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History Of American Football
Soccer and Rugby
The game of American football (hereafter referred to just as “football”) developed out of something like a cross between association football (or soccer) and rugby. Rugby itself grew out of the soccer tradition in England, so soccer is truly at the very core of this sport. However, as both games made their way across the Atlantic, they were both played at colleges and universities, and out of those two games, football was born. The earliest history of the sport tells us that no single variety of the game was played; some schools played essentially soccer, others rugby, while still others played various combinations of the two (and certainly without any formalized rules). It what is commonly billed as the first college football game, Princeton and Rutgers played each other on November 6, 1869 at Rutgers in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The game was played under modified London Football Association rules – for example, players could only kick the ball, not touch it with their hands and each score, called a goal, counted for one point (Rutgers beat Princeton 6-4). However, unlike soccer, there were 25 players on each side, not the usual 11. This first college game was essentially soccer, but nevertheless laid the groundwork for the modern game as we know it today. In order to do that, however, rules would have to be put in place to truly differentiate the sport.
After Princeton and Rutgers got things started, other eastern universities began to cotton on to playing the game, first with Columbia University, and later other schools like Harvard and Yale. In 1873, representatives from Columbia, Princeton, Rutgers and Yale met to formalize rules; however, these rules were based mostly on soccer. Harvard, which played a more rugby-heavy style, refused to attend the meeting, continuing to play the game their way, notably in two contests against McGill University (from Montreal). The two schools played essentially the same type of game, with rugby-style rules, including running with the ball. As Harvard slowly won over the other schools to its style of play, it necessitated a new meeting to standardize new rules. That meeting, known as the Massasoit Convention, created rules based largely on the Rugby Football Union code. The game was inching closer to what we know today as football.
It was in 1880 that the sport really began to take shape, thanks almost exclusively to one person: Walter Camp. Camp was a student at Yale from 1876 to 1882 and an avid athlete, playing on Yale’s football team from ’77 until he left school in ’82. He was also a fixture at the rules conventions, finally gaining traction with his ideas in 1880. It was then that the rules committee began to adopt his rule changes, which included establishing the line of scrimmage, the exchange between a quarterback and a center, awarding six points for a touchdown and three points for a field goal (though it would take years to come to those exact numbers), lowering the number of players to 11 a side and the concept of set plays. Even after Camp left Yale as a student, he continued to coach the team and be a regular presence at every rules convention held until his death.
Some of Camp’s most significant contributions, however, came after he had already left Yale. The first came in 1898, when Camp introduced the All-America team, a group of players he chose as being the best in college football. Camp had an All-America team every year from 1898 to 1924; after that, All-American teams continued to be named every year to the present, one of the highest honors in college football.
The second innovation was in 1906, though in this Camp merely played a role. The game of football had spread beyond a few Ivy League schools by this time, travelling through New England and into the Midwest. However, the sport had also become much more violent, especially because of “mass plays.” Mass plays featured every member of a side moving together to try to score; to counter them, the defenses would do the same, moving as one unit to gang tackle the ball carrier. One particular mass play, the flying wedge, was particularly vicious: 10 of the 11 offensive players would form a wedge, while one player, the ball carrier, would move behind them before leaping over them to move the ball forward and attempt to score. As a countermeasure, the defense would send a man of its own leaping over, colliding with the ball carrier in midair. Injuries were often the best outcome of these plays; in the 1905 season, 149 serious injuries were recorded from the sport, along with 18 deaths. Action had to be taken, and various cries for reform (including from President Theodore Roosevelt) led eventually to the creation of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States, which four years later would change its name to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, the body which still governs college sports in the U.S. As a representative of Yale, Camp was a part of the creation of this organization, leaving another indelible mark on the game of football (and sports in general).
Camp’s third innovation, as important as the NCAA is, is perhaps his most significant, and also developed out of concerns for safety within the game. While the NCAA was created to be an arbiter of sports in general, Camp and the American Football Rules Committee (which governed the sport of football) sought to deal with the issues within football themselves. They thought that by opening up the game, and making it more about speed and skill, rather than just brute strength and force, the number of injuries (and deaths) would be reduced. Out of this came the rule change allowing the forward pass, in which one offensive player could throw the ball forward to another instead of just backward, which had been the case up to that point. It’s important to note that the American Football Rules Committee did not invent the concept of the forward pass; it had been used occasionally in various collegiate games (including, supposedly, by Camp himself at Yale). However, up until 1906, the forward pass was illegal; by making it legal, the game opened up and mass plays were significantly reduced.
The Birth of Professional Football
The early history of football is largely written in the college ranks; innovations, rules and popularity belonged to schools in the U.S., as far as football was concerned. However, that does not mean that professional football did not exist. Outside of colleges, the game of football was played by athletic clubs; by the 1880s, most athletic clubs in America had a team playing football. However, these teams were (supposed to be) amateur squads, without paid players. Of course, with competitive fires serving as fuel, these teams often found ways around that. From the earliest games played, athletic clubs found ways to acquire the best players: jobs were found for star players and trophies and watches were awarded to players after games (and then pawned by the players). But the first evidence of someone simply paid money just to play a football game came on November 12, 1892. The Allegheny Athletic Association played the Pittsburgh Athletic Club in Pittsburgh, and William “Pudge” Heffelfinger was paid $500 by the AAA to play (in today’s money, that’s equal to over $12,000). In modern terms, that’s not a bad salary. The base salary for a rookie in the National Football League in 2009 was $310,000; over a 16-game season, that comes out to just over $19,000 per game. While the PAC cried foul, they had in fact reportedly offered Heffelfinger $250 a few days earlier to play in the game. Professional football was truly born.
Only a year later, in 1893, the Pittsburgh Athletic Club signed one of their players (there is debate as to which one, though agreement seems to come on halfback Grant Dibert) to the first professional football contract. That same year, three other players signed contracts with the Allegheny Athletic Association, each for $50 per game ($1,230 modern). However, these contracts (and Heffelfinger’s deal) only came to light years after the fact. The first openly paid football player was John Brallier, who was given $10 ($264 modern) and expenses to play for Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The expenses were cakes.
While college football was played in the Midwest before the turn of the century, the earliest success in the sport belonged to schools from the East, specifically Ivy League universities. However, while most sports, be they college or professional, determined champions based on a playoff system, or a single game or series, college football had, for its entire existence, the problem of failing to agree upon a method for determining a national champion. It most cases, until recent history, the national champion was decided by mathematical formula or poll. In the oldest records, numerous teams were awarded national championships by different selectors. Around 1890, there began to be some agreement over the national champion, though there were still dissenters. However, no matter who did the choosing, the final decade of the 1800s belonged to the Ivies. From 1890 to 1900, Harvard, Yale, Penn and Princeton won all 11 national championship titles.
Beginning with Michigan in 1901, the next twenty years saw an increase in parity, though Ivy League schools still enjoyed great success. Non-Ivy League victors from 1901-1919 included Michigan, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech. Michigan not only became the first non-Ivy to win a national title, but did so in convincing fashion: from 1901 to 1904, the Wolverines went 43-0-1 (43 wins, zero losses and one tie), while outscoring their opponents 2,326 to 34. Additionally, it was a non-Ivy League school that helped truly move the game forward. Though the forward pass had been legalized in 1905, it did not immediately catch on; teams used it sparingly, and the run game was still the standard method of play. But in 1913, in a game between the University of Notre Dame and Army, the Fighting Irish struggled heavily in their run game, failing repeatedly to get through Army’s front line in the first quarter. Deciding to change tack, quarterback Gus Dorais began throwing the ball repeatedly to teammates Joe Pliska and Knute Rockne. When the game ended, Dorais had completed 13 of 17 passes, accumulating 243 yards, and the Cadets were upended (in an upset) 35-13 by the Irish. Though legalized by eight years, it was the Fighting Irish who truly ushered in the era of the forward pass.
Chaos and Canton
With the AAA and PAC getting the ball rolling, the next twenty to thirty years of professional football were, at best, chaotic. Around the turn of the century, while professional football’s popularity fell in Pittsburgh, it rose in Ohio, particularly with two teams: Canton and Massillon. However, the leagues were scattered, folding frequently, with new leagues popping up and falling apart regularly. Oldest Pro Team Most of the teams from the early 1900s eventually died out; a notable exception was the Morgan Athletic Club, formed on the south side of Chicago in 1899. The team would later be known as the Normals, then the Racine Cardinals, the Chicago Cardinals, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Phoenix Cardinals and finally the Arizona Cardinals, who still play in the NFL today. They hold the distinction of being the oldest continually operating team in professional football.
