. Rarely used in the NFL because the defense will always get to tackle the quarterback which risks injury.
  • Out of bounds: A player is deemed out of bounds if he touches or crosses the six-foot wide, solid white boundary line that rims the pitch.
  • Out pattern : The course that a wide receiver runs where he starts running straight downfield and then turns and runs toward the sideline in an attempt to get open.
  • Overtime: The extra 15-minute period added on to regular season games to try to break ties. Also known as ‘sudden-death overtime’ because the first team to score in any manner wins the game. In playoff games, as many overtime periods as needed to determine a winner are played.
  • Pasquarelli, Len : ESPN.com football columnist.
  • Pass: One of two ways for an offense to move the football. Passes are usually thrown by the quarterback.
  • Pass Interference:  When a defensive player unfairly interferes with a receiver's attempt to catch the football. There is also offensive pass interference, when a receiver unfairly interferes with a defender's attempt to intercept a pass.
  • Pass pattern: The route a receiver runs before he catches a pass from the quarterback. This is pre-determined in the huddle before the play so the quarterback knows exactly where his receiver will be.
  • Pass rush: The charge by any defensive player or players in order to pressure the quarterback as he attempts to pass the ball.
  • Passer Rating (a.k.a. QB Rating): The NFL’s own next to impossible to understand equation for judging quarterback performances. Described in detail at the NFL's official site.
  • PAT : Point After Touchdown. One point if the ball is place kicked through the uprights, two if the ball is rushed or thrown and received in the end zone. The PAT begins on the two yard line.
  • Penalty: A foul signified by the throwing of a yellow flag on the field.
  • Penetration: Movement of defensive linemen across the line of scrimmage and into the offensive backfield. Good penetration into the backfield can disrupt many plays before they have the chance to get started.
  • Pitch : 1. an underhanded throw by the quarterback to the running back who is running out wide. 2. another term for throw, as in “pitch and catch”. 3. a non-American term for the field.
  • Play action pass: A deceptive play where the quarterback pretends to hand the ball to a running back in the hope of bringing defenders and in particular defensive backs closer to the line of scrimmage. Quarterback then pulls the ball away from the running back and throws to a receiver downfield.
  • Play action : The quarterback fakes a handoff to the running back in order to make the defense believe it is a running play for the purpose of helping the receivers get open.
  • Playbook: A confidential collection of a team’s plays, including diagrams, strategies and terminologies. Each player is expected to know his playbook like the back of his hand and these books are usually filled with more than 300 pages of plays and schemes.
  • Playmakers : A dramatic TV series about a fictitious football team. The series was produced by ESPN. The series was cancelled after the first season due to good ratings mostly because the NFL was unhappy with the show’s sensationalism and portrayal of the negative aspects in the life of a professional football player.
  • Pocket : The area where the quarterback stands during a play while looking to throw the ball downfield and where his linemen are protecting him. If the offensive linemen don’t properly block, then the pocket will “collapse”.
  • Pooch kick : An intentionally short punt not to be confused with the every week work of Ken Walter. Punters will “pooch” their kick when the offense is too far to attempt a field goal, but too close where a normal full punt would go into the end zone. Similar to a coffin corner punt, but the ball will remain in bounds to either be covered by the kicking team or received as a fair catch by the returning team.
  • Post pattern : The course that a wide receiver runs where he starts running straight downfield and then turns and runs diagonally toward the goal posts.
  • Power sweep: A running play around the end of the line in which the ball carrier is led by both offensive guards as the offense attempts to overpower the defence in one area of the field.
  • Prevent defence: A conservative defensive approach usually adopted when protecting a large lead late in games. Defence will guard against long pass plays by having more defensive backs retreat into coverage. This allows the offense to complete time-consuming short passes but not costly big gains or scores.
  • Prevent defense : A defensive formation where the team on defense is simply trying to prevent giving up a long, quick play for a touchdown and keep the clock running by leaving defenders deep and along the sidelines to keep the ball carrier in bounds. Offenses can gain yardage up the middle of the field, but that will come at the cost of time off the clock.
