What's a Down in Football? I've Been Pretending to Know but I Don't!

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s a first down? How is it different from a 2nd down? And how many downs can you have? I’ve been pretending to understand football for years but i really have no idea.

Thanks,
Julia


Dear Julia,

Admittance is the first step and we are very proud of you for admitting that you don’t know what a down in football is. You are not alone — many people don’t! If you keep reading, by the end of this short blog post, you should be able to understand and explain the concept of a down!

When you are watching football you will often hear or see the phrase N Down and X.

  • N can be either First, Second, Third, or Fourth.
  • X can be any number from “inches” to 99 although it is normally between 10 and 0.

When a team gets the ball in football, they start out each possession with four chances to do something. Each chance (N) is equivalent to one play.

  • First down = Four chances left
  • Second down = Three chances left
  • Third down = Two chances left
  • Fourth down = Last chance!

If a team is successful in meeting their goal during any one of the downs, they get a brand new set of downs (four chances, not four new ones plus however many remained from their last set) and the pattern starts over.

You may be wondering what the goal is — the goal is to move the ball past an invisible[1] line which starts out 10 yards from where the ball is placed to start out on first down. This goal is expressed (X) as the number of yards between where the ball is now and where your team needs to get it to earn a new set of four downs.

  • First down and 10 = Four chances left to move the ball 10 yards
  • Third down and 2 = Two chances left to move the ball 2 yards
  • Second down and 18 = Three chances left to move the ball 18 yards[2]

The last wrinkle to learn is not about rules, but about strategy. Although it is totally legal to use all four downs to try to matriculate[3] the ball towards the yellow line, usually teams only try for their first three downs. Remember that if the team tries to move the ball past the line on fourth down and fails, the other team gets the ball right there. So, on fourth down teams will either punt the ball (conceding that the other team will get possession of the ball, but attempting to make them start from way on their side of the field) or try to kick a field goal (three points for the good guys) if they are close enough to try. In effect, this means the while First down = Four chances, normally only the first three of these “count.” On rare occasions, a team will chose to use their last chance to actually try to move the ball past the line. This is called “going for it on fourth” and is extremely exciting.

Now you won’t need to pretend anymore![4] Keep the questions coming,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Although it’s not invisible anymore when you watch football on TV. Thanks to some work by Princeton Video Tech (Astle family represent!) the line your team is aiming at now shows up as a yellow line superimposed onto the screen.
  2. Also it means that something pretty bad/stupid happened on first down.
  3. This is one of those strange words that only seems to exist in higher education and football.
  4. Although if you still have questions, please leave a comment on this post and we will try to do some better explaining!

Why Will Sports Fans Watch Any and All Sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

I feel like personal preference exists in all forms of entertainment. How is it that sports fans will choose any sport over anything else, even when the other option is something they like and the sport is one they don’t?

Confused and a little frustrated,
Sarah


 

Dear Sarah,

What a great question! This is a great point about sports fans. Many of us watch an enormous array of sports often at the expense of other forms of entertainment. It is apropos for me to try to answer this on the Fourth of July, a day when each and every year I find myself horrified and fascinated but glued to the television for the annual hot dog eating contest on Coney Island. Why do I do this? It’s really, really gross but I suppose I watch it for many of the reasons I watch other sporting events:

