The History of American Football

sipe     mrozier     glandry

Table of Contents

The Grassroots of FootballProfessional Football Today
How the game is playedSuper Bowl
Protective EquipmentRule Changes and Modern Developments
Methods of ScoringThe Draft and Free Agency
Development of Offensive StrategiesSuper Bowl Statistics
Development of Defensive Strategies 

The Grassroots of Football

Organized professional football began in 1921 with the formation of the National Football League. Although the Depression of the 1930’s and W.W.II retarded the NFL’s development, after the war the televising of the pros’ faster, more skillful and hard-hitting style of play contributed to making the sport extremely popular. At this point in time people were to moving from farms to cities in record numbers and new inventions like the automobile, telephone and radio broadened the experiences of millions of Americans. Sporting events began broadcasting on a large scale which brought entertainment to millions of homes of urban and rural American. Not to mentions feeding the flame of the ever increasing popularity of football. Fortunately, football did not need the roaring twenties as a gateway into the hearts of American for it began many years earlier.

The Origin of modern football stems from the "Boston Game" as played at Harvard. Harvard declined to participate in the inaugural meeting of the Intercollegiate Football Association in NYC in Oct 1873, because the proposed rules were based on the non-handling "Association" code of English football. Instead, Harvard accepted a proposal from McGill University of Montreal, which played the more closely to English Rugby Football. The first football match under Harvard rules was thus played against McGill at Cambridge, Mass, in May 1874. Most sports historians point to a contest between Rutgers and Princeton at New Brunswick, NJ on Nov 6, 1869, as the first football game, but many American soccer historians regard this contest as the first intercollegiate soccer game. In the early games, each team used 25 players at a time. By 1873 the number was reduced to 20 players, in 1876 to 15 players, and in 1880 to 11 players, where it has remained.


Early US football was similar to soccer but today’s game evolved from rugby, which permits handling of the ball. In the 1800’s Yale Universities’ Walter Camp, the "father" of the game, devised football. The new college sport soon became popular, but public criticism of its physical violence brought about a meeting of President Theodore Roosevelt with college team representing 1906 that resulted in banning mass formations and other dangerous practices. Forward passing of the game was legalized, opening up the strategy and tactics of the game.

The first professional football game in the United States took place in 1895 in the town of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, between a team representing Latrobe and a team from Jeannette, Pennsylvania. In the following ten years many professional teams were formed, including the Duquesnes of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; the Olympics of McKeesport, Pennsylvania; the Bulldogs of Canton, Ohio; and the team of Massillon, Ohio. Noted college players who took up the professional game during its early years include Willie Heston (formerly at the University of Michigan), Jim Thorpe (Carlisle Institute), Knute Rockne (University of Notre Dame), and Fritz Pollard (Brown University). The professional game attracted limited public support during its first 30 years. The first league of professional football teams was the American Professional Football Association, formed in 1920. The admission fee was $100 per team. The teams pledged not to use any student player who still had collegiate eligibility left, as the good will of the colleges was believed to be essential to the survival of the professional league. The teams also agreed not to tamper with each other's players. Jim Thorpe, a player-coach for one of the teams, became president of the league during its first year.

In the 1900s college football became one of the country's most popular sports spectacles. Ranked among the most accomplished United States sports figures of the 20th century are such student athletes as Jim Thorpe of Carlisle Institute; George Gipp of the University of Notre Dame; Red Grange of the University of Illinois; Tom Harmon of the University of Michigan; Doak Walker of Southern Methodist University; Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard, the so-called Touchdown Twins of Army (the U.S. Military Academy); Joe Namath of the University of Alabama; O. J. Simpson of the University of Southern California; Walter Payton of Jackson State University; and Tony Dorsett of the University of Pittsburgh.

Professional football had little organization until 1920, when the American Professional Football Association was founded. Jim Thorpe, the great American Indian athlete, was elected the first president of the association. In 1922, the organization renamed itself the National Football League (NFL). Red Grange, the famous halfback from the University of Illinois, provided a tremendous stimulus for the league when he joined the Chicago Bears in 1925 and toured the United States that year and the next. Grange played in a series of games that attracted more than 350,000 fans and greatly increased fan interest in professinal football. Thereafter, professional football attracted larger numbers of first-rate college players, and the increased patronage made the league economically viable.