  • Pro Bowl : Year-end football game played by the year’s best NFL players that closely resembles a high school powder puff game. Actually, it’s a game played each year in Honolulu where the starters are chosen by the fans, the reserves chosen by the coaches. It’s the NFL’s all-star game and team owners and coaches just pray their players do not get hurt.
  • Pro-formation : Offensive formation where two running backs line up behind and lateral to the quarterback. Similar to the wishbone sans the third running back directly behind the quarterback.
  • Punt:  A kick made when a player drops the ball and kicks it while it falls toward his foot. A punt is usually made on a fourth down when the offense must surrender possession of the ball to the defense because it couldn’t advance 10 yards.
  • Pylon : The usually orange marker that indicates each of the four corners of the end zone. If the ball carrier makes contact with a pylon before going out of bounds on a running play, a touchdown is scored even if the carrier never touches any other part of the end zone.
  • Quarter: A 15-minute playing period. Four quarters make up an NFL game.
  • Quarterback:  The player directly behind the offensive line who usually takes the snap and manages the offense. The quarterback is considered the most important player on a football team.
  • Quarterback sneak: A play used in short yardage situations as the quarterback takes the snap from the center and immediately runs forward behind his blockers.
  • Quick kick : A trick play where the offensive starts the play as if they are going to pass or run the ball but then actually punt. This play is intended to give the other team a poor starting point on the field and the punt is not intended to be returned.
  • Quick out : A route where the receiver runs downfield and then breaks towards the sideline then looks for the ball. The opposite of a drag or in.
  • Quick snap : When the center gives to the ball to the quarterback immediately upon the offense setting up rather than letting the quarterback go through his cadence.
  • Red Zone : The area from the defense’s 20-yard line to the goal line. Scoring is harder because the field is so condensed, but easier because the goal line is so close.
  • Return:  The act of receiving a kick or punt and running toward the opponent’s goal line with the intent of scoring or gaining significant yardage.
  • Reverse: A play designed to trick the defence as the quarterback hands the ball to a running back heading in one direction and that running back then gives the ball to a receiver coming back the other way behind the line of scrimmage.
  • Reverse : An offensive play with two hand-offs. The quarterback gives the ball to a carrier running in one direction, who then hands the ball to a carrier running in the other direction. A trick play.
  • Roll out: The action of the quarterback as he moves across the backfield area towards the sideline as he prepares to pass. This is the alternative to the straight drop back before passing.
  • Rollout : Part of an offensive play where the quarterback runs to one side of the offensive backfield looking to pass the ball. Usually used to run away from defenders.
  • Roughing the passer: A 15-yard penalty slapped on any defensive player who runs into or hits the quarterback after he has thrown the ball downfield.
  • Run: One of two ways for the offense to move the ball. This involves either the quarterback or running back carrying the ball while running through the defence.
  • Running back: A general classification for halfbacks and fullbacks, whose primary responsibility is to run with the football.
  • Sack:  When a defensive player tackles the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage for a loss of yardage.
  • Safety:  A score, worth two points, that the defense earns by tackling an offensive player in possession of the ball in his own end zone.
  • Safety valve : A running back or receiver that the quarterback will look to pass to if all other receivers are covered. Usually the safety valve will not be too far away from the quarterback. Passing distance will be minimal, but avoids a sack.
  • Salary cap : The amount of money that an NFL team may spend on player salaries and bonuses. This amount increases each year and is expected to be approximately $83.4 million in 2004.
  • Scramble : When the quarterback runs to avoid being sacked, often still looking for an open wide receiver at the same time.
  • Screen pass : A delayed passing play in which the defensive line is allowed to penetrate the backfield and the ball is thrown to a running back or receiver who has a wall of blockers in front of him made up of offensive linemen who have pulled out of position.
  • Screen  : A passing play where the offensive linemen allow the defense to go past them after the quarterback, while a receiver or running back runs behind the offensive line to catch a pass from the quarterback. The goal is to have many defenders chasing the quarterback, who passes to the running back before getting sacked.
