American Football: Explained Badly By A Brit

It’s Time to Prepare for Super Bowl Sunday…

As the wife of an American, I have to be excited about the Super Bowl. Whether you’re just tuning in for the commercials, this one big game, or you’re an avid year-long supporter, let me help you out with American Football explained (very badly and with a sense of humour).

In England, football is a game played by kicking a ball with your foot (duh)… but over in the States we have to rename that ‘soccer’ and quickly pick up the rules of this strange game we never played in school. I got you.

The first part is the same – heads or tails to get the ball first. But then things change a little.

It’s a little like a war. If you have the ball, your offense players are on the field, and if you don’t have the ball, your defence is up. When they’re done fighting it out, you switch. So the whole team is never on the field at the same time.

To start the game, the teams have a nice hug together to really build that emotional bond and relationship they need to win. It’s a bit like a rugby hug, but with more armour.

Next, the ball goes right to Tom Brady, or whatever the quarterback on the team is called. He shouts to everyone what they’re going to do for this next piece of choreography. Maybe he pretends to throw it and runs instead, or maybe he gives it to his pal who is faster than him… he’s got lots of options on the little bracelet he wears.

The team gets four turns to try and move the ball 10yards (first down) towards their end zone (goal). Sounds chill. But the defence is a large army ready to brutally attack anyone trying to make it past them. A bit like playing British Bulldog in school… but with more concussions (hence the armour).

If your team moves the ball 10yards within those four turns, they go again – four more tries to get 10yards further towards victory. This is why the game is so long. Imagine if, in ‘soccer’, the players had to stop after every pass. This is why the game takes three hours.

You get into the end zone holding the ball? Touchdown. Your kicker kicks the ball through the Y-shaped-rugby-like-goal? More points.

Oh, and a ‘sack’ means that someone on the defence threw your quarterback to the ground before he even had a chance to throw the ball. Never good for your team, and always looks painful.

That’s the easy part. And then there are the many referees flinging yellow handkerchiefs about…

What Is the Ref Saying?

Those yellow things are flags. It means someone broke one of the rules I don’t understand. But the ref usually does a little dance move to show what the problem is/what happened.

Here’s a little cheat sheet:

If he does a kind of ‘Y’ from YMCA, the team scored a touchdown. (cheer)

Hands behind his head a la “Draw me like one of your French girls” – lose a down (sad face)

Hands on his head ‘Heads, shoulders, knees, and toes’ style – your team has too many players strolling about on the field. Count next time.

Sassily grabs his face – Players can’t smack each other in the face mask. They get in trouble for that.

He holds one of his wrists like someone just hit him – the players were wrestling too much and it wasn’t fair for the guy trying to catch the ball.

Arms out to the side like he’s being the letter T – someone was being kind of a douche.

There are way more, but that covers most of it 😉

For extra fun, take a drink* (or snack or whatever) every time someone says something that’s a football term but sounds a bit sexual… there are more than you’d think.

Stay tuned for “Baseball is rounders with a bigger bat”. Still no idea on cricket.


[*Drink responsibly. I have no idea how many times they’ll say “completion” or “tight end” so that’s your own judgement call.]


  1. Diane
    February 6, 2023 / 10:03 am

    I’ve watched Canadian (almost the same as American) football quite often in various situations, always reluctantly, for more than fifty years, and it still seems incomprehensible to me. Many people have tried to explain it, but truly, yours is the best explanation yet. Thanks!

    • Carrie
      February 8, 2023 / 7:01 pm

      Really appreciate your kind comment! I only watch because my husband is American and this is the best grasp I’ve gotten of it so far so I’m able to follow along. Between us, I still don’t really understand what “a safety” is…

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