In 1933, the NFL split into two division. Later that year, the Chicago Bears, champions of the Western Division, defeated the New York Giants, champions of the Eastern Division, for the first world professional football title. The league held its first draft in 1936.

In 1944, an eight-team league called the All-America Football Conference was formed. The league began competition in 1946. Many of its players were veterans on the NFL. The All-America Football Conference never became as successful as the NFL, and the two leagues merged in 1950 into a 13-team league.

During the 1950’s, professional football began to gain great popularity throughout the United States. Television networks paid millions of dollars to televise the games. In 1960, another professional league, the American Football League (AFL), was formed. The eight-team AFL competed with the NFL for fans and for outstanding college players. It even tried to sign up star NFL players. In 1966, after six years of bitter rivalry, the two leagues agreed to mere in 1970 into one league consisting of the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference.

The two major leagues merged in 1966 into the NFL’s American and National conference, each having 14 teams in the early 1980’s; and a Super Bowl championship game between the conference winner has been played every January since 1967.

A new professional league, the World Football League (WFL), began play in 1974 with 12 teams. Midway through the 1975 season, the league ceased operations because of severe financial looses. However, the league came back in the early 1990’s and is now still in operation.



football field

The football playing field is rectangular in shape, measuring 120 yd (110 m) long and 53.3 yd (48.8 m) wide. At both ends of the 100-yd main body of the playing field, white lines called goal lines mark off the entrances to the end zones. Each team defends one end zone. A team must carry, pass, or kick the ball into the 10-yd (9-m) end zone on the opponents' half of the field to score. Lines parallel to the end zones cross the field at 5-yd (4.5-m) intervals. These lines give the field a resemblance to a large gridiron. Another set of lines, known as the sidelines, runs along both sides of the field. In addition, two rows of lines, called hash marks, run parallel to the sidelines. The hash marks are 53 ft 4 in (16.3 m) from each sideline in college and high school football, and 70 ft 9 in (21.6 m) from each sideline in the National Football League (NFL). Each play must begin on or between the hash marks. Before each play, the officials place the ball either between the hash marks or on the hash mark closest to the end of the previous play.

Situated in the middle of the rear line of each end zone are goal posts, consisting of a 10-ft (3-m) vertical pole topped by a horizontal crossbar from which two vertical upright posts extend.
In college professional football, the posts are and 18 ft 6 in (about 5.6 m) apart.

A game of football is divided into four periods, known as quarters, each consisting of 15 minutes of playing time. The first two periods constitute the first half; the second two comprise the second half. Between the halves, a rest period, usually lasting about 15 minutes, is permitted the players, who may leave the field. The teams change halves of the field at the end of each quarter. The clocks stop at the end of each quarter and at certain other times, when particular events occur or when designated by the officials.

Football is played by two opposing teams, each fielding 11 players. Each team tries to move the ball down the field to score in the end zone defended by its opponents. During a football game the teams are designated as the offensive team (the team in possession of the ball) and the defensive team (the team defending a goal line against the offensive team). Players involved in kicking situations are known as the special teams.
The 11 players of the offensive team are divided into two groups:
7 linemen, who play on the line of scrimmage (an imaginary line designating the position of the ball) and a backfield of 4 players, called backs, who stand in various positions behind the linemen. The lineman whose position is in the middle of the line is called the center. On his left is the left guard and on his right is the right guard. On the left of the left guard is the left tackle, and on the right of the right guard is the right tackle; similarly, on the ends of the line are the tight end and the split end. The back who usually stands directly behind the center and directs the play of the offensive team is known as the quarterback. In a balanced backfield formation, or T-formation, the fullback stands behind the quarterback, and the left and right halfbacks stand to either side of the fullback. Teams often use wide receivers in the place of tight ends, split ends, halfbacks, or fullbacks. Wide receivers line up on the line of scrimmage but wide of the rest of the formation.

The defensive team consists of a row of linemen, who comprise the defensive line; a row of linebackers; and a collection of defensive backs, known as the secondary. The defensive line can use any number of players, though most teams use three or four linemen. Defensive linemen principally are responsible for stopping the opposition's rushing attack and, in passing situations, putting pressure on the quarterback. The linebackers line up behind the defensive line and, depending on the situation, are used to stop runners, pressure the quarterback, or cover the opposition's receivers. Teams usually employ three or four linebackers. The secondary is composed of cornerbacks, who cover wide receivers, and safeties, who cover receivers, offer support in stopping the rushing attack, and pressure the quarterback. The secondary commonly consists of two cornerbacks and two safeties.


