Football is a complicated sport, and professional football, with its endlessly bureaucratic rulebook and its endlessly complex offensive and defensive systems, can be particularly confounding.
While we have neither the time nor the expertise to explain the New England Patriots passing offense in this space, we can make an effort to answer at least a few of the inevitable nagging questions that arise when you find yourself watching the National Football League on fall Sundays, but that always felt too ridiculous to bring up at the bar.
Here, then, are 10 odd things you always wanted to know about the NFL, but were afraid to ask…
NFL rules actually prohibit the use of personal electronic devices on the sideline, which is why quarterbacks wind up communicating with their coordinators on phones that appear to have been recycled from ’90s college dorm rooms.
Why do they still use chains to mark first downs?
How many times have you seen your team advance the ball to the cusp of that incandescent first-down line, then waited and waited, and waited, for a gang of officials carrying a pair of sticks attached to a metal chain to march onto the field, and then watched that measurement come up a single link short? How many times have you thought to yourself, Isn’t there a more efficient way to do this?
The answer, as you might imagine, is that there is. As Paul Lukas wrote on his Uni-Watch blog, a series of contraptions—dating back to Lou Persenyi’s Pere-Scope, invented in 1954—have come along over the years, but have never been adopted by the NFL. Why? In part because, as Business Insider points out, there is no way to accurately measure the spot of the ball in the first place, and in part because officials have become more adept at spotting the ball on a yard marker, thereby mitigating the need for measurements in the first place. And it may be slow and antiquated, but we secretly kind of dig all that drama and suspense, don’t we?
“I bet you there is some type of technology that comes along in the next five years that creates that change,” Falcons president Rich McKay told The New York Times.
Of course, he said that in 2008.
Why does Tony Sparano wear his sunglasses at night?
Sparano, currently the offensive line coach of the Minnesota Vikings, gained a certain amount of renown for his choice of tinted eyewear while serving as head coach of the Miami Dolphins from 2008 until 2011. As the Miami Herald’s Greg Cote pointed out at the time, this is not merely a lifestyle choice: Sparano was working at a Connecticut restaurant as a teenager when hot grease from a deep fryer splashed into his eyes. Even now, they’re prone to watering and sensitive to light, so you can feel guilty about making all those Corey Hart jokes now, just like we do.
What is with all those weird cards they hold up on the sidelines?
This is a trend that originated in college, with up-tempo offenses like Oklahoma State and Oregon. The idea was that by using photos, the placards could quickly relay play calls, snap counts, formations, motions, passing routes, and other details; Glen Elarbee first devised the signs when he was a 28-year-old graduate assistant at Oklahoma State, and they grew goofier and goofier from there (at least on the college level), often incorporating varied bits of pop-cultural minutiae.
Former Oregon coach Chip Kelly imported them to the NFL when he became head coach in Philadelphia, and these days, the signs can convey information, or they can merely serve as decoys or distractions, because nothing is more likely to disarm an angry linebacker than an adorable photograph of the Phillie Phanatic.
Why, whenever a QB throws a pick, 30 seconds later you see him on a phone that looks like it’s from 1985?
NFL rules actually prohibit the use of personal electronic devices on the sideline—Ben Roethlisberger nearly landed in trouble last season for seeming to briefly check his Tinder account in the midst of a game against Baltimore—which is why quarterbacks wind up communicating with their coordinators up in the press box on phones that appear to have been recycled from ’90s college dorm rooms.
Of course, even when the NFL does embrace new technology, it manages to piss people off, so I guess they’re better off embracing their Luddite tendencies.
Why do kickers always do that little hip twist move before attempting kicks?
To pick up girls, of course. Also, hip flexor injuries are one of the most common among kickers, so anything to stay loose, I guess. And pick up girls at the same time.
What the fuck is a catch?
You mean Rule 8, Article 3, Items 1-6 of the NFL Rulebook didn’t clear it for you? Perhaps this simple graphic explainer will help you out, or perhaps it will confuse you even further, which appears to be the league’s objective in these situations. In truth, as NFL head of officials Dean Blandino recently told SB Nation, most catches are pretty straightforward; the confusion arises because “of a small number of high-profile plays where we’re debating a subjective element.” Which doesn’t fully answer the question, I know, but at this point you’re on your own.
Does eye black actually do anything?
This dates back to 1942, when a Washington Redskins fullback named Andy Farkas smeared ash from a burnt cork above his cheekbones. According to a recent episode of Mythbusters, it actually works! Well, kinda sorta: It doesn’t actually reduce glare, but it does improve the ability to differentiate between light and dark, which allows you to see in greater detail, which can make a difference for, say, an NFL receiver trying to keep his eyes on a deep pass. And even if you don’t buy that, it still looks really fucking cool.
Why did coaches start covering their mouths while calling plays?
A 2001 New York Times story detailed the supposedly increasingly common notion of lip-reading on NFL sidelines. The story also acknowledged that this is a preposterously detailed way to cheat, and that it may work up a handful of times in a game, no more than that, given how fast everything is moving. But in a league where everyone is seeking an edge, this led notoriously paranoid coaches to cover up, just in case.
Why does Pete Carroll chew so damned much gum?
Because he’s a San Francisco-born hippie with no real respect for authority? No, actually, Carroll, the coach of the Seattle Seahawks, mainlines Bubble Yum during games—he said he does it because “a guy told me a while back that if I don’t chew gum…I’m gonna look like and get caught on camera standing there with my mouth open like I don’t know what I’m doing. So that was years ago, and I’ve been chewing gum ever since.” I guess it’s not an entirely foolproof system.