Without a single decisive league, teams had no control over the sport. Players would move from one team to another, chasing the highest bidder. Though the American Football Rules Committee tried to govern the sport, their influence primarily on the college game, so there was no single set of rules under which any league played. Finally, in 1920, seven men gathered in Canton to form the American Professional Football Conference (APFC). The seven men represented four teams: the Canton Bulldogs, the Akron Pros, the Dayton Triangles and the Cleveland Indians. About a month later, those teams gathered again, this time including representatives from the Decatur Staleys (of Illinois), the Hammond Pros (Indiana), the Massillon Tigers, the Muncie Flyers (Indiana), the Racine Cardinals, the Rochester Jeffersons (New York) and the Rock Island Independents (Illinois). The league’s name was changed to the American Professional Football Association (APFA).
league’s early years were still rather unorganized; in addition to
the 11 teams at the initial meeting, four others joined the league for
its first season. However, many of the teams in the league wouldn’t
last, and one (Muncie) only played one game before disbanding.
The league’s first champion was Akron (with player-coach Fritz Pollard,
the first black coach in pro football history), its second the Chicago
Staleys (who had moved from Decatur after the 1920 season). In
the early league, teams still played non-league teams, and schedules
were unorganized. Teams came and went, and players still switched
squads rather frequently. Organization, however, was just around
Papa Bear and the NFL
George Stanley Halas grew up in Chicago, attending the University of Illinois and playing football there. After serving in the Navy in World War I, he returned to play baseball for the New York Yankees organization in 1919. Having no success, and suffering from a leg injury, Halas left baseball, and was hired by A.E. Staley to run his football team in Decatur. Halas helped initiate the original league meetings by writing to Ralph Hay, the manager of the Canton Bulldogs (it was at Hay’s car dealership that the 11 teams formed the APFA). Despite a successful first season, however, Staley planned to fold his team; Halas convinced Staley not to shut down the squad, handing over ownership to Halas along with $5,000 to keep the Staley name for a year. Halas moved the team to Chicago, winning the APFA’s second championship. In 1922, Halas changed the name of his team to the Chicago Bears, hoping to gain interest by playing off the name of the popular local baseball team, the Cubs.
That same day, June 24, the APFA went through another transformation, changing its name to the National Football League / NFL and settling on 18 teams. While three organizations dropped out, the Chicago Bears and Cardinals, Canton, the Buffalo All-Americans, Rock Island, Dayton, Akron, Rochester, the Columbus Panhandles and the Green Bay Packers all stayed in the league, and teams from Toledo, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Louisville, Hammond, Racine (Wisconsin), Evansville (Indiana) and Marion (Ohio) were added. The Marion team, the Oorang Indians, was the NFL’s first and only all-Native American team.
In 1925, the NFL made a giant step towards gaining significant national popularity (though true fame was still decades away). The college game’s biggest star was a halfback named Harold “Red” Grange from the University of Illinois. After finishing the season at Illinois, Grange, nicknamed “the Galloping Ghost,” left school and signed a $100,000 contract with the Chicago Bears (which would be worth $1.2 million today). After hosting a Thanksgiving Day game against the Chicago Cardinals attended by 36,000 people, the largest crowd in pro-football history at the time, the Bears went on a barnstorming tour of the country, first playing eight games in 12 days in St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York City, Washington, Boston, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Chicago, then playing nine more games in the South and West of the country, including a game in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum attended by 75,000 people.
the remainder of the decade, the NFL’s team count ebbed and flowed:
teams popped up in places like Frankford and Pottsville (both Pennsylvania)
and Kansas City (Missouri). In 1926, a rival league even attempted
to challenge NFL supremacy; the American Football League only lasted
the one season. After the failure of the AFL, (and having swelled
to 22 teams) the NFL performed a self-examination, and in 1927 dropped
12 teams while adding only two: the Cleveland Bulldogs (a combination
of the Cleveland Indians and Canton Bulldogs organizations) and the
New York Yankees, a franchise from the defunct AFL. Again, though,
teams had trouble staying afloat: the Duluth (Minnesota) Eskimos folded
after their star back Ernie Nevers left to coach at Stanford University
and the Yankees collapsed after only a year in the NFL.
Wonder Teams, the Galloping Ghost and the Four Horsemen
While professional football was still trying to organize itself in the 1920s, college football ruled the sport. Though football programs in schools in the western United States had sprouted up around the turn of the century, early on they had little success. The Tournament of Roses, a festival in Pasadena, California, held a football game between Stanford and Michigan in 1902. Michigan beat Stanford 49-0, with the California school giving up in the third quarter. The festival decided not to hold another game until 1916. In 1923, after experiencing more popular success and building a new stadium, the festival held the first ever Rose Bowl game, played on January 1, a tradition carried on to this day. In the 1920s, schools from the west finally started to have real success in college football, most notably the University of California-Berkeley. The Golden Bears, nicknamed “the Wonder Teams,” didn’t lose a game in the decade until 1925, with a record of 46-0-4. Still, they were only awarded one championship, the 1920 title. The champs the next two years (’21 and ’22) were Cornell University, who from 1921 to 1923 went 24-0-0. Other big teams of the decade included Alabama (winner of back-to-back co-national titles, sharing them with Dartmouth in ’25 and Stanford in ’26), Illinois and Notre Dame.
modern television been around in the ‘20s, October 18, 1924 would
have been a great day to watch college football. On that Saturday,
defending national champion Illinois opened their new Memorial Stadium
(still in existence), and to christen it, Red Grange ran for 265 yards
on just six carries and scored four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes
of the game. Grange finished with 402 yards and six TDs, with
Illinois beating Michigan 39-14. That same day, in the Polo Grounds
of New York, rivals Notre Dame and Army faced each other. The
Fighting Irish, who won 13-7, boasted four fleet-footed halfbacks in
Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley, Don Miller and Elmer Layden. Sportswriter
Grantland Rice, after watching the game, famously referred to the group
as “the Four Horsemen.” Behind that apocalyptically-monikered
quartet, the Irish would win the 1924 national championship. The
Irish were also led by head coach Knute Rockne; after his playing days
were over, Rockne became a coach at Notre Dame, becoming head coach
in 1918. He would helm the Irish until his death in a plane crash
in 1930, winning six national championships, and compiling a winning
percentage of .881. To this day, no head coach in either college
or professional football history had amassed a better winning percentage.
Innovation in the College Ranks
The 1930s saw college football diversify further. After Rockne’s death in 1930, the Irish went through a down period. While old standbys Michigan stepped in to fill the void, a new dynasty also stepped up, once again from the west coast: USC. The University of Southern California won its first national championship in 1931, then won again in ’32, sharing that title with Michigan (who would also win the ’33 title). Later in the decade, Pittsburgh would reclaim college football glory, winning their first national title since 1918. The rest of that decade’s national championship winners were all first-timers. The Minnesota Golden Gophers became college football’s first time three-peat champions, winning titles from 1934 through ’36 and led by a defense that never gave up more than 20 point in a game from 1933 to the middle of 1939. Texas Christian University (TCU) won that state’s first national championship in 1938, with fellow Texans Texas A&M winning the next year to close out the decade.
introduced in the ‘30s were three major changes to the game: first,
on the field, Clark Shaughnessy, the head coach at the University of
Chicago, tinkered with the old T-formation offensive scheme. Instead
of the center handing the ball off to the tailback, the center now handed
the ball directly to the quarterback; this change would be a permanent
one, paving the way for the modern passing game and still used in all
aspects of football today. Second, the 1930s saw college football’s
first televised game, a contest on September 30, 1939 between Fordham
University and Waynesburg College. Lastly, a new award was introduced
in the 1930s. Presented by New York City’s Downtown Athletic
Club for the first time in 1935, the DAC trophy was renamed the Heisman
trophy in 1936 after John Heisman, a football innovator who had died
that year. The Heisman trophy is still awarded today to the nation’s
outstanding player. The award’s first winner was Jay Berwanger
of the University of Chicago in 1935.
A Decade of Change
Much like early basketball, it was the college game, and not the pros, that helped sustain the sport and its popularity. Still, the NFL charged on, though in the early ‘30s it dipped significantly. As the Depression hit the country, teams struggled to stay afloat, and the eight-team league in 1932 was (and is) the lowest membership in its history. Despite the low numbers, however, the 1932 season became a catalyst for change in the NFL: out of that season came two significant updates to the game.
The first was a series of rule changes designed to improve the offensive output in the NFL. In 1932, scoring had begun a serious problem in the league: in the 48 games played that season, there were 20 shutouts and 10 ties, four of them scoreless. In response, George Halas spearheaded three rules changes: first, the goalposts were moved from the back of the end zone to the front, increasing the number of field goals made. Second, the NFL instituted hash marks, which, if a play ended near the sideline, allowed the ball to be moved back towards the middle of the field. This rule change was permanent, lasting through the present. Third, a pass could now be thrown anywhere behind the line of scrimmage (prior to this rule change, a player had to be five yards behind the line to throw it forward). This was also a permanent change. The alterations to the rules had an immediate impact. The next season, in 58 games played, ties were reduced by five (from 10 to five) and there were only two scoreless draws. The number of shutouts did go up, from 20 to 23, but percentage of games that were shutouts went down, from 41.7% in 1932 to 39.7% in 1933. Additionally, the average score went up: in 1932, the average final score totaled just over 16 points, while in 1933, the average final score was just under 20 points.