  • Scrimmage (line of) : The imaginary line running from sideline to sideline at the point where the ball is snapped. The line from which a play begins.
  • Seam  : 1. An area of the field on the edges of a defensive zone. An area that may cause confusion to the defensive coverage. 2. A route where a receiver runs downfield for 8-10 yards, and then angles in towards the center. Essentially a fly that changes angles. The receiver does not generally break and will be heading downfield at all times during the routes.
  • Secondary : The collective term for the cornerbacks and safeties assigned to cover an opposing teams receivers on passing plays.
  • Shotgun : An offensive formation in which the quarterback takes a long snap from the center while standing five to seven yards behind the line of scrimmage.
  • Shoulder dislocation  : When the arm comes out of its socket. Occurs when the arm is twisted in an awkward direction.
  • Shoulder separation  : A separation of the two bones that form the “point” of the shoulder. A separation of the AC or acromioclavicular joint. Can occur when a quarterback is knocked to the ground directly onto his shoulder. May require surgery.
  • Shovel pass  : A passing motion where the quarterback “pushes” the ball rather than over
  • Signals : The number and worded codes called by the quarterback in the huddle or at the line of scrimmage ahead of each play. Signals are also called by the defence, usually by a linebacker.
  • Single-wing  : An offensive formation that was once the standard for all teams but now is never used in the NFL or major college football and rarely used at any level. In the single wing, the ball is snapped to the tailback, who can then run or pass. The quarterback, fullback and halfback are primarily blockers. Coach Glenn “Pop” Warner (no relation to Malcolm Jamal) developed the single wing and used it in the early 20th century.
  • Slant  : A pass route that is immediately diagonal to the field.
  • Slobberknocker  : A hard hit by a defender. When a player is hit so hard, that the “slobber” is knocked out of his mouth.
  • Smack talk  : Also known as trash talk. Any kind of talking to the other team that tries to intimidate or boasts of your own superiority. Frequently found funny by people it was not directed at.
  • Smashmouth  : Adjective for hard-nosed, physical football now ruined forever by the “All Star” band.
  • Snap : The beginning of a play as the center passes the ball backwards through his legs to the quarterback. Longer snaps signal the beginning of field goal attempts or punts.
  • Snap count : The signal on which the ball will be snapped into play. All members of the offense know this signal and therefore know when to begin blocking or running downfield.
  • Snap  : The transfer of the ball from the center to the quarterback, punter or place kick holder.
  • Sneak  : An unexpected running play.
  • Spearing  : A penalty where the tackler’s first contact with the ball carrier is with his head. A very dangerous hit for both players, but can cause a neck injury to the tackler.
  • Spike : When a player slams the ball into the ground after scoring a touchdown.
  • Split : The distance a player is separated from another player. Usually used while referring to offensive linemen.
  • Spot  : When used as a noun, it is the place where the ball was when the ball carrier was tackled, stopped or went out of bounds. When used as a verb, it’s the officials putting the ball where the ball carrier was stopped.
  • Spread : An offensive formation with just one or no running backs in the backfield. Usually sees the offense with four or five wide receivers on the field instead of the normal two, thus ‘spreading’ the defence by stretching players across the pitch.
  • Spy/key  : When a defender is specifically responsible for one player on the offense. Sometimes an entire offense’s success can revolve around one specific player, so a defender will be assigned to watch and follow that one player throughout the play. Example
  • Square in  : A pass route where the receiver runs straight downfield and then turns at a 90º angle to the middle of the field.
  • Squib kick  : A kickoff that is intentionally of medium depth and intended for a player the middle row of blockers to run the ball back. The kickoff play is usually attempted when the kick returner is especially dangerous (ie Dante Hall) or when it will be the last play of the half. Kicking the ball deep may allow the return team to sufficiently set up their blocking and get a good return or all the way for a touchdown.
