The rules of football can be mind-boggling at times. Watch Twitter while a typical NFL Sunday is unfolding and you will regularly see tweets exclaiming “WHAT IS A CATCH?!?!” or some variation, frequently from people whose job titles would suggest that they should know the answers.
Ben Austro’s So You Think You Know Football? offers a chance for fans to not only test their knowledge but also to understand why the rules work the way they do. Austro runs a website about officiating called Football Zebras and has an active Twitter account.
One of the strengths of the NFL is that the league has never been afraid to alter rules if it believes that a change will make the game fairer, more entertaining or – in some cases – easier to understand.
The forward pass rule is a prime example. Its introduction, decades before the arrival of the NFL, was the key factor in separating football from its British cousin – rugby. And the rules around forward passes have gradually been tweaked. Where the pass can be thrown from, who can legally catch it and how defenders are allowed to deal with receivers have all been subject to changes that have remade football strategy.
Then of course, there’s the catch itself. How long must a player have the ball in his hands for it to be considered a catch? When does a drop become a fumble? These, and other questions, have dogged fans in recent years, mostly because instant replay now allows any disputed catch to be examined down to the tiniest detail. Helpfully Austro’s book includes a full four pages on “Process of the Catch”, which will make some of the issues clearer.
The book’s strength is its detailed rule breakdowns, using examples from recent games or examining famous cases that defined a rule or led to significant changes, such as the Patriots “Tuck Rule” game. He then often poses multiple-choice questions, giving the reader the chance to test their understanding.
Even the most dedicated fan is likely to learn something. I’ve been watching the NFL for more than 30 years and until I read this book I had no idea that “Fair-Catch Kicks” existed, for example.
One danger with a book like this is that NFL rules are a moving target. The “Process of the Catch” section, for example, is weakened by the fact that the league streamlined the rules surrounding catches in 2018. Austro keeps track of those changes at a page on his website, which is well worth visiting once you finish the book. The changes are not yet so significant as to make the book redundant, but hopefully Austro will produce a new edition when it becomes necessary.
So You Think You Know Football? is a very entertaining take on a frequently dry subject and it’s well worth the time of any serious fan.
Photo: Keith Allison