The second rule change, which was just as important to the sport, was a championship postseason game. In ’32, two teams, the Chicago Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans, ended the season tied atop the standings. In order to decide the champion, the teams played an extra game, with the Bears winning 9-0. Based off this concept, the league split into two divisions in the 1933 season, the Eastern and Western divisions. At the end of the season, the winners of each division would play each other in the newly-inaugurated NFL Championship game. The Chicago Bears were the NFL’s first championship game winner, beating the New York Giants 23-21 at Wrigley Field in Chicago behind all-time great running back Bronko Nagurski. The 1933 season also saw the addition of two NFL franchises, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates would later change their name to the Steelers. A year later, the Portsmouth Spartans were purchased by a new owner, moved to Detroit and renamed the Lions. The modern NFL was taking shape.
In addition to rule changes and the addition of a post season, the 1930s were a time of transformation in equipment as well. The football itself changed in the ‘30s with a 1934 rule change that tapered the ball at the ends more and reduced the size around the middle. This new, sleeker ball made it much easier to handle, particularly for passers. Additionally, with the Depression, teams sought ways to save money on equipment, which led to the use of synthetic materials in uniforms, instead of the standard cloth. Lastly, helmets were made more protective in the ‘30s, with a hard leather version becoming popular (instead of the old soft leather). Riddell, a sporting goods company, even debuted a plastic helmet in 1939, though it would take years for that to catch on.
More innovation came in the form of statistics. 1932 was the first season the NFL recorded official statistics. Two years later, the NFL had its first 1,000-yard rusher (in a single season). Beattie Feathers of the Chicago Bears ran for 1,004 yards in 1934, though it would take another 13 years before the second 1,000-yard rusher came along. In 1936, the NFL’s first 1,000-yard passer was Arnie Herber of the Packers, with 1,239 yards through the air. Both of these records have been dwarfed since – Eric Dickerson holds the record with 2,105 rushing yards in a season, while Dan Marino holds the passing record with 5,084 yards – but at the time, they represented a noteworthy step forward for the game.
the NFL debuted a new facet of the game in the 1930s: the
NFL Draft. Philadelphia Eagles owner Bert Bell floated the idea at the end of the
1934 season, and the other owners agreed, putting the concept into effect
in 1936. The order of the draft was determined by reversing the
standings of the previous season (with the worst team choosing first).
The first ever NFL Draft pick was Jay Berwanger, the Heisman trophy
winner out of Chicago, chosen by the Eagles. Berwanger, however,
chose not to play professional football. The first draft pick
ever to play in an NFL game was the second pick that year, Riley Smith
of Alabama, who suited up for the Boston Redskins. A year later,
Boston would move to Washington and select TCU quarterback Sammy Baugh
with their first round pick, signing him to an $8,000 contract (worth
$120,000 today), one of the richest contracts up to that time.
Just two years later, Davey O’Brien, Baugh’s TCU teammate, signed
a deal worth $12,000 ($185,000) and a percentage of gate receipts with
the Eagles. O’Brien’s Eagles would also play in the NFL’s
first televised game on October 22, 1939 against the Brooklyn Dodgers
(less than a month after college football’s first televised game).
The ‘40s Belong to the Dynasties
The 1940s were arguably the last decade of college football ruled by only a few dynasties. Only five teams won titles in the ‘40s, including three back-to-back winners (Minnesota, Army and Notre Dame), the last time a decade had more than one back-to-back national champion. The Army teams that won in ’44 and ’45 were particularly bolstered by the war (while many other colleges saw their squads depleted by World War II). The Cadets went undefeated in their two national championship seasons, with two Heisman trophy winners on the roster. Though Minnesota, Army and Michigan could lay claim to having the best team of the decade, that title almost surely belongs to the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame won four championships in the 1940s, more than any other team would win in a single decade since. They had a player finish in the top 10 of Heisman voting nine times, with three winners (the most winners from a single team in a decade until USC players won three in the 2000s). The Irish also went undefeated in five of the seven seasons coached by Frank Leahy in the decade (Leahy came on board in ’41, left for two years to join the Navy in ’44 and ’45, and returned in ’46).
With the war on, few innovations were made to the game, with one notable exception: the platoon. Prior to the 1940s, players played both ways, that is, they would play both on offense and on defense. However, in the ‘40s, with their roster swelled by recruits, Army and head coach Red Blaik began using a platoon system in which certain players only played on offense or defense. While initially the subject of scorn by other teams, the system eventually caught on, with modern-day football using almost exclusively the platoon system. Now, two-way players are an extreme rarity; the most notable two-way player in recent history was Florida State Seminole and Dallas Cowboy star Deion Sanders, who played both receiver and defensive back.
the 1940s saw the game’s first 1,500-yard single-season rusher (Fred
Wendt of Texas Mines in ’48 with 1,570 yards) and its first 2,000-yard
single-season passer (Nevada’s Stan Heath, also in ’48, with 2,005).
While the NFL wouldn’t see a 1,500-yard rusher until 1958 (Jim Brown
of the Cleveland Browns with 1527), the NFL was actually ahead of the
college game when it came to passing: the NFL’s first 2,000-yard passer
was Cecil Isbell of the Packers with 2,021 yards in 1942. In 1947,
a year before Heath’s 2,005 yards for Nevada, Sammy Baugh threw for
2,938 yards in the NFL.
The 50's in College
If Notre Dame was the team of the 1940s, Oklahoma was the team of the ‘50s. The Sooners, led by coach Bud Wilkinson, won three national championships in the decade, including back-to-back titles in ’55 and ’56. From 1953 to November of 1957, the Sooners never lost a game, winning 47 straight. That NCAA record for a major college program lasts to this day. (Ironically, the streak was bookended by losses to the Fighting Irish.)
During the 1950s, college football also instituted a few new wrinkles: a fifth referee was added in 1955, the back judge, making penalties more frequent, but also improving the safety of the game. In 1953, college football actually outlawed platooning by strictly controlling substitutions. Two-way football returned en masse until 1965, when the substitution rules were rescinded. In 1958, a scoring modification was also made, (the last the game would see in college until 1988) creating the two-point conversion (in which a team could, after a touchdown, run or pass the ball into the end zone for two points, adding that option to the existing one-point conversion for a kick through the goal posts). As a further effort to slightly increase scoring, the goal posts themselves were changed in the ‘50s. Back in 1927, college football had moved the goal posts from the front of the end zone to the back as a way to reduce injury. This also increased the length of any field goal by 10 yards, reducing significantly the number of successful field goals. While the NFL responded by moving the posts back to the front of the end zone in ’32, the college game waited until 1959 to make a change, not moving the goal posts, but widening them, making them 23’4’’, up from 18’6’’.
to the game’s new rule changes that largely helped offenses was an
innovation that would help change defenses in college football.
Up to the 1950s, the standard defensive scheme had seven players on
the line of scrimmage. Bud Wilkinson, Sooners coach, dropped two
players off that line, putting them a little further back, debuting
the 5-2 formation, altering the way teams played defense forever.
The War Years
Going into the 1940s, the NFL was the strongest it had ever been to that point. Stability had gradually increased; 1936 was the first year since the NFL began that there had been no franchise shifts. The league’s popularity was slowly rising as well. America’s entrance into World War II, however, stalled their momentum, as attendances greatly decreased during the war. The 1942 attendance figures were the lowest since 1936. Roster limits for each team dropped from 33 to 28; the free substitution rule was put in place (then eliminated in 1946, only to be put back in 1949 for good). The quality of play suffered as the draft (and volunteers) depleted the already reduced rosters. Franchise stability suffered; during the war, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles had to combine teams in order to survive, becoming the Phil-Pitt Steeler-Eagles (known to fans as the Steagles) in the 1943 season. The Chicago Cardinals and Steelers did the same thing the next season, becoming Card-Pitt (known derisively as the Carpets). In 1945, the franchises in Brooklyn and Boston combined to become the Yanks. None of those combos lasted more than a season.
The first half of the 1940s was not without its significant moments, however. In 1940, the Chicago Bears met the Washington Redskins in the NFL Championship game. The Bears destroyed the ‘Skins 73-0. It was (and still is) the most lopsided victory in the history of the NFL, and Washington had the bad luck for it also to be the first NFL game broadcast nationwide by network radio. The next year, just a week after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entered the war, the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, finishing the regular season tied atop the Western Division standings, played pro football’s first postseason divisional game. The Bears won 33-14, and went on to win another NFL Championship against the Giants. In 1943, Washington’s Sammy Baugh accomplished a feat equaled only one other time in league history: Baugh led the NFL in an offensive category, a defensive category and a special teams category. Baugh led the league in ’43 in passing, interceptions and punting. Three years later, Bill Dudley of the Steelers led the league in rushing, interceptions and punt return average. With the advent of platooning at the end of the decade, no player is likely to achieve this again.
been mentioned that the NFL, unlike most other facets of the game, actually
surpassed college football in its passing game. This is due to
several factors, including the maturing talents of its quarterbacks
and rule changes, but one significant factor that came to the forefront
in the 1940s was the role of the star receiver. Up to 1940, no
receiver caught more than 41 passes in a season. In 1940, however,
Don Looney of the Philadelphia Eagles caught 58. Two years later,
in the 1942 season, Don Hutson of the Packers caught 74. Big-play
receivers were slowly becoming more a part of the sport, helping take
the passing game to new heights.