  • Statue of Liberty Play  : Similar to an end-around, but the quarterback drops back and brings his arm up as if to pass. The end runs behind the quarterback, reaches up and takes the ball, and then continues on his run. This play takes its name from the way the quarterback pauses with his passing arm extended before the end takes the ball. Rarely used in the NFL because of the increased risk of a fumble.
  • Strong side  : Using the offensive center as the middle, it is the side of the offense that they have more players lined up. Usually the side where the tight end lines up. Some plays have a balanced formation and do not have a strong side.
  • Stunt  : A pre-designed defensive play intended to stop a specific offensive play. Can be similar to a blitz.
  • Substitutions : Each team is allowed 11 men on the field at the time the ball is snapped. Unlimited substitutions are permitted throughout NFL games but players may only enter the field when the previous play has been whistled dead. Players leaving the field must be off the pitch by the time the new play has begun.
  • Super Bowl : The NFL’s championship game played between the AFC and NFC champions. The Super Bowl is held in a different American city each season and is played in the final week of January or the first week in February.
  • Swagger  : The magical ability to defeat an opponent simply by walking like John Wayne.
  • Sweep : A run around the end of the line.
  • Swing pass : A short pass thrown quickly to a running back on either side of the quarterback.
  • Tackle box  : An area in the defensive backfield defined as between where both offensive tackles lined up that extends all the way backward to the end zone’s back line. This zone is used in part for determining an intentional grounding penalty. No, it has nothing to do with fishing.
  • Tackle  : 1. To stop the ball carrier by forcing him to the ground. 2. The offensive linemen at each end of the line. Primary task is to protect the quarterback on passing plays by blocking the opponent’s pass-rushing defensive ends.
  • Tailback  : The running back deepest from the offensive line. Usually the team’s best ball carrier.
  • TD  : Touchdown. Ok, if we have to explain this one, footballoutsiders.com might not be the best web site for you yet.
  • Tee : A small, hard rubber stand used to hold the ball in an upright position off the ground on kickoffs.
  • The Catch  : Pass play in the 1981 NFC championship from Joe Montana to Dwight Clark to win the game 28-27 with only 51 seconds left.
  • Threw it away  : When a quarterback legally throws an incomplete pass with the sole intention of ending the play and avoiding a sack.
  • Tight end : Part receiver and part blocker. The tight end is positioned on the end of the offensive line. From there, he can act as an extra blocker on running plays or head downfield as a receiver in passing situations.
  • Time out : A legal stopping of the game at any time. Each team has three time outs per half and can use them to stop the clock whenever they desire. Officials can also call time outs to measure first down yardage or if a player is injured.
  • Toss : A pitch to the running back by the quarterback. A quick way to get the ball into the running back’s hands on running plays.
  • Touchback  : A play that results in the ball being placed on the 20-yard line. Usually a result of the punter kicking the ball into the end zone, but can also occur if a fumbled ball is knocked out of the end zone by the defense.
  • Touchdown :  A score, worth six points, that occurs when a player in possession of the ball crosses the plane of the opponent’s goal line, or when a player catches the ball while in the opponent’s end zone, or when a defensive player recovers a loose ball in the opponent’s end zone.
  • Training camp : Preseason training for all 32 NFL teams usually takes place in the summer, about two weeks before the first friendly warm-up games begin in August. Teams usually bunker down in a college facility and live and breathe American football for weeks on end, isolated from friends and family.
  • Trap play  : An offensive play where a defensive player is seeming allowed to go after the ball carrier unimpeded, only to find that he has been taken out of position or blocked in a away that allows the ball carrier to go where the defender just left.
  • Trenches  : The offensive and defensive line. Games can be won in the trenches which means the team whose linemen perform better on that day come out ahead.
  • Trips  : Short for triple, as in three receivers. “Trips right” or “Trips left” mean three receivers are lined up on one side of the ball. If the defense is caught by surprise with this formation, the offense can get a mismatch leading to an easy reception. Drawback to this formation is the defense can crowd more defenders around the receivers and it leaves fewer offensive players to block for the quarterback.