  • Competition — No matter how good an episode of 30 Rock at the end there is no winner and no loser. Err… I guess usually Jack Donaghy wins and Liz Lemon loses, but you know what I mean. The natural tension of sports does come from competition. Even when I don’t really care which team wins, it’s clear that the competitors care and that passion is contagious.
  • Habit/Cross-Promotion — Okay, you got us, a lot of the time a sports fan will be watching sports out of sheer habitual inertia. You get used to getting home and turning ESPN on. When the best thing that’s on is a college lacrosse… so what, it’s still something to watch. There is a limit though, and every fan has a different line. For me it’s usually somewhere around golf or baseball; for others it may be soccer or women’s basketball. ESPN and other sports channels have an interest in pushing that line back so that it includes as many of its programming hours as possible. To that end they have gotten really, really good at promotion. Their pitch is usually effective and it centers around the next of our reasons…
  • Potential for Memorableness — In the long-run, one of the payoffs for being a faithful watcher of sports is that you will be watching when some really crazy things happen. Most people turned the Monday Night Football game off on October 23, 2000 when after 3 quarters the Miami Dolphins were up 30 to 7. But, like you noticed — some sports fans favor even the most seemingly meaningless, settled sports game over other forms of entertainment. I kept watching the game. Sure enough, the Jets came back in the fourth quarter and ended up winning the game 40 to 37! It’s games like this that contribute to us leaving the game on the tv no matter what.
  • Strategy — Most sports, especially team sports, share certain elements of strategy that are immediately recognizable. If you are a big soccer fan then watching a basketball game will be familiar because of the fluid passing of a good point guard. A hockey fan may not love that football keeps stopping all the time, but a good solid hit is a universal. Even more unusual sports, like water polo or cycling often have recognizable strategies if you are a fan of other sports; and part of the fun is the translation.
  • We’re not REALLY watching — Watching sports, unless it’s a particularly important game (defined as involving your favorite team OR in the playoffs) doesn’t require as much attention as other forms of entertainment. I can read the newspaper, write a blog entry, clean my apartment, organize my life (ha ha) while I watch a basketball game but if I’m watching an episode of The Sopranos or Boston Legal or even Chopped, I feel like I have to be more fully attentive.

I hope I’ve been able to answer your question. I’m off to watch the hot dog eating contest although I will probably switch back and forth to Versus’ coverage of the Tour de France. Later on there’s some international Under-17 Year-old soccer.

Happy Fourth of July!
Ezra Fischer

Why Don't Coaches Wear Suits Anymore?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why is it that when I look at classic footage the coaches are always wearing suits, but now they all look like models for sports authority?

Thanks Pat


 

Dear Pat,

On this issue, football’s no different than any other area of American business – forty years ago you couldn’t picture businessmen wearing anything other than a suit, even to sleep. Now, Mark Zuckerberg proudly states that he never wore a suit until he met the President.

The worst sideline dresser in the NFL is Bill Belichick, the Mark Zuckerberg of professional football. He’s the New England Patriots coach who looks like he should be holding a sign asking you for change…and is also widely acknowledged as the most brilliant coach of this era. Now, he’s partly a mad scientist, which is why he can get away with wearing cut-off sweatshirts (yes, they exist,) but if you’re a coach and you see the guy dominating your profession wearing pajamas to work, why the heck would you dress up in a suit?

There’s no doubt that it’s impressive to see Tom Landry, the legendary Cowboys coach,  striding along the sidelines in a sharp suit and a fedora, barking out orders. And I have no doubt that more coaches will come along and, as part of their persona, decide they want to look sharp on the sidelines – so the suit’s not gone forever — but if you give people the choice between dressing formally or dressing in Nike or dressing in Brooks Brothers, 95 percent of the time they’re going to take the tracksuit every time. That’s science.

Thanks for your question,
Dean Russell Bell

[Editors note: Hockey coaches still wear suits. Another of the many reasons it’s the best sport around. EF]

How do People Choose Teams to Root For?

Dear Sports Fan,

How do people choose a team to root for?

Thanks,
Meng


 

Dear Meng,

That’s a great question! It must seem somewhat unclear, especially in a big city like New York where there are many people from all over the country and world and where there are multiple local teams in most sports. I’ll do my best to break this down for you:

Primary Reasons:

  • Heredity — If you are a child of sports fans, they start indoctrinating you at an early age. There’s baby clothing, hats, and pennants. They take you to games, which is fun for any number of reasons that don’t involve sports but which gets associated in your mind with the home team. You learn to not bother Daddy and Mommy while they are watching their favorite team and that if you are in the room, you have to root with them!
  • Location — Most places in the country have a clear regional alliance with a set of sports teams. If you grow up in Western Pennsylvania you root for the Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates. If you grow up in Utah, you’re going to root for the Jazz. If you grow up in New Orleans, you are a Saints and Hornets fan. Why? Because they are the only games in town!