Going into 1946, three different leagues (all calling themselves the American Football League, or AFL) had challenged the NFL as rival leagues. The first AFL lasted only one season, 1926. The next two lasted two seasons each, ‘36-‘37 and ‘40-’41. However, in 1946, there arose a new competitor, the All-America Football Conference (AAFC). Started by a group of investors from around the country who had been denied entrance into the NFL, the AAFC was made up of the Buffalo Bisons, the Brooklyn Dodgers (who left the NFL to join the new league), the Cleveland Browns, the Los Angeles Dons, the Miami Seahawks, the New York Yankees, the Chicago Rockets and the San Francisco 49ers. The presence of the Browns in Cleveland was due in large part to the migration of the NFL’s Cleveland team west. After winning their first NFL championship title in 1945, the Cleveland Rams left the shores of Lake Erie for Los Angeles, becoming the first NFL franchise on the West Coast (or even west of the Mississippi).
The presence of the AAFC impacted the NFL like no other league had to that time. Though the NFL had spread to Los Angeles, the AAFC put pro football in cities it had never been before, helping create a more nationwide interest in the sport. With its early success, the AAFC gained credibility, increasing competition between the two leagues, which then drove up player salaries and attendances. However, the growing popularity of pro football attracted interest from all corners, including gamblers. The NFL’s first betting scandal occurred in ’46 when, prior to the NFL Championship game between the Bears and Giants, New York’s Merle Hapes was offered $2,500 ($27,400 modern) to make sure the Giants lost by at least 10 points. Hapes informed Giants Frank Filchock. However, 12 hours before kickoff, the two players were brought in by the New York City police, who had discovered the plot. Hapes told the police he had refused the offer, but had nevertheless failed to inform the authorities. Hapes was suspended by football commissioner Bert Bell, while Filchock was allowed to play in the title game, then later suspended. The Bears won 24-14. Had the scheme gone through, it might have hurt the NFL’s credibility severely (as a betting scandal hurt baseball years earlier), and with a rival league in place, the consequences for the league might have been dire.
it was, the AAFC continued to pose a serious threat to the NFL, though
it took the league four years to resolve the situation. In December
1949, NFL commissioner Bell announced a deal that would merge the two
leagues. The NFL accepted three AAFC teams into the league: the Cleveland
Browns (who had won all four AAFC championships), the Baltimore Colts
(who had replaced Miami in ’46) and the San Francisco 49ers.
By the end of its run, the AAFC had poached more than 100 NFL players,
and several AAFC players would go on to become NFL Hall-of-Famers (including
six alone from the Browns).
While the ‘40s were a decidedly down decade for the NFL, the 1950s were the exact opposite. With the merger in ’49, the rest of the AAFC’s players (those on teams who didn’t join the NFL) were put into a dispersal draft. The result was a considerable increase in the quality of play within the NFL. Along with the free substitution rule (put back in place just prior to 1950), pro football was quite simply getting better. In addition, television was only helping its popularity grow. What television did do, however, was drive down attendance at the stadiums. A perfect example is Los Angeles: in 1949, the Rams’ attendance was 205,109 people (even with the LA Dons of the AAFC competing with them in the same market). A year later, the Rams became the first pro football team to broadcast all of its team’s games – both home and away – on television. Attendance dropped to 110,162. Fortunately for the success of the league, the NFL quickly learned its lesson: in ’51, the Rams only televised road games, and attendance shot back up to over 234,000. In 1953, the courts upheld the league’s right to black out home games on television, and in ’56 Commissioner Bell instituted a rule only allowing broadcast of road games.
Statistically, the game was getting better and better as well. Records were set over and over during the 1950s (though the vast majority of those records have been eclipsed since). San Francisco running back Joe Perry rushed for over 1,000 yards in 1953, and while that wasn’t notable, doing it again in 1954 was. Perry became the NFL’s first back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher, though certainly not its last. Two notable records that haven’t been beaten since: Norm Van Brocklin’s 554-yard passing day for the Los Angeles Rams in 1953 and Dick (Night Train) Lane’s 14 interceptions in the 1952 season (Lane’s rookie year), also for the Rams. Three players have recorded 13 INTs in one season, including most recently Lester Hayes of the Oakland Raiders in 1980, while the closest anyone has come to surpassing Van Brocklin’s number was the Houston Oilers’ Warren Moon in 1996 with 527 yards.
One of the things that greatly helped the popularity of the sport through improvement of the play on the field was the addition of the Cleveland Browns of the AAFC. Led by Hall-of-Fame coach/owner Paul Brown, Cleveland appeared in seven of the eight NFL Championship games between their arrival in 1950 and 1957, winning three (including in the 1950 game). Their six straight appearances between 1950 and 1955 is an NFL record that stands to this day (with Super Bowl appearances replacing NFL Championship appearances). Ironically, the arrival in 1957 of one of the greatest NFLers of all-time largely coincided with a championship game drought that lasted until ’64. Jim Brown, drafted in the first round of Syracuse, is widely considered one of the best running backs in NFL history. Brown, a Hall-of-Famer, was elected to the Pro Bowl every year of his career (the Pro Bowl being the NFL’s All-Star game) and named NFL Most Valuable Player (MVP) three times, tied for the most in history until Peyton Manning won his fourth in 2009.
Additionally, one of the premier franchises in the league finally got back to respectability: the Green Bay Packers. Earl (Curly) Lambeau, their original co-owner and coach in 1919, had helmed the team all the way to his retirement in 1949, a losing season. Since his retirement, through the ‘50s, the team had suffered badly, going 32-74-2, including a 1-10-1 record in 1958. In 1959, they hired a new head coach, an assistant from the New York Giants: Vince Lombardi. Lombardi immediately reversed the fortunes of the team, guiding them to a 7-5 record his first season. By the time Lombardi left the head coaching position of the Packers in 1968, he had amassed a 98-30-4 record, five NFL Championships and the first two Super Bowl titles.
CBS first started broadcasting a few regular season games nationwide,
it was the NFL Championship game in 1958, referred to in the NFL as
“The Greatest Game Ever Played” that truly catapulted the NFL into
sporting audience stardom. Played between the Baltimore Colts
and New York Giants at Yankee Stadium (and broadcast nationwide by NBC),
the game featured 12 Hall-of-Famers on the field, with another five
on the sidelines or in the owner’s box. Tied 17-17 at the end
of regulation, it became the first NFL game to go into overtime and
ended when Colts back Alan Ameche scored a touchdown. Professional
football had never been as popular as it was after this game, and on
the horizon was another challenger whose impact would change the league
The Times are a-Changin’
The 1960s were a decade of transformation for the world and the country, and college football was not immune. As the sport got faster and rougher, the game was constantly looking for ways to improve safety. Soft leather helmets had given way to hard leather helmets, which had given way to plastic helmets (once a more durable, less breakable plastic was worked with). Though facemasks had been around since the 1930s, they had rarely been practical; without a hard shell to put them on, players had to jerry-rig them in (occasionally ridiculous) ways. However, with the advent of the plastic helmet, facemasks became more common. In the 1950s, they began with hard plastic facemasks, but in the 1960s, metallic facemasks became the standard (which they still are today), though the early metal facemasks only had a single bar going across, while today’s helmets have multiple bars. The ‘60s also saw innovation in offensive scheme. Offensive formations had evolved over time in both the college and pro ranks; sometimes it would be the professional league that came up with a new formation, sometimes the college teams. In the 1960s, Emory Bellard, the offensive coordinator at the University of Texas, debuted a new formation he called the wishbone, named for the shape formed by the three running backs in the backfield. The wishbone was predicated on the number of options created by the scheme, and after Texas rolled off 30 straight wins beginning in 1968, the wishbone became the premier offensive formation in football.
Despite the college game’s reliance on the run (the vast majority of teams did not focus on the passing game), the 1960s featured the first 3,000-yard passer in college history, Tulsa’s Bill Anderson, who in 1965 threw for 3,464 yards. Though pro football had a 3,000-yard passer first (in 1960), no one in football, either college or the pros, had thrown for as many yards in a season as Anderson did in ’65. That same year, Mike Garrett, a running back from USC, became the first Heisman trophy winner to lead the NCAA in rushing yards in the same season. Fellow Heisman winners O.J. Simpson (also of USC) in ’68 and Steve Owens (of Oklahoma) in ’69 would also accomplish that feat. However, perhaps the most notable Heisman winner of the decade was Ernie Davis of Syracuse. Following Jim Brown as the starting running back for the Orangemen was no easy task, but Davis excelled. Though his Heisman-winning stats don’t stand out more than other players’ in the decade, what makes Davis’ win significant was the color of his skin. Ernie Davis became the first black Heisman trophy winner in 1961, setting the stage for Garrett, Simpson and many more who would come after him.
today, college football is often marked by significant teams in each
decade; the ‘60s were no different. USC had two national champions
(and those two Heisman trophy winners), while Texas won two titles as
well. Missouri, led by head coach Dan Devine, was the only team
in the decade never to lose more than three games in a season.
