The 49ers are set to play the New York Giants Sunday in their first trip to the NFC Championship Game since 1998. Many Bay Area residents haven’t cared much for football in the interim, since the team has been terrible for a decade, Sunday is a great day for farmers' markets, and January is only eight months away from Burning Man and you can never make too many dreamcatchers in advance. So for those of you who will be watching their first NFL action in years, or just those of you who want a jump start on your Super Bowl viewing, here’s a primer to the strange and beautiful rules that govern American football. It's a shame we have to include that national qualifier, but that is what AYSO hath wrought.
Yards: OK, first of all, football is still measured in yards, because the metric system is for the Canadian Football League. And communist queers. The field is a hundred yards, and each team must advance the ball ten yards (that’s 9.14 meters, comrade!) within four plays, or they forfeit the ball. If they advance the ten yards successfully, they get a new set of four downs, which is indicated by the phrase “first down.” And, yes, after the very first time that happens, it’s not really “first” anymore. WE GET IT. Usually teams will punt or kick a field goal on fourth down.
Points: A touchdown is worth six points. After a touchdown, a team can kick a twenty-yard (18.29 meters, Vladimir!) field goal, and get a bonus point, or they can try to get the ball into the end zone from the same distance, for two points. This second strategy is generally reserved for teams who are confident and/or desperate, and is called a “two-point conversion.” That is also what it’s called if you can get a relatively small deer to join your evangelical church. Tim Tebow is excellent at both types.
A field goal is worth three points. That happens when a former college All-American soccer player/European immigrant who’s one hundred pounds lighter than his lightest teammate jogs into the field and attempts to kick the ball through some narrow posts behind the end zone. Afterward, he is either a hero or a total pussy.
False start: Offensive linemen have to stand perfectly still before the ball is snapped. They just do, OK. Think of it as their version of corpse pose, OK, San Francisco? If they happen to move, the play is over, and the offense has to move back five yards. A little-known corollary to the rule states that TV networks must immediately cut to the offensive team’s coach, shaking his head and looking disappointed.
The 49ers often try to trick the defense by shifting at the last minute, which looks like a false start, but it’s actually not. Except the refs sometimes call it a false start anyway. Hey, does anyone here know the rules? (No.)
Offensive holding: This happens when an offensive player grabs a defensive player by his jersey, to keep him from tackling his teammate. It’s a ten-yard penalty. This is a good penalty for people to complain about during commercials, after the game, or in some cases, five years later (see: Seattle fans, Super Bowl XL). Mission District take note: Just because a player is flagged for holding, that does not necessarily mean he has cocaine.
Defensive holding: This happens when a defensive player grabs a receiver to keep him from running out to catch a pass. It’s a five-yard penalty and an automatic first down. “Hey,” you might protest. “Offensive holding is five yards worse than defensive holding. That’s an unfair double standard!” Look, sometimes I want to put on a pretty skirt and wave pom-poms at football players, but the world is full of unfair double standards. It’s called the grass ceiling. Get used to it!
Illegal touching: Yes, this is a real penalty. Feel free to snicker. It means you went out of bounds, and then were the first person to touch a punt or pass. Because a punt or pass is not capable of giving consent.
Hair pulling: Amazingly, this is totally legal! Those guys with hair extending past the end of their helmets? It’s totally legal to drag them down by that hair. In fact, that’s encouraged! This is a game of savages.
Breaking the plane: If a guy is trying to score, he only has to get any part of the ball across the invisible plane of the goal line, even if the ball is mostly out of bounds. Yes, this is a real rule. Officially, that goal line extends above the field, and all the way up into space, and around the globe indefinitely. Is this some weird TRON bullshit? Yes it is.
Instant replay: If a coach thinks the referee got a play wrong, he can challenge the ruling and make the referee watch a replay of the disputed play. The NFL makes a coach throw a red handkerchief on the field in these situations, which is also how a fop would demand a duel in the 1700s. When there’s an instant replay challenge, that’s a good time to ask questions about football rules, go get a snack, make a phone call, or decide that professional football is irredeemably stupid.
Pass interference: This is the closest equivalent to cock-blocking the rules of football. When there’s a pass to a receiver, the defender cannot tackle him, push him, trip him, breathe on him, curse at him, or invisibly hex him, or else the offensive team gets the ball at that spot. Also, whenever a pass falls incomplete for any reason, the receiver will jump up and demand a flag, every time. Like the boy who cried wolf, but not as mature.
Fair catch: On a kickoff or a punt, the player catching the ball can wave a hand, surrender-style, and call for a fair catch. That means that he agrees not to run with the ball, and no defenders are allowed to hit him. It is a fair catch in that it is equitable, but also fair in that it is refined and elegant, like an Eliza Doolittle sentence.
Personal foul: Hitting another guy when you’re not allowed to. This refers to players who are out of bounds, quarterbacks after they have thrown the ball, quarterbacks…pretty much any time, defenseless receivers, people who have called a fair catch, the Brown twins, mascots, Gavin Newsom, referees, and Huey Lewis, who should be on the sidelines whether he sings the anthem or not. Cal fans, think of Huey as the Niners' Adam Duritz. It's a fifteen-yard penalty.
Intentional grounding: When a quarterback throws the ball away to avoid a sack, and there’s no chance any of his teammates will catch it. It’s a ten-yard penalty and loss of down, which is also how you punish a disobedient gosling. This penalty is not to be confused with my new improv group, the Indomitable Groundlings.
Face mask: You can’t grab a guy’s face mask or it costs you fifteen yards. There used to be a difference between fifteen-yard and five-yard face mask penalties, until the NFL realized that was just encouraging players to grab each other’s face masks. Kind of like Ben Roethlisberger and sexual assault, actually.
Illegal hands to the face: Somehow, a different penalty than that last one. Jim Harbaugh might draw a flag for this on his postgame handshake.
FOX Announcer Joe Buck: Is the worst, forever and ever.
Excessive Celebration: What will ensue all over the city, particularly in North Beach and the Mission, should the 49ers go to the Super Bowl. In the NFL, this is a fifteen-yard penalty. In San Francisco, it’s a fifteen-hour hangover and a citation for public urination. Just kidding, that’s not actually illegal in San Francisco. Pee wherever you want, Forty Niner Faithful! Gold’s one of the team colors for a reason!