Protective Equipment

To protect themselves from the often violent bodily contact that characterizes football, players wear elaborate equipment, including lightweight plasticized padding covering the thighs, hips, shoulders, knees, and often the forearms and hands. Players also wear plastic helmets with guards that cover most of the face.

Play is supervised by impartial officials. Professional and major college football programs use seven officials: a referee, an umpire, a linesman, a field judge, a back judge, a line judge, and a side judge. The officials carry whistles and yellow penalty flags. They blow the whistles or throw the flags to indicate that an infraction of the rules has been committed.

The referee is in charge of the game at all levels of play. The referee supervises the other officials, decides on all matters not under other officials' specific jurisdiction, and enforces penalties. The referee indicates when the ball is dead (out of play) and when it may again be put into play, and uses hand signals to indicate specific decisions and penalties. The umpire makes decisions on questions concerning the players' equipment, their conduct, and their positioning. The principal duty of the linesman is to mark the position of the ball at the end of each play. The linesman has assistants who measure distances gained or lost, using a device consisting of two vertical markers connected by a chain or cord 10 yd (9 m) long. The linesman must particularly watch for violations of the rule requiring players to remain in certain positions before the ball is put into play. The field judge times the game, using a stopwatch for this purpose. In some cases, the stadium scoreboard has a clock that is considered official.

At the beginning of each game, the referee tosses a coin in the presence of the two team captains to determine which team kicks off or receives the kickoff. At the start of the second half, these conditions are reversed—that is, the team that kicks off in the first half receives the kickoff to start the second half.

During the kickoff, the ball is put in play by a place-kick from the kicking team's 35-yd (32-m) line, or the 30-yd (27.4-m) line in the NFL. The NFL kickoff was moved from the 35-yard line in 1994 to increase the importance of the kickoff return. The kicking team lines up at or behind the ball, while the opponents spread out over their territory in a formation calculated to help them to catch the ball and run it back effectively. If the kick stays within the boundaries of the field, any player on the receiving team may catch the ball, or pick it up on a bounce, and run with it. As the player runs, the player may be tackled by any opponent and stopped, known as being downed. The player carrying the ball is considered downed when one knee touches the ground.
Tacklers use their hands and arms to stop opponents and throw them to the ground. After the ball carrier is stopped, the referee blows a whistle to stop play and places the ball on the spot where the runner was downed. Play also stops when the ball carrier runs out of bounds. A scrimmage (action while the ball is in play) then takes place.

Before scrimmage begins, the team on offense usually gathers in a circle, called a huddle, and discusses the next play it will use to try to advance the ball. A coach either signals the play choice to the team from the sidelines, or the team's quarterback chooses from among the dozens of rehearsed plays in the team's repertoire. The defensive team also forms a huddle and discusses its next attempt to slow the offense. Each play is designated by code numbers or words, called signals. After the teams come out of their respective huddles, they line up opposite each other on the line of scrimmage. If the quarterback analyzes the defensive alignment and decides that the chosen play should be changed, the quarterback can call an audible and shout the coded directions for a new play.

Play begins when the center crouches over the ball and, on a spoken signal, snaps it—generally to the quarterback—by handing it between his legs. Based upon the chosen play, the quarterback can pass the ball, hand it off to a teammate, or run with it. During the scrimmage, the players on the offensive team may check the defenders using their bodies, but they are constrained by specific rules regarding the use of their hands or arms. The player running with the ball, however, is allowed to use an arm to ward off potential tacklers. The offensive players check defenders, or try to force them out of the way, by performing a maneuver known as blocking. Good blocking is considered a fundamental technique in football.

Perhaps the most spectacular offensive play is the forward pass, in which the ball is thrown in a forward direction to an eligible player. The ball is nearly always thrown by the quarterback, and those who may catch it include the other three backs and the two ends. A forward pass may be made only during scrimmage, and then only from behind the line of scrimmage. A lateral pass (throwing the ball backwards or on a line parallel to the line of scrimmage) may be made anywhere on the field anytime the ball is in play.