However, the team of the decade is almost without a doubt the Alabama
Crimson Tide. An old song said “The Stars Fell on Alabama”;
though the song was about a meteor shower, it might well have been talking
about the Tide in the ‘60s. Alabama had players elected as All-Americans
13 times in the decade, had players twice finish in the top-five in
Heisman voting and launched the careers of running back Lee Roy Jordan
(College Hall-of-Famer) and quarterbacks Ken Stabler (Super Bowl winner)
and Joe Namath (NFL Hall-of-Famer). During the decade, they won
three national championships under head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Bryant, considered one of the greatest head coaches in college football
history, would compile a 323-85-17 record in his 25 years at Alabama,
winning a total of six national championships. His 323 victories
was a college record at the time of his retirement, though it would
later be broken.
Changes at the Pro Level
Professional football had reached the big time. With the 1958 NFL Championship game cementing the league’s place in the upper echelon of popular sports, the NFL surged forward into the 1960s, which would become arguably the most transformative decade in NFL history, before or since. The era of two-way players officially ended in the 1960s when Chuck Bednarik of the Philadelphia Eagles retired after winning the 1960 NFL Championship. The game wouldn’t see another two-way starter until Deion Sanders in the ‘90s. The NFL season was lengthened to 14 games (up from 12) in ’61, and in ’63, the NFL opened its Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, with the inaugural class including names like Sammy Baugh, Bert Bell, Red Grange, George Halas, Curly Lambeau, Bronko Nagurski and Jim Thorpe. In 1961, 49ers coach Red Hickey introduced a new offensive formation, the shotgun. The shotgun was different from all formations before it because it had the quarterback start a few yards behind the center, instead of directly behind him (called under center). Though Hickey’s 49ers did not have tremendous success, the shotgun became a permanent (and popular) fixture in the NFL. The ‘60s also featured the introduction of four new NFL franchises – the Dallas Cowboys, the Minnesota Vikings, the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints – and the migration of one franchise (the Chicago Cardinals) to St. Louis.
In 1961, after Congressional legislation legalized it, Commissioner Pete Rozelle (in only his second year on the job) struck a deal with CBS, a two-year contract worth $9.3 million ($66.7 million today). What made the deal significant (and what required federal intervention) was that Rozelle made the deal for the entire league, instead of individual teams working out their own TV deals. The NFL has followed Rozelle’s model ever since (the only pro league in the U.S. who does so). Though the contract, at the time, was large, the NFL’s TV deals have exploded ever since. The most recent deals (signed with four different networks) totaled $3.085 billion dollars per year. 1963 featured NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, the first non-athlete to be awarded the honor. The primary reason he won, however, was not a happy one. Earlier that year, Rozelle had announced (after a 10-month investigation) that Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras and Packers star running back Paul Hornung were suspended indefinitely for gambling on the sport (though they would be reinstated in 1964). It was the most significant and largest suspension in the sport in 17 years, and cast a cloud over the game. Rozelle was particularly praised because Hornung, known as “the Golden Boy,” was one of the league’s most popular figures, yet Rozelle suspended him anyway.
the biggest change, one that would forever alter the face of pro football
in America, happened not in a single moment, but throughout the 1960s:
A New Challenger the AFL
In 1959, Lamar Hunt, a Texas oilman, asked the NFL is he could add a team in Dallas to the NFL. Both commissioner Bert Bell and expansive committee chair George Halas declined (with the irony being they would add the Dallas Cowboys in 1960). Hunt then decided to form his own league, the fourth (and by far most successful) incarnation of the American Football League. The new league was initially made up of Hunt’s Dallas club and teams in Houston, Denver, Los Angeles, New York and Minneapolis. Trying to undermine the new league, NFL owners offered the AFL owners stakes in new NFL teams. Only Minneapolis took them up (leading to the creation of the Minnesota Vikings) and the AFL replaced them with a team from Oakland. Before the league officially began play in ’60, two other franchises were added in Boston and Buffalo.
The AFL’s initial survival hinged on their ability to outbid the NFL for many star players out of college. The first evidence of this was their signing of Billy Cannon, the 1959 Heisman winner from LSU. The Houston Oilers signed Cannon to a three-year, $100,000 contract (worth $724,000 today). The Los Angeles Rams (under then-general manager Rozelle) had already signed Cannon to a contract worth $50,000, but left it undated so Cannon could play in the Sugar Bowl, the final game of his college career. The Oilers swooped in (at the Sugar Bowl itself) and inked him. After the Rams took legal action, a judge ruled the Oilers contract valid, and the first shot of the war between the NFL and AFL had been fired. While the NFL was a year away from signing a deal with CBS for the entire league, the AFL signed a five-year contract with ABC worth $10 million ($72.4 million). ABC was thrilled with their decision, largely because the new AFL, by adding the two-point conversion (which the NFL still didn’t have) and encouraging pass-happy play, was high-scoring and exciting.
While the AFL did not exactly flourish initially (their attendance figures, though solid, were still below those of the NFL), they managed to survive, with the only big change after their first being the relocation of the Los Angeles Chargers to San Diego (where they remain to this day) and the Dallas Texans moving to Kansas City and becoming the Chiefs (which they are to this day) after the league’s third year. Many of the star players in the new league were castoffs from the NFL, minor players in that league who, under the AFL’s guide, became impact players, with perhaps the best example being Len Dawson, a career backup in the NFL who led the Texans to the AFL title in ’62, leading the league with 29 touchdowns.
As the league stayed afloat, they began to recruit better and better players and started to enjoy greater success. In 1964, the NFL signed a two-year deal with CBS worth $28.2 million ($195 million modern), about $1 million per team. Just one year later, the AFL resigned with ABC for another five-year deal, this time worth $36 million ($245 million), just under $1 million per team. Also in 1965, the New York Jets (and the AFL) received a huge boost when they signed Alabama QB Joe Namath, who had also been courted by the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals. The Jets signed the man who would come to be known as “Broadway Joe” to pro football’s first $400,000 contract (worth $2.72 million today). Namath wasn’t only a talented quarterback, he became one of the most popular football players in the country, and playing in the media capital of the world only helped. The AFL had its biggest star, and he outshone even the NFL’s biggest names.
That’s not to say, however, that the NFL didn’t have some outstanding players as well. In 1965, while Namath began his career in New York, the Chicago Bears featured two rookies who would end up being considered two of the greatest at their positions, one on offense and one on defense. The offensive player, running back Gale Sayers, set an NFL record for most touchdowns by a rookie in a season with 22 (which is still the record today), while also setting a record for most touchdowns in a single game with 6 against the 49ers (also a record that lasts to this day). On the other side of the ball, Dick Butkus, a linebacker out of Illinois, became the most fearsome defender in the game, delivering crunching hits and intercepting five passes in his rookie year. Both would go on to the Hall of Fame.
important name to come out of the AFL wasn’t that of a player but
a coach, Sid Gillman of the Chargers. Gillman’s San Diego teams
were some of the most offensively explosive in football thanks in large
part to his wide-open passing game, which today is the standard of pro
football. Gillman’s impact was made possible by the spread of
his assistants: Al Davis took the scheme to the Oakland Raiders, Chuck
Noll took it to Pittsburgh, Jack Faulkner took it to Denver and Joe
Gibbs to Washington.
The Merger AFL and NFL
In 1966, after six years of competition, the AFL and NFL agreed to a truce, announcing an agreement that would join the two leagues. The merger was laid out over time: the nine AFL teams at the time (the Miami Dolphins had been added just prior to the merger) were to pay the NFL $18 million over 20 years to join the league (equal to $119 million today), the two leagues would play separately and then play a championship game until merging entirely in 1970, a common draft would be held beginning in ’67 and two franchises, one in each league, would be added by 1968. The two franchises added were the New Orleans Saints in the NFL and the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFL. The first two championship games, called Super Bowls, went to the NFL, and more specifically to the Green Bay Packers, who defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 35-10 in Super Bowl I and the Oakland Raiders 33-14 in Super Bowl II.
In 1969, as the two leagues prepared to finally join, change continued to sweep the league. Vince Lombardi left the Packers to coach the Washington Redskins; John Madden took over as coach of the Raiders, later winning a Super Bowl and spawning a video game empire; Chuck Noll took over the head coaching position in Pittsburgh, and would go on to win four Super Bowls with the Steelers; Roger Staubach returned to football following a tour in the Navy, joining the Dallas Cowboys, and would later win two Super Bowls and be elected to the Hall of Fame; and the NFL and AFL owners hammered out a realignment plan, creating two 13-team conferences, the National Football Conference (NFC) and the American Football Conference (AFC), with three NFL teams (the Steelers, Colts and Browns) joining the 10 AFL teams in the AFC and the remainder of the NFL in the NFC. Those conferences were then split into three divisions each: the Eastern, Central and Western.