Heredity and Location probably account for 80% of all the sports allegiances. But, there are always oddballs like me whose parents didn’t have any strong allegiances (except to the Brooklyn Dodgers, but that’s another story…) and who grew up in an area like Central New Jersey where there were no clear home teams in some sports. When that happens, people tend to fall back on…

Secondary Reasons:

  • Style — It is rare, but sometimes a team will play with such panache that their actual play attracts fans. Even more rare is a team that plays so poorly that they repel fans. This was the case with my favorite hockey team. I started watching Hockey seriously in 1993-94 and even though I was from New Jersey, I quickly decided that I could not in good conscience root for the New Jersey Devils. Their strategy in those days was to compensate for their lack of skill by playing a rigidly disciplined, passive, and defensive style of hockey that involved negating their opponents skill by hanging onto their shirts the whole game… meanwhile, over in Pittsburgh, the Penguins were playing a wide open, offensive game. They tried to beat you 9-8 instead of 1-0. They were fun to watch and I soon became a fan. Other examples of teams whose style could have attracted fans are the Philadelphia Flyers on the 1970s (they beat their opponents bloody,) the Dutch national soccer team of the late 60s and early 70s who pioneered the “Total Football” style, or the Brazilian national soccer team of the… well… just about anytime…
  • Bandwagon — Sometimes it’s not about how a team plays, but how well they do. Most people enjoy rooting for a winning team, so winning teams tend to have more fans. There was a pretty cool article about this the other day on The Big Lead that showed that Super Bowl winning football teams see a 4% increase in fans identifying them as their favorite team in the year after they win. If you know someone who is a Lakers, Yankees, and Cowboys fan, this is probably why.[1]
  • College — This one is pretty straight forward. When it comes to College sports most people root for their Alma Mater. Go Rutgers!
  • Friendship — When you watch sports with a good friend, as long as it doesn’t go against your own favorite teams, you begin to pull for the teams they root for. Over time, these topical rooting experiences add up. If you don’t have a favorite curling, swimming, or netball team, maybe you adopt theirs.
  • Video Games — Believe it or not, I think a lot of people root for teams at least in part because they enjoyed playing as them in a video game. Sports video games are a great way to get into a sport that you’re not familiar with and while playing them you do develop a relationship with the team you most often play as.

Hope this answered your question,
Ezra Fischer

 

 

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Also stop being friends with them.

Isn't it Time to Root for an American Male Tennis Player not Andy Roddick?

Dear Sports Fan,

Andy Roddick — Isn’t it time for us to follow a new American in men’s tennis?

Thanks,
Maura


 

Dear Maura,

First, go easy on Andy Roddick. As the only top American tennis player in the generation that followed two incredible generations of American tennis players – guys like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, who dominated tennis for decades –  he was always in an impossible position. Plus, like other sports, the rest of the world is catching up to us, so the days of American dominance were likely to end no matter who came along.

With that said, Roddick has never quite lived up to the potential we all felt he had when he won the U.S. Open in 2003 – other than when he married Brooklyn Decker. He definitely fulfilled his wedding potential.

Unfortunately – and I hate to be the one to break this to you – there’s NO ONE else. Nobody.  If you look at the top 100 tennis players in the world, you realize that far from dominating men’s tennis, we hardly exist in men’s tennis anymore. The next generation of great Americans – James Blake, Mardy Fish (not making that name up), Sam Querrey – never materialized, and for the past five years, and the foreseeable future, a Spaniard, a Swiss, and a Serb have the entire tour under lock and key. Roddick will tease us all a few more times, and a random American may pop up from time to time, but no one on the horizon is poised to rise to the top or even do much of anything.

Depending on how you feel about good looking twins who play preppy sports who aren’t named Winklevoss, there’s always the Bryan twins (Bob and Mike,) who have owned the doubles scene on tour for the past few years. Doubles tennis is hard to watch and, let’s be honest, it’s not really tennis – the average point lasts about an eighth of a second and most of the players’ time is spent trying not to get hit in the face – but if you’re looking for American dominance on a tennis court , it’s your only bet.

One last thought: in the absence of an American…can I convince you to get behind Andy Murray? Like Roddick, he’s also been trying fruitlessly to break through the Spanish/Swiss/Serbian alliance for the past decade. In fact, he’s basically Andy Roddick without the major title or the SI swimsuit cover model wife, or that perpetual annoyed/entitled look on his face. Plus he’s Scottish and – I hear – he also looks good with his shirt off.