The defending team tries to prevent the attacking team from advancing the ball. The defending players may use their arms and hands in their attempt to break through the opponents' line to reach the player with the ball. The defending team tries to keep the offense from gaining any distance, or to stop the offense for a loss by tackling the ball carrier before the ball carrier reaches the line of scrimmage. The offense must advance the ball at least 10 yards in four tries, called downs. After each play, the teams line up again and a new scrimmage takes place. If the team on offense fails to travel 10 yards in four downs, it must surrender the ball to its opponent after the fourth down.

A team will often punt on fourth down if it hasn't gained at least 10 yards in its previous three tries. In punting, the kicker drops the ball and kicks it before it touches the ground. By punting, a team can send the ball farther away from its own end zone before surrendering it, thus weakening the opponent's field position.


Methods of Scoring

The object of the game is to score more points than the opposing team within the regulation playing time. In college football, a game can end in a tie if both teams have scored the same number of points at the end of regulation time. In case of a tie in an exhibition or regular-season professional game, the teams play an overtime period, known as sudden death, in which the first team to score is declared the winner. If neither team has scored at the end of this 15-minute overtime period, then the tie is allowed to stand. In professional playoff games no ties are allowed, and the teams play until one scores.

A team scores a touchdown when one of its players carries the ball into the opposing team's end zone or catches a pass in the end zone. A touchdown is worth 6 points. After a team has scored a touchdown, it tries for an extra-point conversion. This is an opportunity to score an additional 1 or 2 points with no time elapsing off the game clock. In college football the offensive team lines up 3 yd (2.7 m) from the goal line of the opponents and passes, kicks, or runs with the ball. A running or passing conversion in which the ball crosses the goal line counts for 2 points. A conversion by place-kick that propels the ball between the goalposts and over the crossbar counts for 1 point. In professional football, the offensive team lines up 2 yd (1.8 m) from the goal line. A conversion attempted by place-kicking the ball is worth 1 point. In 1994 the NFL introduced the running or passing 2-point conversion.

On offense, teams may also attempt to score by kicking a field goal, which counts for 3 points. A field goal is scored by means of a place-kick, in which one player holds the ball upright on the ground for a teammate to kick. For a successful field goal, the ball must be kicked between the goalposts and over the crossbar. After each field goal and extra-point conversion, the scoring team must kick off to its opponents.

Finally, a defensive team earns 2 points for a safety when it causes the team on offense to end a play in possession of the ball behind its own goal line. If in certain situations the offensive team downs the ball behind its line intentionally, such as after receiving a kickoff, the play is known as a touchback and does not count in the scoring. When the offensive team suffers a safety, it must punt the ball to the opponents to restart play.

American football was made popular by teams representing colleges and universities. These teams dominated the game for most of the first 100 years of football in the United States. Even today, despite greatly increased interest in professional football, intercollegiate contests—played by more than 600 teams—are attended by more than 35 million spectators each year. Many college stadiums hold more than 50,000 spectators; one stadium, at the University of Michigan, holds more than 100,000.
Many of the major universities are now grouped in conferences, such as the Big Ten (northern Midwest), the Big Eight (Midwest), the Pacific-10 (western states), the Southeastern Conference, and the Ivy League (northeast).

In 1935 the Downtown Athletic Club of New York City established an award honoring one of the outstanding college football coaches in the country, John William Heisman. Heisman is credited with legalizing the forward pass in 1906. The John W. Heisman Memorial Trophy is awarded annually to the outstanding college player of the year, as decided by a national poll of sportswriters. After World War II ended in 1945, college athletes began to receive football scholarships, often paying the player's room, board, tuition, and incidental expenses while enrolled in college.

College teams generally play about 11 games during the fall. The best college teams are awarded trips to so-called bowl games, matching outstanding teams in games that conclude the season's competition. The tradition was begun in 1902 at Pasadena, California, when Stanford University invited the University of Michigan to come to California for a New Year's Day contest. This event soon became the celebrated Rose Bowl game. Bowl games now represent the climax of the college season. Other notable bowl games include the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas; the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida; and the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, Louisiana. In recognition of the great public interest in these games, major corporations now sponsor many of the bowls.

Today, the champion college team is selected by national polls of coaches and sportswriters. See the accompanying table for a list of teams selected national champions. In cases where two different teams won the honor in separate polls, a note has been made.

Many members of the football community debate whether a poll of writers and coaches should determine a champion or whether the colleges should institute a more formal playoff system. Detractors of a playoff system argue that with such a system, the bowl games would lose their popularity. In addition, players' seasons would extend by one or two months, cutting into academic time. However, advocates for a playoff point to the controversial 1993 season in which Florida State University won the number-one ranking over Notre Dame, a team that had defeated Florida State earlier in the season.