1969 saw the AFL finally gain some respect against their NFL counterparts
in perhaps the biggest game in pro football up to that time. Heading
into ‘69, the NFL had not only won the first two, but dominated them,
casting doubt on the viability of the AFL teams as quality competition.
Super Bowl III featured a matchup of the Baltimore Colts, led by star
QB Johnny Unitas (a future Hall-of-Famer) and the New York Jets, led
by Joe Namath. The Colts were the heavy favorites, but three days
before the game, Namath predicted the Jets would win, guaranteeing victory.
Most dismissed Namath, but he proved them all wrong as the Jets beat
the Colts 16-7, with Namath winning the game’s MVP award. A
year later, head coach Hank Stram and the Kansas City Chiefs upset the
Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV, evening the AFL-NFL series at two
games apiece. The following Super Bowl was played when the two
leagues had officially merged.
Running, Kicking and the West
College football in the 1970s belonged to the running backs. Of the 10 Heisman winners in the decade, eight were running backs. Only the ‘50s could match that; every other decade, both before and since, featured fewer Heisman-winning RBs. Oklahoma’s 1971 squad averaged 472.4 rushing yards per game, a record that stands to this day. That same year, Ed Marinaro, the running back for Cornell University, averaged 209 yards per game, the first college player to average over 200 yards rushing in a season. Archie Griffin, Ohio State’s rusher, became the first (and, as of today, the only) multiple Heisman winner, taking home the trophy in back-to-back years, ’74 and ’75. Griffin also rushed for over 100 yards in 31 straight games between ’73 and ’75, the most in NCAA Division I-A history.
In regards to that Division I-A designation, the ‘70s were the first time Division I (and Division I-A) first surfaced. In 1973, the NCAA organized its schools into divisions based on attendance and scholarships. The three divisions were, simply, Division I, Division II and Division III, with Division I housing the major sports programs and Division III the most minor. Five years later, the sport of football was reclassified, splitting Division I into two entities, Division I-A and Division I-AA, and adding them to Divisions II and III. Those groups would go unchanged (as far as naming) until 2006, when Division I-A and I-AA were renamed the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), respectively.
Running backs were not alone in setting records in the ‘70s, however; kickers were booting the ball longer than ever before. In a single game in 1976, Texas A&M kicker Tony Franklin converted field goals of 64 and 65 yards in length, setting the college record for longest kick…or so he thought. In between his 64- and 65-yarder, Ove Johansson of Abilene Christian kicked a 69-yard field goal, the longest in college football history. Franklin’s was still, at the time, an NCAA record (Abilene Christian played in the NAIA, a small college sports conference). However, Franklin’s record would be bested three times in the next two years by Russell Erxleben of Texas, Steve Little of Arkansas and Joe Williams of Wichita State, all of whom kicked 67-yarders.
The ‘70s also belonged to football in the West. Since the ‘50s, football dominance had begun shifting west of the Mississippi, and in the ‘70s, eight of the 15 teams named national champs were from teams in the west, the highest total in college football history. Oklahoma won two national titles and had a winning percentage of .887, the best for any program in the ‘70s. Nebraska, who won titles in ’70 and ’71, changed coaches in 1973, and still went on to win at least nine games the rest of the decade. USC, winner of three titles, spent 21 weeks at number one in the polls in the ‘70s.
important to note that the ‘70s was the decade with the most teams
named national champions. Since Division I-A did not have a playoff
structure or national championship game, the national champion was determined
by polls (in the ‘70s, four polls: the Associated Press (AP), the
United Press International (UPI), the Football Writers Association of
America (FWAA) and the National Football Foundation (NFF)). In
six of the ten years between ’70 and ’79, each of the polls had
the same team ranked number one at the end of the season. In the
other four years, different polls ranked different teams number one,
giving us more than one national champion. For example, in 1970,
Nebraska, Texas and Ohio State were all “national champs.”
Over time, this would slowly be ironed out (though the controversy has
yet to die out).
The Dynastic ‘70s
While college football’s history is defined by its dynasties, pro football rarely had the same quality. Though there were stretches where certain teams dominated (the Bears, the Packers, the Browns), overall parity helped create professional football’s popularity. The ‘70s, however, marked a period of dominance in each division. The Steelers, Dolphins, Raiders, Vikings, Cowboys and Rams each controlled their divisions (and, in many ways, the league) in the ‘70s. The Dolphins won five of their 10 division titles in the decade, the worst of any of the six: four of the others won six or seven division titles, while the Vikings won eight. Dallas had the highest winning percentage in the decade, .729. Of the 20 participants in the Super Bowls for the 1970-79 seasons (which includes the Super Bowl played in January of 1980), those six teams made up 17 of them, winning nine of the 10. The Miami Dolphins became the first team to advance to three consecutive Super Bowls, winning the title in ’73 and ’74. The ’73 championship was the culmination of an undefeated 1972 season, making them the only team (to this day) to go undefeated in the regular season and win the Super Bowl. The Pittsburgh Steelers, though they had the lowest winning percentage of the six teams, won four Super Bowls in the ‘70s, the most by any team in a single decade to that point. The Cowboys, meanwhile, were led by Tom Landry, who spent 29 years as head coach in Dallas, the second most years with a single club in history (behind George Halas’ 40 years with the Bears). Under Landry, the Cowboys won 270 games (Landry only trails Halas and Don Shula in coaching wins) and played in five Super Bowls, winning two. Landry also led Dallas to 20 straight winning seasons between ’66 and ’86.
Players were also becoming more statistically prolific: the 1972 season had the most running backs rush for 1,000 yards ever (10), including Miami Dolphins teammates Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris, who were the first teammates ever to accomplish the feat. That same year, Bobby Douglass, quarterback for the Chicago Bears, rushed for 995 yards, the most ever by a quarterback (a record that would stand for another 34 years). In 1973, John Brockington of the Packers became the first running back ever to post 1,000-yard seasons in his first three years, but was overshadowed by the performance that year of O.J. Simpson. The Heisman winner ran for 2,003 yards, the first RB to ever top 2,000 in NFL history. George Blanda retired in ’75 after setting the record for games played with 340 (spanning 26 years).
The NFL added two new teams and a few other firsts in the 1970s. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks joined the AFC and NFC, respectively, in 1976, only to switch conferences a year later. The league also had its first post-merger challenger, the World Football League (who folded after only a year), and its first serious labor dispute. The NFL Players Association (NFLPA), formed in 1956, organized a 42-day strike during training camp. However, as defectors began to report back to their teams, the strike broke up just before the season began, yielding nothing. The 1976 Super Bowl, played in the Louisiana Superdome, was the first to be played indoors.
NFL also instituted a number of changes, particularly to the rules,
in the ‘70s, mostly in an effort to increase scoring. First,
the goal posts were finally returned to the back of the end zone, bringing
the NFL in line with the college game. Sudden death overtime was
added to the end of every game, both regular and postseason, though
in the regular season, if the teams were still tied after one 15-minute
OT period, they would end the game, having it recorded as a tie.
The number of ties went down from seven to one the first year the rule
was put in place. Through the decade, contact by defensive players
on receivers was more and more limited, culminating with the five-yard
bump rule, in which significant contact with the wide receiver was limited
to a zone within five yards of the line of scrimmage (and only before
the pass was thrown). Additionally, a 1978 rule made pass blocking
far easier for the offensive linemen, causing some to refer to it as
“legalized holding.” Finally, in 1978, the NFL extended its
regular season to 16 games (the current length).
Run and Gun
While the NFL had its first 2,000-yard rusher in 1973, it would not have another player reach that milestone for 11 years, and only five players have ever done it in NFL history. The college game in the ‘80s, however, was the beginning of a slew of 2,000 rushers. Since the first 2,000-yard rusher, Marcus Allen in 1981 (who also won the Heisman that year), 14 other players had reached the 2,000-yard plateau in a single season. The highest total ever was also achieved in the ‘80s, by Barry Sanders, who in 1988, ran for an astonishing 2,628 yards. Sanders is also the only back ever to rush for 2,000 yards in both college and the pros, piling up 2,053 for the Lions in ’97, the second most in NFL history. Ironically, only one 2,000-yard rusher ever won either a national title or a Super Bowl – the Denver Broncos’ Terrell Davis, who ran for 2,008 yards in 1998 while the Broncos won their second Super Bowl. And although running back Herschel Walker never ran for over 2,000 yards, he did set 11 NCAA records in his only 3 years playing for Georgia.
1980s also saw the Miami Hurricanes rise to the forefront of college
football, winning three national championships (only Penn State won
more than one, winning in ’82 and ’86). Under head coach Howard
Schnellenberger (for their first title) and the more-celebrated Jimmy
Johnson for their second and third, the ‘Canes were led by their passing
attack, featuring quarterbacks Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar and Vinnie Testaverde
(who won the ’86 Heisman). Ironically, perhaps their most famous
game of the decade was a loss: in the final game of the 1984 season,
the Hurricanes and the Boston College Eagles faced each other in Miami,
led by quarterbacks Kosar and Doug Flutie, respectively. Flutie
and Kosar were believed, at the time, to be the top two players competing
for the Heisman trophy, adding further drama to the game. After
Miami took a four-point lead with just 28 seconds to go, Boston College
moved the ball to the 48-yard line. On the last play of the game,
Flutie heaved the ball towards the end zone, and it fell, past a huddle
of Miami and BC players, into the arms of the Eagles’ Gerard Phelan.
