FS SS WL ML SL CB E T T E CB SE T G C G T TE Q FL F R
Above we see a standard football alignment. There's an offense on the bottom, facing a defense which is on the top. We're going to learn the names and roles of the various players. There are eleven players on offense, and eleven players on defense, for a total of 22 football players on the field. There are also some referees, often called zebras because of their striped shirts.
In football, one team has possession of the ball. The are said to be on offense. They line up eleven guys who are going to try to get the football into the other team's end zone. If they can do this, they get six points for scoring a touchdown. The other team will line up eleven guys whose job it is to stop the offense from doing this. They want to create chaos, havoc, and trouble for the offense. Their favorite thing to do is to somehow get the football away from the other team. If they can do this, they will stop the other team from scoring points; they will get congratulated by their coaches; and best of all they get to go sit down and rest while a different eleven guys on their team come on and play offense.
We'll start with the offense.
In the picture above, there are six guys lined up in a straight line labeled T G C G T TE. These guys form the Offensive Line. They're very big guys. On football teams, we say there are fast guys and fat guys. These guys are some of the fat guys. We're going to start with them.
The letters stand for Tackle, Guard, Center, Guard, Tackle, and Tight End. The Tight End is actually an in- between guy, he's a little fast and a little fat. He will generally be about 6'4", 250 pounds, and a decent runner. The other five guys are going to be about 6'3" and 300 pounds. They almost never have to run, it's not in their union contract. These guys are the Marines of the football team - first on the beach, first in harm's way. Their job is to absorb and give out punishment.
Right behind the center is the Quarterback. The quarterback tells the other ten offensive players what the play is, that is what they are going to try to do to score points. He decides when the play starts and yells various signals to the other ten offensive players to communicate with them about any last minute changes. At some point he will yell the signal that the play should start. That's the beginning of the orchestrated chaos that is football.
We're going to see what each of these eleven guys is trying to do. We'll start with the center.
The Center is usually just a bit on the short and light side for the offensive line. He'll be maybe 6'1", 295 pounds. There's a lot of people very close to him, and when the play starts they're all going to be lunging all over the place. Our center needs to fit into this crowded area and be able to work effectively in close quarters.
Before the play starts, the referees put the football somewhere on the grass. The center stands right over the football and grabs it with his left hand. He puts his right hand on the grass next to the football. When the quarterback signals that it's time to start the play, the center will sweep the ball up between his legs and hand it or toss it to the quarterback.
Just before the play starts, the center is also responsible to look at the defense and decide how the offensive linemen will protect the quarterback. The six offensive linemen have choreographed routines to use to protect the quarterback, and the center's job is to decide which routine will work most effectively against this alignment of defenders. The center knows what the play is and what the quarterback is going to try to do with the football, so he knows which parts of the field are most important. Before the play starts, you will often see the center point to particular defenders with his right hand. As he is pointing, he is also yelling out special instructions for one of the other linemen to deal with this defender. The job of the defense is to try to get to the quarterback, by pure strength, by speed, by a complicated dance of their own, or by a sneaky ambush. The center's job is to decide what the defenders are going to try this time and tell the other offensive linemen how they will try to stop it and protect their quarterback.
The center will choose between zone blocking and man blocking for each play. In zone blocking, each offensive lineman blocks an area. If a couple of defenders quickly swap places with each other after the play starts, in zone blocking the offensive linemen will just stay in their area and take on whoever tries to get through them. In man blocking the offensive linemen will slide with the defender and go wherever he goes. The very favorite of linemen is the trap block. Sometimes the play will call for a guard to move in a certain direction, leaving a hole where a defender can run right through. In this case, another lineman will "pull," meaning leave his area and run over to hit this defender. The unsuspecting defender is under the impression that he has a free shot at the quarterback, but he's about to get hit very hard from the side by a very happy 320 pound lineman.
At the very instant he starts to move the ball, there will almost certainly be a really big guy on the defense who will try to knock over the center and get to the quarterback. The center's job is to stop that guy no matter what. So we see that from about 5 seconds before the ball is snapped, that is passed to the quarterback, until about a half second after the ball is snapped, the center is the second most important guy on the offense.
Because of his job diagnosing defenses and directing other players, in addition to weighing almost 300 pounds the center is usually a pretty bright guy. Many of the best centers in the NFL went to our best universities, such as Stanford, Berkeley, USC, and Ohio State. Most of them did very well in their college classes.
As important as the center's job is, it's considered in the NFL that it's not all that hard to replace a center, so a typical center will be paid $1M to $3M per year. While this is very good money for playing a game 50 hours a year, as football salaries go it's in the bottom half.