Strategically, the early NFL game was hardly distinguishable from college football of the time. There was no attempt to break away from collegiate playbooks or rule books. For 13 years the NFL followed the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Rules Committee recommendations. In the league's early years, players considered the low-paying NFL a part-time job and held other jobs during the day. Thus, while college coaches could drill their players daily for hours, professional football coaches arranged practices in the evenings, sometimes only three or four times a week.


Development of Offensive Strategies

The offensive techniques and formations prevalent in the contemporary game developed from the ideas of early and mid-20th century coaches such as Walter Camp, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Pop Warner, Fielding "Hurry Up" Yost, Bob Zuppke, Knute Rockne, and Paul Brown. Following very few historical precedents, these men innovated unique strategies that changed the nature of football forever. Stagg, with teams operating out of the early T-formation, originated the between-the-legs snap from center to quarterback and put a player in motion in the backfield before the snap of the ball. In 1906 Warner unbalanced his line, placing four players on one side of the center and two on the other side, while shifting the backfield into a wing formation. The quarterback functioned as a blocker, set close behind the line and a yard wide of the center. At the same depth, but outside the line, was the wingback. Deep in the backfield was the tailback, who received most of the snaps, and in front and to the side was the fullback. This formation became known as the Single-Wing, and it remained football's basic formation until the 1940s.

From the Single-Wing emerged Warner's so-called Double-Wing, with wingbacks set wide on either side of the line. This formation forced the defense to spread itself across the field in order to protect against the pass, thus creating favorable conditions for the offense to execute unexpected running plays. The strategy is the same as today's draw and end-around concepts, but Warner's teams could also pass from the formation. Warner would also open up the lines completely, splitting the ends into modern slot positions, inside the wingbacks. This was a four-receiver formation that evolved into the Shotgun offense, popularized by the San Francisco 49ers of 1960. Like the double-wing, the Shotgun used two wideouts and two slot players, with the passer set deep in the backfield next to a running back. The NFL's newest formation of the 1990s, the Run and Shoot offense, also resembles Warner's formation.

With Warner's innovations, wing formations came to dominate the NFL. Coach Zuppke at Illinois ran single- and double-wing formations, often sending four or five receivers downfield in pass patterns. Some teams would use a short-punt formation, with the quarterback and wings set on different sides, providing a more balanced look. At Notre Dame in 1923 and 1924, Rockne instituted his famous Four Horsemen offense. At the beginning of a play, Rockne set up the backs in a four-square, box alignment on one side. Then, in the famous Notre Dame Shift, the backs would shift out of the box and into a single or double wing. In later years, other coaches imitated Rockne's innovation and achieved similar success. For example, former Washington Redskin coach Joe Gibbs implemented an offensive strategy called the Explode Package. Modeled after Rockne's Notre Dame Shift, the Explode Package helped the Redskins defeat the Miami Dolphins in the 1983 Super Bowl. In Gibbs's system, the backs and receivers would jump into new positions before the snap, thus unsettling the defense.

Although talented, the quarterbacks of the 1930s and parts of the 1940s seldom completed 50 percent of their passes, while many were even less successful. A major cause of these low percentages was the primitive nature of pass-blocking schemes. With little protection, passers always had to throw while avoiding incoming rushers. In the 1940s Paul Brown, the coach of the Cleveland Browns, installed a blocking system that radically transformed the passing game. Brown changed the system by arranging the linemen in the form of a cup. They pushed most incoming pass-rushers to the outside. Anyone who penetrated the line was met by a firmly planted fullback named Marion Motley.

From that point on, the passing game achieved a new significance. Other teams implemented strong blocking lines, providing the quarterback with more time to release the ball. The contemporary game of the 1980s and 1990s is noted for its exciting and effective passing plays in both the professional and college ranks. Artificial turf, the surface in many of the nation's stadiums, provides excellent footing for quarterbacks and receivers. With strong protection, talented quarterbacks make a difference to a game. For example, quarterback Joe Montana keyed the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl victories (1982, 1985, 1989, 1990). Montana, who benefited from good protection, could instinctively read defenses and had the ability to deliver the ball accurately to his receivers while on the move. In college football, the University of Miami Hurricanes dominated the game in the late 1980s with a flashy passing game and a quick defense that could react effectively to the pass.


