7 Idioms from American Football

Tackle these phrases from the gridiron.
Last Updated: 17 May 2019

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To run interference means to provide assistance by or as if by clearing a path through obstructions. In football, it describes the effort of the offensive players to block the defensive players from reaching the player in possession of the ball.

On that play, the Eagles used their biggest receiver, 6-foot-4 Mack Hollins, to run interference on Vikings safety Harrison Smith, who had been assigned man-to-man coverage on Ertz.
— Andrew Krammer, The Star Tribune (Minneapolis), 1 Sept. 2018

Idol plays himself in the film as a first-class passenger on a flight headed to Las Vegas. He gives Sandler’s character sage advice on how to win back his love and even helps run interference when Sandler makes his move.
— John Clyde, KSL.com, 25 Aug. 2018

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The game plan is the strategy devised before the game to get past an opponent. In football this is traditionally shown in the form of diagrams of plays with X’s and O’s representing the players.

Putting together a game plan is an elaborate exercise in the art — and science — of analyzing an opponent's tendencies and patterns, and determining how best to exploit them.
USA Today, 17 Aug. 2017

Any game needs a plan, of course, but in expanded use game plan refers to a strategy for achieving an objective:

The depth and the length of the newspaper advertising collapse has surprised the oldest hands in the industry, so a newcomer like Zell could hardly be expected to have taken it into account for whatever game plan, if any, he had.
— Mark Fitzgerald, Editor & Publisher, July 2008

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It’s easy to be a Monday-morning quarterback. This term for one who second-guesses the decisions of oneself or another echoes the fan who dissects a team’s strategy during a weekend game on the following school day or workday.

What I realized from talking to Jason is that if I had fallen a different way, I might not have been so badly injured. Now, it’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback and think of all the things I coulda shoulda done. But still, if I’d known something about falling techniques or safe landing strategies, as Jason calls them, in those split seconds, I might have been able to exert a bit of control.
— Diane Atwood, Bangor Daily News, 10 Feb. 2018

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Punting in football means to kick the ball upward with the top of the foot after dropping it from the hands and before it hits the ground. The tactic is done in the hope of giving possession of the ball to the opposing team closer to its own goal line, because your own chance of advancing the ball any further is unlikely.

Since punting means giving up on attempting to score points for your own team, the verb has started to develop a secondary meaning of “to delay or avoid addressing an issue”:

The U.S. Supreme Court punted Monday on its biggest decision of its term so far. The justices had been expected to rule on the limits of partisan gerrymandering.

Instead, the court sidestepped the major issues on technical grounds, sending the issue back to the lower courts for further examination.
— Nina Totenberg, NPR.org, 18 June 2018

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The sideline isn’t just where injured players sit. It’s the home base for the coaches, trainers, inactive players, and anyone employed by the team who doesn’t happen to be in the game at the moment.

As a verb, sideline means to place someone out of action. That can be the result of illness or injury, but can also be a consequence of another’s decision:

Together, all of these accounts paint a clear picture: Unable to execute his duties for reasons of temperament, ignorance, and mental decline, President Trump has been sidelined by his aides, who work to mitigate his behavior and keep him from steering the country into catastrophe.
— Jamelle Bouie, Slate, 5 Sept. 2018

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In football, an end around is a play in which an offensive end comes behind the line of scrimmage to take a handoff and attempts to carry the ball around the opposite flank.

Used in an extended sense, it refers to an alternate, usually indirect path to reach an objective that avoids the crux of a problem.

The Ohio Legislature declined to approve Medicaid expansion when it was introduced with the Affordable Care Act, so Kasich, who supports it, did an end-around and implemented it administratively through the state Controlling Board.
— David DeWitt, The Athens (Ohio) News, 9 July 2017

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Photo: Wolfgang Sauber via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The most dramatic play in football, the Hail Mary is a long forward pass thrown by a quarterback in the last seconds of a game, usually with low odds that it will be caught. The term comes from the prayer for intercession that Roman Catholics deliver to the Virgin Mary. It became popular after the Cowboys’ Roger Staubach, himself a Roman Catholic, claimed to have said the words while throwing a winning touchdown in a game in 1975.

Now Hail Mary can describe any kind of long-shot attempt taken when other attempts have failed:

On Tuesday, David Taylor, the firm’s acting chief and general counsel, wrote that Theranos is formally dissolving, noting that the company has no choice but to shut down, due to the conditions of a last-minute loan it received from the Fortress Investment Group. The deal was a sort of Hail Mary, made in desperation after an October 2015 Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that the roughly decade-old blood-testing company, which was once celebrated for its supposedly revolutionary diagnostic technology, was more smoke and mirrors than legit science.
— Maya Kosoff, Vanity Fair, 5 Sept. 2018




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