Or so they say,
Dean Russell Bell

The Women's World Cup is Happening? Huh?

Dear Sports Fan,

I had no idea the Women’s World Cup was upon us. Give me the breakdown – who are the top teams? Where is the Cup being held? Are there any channels showing it in the US?

Thanks,
Penalty Kick


 

Dear Penalty Kick,

The Women’s World Cup is indeed upon us. This quadrennial[1] competition pits the best 16 women’s national soccer teams against each other over three weeks. It began on June 26 and will conclude on July 17. It is being held in Germany with games in nine arenas throughout the country.

The women’s tournament has a lot in common with the men’s. To start with, just qualifying for the tournament is a great achievement for many countries. The qualification games have been going on since April 2009! The tournament is divided into two stages. In the first stage or group stage, the 16 qualifying teams get split up into four groups of four. Each team plays every other team in the group. A win is worth three points, a tie worth one, and a loss none. At the end of the group stage each team will have played three games. The two teams in each group with the most points will move on to the next stage. As you can imagine, with only eight possible point totals[2] it is pretty usual to have some teams tied at the end of the group stage. Luckily there is a Byzantine system to settle these situations! There is a hierarchy of eight tie-breaking factors that end with “Drawing of lots by the FIFA Organizing Committee!” The second stage is a pretty straight-forward single elimination tournament between the surviving eight teams.

The host team Germany has won the last two World Cups and they are again the favorites. If they stumble under the pressure, the next most likely teams to take advantage are the Brazilians, the Americans, the Japanese, and the Swedes — believe it or not, people bet on these games! People watch them too! Every game will be televised on ESPN or some ESPN channel.

I love watching women’s soccer because… well, I love watching any soccer! The issue of why women’s sports are not more popular as spectator sports in our country is a bigger one than you asked me to bite into, but it does seem like soccer translates from men to women better than almost any sport. The rules are exactly the same — the ball the same size, the field the same size, etc. The competition is as fierce and unlike men’s soccer, our women actually have a good shot to win! Also there is WAY less diving! The U.S. team played its first game today and won 2-0 over a North Korean team whose coach blamed lightning for his loss in his post-game press conference. Lighting!! The remaining two games in the group stage for the U.S. are Saturday at noon against Colombia and Wednesday July 7 at 2:35 against Sweden. Give them a watch!

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Fancy talk for every four years.
  2. 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,9 although I would guess that there few possible combinations for the four team group than you would think, because each team’s results effect the other teams’ results within the group. Anyone feel like solving this math problem?

Can you Explain the Head Injury Issue?

Dear Sports Fan,

Can some one other than Malcolm Gladwell explain the whole head injury issue? How is Toyota going to fix it and why is no sport but football getting flack?

Thanks,
Sarah


 

Dear Sarah,

The bottom line is, science is getting better – so while we probably always knew that people smashing into other people (or objects) wasn’t good for them, we can now point to a specific brain injury that results, and it ain’t pretty: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which basically means that, if you studied some athlete’s brains at 50, you’d think they were 85 year olds suffering from dementia.

Why? There’s a lot of talk about concussions, and that’s the simplest, most straightforward explanation. If you’ve ever had a concussion, you know it’s a miserable experience – you also know that after you get the first one, you’re more likely to get a second one, then a third. If you’re a football player, that’s basically an occupational hazard. What we’re learning, though, is that each subsequent concussion has more serious long term impacts – and can lead to early onset of dementia or other emotional/depression issues. It’s slightly easier to deal with the kinds of massive hits that most frequently cause concussions because, at least in football, these are mostly blindside hits on players who don’t know they’re about to get clobbered and can’t defend themselves. These hits can be phased out of the game by changing the rules. They’re trying to do that now.

What also contributes to this is the so-called “sub-concussive” hits – the thousands of times a player will clash with someone and jostle the brain around in the skull just a little bit. This is one of the things that makes football the center of the brain injury story. In football, offensive and defensive linemen clash every single play with the force of a small automobile accident. Turns out these add up too, especially when you consider these guys have been playing football since they were kids. All of those little hits keep accumulating, and the concern now is that this is an issue that’s even bigger than pro football – that college and maybe even high school players may do some long-term brain damage. That issue is much more difficult to address, because you can’t get rid of that type of contact – it happens every play, all over the field.