Development of Defensive Strategies

One striking aspect of modern football is its emphasis on defense as well as offense. This trend began after World War II (1939-1945), when college teams were allowed free substitution of players—that is, a player could enter and leave the game an unlimited number of times, as long as the ball was not in play during the substitution. This feature of the game led to the modern two-platoon system, in which one group of 11 players enters the game to play offense and a second group enters to play defense. Such a system has fostered the development of individual skills and specialization among players.

Defensive football has acquired an extensive terminology of its own. In some ways defense is more complicated than offense, because defensive teams have fewer restrictions on their manner of lining up. Generally, however, the defensive formation is determined by the way the offense lines up. For example, when defending against opponents who are expected to throw many forward passes, a team might use a formation with a four-player line of two ends and two tackles. Three linebackers would stand directly behind the front four. In addition, two cornerbacks placed wider and farther back could defend against mid-range assaults. Two safeties would position themselves deeper to protect against longer aerial attacks.

Most of the innovative thinking by coaches in the NFL during the 1970s came on defense. Offensive statistics plummeted as defenses became more effective. The newer game demanded speed at every position, in addition to strength and bulk. Great linebacker units with catchy names such as Doomsday in Dallas, Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain, Minnesota's Purple People Eaters, and the Rams' Fearsome Foursome dominated offenses. Teams turned the free safety position over to ferocious hitters such as the Raiders' Jack Tatum and the Cowboys' Cliff Harris. Rough, physical cornerbacks such as the Steelers' Mel Blount and the Raiders' Willie Brown employed tight bump-and-run techniques on receivers downfield.


Professional Football Today

The present-day NFL game is extremely popular. It is played during the late summer, through autumn, and into January. Professional teams play 4 exhibition games before the start of the regular season, followed by 16 games in the regular season and then playoff games, if they qualify. Teams play one game each week, using the time between games to recover, practice, and prepare for the next game. Each team receives one week without a game, known as a bye, during the season.

The NFL is a big business for players, owners, advertisers, and other industries tied to the sport. NFL franchises generate huge revenues for host cities, in addition to promoting civic pride and national exposure. Thus, cities often compete for teams, offering prospective teams bigger and better stadiums, guaranteed fan support, and various economic incentives. In the 1980s three NFL teams relocated: the Raiders moved from Oakland, California, to Los Angeles in 1982; the Colts moved from Baltimore, Maryland, to Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1984; and the Cardinals moved from St. Louis, Missouri, to Phoenix, Arizona, in 1988. In 1995 the Rams moved from Los Angeles to St. Louis, and the Raiders returned to Oakland. The Cleveland Browns also announced their move to Baltimore, Maryland, effective for the 1996 season. The team was renamed the Ravens. In addition, in 1996 NFL team owners voted to allow the Houston Oilers to move to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1998. Other teams have agreed to stay only with the promise of new facilities by their host cities. New teams are periodically accepted into the NFL, and there is usually fierce competition among cities to be selected as the host for a new football team. In 1995 two of these so-called expansion teams began play: the Carolina Panthers, in Charlotte, North Carolina; and the Jacksonville Jaguars, in Jacksonville, Florida.

Throughout the years, other consortiums have sought to capitalize on the economic potential of the sport. For three years in the 1980s a new professional spring league, the United States Football League (USFL), competed with the NFL. The NFL lost players to the USFL, and NFL teams had to pay higher salaries to keep other players from leaving. However, the USFL soon folded, with much of its more talented personnel entering the NFL. The World League of American Football, comprising teams in European and North American cities, played seasons in 1991 and 1992 before becoming inactive. In 1995 the league was reestablished with six franchises. The NFL is involved in the administration of the World League, but World League rules vary somewhat from those used in the United States. Although most of its players are American, the league's games are primarily directed at European audiences, and only rarely are games televised in the United States.