The Hail Mary pass that would come to be known by many as “Hail Flutie”
would seal Flutie’s 1984 Heisman victory. (YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?
California, Here I Come
While the 1970s were marked by dynastic football teams, five teams won Super Bowls. In the 1980s, that perception of complete domination by only a handful of teams actually went down somewhat; yet, only four teams won Super Bowls in the ’81 to ’90 Super Bowls. In particular the state of California had a great year: only four Super Bowls went to teams outside the Golden State. The Raiders, building on the successful ‘70s in which they won their first Super Bowl, won two more, one while still in Oakland (in ’81) and the other (in ’84) after moving to Los Angeles. But the team of the decade was no doubt the San Francisco 49ers, led by head coach (and offensive guru) Bill Walsh. The previous decade, the Steelers became the first team to win four Super Bowls in a ten-year span. The 49ers matched that, winning in ’82, ’85, ’89 and ’90. However, that’s not to say there weren’t some good football teams elsewhere in the country: The Denver Broncos, led by new head coach Dan Reeves and quarterback John Elway, went to three of four Super Bowls to close out the decade; however, they lost all of them (to three different teams). One of the teams they lost to, the Washington Redskins, also went to three Super Bowls in the ‘80s; the Redskins, however, fared far better, winning titles in ’83 and ’88.
The ‘80s were also the decade of the quarterback. Of the 10 NFL MVP winners in the decade, seven were QBs (the ‘80s also had the only kicker ever to be named MVP, the Redskins’ Mark Moseley). Prior to the 1980s, there had been only two 4,000-yard passers (the first being Joe Namath in 1967, the second Dan Fouts for the Chargers in 1979). In the 1980s, there were 14. The first round of the 1983 NFL Draft featured six QBs; between them, they have three Hall-of-Famers, two MVP awards, 11 Super Bowl appearances (though only two wins) and 24 Pro Bowl appearances. One of those QBs, Dan Marino, retired holding every major record for a quarterback, including career passing yards and touchdowns. Marino’s 1984 season is still the record for most yards in a season, 5,084, and only in recent years has the ’84 total of 48 touchdowns been eclipsed. John Elway, taken first overall in the ’83 draft, made headlines right away by refusing to play for the Colts, the team that drafted him. He forced the Colts into a trade, moving him to Denver where he would go on to play in five Super Bowls, collecting two titles. The most celebrated quarterback of the ‘80s, though, was Joe Montana. Montana didn’t set a lot of records – his only notable statistic was his passer rating, a complicated formula based on completions, yards, touchdowns and interceptions. The best QB rating possible for a game is 158.3. Montana set the record for season passer rating in ’89 with a 112.4 rating, though that record would be broken just five years later by his backup. Montana, however, won a lot of games, including the 49ers four Super Bowl titles in the ‘80s (and collecting the Super Bowl MVP trophy in three of those games.
Still, while the quarterbacks were lauded in the ‘80s, running backs were not to be forgotten. 1984 featured Eric Dickerson setting the record for most rushing yards in a single season (with 2,105). And in 1987, Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton retired after setting or tying six NFL records, including career rushing yards, career rushing attempts, single-game rushing yards and most seasons with 1,000-yards or more. Payton also played for the ’85 Bears, considered by many to be one of the greatest teams of all time. The Bears collected a 15-1 regular season record and went on to defeat the New England Patriots 46-10 in the Super Bowl, the most lopsided Super Bowl in history, behind a historically stifling defense; the Bears only gave up 10 points in their three playoff games (and those were to the Patriots in the Super Bowl), shutting out the Giants and Rams. The Bears defense, coached by coordinator Buddy Ryan, featured a new scheme, the 46 defense, in which pressure to the quarterback could be applied from anywhere, at any given time. Their 72 sacks that year are the most by any team in history.
The NFL had, by now, replaced baseball as America’s most popular sport. Over 17 million people poured through the gates of NFL stadiums in 1986, an NFL record, and the league signed a contract with ESPN that year, putting them on four different television networks. But the largesse of the league led to discontent among its players, and in 1987, they went on strike. This strike, however, had a much larger impact on the league than the previous strike; this strike would cause football games to be cancelled. The Players Association called the strike just prior to Week 3 of the NFL’s ’87 season; the strike would last seven weeks. For three weeks, the owners used replacement players (and some NFL veterans who crossed the picket lines). Ultimately, the players – who went on strike primarily to protest the league’s lack of free agency – backed down, returning to work without gaining much ground.
after ending the strike, however, the NFLPA filed an antitrust suit
in court. Though they won the initial court battle, they were
denied on appeal, told by the appeals court that their status as a union
prevented them from winning an antitrust suit. Therefore, in 1989,
the NFLPA disbanded, then immediately reformed itself as a professional
association, instead of a union. The resulting change allowed
them to win in court, which in turn pressed the league into agreeing
to a settlement in 1993. The settlement established free agency
and a salary cap, both of which continue to exist in the NFL today.
The NFLPA, following the settlement, recertified as a union. The
negotiations that took place were led, on the league’s side, by former
NFL general counsel and new commissioner, Paul Tagliabue. In 1989,
Pete Rozelle, after thirty years of leading the league, announced his
retirement. Tagliabue was voted in by the owners, and would lead
the league into the next decade…and the next millennium.
The ‘90s: College Edition
The game of college football evolved over time from the premier football in America to a proving ground for the pros. While the vast majority of college football players never played a snap of professional ball, the game’s top stars were expected, more than ever, to make the leap to the NFL. Those things don’t always work out well, however, and unfortunately, the brilliant college careers of many players are forgotten, while their infamous pro careers remained mired in people’s memories. Three perfect examples from the ‘90s are Rashaan Salaam, Danny Wuerffel and Cade McNown. Salaam, the running back at Colorado, led the nation in average rushing yards per game in 1994 on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy. Drafted by the Chicago Bears the following year, Salaam was a bust, ending his pro career with only 1,684 yards rushing (almost 400 fewer yards than his Heisman trophy-winning season), 13 rushing touchdowns and 14 fumbles. Danny Wuerffel, Heisman winner for the national champion Florida Gators in 1996, spent six unremarkable years in the NFL, totaling 2,123 yards passing (more than 1,500 less than his Heisman season). Cade McNown, the nation’s leading passer in 1997, was part of a vaunted 1999 NFL Draft Class, taken in the first round by the Chicago Bears. McNown lasted only four seasons in the NFL playing in only two, compiling 3,111 yards (more than 7,000 less than his career totals at UCLA).
However, there are plenty of examples of college stars going on to great success in the NFL as well, including notable Heisman trophy winner Charles Woodson. Woodson, who captured the ’97 award playing for Michigan, became the first (and so far, only) defensive player to win the trophy. Woodson, who compiled 18 career interceptions in his three-year career as a defensive back for the Wolverines, went on to play more than 10 years in an ongoing NFL career in which he has 45 INTs (through the 2009 season).
teams of the decade were, if one had to choose, Nebraska and Florida
State. The Cornhuskers, still led by Tom Osborne, put together
a mid-90s run of three national championships in four years while compiling
a winning percentage of .868 in the entire decade. Meanwhile,
the Bobby Bowden-led Seminoles won two national championships in the
1990s, losing only 13 of the 123 games played in the decade, and achieving
a number one ranking in the AP poll 56 times.
any modern college football fan, the BCS is one of the most famous (and
infamous) acronyms in the game. The history of the Bowl Championship
Series began in the ‘90s, when former Southeastern Conference (SEC)
commissioner Roy Kramer sought to develop a system that would award
a single national champion, eliminating the multiple winners that had
plagued college football for decades. To do so, he decided to
use bowl games, postseason games that had been played since 1902 (with
the Rose Bowl) and had grown in popularity over the years, particularly
post-WWII. While it started with just one, as of 2010 there are
more than 30 bowl games. The BCS began with the Bowl Coalition,
a group of bowl games and conferences, in 1992. The goal of the
Coalition was to match up the highest ranked teams at the end of the
year while staying true to the tradition of the bowls – some bowls
always matched certain conferences with certain conferences, like in
the Rose Bowl, which had always featured the top Big Ten team against
the top Pac-10 team. The Bowl Coalition, however, failed to produce
a unanimous national champion. The Coalition then became the Bowl
Alliance, consisting of only three bowl games: the Orange Bowl, the
Sugar Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl. On a rotation, one bowl game a
year would feature the top two AP ranked teams in the country (unless
one of those two teams played for the Big Ten or Pac-10, as the Rose
Bowl still held the rights to those teams). After the ’97 Michigan
Wolverines were denied a unanimous national championship, the two conferences
and the Rose Bowl joined the Alliance, forming the Bowl Championship
Series. The first BCS Champions were the 1998 Tennessee Volunteers,
who beat Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl.