Which brings us to Toyota. There is no silver bullet to this problem. The solution will involve a combination of rule changes and improved technology – and acknowledgement that the problem will never be truly solved. People will suffer some amount of brain damage, both because we want to see football and there are people who are willing to take the risk to play it. But the technology involves some really cool research that allows scientists to tell exactly how much force is being delivered with each hit, how the impact is distributed across the body – and, theoretically, how to design equipment to ensure the brain is the recipient of less of that impact. Toyota’s part of that effort because 1. They’ve got an image problem,[1] 2. They’ve got lots of engineers and 3. They’re smart enough to know that nothing makes a foreign company feel less foreign than making America’s favorite game safer and

That last point explains why football is taking the brunt of this. It’s the biggest sport, and sports business, in America today. So while other sports have similar issues – hockey, boxing, Mixed Martial Arts – the research hasn’t been as widespread because those sports aren’t as popular and there aren’t as many kids playing them. It’s only a matter of time though. The science is only going to get better, and I don’t think there’s anyone who thinks that what we learn is going to make us feel better.

The only question is, is there a point at which Americans – the fans and the players – will say the risk is no longer worth taking?

Thanks for the question,
Dean Russell Bell

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Runaway Priuses and Camries + Ford resurgence = need for image makeover.

Where Does Strawberries and Cream at Wimbledon Come From?

Dear Sports Fan,

How did the tradition of eating strawberries and cream at Wimbledon originate?

Thanks,
Tina


 

Dear Tina,

According to the BBC Surrey the first time strawberries were paired with cream was in the 1500s at the table of Cardinal Wolsey. Wimbledon is the oldest tennis tournament in the world, but it’s not that old. There has been a tennis tournament since 1877 when “The All England Croquet Club” changed its name to “The All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club.” In the late 1800s, according to the New York Times, strawberries signified the beginning of summer. Soon after 1877 (and perhaps in part because of the pairing of tennis with strawberries,) tennis began to be associated with the start of summer as well. It’s unclear when cream was added to the mix. Jeanne Rose, writing for Yahoo claims that cream was “added into the food tradition in 1970.” Digging through the archives of The Daily Telegraph contradicts this opinion, as Martin Smith points out on sportingintelligence.com. He claims that “in 1881, just four years after the inaugural Lawn Tennis Championship, the Telegraph correspondent noted that as the Challenge final was about to begin, ‘the refreshment pavilion emptied directly…for strawberries and cream and even ices, notwithstanding that the heat of the sun was almost intolerable, had no charms for the enthusiastic multitude once the rivals were ordered to be ready’.”

Fuzzy derivation aside, one thing is clear: a lot of strawberries and cream are consumed during Wimbledon. The estimates vary but they seem centered around 60,000 pounds of strawberries and 1,800 gallons of cream (from eatocracy.) This year, in what is either a brilliant marketing ploy or a horrible degradation of tradition or both, Tesco has introduced a “calorific treat of clotted cream, jam, and strawberries” so that people throughout Great Britain can enjoy the traditional Wimbledon snack. We don’t have Tesco in the U.S., but making a little snack of strawberries and cream to eat in front of the television sounds like a great way to enjoy tennis to me!

Thanks for the question,
Ezra

Why Isn't Everyone Tired of Nadal and Federer?

Dear Sports Fan,

Doesn’t anybody ever get tired of watching Federer and Nadal in the finals of every tennis tournament, forever? Is there any reason to even watch Wimbledon now that Andy Roddick is out?

Thanks,
Game, Set, Watch?

— — —

Dear Game, Set, Watch?,

I’m sure that it does get awfully tiring for all the other men’s tennis players, but for sports fans and specifically tennis fans I think it’s something that far from getting tired of, they savor every minute of.