Super Bowl

The Super Bowl is the final contest of the NFL's season and determines the league's annual champion. Currently the Super Bowl routinely finishes among the all-time top 50 programs in television ratings, reaching hundreds of millions of viewers around the world. Now probably the most important single-day sporting event in the United States, the Super Bowl had modest beginnings. In 1967 the champions of the American Football League (which merged with the NFL in 1970) and the NFL met in what was called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. The name was later shortened to Super Bowl, named after a child's toy, the Super Ball. In this first game, the Green Bay Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10. The Los Angeles Coliseum, site of the game, fell far short of a sellout, although tickets were only $10 each.
For plays and winners see Statistics


Rule Changes and Modern Developments

The game of football has a history of constant rule changes. Rule changes have been implemented to bolster the excitement of the game of football and to increase the game's safety. By 1906 the game was extremely rough, and many injuries and some deaths had occurred. Educators considered dropping the sport despite its popularity on campuses. United States President Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent advocate of strenuous sports, declared that the game must be made safer. As a result, football authorities revamped the game, and many of the rougher tactics were outlawed.

In a constant attempt to maintain public interest in the game, NFL rulemakers review trends in their sport. For example, in the early 1970s, the rulemakers brought the hash marks in closer to the center of the field to give offenses more room to throw wide. The move, which increased scoring and made the game more exciting, also helped bolster the running game. In 1972 ten NFL runners gained more than 1000 yards in one season for the first time in history. During the next season, Buffalo Bill running back O. J. Simpson rushed for more than 2000 yards, the first time a player had gained that many yards in a single season.

However, the passing game eventually suffered as defenses quickly adjusted. The Pittsburgh Steelers had a stranglehold on the NFL during the 1970s, with four Super Bowl victories. The dominant defensive athletes the Steelers put on the field shut down the wide-open passing attacks that had developed in the previous era. By 1977 scoring was the lowest it had been since 1942, while offensive touchdowns had fallen to their lowest levels since 1938. The rulemakers enacted serious measures after this low-scoring 1977 season, fearing a loss of public interest in the defense-dominated game. They established a zone of only five yards from the line of scrimmage in which a bump by a pass defender was permitted. Offensive linemen could extend their arms and open their hands on pass blocks. Offenses responded slowly, but by the 1980s they began to score again, and a renewed spirit of defensive innovation began.

To counter the improved passing game, a new breed of defensive player emerged. While speedy defensive backs covered equally fast wide receivers, a player called the rush-linebacker emerged with one specialized duty: pressuring the quarterback. With no pass-coverage responsibilities, the fast and strong rush-linebacker focused his attention on the quarterback or the running backs. The New York Giants' Lawrence Taylor, perhaps the best player of all time at this position, demonstrated the importance of the role by leading New York to a Super Bowl victory in 1987.

Soon longer passes became more difficult to complete. Defenses choked off the short pass and defied the quarterback to throw long, assuming that their rush would get to the quarterback first. Additionally, zone defenses, which had been used since the 1920s, became more complex and harder to read. Offenses stalled.
Domed stadiums, with their overpowering crowd noise, made communications a problem. Teams resorted to kicking field goals in greater numbers than ever before, rather than risking the attempts at touchdown passes. Artificial turf helped improve the accuracy of the kicks, but scores still fell. In order to stall this trend, the league's rulemakers stepped in again after the 1993 season, penalizing teams attempting field goals. Now, when a team misses a kick, its opponent receives the ball at the point of the actual kick rather than on the line of scrimmage. Because the ball is usually kicked from about seven or eight yards behind the line, coaches must factor the rule into their strategic planning.


The Draft and Free Agency

In 1936 the NFL adopted the Draft Rule, a system that assigned graduating college players to various league teams in such a way that a fair distribution of talent was assured. The threat of a lawsuit caused the NFL to change its original policy in 1989 and allow collegiate underclassmen to enter the draft. Juniors are now eligible, and many collegiate stars turn professional before exhausting their college eligibility.

Free agency emerged in 1992 in a settlement of a lawsuit filed in 1987 by the NFL Players Association. The association was formed in 1956 when players began to demand improved conditions.
The union brought the suit in 1987 on behalf of players demanding freedom of movement between teams. The NFL's Management Council initially objected to any form of free agency, so in 1987 veteran players held a three-game strike to protest. Now in place, free agency is accompanied by a salary cap that limits teams to a maximum annual player payroll.

The NFL's free agency system presents a number of new questions for the league. For many owners it is an attractive means of curtailing the league's free-spending owners. For the coaches and some players, on the other hand, it presents significant problems. As teams near the salary cap, they are compelled to cut expensive and aging veterans who may still be useful. A player whose contract has expired can move to another team at will. Squads that have been carefully built through years of planning can lose their entire identity in the space of a few weeks when prominent players switch teams.



Return to Index