  • Tuck Rule  : An incomplete pass where the football comes out of the quarterback’s hand as his arm is moving forward in a passing motion (might have been trying to pass but changed his mind, or he might have simply been faking a pass) and he has not completely brought the ball back under control. This rule gained notoriety in the New England vs. Oakland game in the 2001 playoffs. The play is frequently confused with a fumble.
  • Tuna  : Nickname for Bill Parcells. Coined during his days coaching New England when a reporter attempted to play a practical joke on him but Parcells caught on and asked, “Who do you think I am? Charlie Tuna?”.
  • Turnover : The collective name for interceptions or fumbles that are recovered by the opposition. Any play where the offense turns the ball over to the defence.
  • Two-Minute Warning :  When two minutes are remaining in each half, officials will stop play for teams to regroup. This has the same effect as a timeout, but it is built into the game and neither team has to use one of their three timeouts to stop play.
  • Unnecessary roughness : A penalty called on any player who hits an opponent, shoves an opponent or tackles an opponent after the play has already been signalled as over by the official’s whistle.
  • Unsportsmanlike Conduct :  A penalty that's given when a player or team is acting unethically according to the official's judgment. It is often used to penalize excessive touchdown celebrations, but can also be called for on-field fights and other incidents.
  • Video Replay :  In the NFL and high-level college football, officials can occasionally use replay to determine if the correct call was made on a controversial play. Video replays can be requested by the officials or by head coaches depending on the situation.
  • Weakside : The side of the offensive formation that does not feature the tight end.
  • West Coast Offense  : A style of offense designed by former rams and chargers head coach Sid Gillman and later used by dozens of coaches throughout professional and college football, most notably San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh. Gillman’s offense emphasized precise passing down the field, although through the years the West Coast offense has become more associated with many short passes and passes to running backs in the flat. Many of Walsh’s assistant coaches have gone on to get their own head coaching jobs in the NFL, so this offense has been used by many teams.
  • Wide Receiver : Usually two and sometimes three or four on the field at any one time. Wide receivers line up on either side of the offensive line, close to the sidelines away from other players. Wide receivers are usually among the quickest on the team and their job is to run downfield, find open spaces and catch passes thrown by the quarterback.
  • Wideout :  Another term for a wide receiver, or a player who's job is to catch forward passes thrown by the quarterback.
  • Wishbone  : Offensive formation with three running backs. A fullback lines up directly behind the quarterback and two halfbacks line up one yard behind and one yard to either side of the fullback. (The four members of the backfield make a shape resembling a wishbone.) The most common wishbone play is the triple option, in which, depending on what the defense does, the quarterback can hand the ball to the fullback, pitch the ball to the halfback, or keep it himself. Texas assistant coach Emory Bellard invented the wishbone in 1968, and it quickly spread throughout college football, with Oklahoma and Alabama having the most success among the teams that followed Texas’s lead. Although the wishbone allowed teams to run successfully, it also made passing difficult, and so the wishbone never caught on in the NFL and is now rarely used at any level.
  • X-Receiver :  A wide receiver that lines up on the line of scrimmage out wide, often on the weak side. The terms "X" "Y" and "Z" receivers are generally used only in play calling, and are just considered "wide receivers" to outsiders.
  • Yard Line :  The amount of distance from the nearest end zone. The 50-yard line is considered the middle of the field, and all other yard lines correspond with whatever end zone they're closest to.
  • Zebras : The nickname for NFL officials, who wear black and white striped shirts.
  • Zone Blitz  : Any blitz in which the defenders in pass coverage play zone defense. Many zone blitzes require a defensive lineman to drop into coverage to replace a blitzing linebacker or defensive back.
  • Zone Blocking  : An offensive line principal that requires linemen to block specific gaps, not specific defenders. Zone blockers often double team a defensive lineman at the snap, with one of the blockers peeling off to engage the linebacker once he commits to a certain gap. Linemen who do a lot of zone blocking use the "four hands, four eyes" rule
  • Zone Defense :  When a defender is responsible for a certain area of the field in pass coverage, rather than a certain offensive player.