First of all, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer’s consistency at the top of men’s tennis is really unusual. So what seems like a boring fact of life for the last seven years is a rare anomaly in the context of the last fifty plus years of tennis. And even during the Federer-Nadal years, it may seem like they meet in the finals every tournament, but before this year’s French Open a month ago, they had not played in a final match for over two years!

Tennis fans root for Nadal and Federer to play each other in part because they play with such contrasting styles. Federer is a mix between a magician and a matador. He is a magician not only because he always seems to be pulling winning shots out of his sleeve, but also because he has the slightly smarmy elegance of a magician. Everything he owns is monogrammed with a big RF in an annoying faux-royal font. Federer makes very little fuss on the court. He almost never grunts and he rarely even appears to be sweating. Roger Federer is your older brother who beats you and doesn’t even dignify your efforts by looking like he’s trying hard or cares at all. Federer also had the luck of being profiled by David Foster Wallace in a New York Times Play magazine article that made a lasting impression on the literati; check it out, it is worth reading.

Nadal, on the other hand, is most often compared to a bull. He has even embraced the comparison by adopting a bull logo as his mascot. Nadal is the younger brother. He never, ever, ever, stops trying. He’s a powerful player and his natural talents are defensive. He’s frustrating to play against because no matter how good of a shot you hit, he seems to be able to get to it and return it back to you. Nadal looks more like a cat than a bull. His movements are quick and powerful without being out of control. Every step is aggressive. When the players talk to the chair umpire before the match begins, Nadal bounces up and down on his feet like a boxer.

Would you enjoy Bugs Bunny more if he didn’t always face off against Elmer Fudd? An episodic Star Wars where Luke Skywalker fights against a different bad-guy each hour would surely be less satisfying than his epic contest with Darth Vader. There is something special about watching two people who know that no matter how well they do, to succeed they have to beat the other. The diner scene in Heat expresses this understanding perfectly.

Right now there is a special pathos to the Nadal-Federer rivalry. The normal narrative of the younger player succeeding the older is being challenged. Federer is not diminishing quite as quickly as people expected he would and because of Nadal’s powerful style, there is a fear that his body will break down at any moment. They are two of the best players in history but they are increasingly both vulnerable and mortal.

Enjoy the tennis if you can, I will!

Ezra Fischer

Is There a Good, Cheap Stationary Bike?

Dear Sports Fan,

Is there a good, cheap stationary bike? Do I have to spend a ton for quality?  I just want to ride it 30 minutes a day in my basement.  I’m not trying to beat Lance or anything.

Michelle P


 

Dear Michelle,

Thanks for your question! Since no one on our staff is an expert on exercise equipment we’ve decided to answer you in the form of a dialogue. After all 0 + 0 = at least a little bit more than zero, right?

 

Ezra: A quick Google search reveals a ton of those weird recumbent bicycles which are said to be better for you. Then again, it’s also said that the western style toilet is terrible for you over the long-run, but I don’t see to many people running out to buy holes in the floor to squat over.

Dean Russell Bell: I have great rowing machine recommendations. Now, I don’t know if you have a significant other or not and, if so, how that significant other feels about you having huge lats. But if that would be something they might be interested in, allow me to recommend the Stamina Body Trac Glider. Best thing about it: once you reach the inevitable phase when you stop exercising, it folds up so tight you can disappear it into a corner, where it won’t guilt you ever again.

Ezra: I’m not entirely sure what a lat is… but it doesn’t sound like something you’d want to have huge of. As far as exercise bikes go, the Stamina 5325 is the pick of consumersearch.com for best budget upright. It looks like… an exercise bike to me. In what might be a meaningful omission the more well respected consumerreports.org doesn’t review exercise bikes, instead focusing on elliptical machines and treadmills. There is something comforting and old-school about the exercise bike though — it feels like something you legitimately could just sit on and pedal as you watch some serious television.

Dean Russell Bell: Talking about old-school, if you really want to beat Lance Armstrong you might be better served allocating your money towards some serious EPO and blood doping equipment…

Ezra: Hold it right there Dean! We’ve already had a question about the Tour de France and we’ll be covering it in separate entries starting when the race begins on July 2. Michelle, we apologize for our total lack of useful information on this subject, but we hope we have, at least, been entertaining.

Thanks for the question, Dean Russell Bell and Ezra Fischer