The ‘90s: Pro Edition
In 1989, Jerry Jones, a billionaire businessman, bought the Dallas Cowboys and their stadium. Within months, Jones had fired both Tom Landry and general manger Tex Schramm. The Cowboys, while a dominant force for years, had hit a rough patch, posting losing season from ’86 to ’90. Jones decided to clean house and hire Jimmy Johnson away from Miami to lead the new Cowboys. Johnson coached the Cowboys from 1989 to 1993, leading the ‘Boys to back-to-back Super Bowl victories in ’92 and ’93. However, Johnson left the Cowboys when he and notoriously-involved owner Jones couldn’t get along. Jones bought out Johnson’s contract and hired Barry Switzer, another successful college coach, to helm the team. Switzer would go on to win the ’96 Super Bowl. What helped both Johnson and Switzer achieve success in the ‘90s with the Cowboys was the presence of star QB Troy Aikman and star running back Emmitt Smith. Both players ended up in the Hall-of-Fame, and Smith would end his career holding the record for most career rushing yards (besting Walter Payton).
That string of three Cowboy Super Bowl victories was interrupted by the 49ers win in 1995. What made that victory notable was that Joe Montana, star QB and leader of the San Fran teams that had won four Super Bowls in the ‘80s, had been traded in 1993 after missing most of ’91 and ’92 with injuries. His backup, Steve Young, would lead them to the ’95 Super Bowl title, and end up a Hall-of-Famer himself. Another Hall-of-Fame QB, John Elway, won his only two Super Bowls in the final two years of his career as the Broncos won in ’98 and ’99, with Elway retiring just after being named Super Bowl MVP.
The ‘90s were also a record-breaking time for receivers. Seattle’s Steve Largent had retired in 1989 holding three NFL records: catches, yards and touchdowns. In 1992, Art Monk, with the Washington Redskins, surpassed Largent’s catch total with 847. That same year, James Lofton of the Buffalo Bills reached 13,821 yards and Jerry Rice caught his 100th TD pass. It was Rice, however, who would end up topping them all. When he finally retired in 2004, Rice held the records for touchdowns (197), yards (an astonishing 22,895) and catches (1,549). Rice was inducted into the Hall-of-Fame in 2010, considered by most to be the greatest receiver of all time.
NFL also opened its doors to two new teams in the 1990s, welcoming expansion
franchises in Jacksonville and Carolina in 1995. Both teams would
enjoy some success almost right away. In their first year, the
Carolina Panthers posted a 7-9 record, the best ever for an expansion
franchise. The following year, they reached the NFC Championship
game, falling to eventual Super Bowl champs Green Bay. The Jaguars
reached the AFC Championship game in both 1998 and 1999, losing to Super
Bowl winner-Denver and the Tennessee Titans.
The New Millennium in College Football
While the BCS was enjoying its success crowning unanimous national champions, there was still controversy, specifically regarding the selections made as to who would play in the national championship game at all. The BCS used a formula composed of various polls and strength of schedule. The controversy culminated in 2003, when LSU beat Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl to win the BCS National Championship. Many believed USC should have played in the national championship game, and the AP awarded their final number one ranking of the season (and thus, their national championship) to Southern Cal. The BCS responded by tweaking their system, and in 2006, debuted the BCS Championship Game, a separate game played at a rotating site at the end of the bowl season. Though there is still controversy surrounding the choices of the BCS poll (particularly regarding their snubbing of small-conference schools like, notably, Boise State in recent years), there has since been only one national champion named at the end of the season.
There are arguably three teams of the decade in the ‘00s. USC won two national titles and featured three Heisman trophy winners, including Matt Leinart in ’04 and Reggie Bush in ‘05, the first pair of teammates to win back-to-back awards since Larry Kelley and Clint Frank did it for Yale in the ‘30s. LSU won two championships as well, though they failed to produce a Heisman trophy winner. Finally, Florida also captured two BCS championships behind star quarterback Tim Tebow, who, in 2007, became the first sophomore to win the Heisman trophy. He was followed the next two seasons by a pair of sophomores, Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford and Alabama’s Mark Ingram.
however, has come under recent fire. In 2010, the program was put on
probation by the NCAA after it was discovered Reggie Bush and his family
received money from potential sports agents/marketers while he was playing
for the Trojans. The NCAA vacated 14 wins from the program, and
may take away their BCS Championship. The school’s copy of Bush’s
Heisman (both the school and the player get a Heisman trophy) was returned.
The school is also banned for two years from postseason play, and its
scholarships are reduced by 30 for those two years (though, at the time
of this writing, USC is appealing those penalties).
The NFL’s New Millennium
The NFL, in the last ten years, has grown larger than George Halas or Jim Thorpe or Bert Bell ever dreamed. In the most recent Super Bowl, the TV ratings topped the season-finale of MASH, which had held the record for most watched program for over 35 years. The game was watched by an average of 106.5 million people, the biggest night of television the country has ever seen. The game also featured another first: the first Super Bowl appearance (and victory) for the New Orleans Saints. While the Saints closed out the decade on top, however, the New England Patriots spent most of the decade in that position. Beginning in 2001, when the Pats upset the hugely-favored St. Louis Rams, the Patriots played in a total of four Super Bowls, winning three. They went undefeated in the 2007 regular season, besting the Miami Dolphins record of 14-0 in ’72 with a 16-0 record, though, ironically, they lost the Super Bowl that year, ending with an 18-1 record.
Still, despite dominance by the Patriots, the 2000s were marked by parity. In every decade since the Super Bowl began, the number of different teams who played in it has gone up. In the ‘70s, nine different teams played in the Super Bowl; in the ‘80s it was 10. The ‘90s featured 13 different teams and the ‘00s had 14. Only the Patriots won more than one title in the decade, the first time in history only one team won multiple Super Bowls in a decade (other than the ‘60s, which only had four Super Bowls).
The NFL also expanded again in the 2000s, which included realignment. With the addition of the Houston Texans in 2002, the league totaled 32 teams. With the even number, the NFL went from three divisions in each conference to four, with four teams in each division (and the Seahawks moving from the AFC to the NFC). The new divisions are the North, South, East and West.
apart from their massive popularity within the U.S., football is one
sport that has largely failed to catch on anywhere else in the world.
Baseball has Latin America and Japan, hockey has Europe and basketball
has Europe and South America. But football hasn’t spread, despite
making efforts (including a short-lived NFL Europe league and playing
regular season games in both Mexico City and London.
Where We Are
College football is still hugely popular in the United States; in the minds of many, it surpasses even professional baseball. However, criticism still rains down on the sport in two areas: the BCS and the amateur status of its athletes. The BCS is still considered a flawed system, with many calling for a playoff format (like the other NCAA Divisions). However, the BCS shows no sign of changing soon. The other arena in which college football has drawn criticism is the fact that the players do not profit from the sport. College football brings in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue; its top coaches are paid as good or better than their professional counterparts. Yet athletes don’t see a dime. Many believe their compensation comes from scholarships; others don’t think that’s enough. It’s a debate that is sure to rage in the coming years.
the NFL, despite its massive popularity, there is a dark cloud on the
horizon: labor unrest. The NFL’s current collective bargaining
agreement expires after the 2010 season, and predictions say a lockout
is a real possibility. The other problem the league faces is skyrocketing
ticket prices. In 2010, 18 of the 32 teams raised ticket prices,
with the league average at now over $75. Compare that figure to
just 20 years ago, when, in 1991, the average NFL ticket cost just $25.
As even its middle-class fans are being priced out, the NFL will have
to answer the question of whether it can continue to raise its prices
in the coming years.
- Sports llustrated: The College Football Book (ISBN: 9781603200339)
- Sports Illustrated: The Football Book (ISBN: 981932994742)
- 75 Season: The Complete Story of the National Football League (ISBN: 981570360561)
- NFL.com History http://www.nfl.com/history
- Pro Football Hall of Fame http://www.profootballhof.com/
- College football history by team http://www.collegefootballhistory.com/
- Rutgers History: First game http://www.scarletknights.com/
- NCAA history http://www.ncaapublications.com/productdownloads/AB06.pdf
- Walter Camp bio http://waltercamp.org/index.php/info/
- NFL salaries http://content.usatoday.com/sports/football/nfl/salaries/
- Chicago Bears history http://www.chicagobears.com/tradition/HistorybyDecades.asp
- College Football history http://homepages.cae.wisc.edu/~dwilson/rfsc/history/Maj1A.txt
- Rose Bowl history http://www.tournamentofroses.com/history/gamehistory.asp
- Knute Rockne bio http://www.knuterockne.com/biography.htm
- NCAA records http://web1.ncaa.org/web_files/stats/football_records/DI/2010/2010Collegiate.pdf
- NFLPA history http://www.nflplayers.com/About-us/History/
- Super Bowl viewership http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/09/sports/football/09sandomir.html
- Ticket prices http://www.usatoday.com/sports/football/nfl/2010-05-11-ticket-prices-mainbar_N.htm
- Ticket prices http://blog.cleveland.com/sports/2008/10/nfl_ticket_prices_soaring.html