12 football terms you should know for Super Bowl Sunday
Although the basics of American football are clear to most Americans, some of the terms are still a bit more unfamiliar. Most people know what a pass is, and why we refer to players as running backs and receivers, but you probably don’t know why a long (nearly hopeless) pass is called a Hail Mary or exactly why a linebacker rush would be referred to as a blitz. Even gridiron veterans might find this vocab review enlightening! For those outside of the US, this list will prove invaluable when holding conversations with your American cousins…
An audible is a change in the offensive play called by the quarterback at the line of scrimmage. Thanks to a change in how television microphones were positioned on the field, TV audiences in the past couple of NFL seasons have been widely exposed to the audibles of different quarterbacks, including Peyton Manning’s notable ‘Omaha’.
A blitz is a charge of the quarterback by the defensive linebackers just after the ball is snapped. The term has its origin in World War II, when German planes waged a Blitzkrieg (‘lightning war’) against London in particular. Blitz became shorthand for any violent attack or offensive.
A bootleg is a play in which the quarterback fakes a handoff to a running back and runs with the ball hidden next to his hip. The term comes from the smugglers’ practice of concealing bottles of liquor in their boots.
A buttonhook is a play in which a pass receiver runs straight downfield and then doubles back sharply toward the line of scrimmage, which approximates the shape of a ‘button-hook’, a small hook with a long handle for fastening tight buttons.
A down is the period in which a football play occurs, beginning with a snap or kick, and ending when the ball carrier is tackled or the ball becomes out of play (as is the case when a team scores). A team must advance at least ten yards in a series of four downs in order to keep possession.
An encroachment is an illegal action that occurs when a defensive player crosses the line of scrimmage (see ‘scrimmage’ below) and makes contact with an opponent before the ball is snapped.
A Hail Mary refers to a very long and typically unsuccessful pass made in a desperate attempt to score, usually late in the game. The term became widespread after following a 1975 interview with Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, who referred to his game-winning touchdown pass against the Minnesota Vikings as a ‘Hail Mary’. Hail Mary refers to the Roman Catholic prayer to the Virgin Mary. However, the use in football did not start with Staubach, but had been used in football for several decades beforehand. Now, it is common to refer to any desperate maneuver with little likelihood of success as a ‘Hail Mary’.
The term lateral, referring to a backwards pass, can be a little confusing because lateral motion is usually understood simply as motion from one side to another, as opposed to motion forwards or backwards. However, in football a lateral pass refers to any pass that is thrown parallel to or in a backwards direction from the team’s goal line. Lateral passing is also a crucial part of rugby football.
Prior to the start of a play, the neutral zone refers to the imaginary zone running sideline to sideline from the front to the back point of the football.
The red zone is the area of a football field between an opponent’s 20-yard line and the goal-line. Once in this region, the efforts of the offensive team shift from moving the ball downfield to directly scoring touchdowns.
(Line of) scrimmage
The line of scrimmage is marked at the beginning of each play, with the ball placed on the ground between the offensive and defensive lines. The word scrimmage, which is closely related to the word skirmish, refers to a confused struggle or fight.
A squib, or squib kick, is a kickoff that travels only a short distance, typically as a strategy on the part of the kicking team and usually with the hope of preventing a long touchdown return. The word squib originally referred to a type of small firework, and also gives us the British expression ‘damp squib’, meaning a situation or event which is much less impressive than expected.
If you ever hear someone complaining about the zebras, it is unlikely that African wildlife has invaded the field. Instead, they are probably complaining about the referees, whose shirts, with their recognizable black and white stripes, have earned them the animal nickname.