Not since Manfred Moore threw a football over the Henson Park grandstand has interest in the NFL been so high and Hayne’s transformation from NRL superstar to running back/punt returner for the San Francisco 49ers has been nothing short of stunning. For NRL fans, NFL can seem like a crazy, over the top, stop-start affair that inexplicably takes 4 hours to complete. And for the most part it is. But if you take the time to understand a bit more of the game it’s actually quite interesting and very entertaining.
First of all, let’s look at the size of the two countries; Australia has a population of 23 million, while America has a population of over 300 million. This means the NFL has more players (Rosters have 53 players, compared to the NRL which has 25), bigger budgets, bigger stadiums, more fans and more coverage.
In Australia, we get 80,000 to a rugby league game on just two occasions throughout the season; the State of Origin Game in Sydney and the NRL Grand Final. Most of the 16 teams average between 10,000-16,000 fans per home game. The Brisbane Broncos have the luxury of having an entire city behind them and they usually get over 40,000 to their home games at Suncorp Stadium. In the NFL, during the 2015 regular season, the Dallas Cowboys averaged 90,000 fans at their home ground, AT&T Stadium. The lowest ranking team was the Minnesota Vikings with an average of 52,000, comfortably more than the NRL can offer.
Large crowds attract big dollars and as a rugby league fan with an interest in the NFL it’s hard to get my head around some of the figures. 2015 Superbowl winners the New England Patriots are currently forking out $9 Million a season for quarterback Tom Brady.
In the NRL, the salary cap for an entire squad is only $6 Million.
Now that we have had a look at the money on offer in the NFL, let’s compare the two sports in terms of how their season plays out.
The NRL is a 16-team competition, played out over 26 rounds, with each team receiving two byes and there are two points awarded for a win. The finals series involves the top 8 ranked teams in a new competition that runs for 4 weeks, culminating in the NRL Grand Final, which takes place in early October.
The NFL is a 32-team competition, divided into the American Football Conference, and the National Football Conference. Each conference is divided into North, South, East and West, depending on a team’s location. Each team in a division plays the other three teams twice as well as 10 other games assigned by the NFL. At the end of the season, the top teams from the 4 divisions in each conference are involved in a playoff series. Each conference sends two “wildcard” teams to the playoffs as well. The overall winner being named the AFC or NFC champion, depending on what division they belong to. The two winners from each division then play for the Vince Lombardi Trophy in the Super Bowl.
Get all that?
As you can see, the NFL is a much more complex structure, with divisions, conferences, title games and the Super Bowl, whereas the NRL, on a much smaller scale, is a little easier to follow.
A typical NRL game lasts for 80 minutes, separated into two halves of 40 minutes. Teams have a maximum of six plays to advance to the other end of the field and plant the ball down in the in-goal area to score a “try”. Tries are worth 4 points, the subsequent conversion attempt is worth two points and a field goal is worth one point.
In the NFL, a team has a maximum of 4 plays to advance the ball 10 yards, whereby they earn a new set of plays, and so on. In this way a team can maintain possession for large periods of play. If an attacking player enters the end-zone via a run or by catching a pass in the end zone, he is awarded a touchdown, earning his team six points. The conversion, always taken in front of the goal posts, is worth one point, and a field goal, taken in the same way a conversion is taken, is worth 3 points. A safety, where an attacking player is tackled in his own endzone is worth 2 points. Additionally, a team may go for the “extra point” when they try to get an attacking player into the end-zone via a pass or run.
Both games have a variety of infringements and illegal plays that influence the game, but the NFL is a lot more stop-start. A team puts on a play, be it a running play or passing play, and once that is done, the two teams set up for the next play. In the NRL a player hits the ball up, gets tackled, and plays the ball, and so the game flows a lot more. In the NFL you can pass the ball forwards, in fact this is the easiest way to gain yards, via a long pass downfield to a wide receiver. A pass backwards, as they do in the NRL is known as a lateral. Running plays may not gain as many yards, but come with fewer risks and can be used to eat up time late in the game.
In the NRL players use their athleticism, strength and speed to bend the defence backwards. With the defence struggling to get back onside, a quick play the ball keeps the defence on the backfoot, and the attacking team can march downfield with ease. A big powerful forward will often attract 3 or 4 defenders, before a late offload to a support player, usually a speedy fullback, will send them streaking away upfield.