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The Steelers and the NFL have something for everyone

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The NFL provides many layers that fans can enjoy. You may not be an expert on the differences between x, y and z receivers, but you may know the rules on muffed punts. This is what makes the game of football great, and this is what separates it from every other sport.

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The other day I decided to research the responsibilities of the x, y and z receivers and how they operate on a regular basis.

For years, I thought the terms split-end and flanker were synonymous. I kind of knew about the slot receiver, and that he lined up in-between the split-end and flanker, but I never realized he was also called the y receiver. I also never realized the split-end couldn't go in motion, since he was on the line of scrimmage, albeit lined up several yards to the outside. I also never knew that the flanker (or z receiver) had to line up a yard or two behind the line of scrimmage, and that he was always eligible to go in motion.

I should clarify a bit. I kind of knew most of this stuff just from watching football for literally decades. Obviously, there is no way a receiver standing on the line of scrimmage can actually go in motion, not unless he wants to run right into the tackle. It's also clear, just from observing, that a receiver lined up behind the line of scrimmage has all the room in the world to go in motion--he can't run into anyone, considering his spacing.

But, like anything else in life, when you apply definitions and terminology to things you've been seeing, you often get an "aha!" moment, where it all makes sense--even if you weren't eagerly looking for such a moment. This isn't to say I now have an expert understanding of each and every receiver's responsibility, simply from reading a few articles online that may or may not have been written by people who knew what they were talking about--if you were to quiz me right now, I'd probably fail--but at least I now have a basic foundation to build my knowledge on.

My point in all of this, is I've been a football fan since 1980 and have enjoyed it quite a bit while not knowing exactly what an x (split-end), y (slot) and z (flanker) receiver meant to all these wonderful and epic football stories that have unfolded before my very eyes time-and-time again.

That's the great thing about the game of football. There are so many nuances and aspects to enjoy, which, in my opinion, separates it from every other sport. You can have a high football IQ without actually knowing why a split-end can't go in motion before a play.

There are fans who can talk x, y and z all day long. They'll break down each position's responsibilities, the routes he needs to run on each play and the best ways he can exploit a defense. These fans may also list several players whose skill-sets are best suited for each of the aforementioned receiver positions.

And then there's film and tape, and the people that love to watch this stuff over and over again. They can break plays down for hours and never get bored. But I couldn't think of a more tedious aspect of the NFL. You might scoff and say, "What kind of a football fan are you?" But I'll have you know that in the book I just finished reading, NFL Unplugged, players talk about how monotonous and sleep-inducing film-sessions are. One player even said he got so bored in meetings where his coach broke down the same play time and time again, he would entertain himself by making tally slashes on a piece of paper for every time his boss hit the rewind button.

When it comes to tape and film study, it reminds me of a quote I read years ago, attributed to the legendary Bum Phillips. Both Phillips and Sid Gillman,  a former NFL head coach and offensive guru, were watching film together one day, when Gillman said, "Bum, I just love watching film. Watching film is better than sex." And Bum retorted, "Sid, either you're doing it wrong, or I'm watching the wrong damn film."

Gotta love Bum.

Anyway, when it comes to that kind of stuff, I'm more Bum Phillips than I am Sid Gillman. But if you're Gillman-like in how you follow this lovely sport, there's certainly nothing wrong with that. Again, there are so many parts and layers to explore and embrace.

Getting back to the football IQ. For reasons that are unclear to me, I've always understood the rules of the game, even if they're ever-changing. For example, I just know that the clock stops on a completed pass out of bounds, but it starts back up again once the referee gives the proper signal. However, inside of two minutes of the first half and five minutes of the second half, the clock doesn't start again until the next snap.

While watching the Cowboys/Packers divisional playoff game last January, I knew the Dez Bryant catch late in the fourth quarter wasn't one, even if my eyes told me otherwise. By the laws of physics or whatever (I don't know physics), Bryant caught that football. However, since the NFL changed the rules regarding what constitutes a catch, there was no way the initial call was going to stand upon a replay challenge.

I was educated on that rule in January of 2009, when ex-Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes' obvious catch against Baltimore in the AFC Championship game was overturned thanks to a John Harbaugh challenge. Holmes briefly lost control of the ball once he was tackled to the grass of Heinz Field. Despite the fact that he took two full steps with the ball firmly tucked away before doing so, Holmes' reception wasn't legal by NFL standards.

Ever watch a game with a buddy, and your team appears to secure a fumble on a punt return? Your buddy jumps up and down and wants to slap you five, but you sit there with a disappointed look on your face, because you know the rule that a player can't be blocked into a loose football on a punt return, and once that happens, the receiving team keeps possession. And it was pretty obvious that happened on this particular play. Your pal, who may actually be so knowledgeable about football, he's one of those people who thinks tape is better than sex and makes fun of you for not knowing the difference between an x, y and z receiver, he's the first one to protest after the referee makes the right call on the play, that it wasn't a fumble. "That's bull****! I know a fumble when I see one!"

My mom always told me I'd make a great referee, and maybe she's right. I just understand rules, and this makes me a valuable member during an NFL watch party.

I also love the human interest stories and learning about the underbelly of professional football. For example, did you know that a lot of NFL players are in it for the money and not the fame and adulation? Here's an anonymous player quote from  NFL Unplugged:

"Why is it so hard for people to understand we play the game for money? Why is  that a bad thing? Football is my job. It's not a privilege. It's not something I do for fun. It's hard work and we make good money for a short period of time. And our career can end at any moment. The whole point is for us to make as much money as we can and not walk away a cripple. Is that wrong?"

While fans (and a lot of coaches and football pundits) often exclaim that playing a sport is a privilege, I've never believed that. Going to Kennywood when you're seven years old, that's a privilege. Playing in the NFL is a job, and like any other job, only the best applicants get considered and ultimately hired.

Here's another quote, this one attributed to Sean Landeta, a long-time punter who played 24 years in both the USFL and NFL:

"The two best days of the year for a player are the day he makes the team--everything you've worked for is validated--and the first day of the off season. You can then finally take a deep breath and relax."

The part about the first day of the off season, that's just fascinating to me. While we're all depressed after a Steelers loss that ends the season, a good deal of players--many who see what they do as just a job--they're relieved and looking forward to vacations and rest. In a way, that kind of disconnects them from me (how can they not love it as much as I do?), but in another way, I identify with them even more, because I can certainly relate to not wanting to be at work.

Even the players themselves, they can survive and have long careers by tapping into various aspects of the game. One receiver, he may get by on athletic gifts and be mostly clueless on the differences between x, y and z. Another receiver, he might not possess the natural gifts one needs, but he makes up for it by intense film study,  knowledge and guile. While both types of players can find their niches, the truly great receivers--think Antonio Brown--they possess athletic gifts, but they're also willing to learn everything about x, y and z (as well as the rest of the offense), and this is what usually separates them from the pack.

The game of football has something for everyone.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go learn about the mack and buck inside linebacker responsibilities. Maybe then I'll know why one of my man crushes--Vince Williams--can only play one of them, while Lawrence Timmons can play both.