A Detailed History of American Football
The National Football League and some of its oldest constituent franchises are shortly coming up on their 100-year anniversaries. Teams such as the Arizona Cardinals (formerly of Chicago), the Green Bay Packers, the Chicago Bears (formerly the Decatur Staleys), and the New York Football Giants all trace their history back to the late 1910s or the early 1920s, when the league we call the NFL was born.
But even with these teams stretching back nearly 100 years, the history of the game of football stretches back much further.
Though it may seem curious when you really stop to think about it, people have been playing games with balls for thousands of years. There are plenty of theories about why the human race loves playing these games, but the simple truth is that for nearly all of recorded history, people have been playing some variant of football.
For this reason, it behooves today’s gamblers to pay attention to their history, taking special note of how the rules of the game have changed over the centuries. The first sign of an inexperienced gambler is a gambler who doesn’t know his or her history; for as we all know, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Let’s take a look throughout the course of human history at the history of the game we call football.
Instead of thinking about the names and places and institutions that culminated in today’s NFL and NCAA, instead we’ll focus more on the way that gameplay has evolved over the centuries, placing the football we see on television today in the context of the rich history of one of the most human activities there is: football.
Ball Games in Anciency
The history of ball games stretches back all the way to the classical period of antiquity, namely the empires of the Greeks and the Romans.
Perhaps even as early as 500 B.C., citizens of Rome played a game called harpastum, a word derived from the Greek verb “to snatch” or “to seize” which literally translated as “carried away.” Even in the time of Ancient Rome, people could be described as ball-carriers.
Like many things in the Roman Empire, they were imitating the Greeks, who had played a similar game in their own time. While few codified rules have been discovered about the exact way that the game was played, we know that harpastum involved a ball that was roughly the size and consistency of a softball, and we know that it was a violent game.
Surviving records demonstrate that in some form or fashion the game involved passing the ball, dodging opposing players, recovering balls that had fallen to the ground, and lots of physical exertion and aerobic exercise.
In addition, this was one of the first games in recorded history that involved an on-looking audience, who in surviving records were reported to have a vested interest in the game, shouting advice to the players and even admonishing players when they would go out of bounds.
By all accounts, it seems that harpastum was played in a similar way to the game of rugby that we still play today, and which we all know was one of the primary progenitors of American Football.
Before we could get to rugby, though, ball-playing games as a whole first had to lie dormant for almost half a millennium, as the leisure activities that had characterized the Greek and Roman empires gave way to the violence of the Dark Ages. After the fall of Rome, people were too busy trying to stay alive to play football.
But when the Dark Ages finally started to lighten up around the 10th century, we began to see ball games played in Europe once again. By the 13th century, records definitively indicate that young people playing ball games were beginning to use their feet, and we begin to find references to player “kicking” the ball.
In 1314, King Edward II banned the great noises that would arise in the city of London due to the hustling over large “pelotes de pee” (foot-balls) in the fields, believing fervently that sinful evils could arise in the people if they played. Football was officially banned on pain of imprisonment, and as we all know, the surest way to make something more popular is to outlaw it.
Fifty years later, the King’s son Edward III also issued a decree banning football, this time differentiating it from other games called “handball” and “hockey,” suggesting that the game was beginning to evolve.
Subsequently, by the 1500s people in the British Isles were definitively using only their feet to dribble the ball forward on a field with marked boundaries, an early version of the game that in America we would today call “soccer”. The game was still much more violent than the one we play today.
The ball itself at this early stage was made from an animal’s bladder – usually a pig’s – which had been inflated and filled with beans or other small vegetables to add weight. The ball would rattle loudly when kicked, sounding the alarm for interested parties that people were playing football.
By the mid-1600s, two games were beginning to differentiate themselves: a game played primarily with the feet, and a game played primarily with the hands. Though both involved moving a ball down the field in an enclosed, outdoor space, the two could not be summed up so simply as “soccer” and “football” at this early juncture.
But more importantly, at the same time as the game began to gain popularity at this early stage, some of the angsty young British players began to feel that their government in England was being a bit too restrictive, and started to set sail across the Atlantic Ocean to seek a new life in a new land: America.
It was here in America that the game called “American Football” today took root.
Football in America
Much in the same way that football had laid dormant in the Middle Ages in Europe, the game was not played in an organized way during the early portion of American settlement. The pioneers had too many other things to do than waste time worrying about playing ball games, and in many cases their stringent Puritan religion would have disallowed game-playing anyhow.
However, as the years passed and the United States were formed, fighting for and eventually winning their independence from England, the young generations of “Yanks” increasingly found themselves with the free time requisite for playing games.
Unsurprisingly, as increasing numbers of these young people began to seek out a higher education, the primary fire where American football was forged became the young American colleges and universities.
It was here that the earliest organized games of football were played, for example the annual tradition at Harvard called “Bloody Monday,” in which the freshman and sophomore classes at the school engaged in a mass game of pile-pushing and general undifferentiated violence in order to welcome the new class of students to the school, while the older classes looked on (and no doubt placed wagers).
In a pattern that we’ve seen throughout the history of football, however, the efforts to ban the game only served to increase its popularity, and by the end of the 1860s (after the horror and bloodshed of the Civil War had come and gone), the first football games were being played between different colleges, rather than solely intramural games on one campus or another.
One of the primary issues, of course, in having two different teams play each other who came from two different communities, was that each team would play by their own rules, as at that time there was no governing body to standardize the rules and make sure each team played fair.
Take for instance the event many would call the first collegiate football game in history, between Rutgers and Princeton on November 6, 1869. The game was played at Rutgers under Rutgers rules, and the home team won by a score of 6–4. But when there was a rematch the following week at Princeton, playing under their own set of rules the Princeton squad routed Rutgers 8–0.
To address this issue, the young ball-players undertook several concerted efforts to establish a regular set of rules that all of the different college teams could play under.
The first major convention was held on October 18, 1873 at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City. Princeton, Columbia, Yale, and Rutgers all were present, but Harvard declined, favoring to continue play under its own proprietary code of rules.
It would be several more years before Harvard became willing to play with the then-standard 15-player teams instead of its usual 20, and to fall in line with the other colleges in settling on a single set of rules. But importantly, the game of football was beginning to move from a series of disorganized scrums among local youth to a real, viable competitive association between distant organizations.
On November 23, 1876, the effort to standardize the rules of the game of football took another major step forward with the organization of the Intercollegiate Football Association, held in Springfield, Massachusetts and first attended by representatives from Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia.
The Association first moved to standardize the number of players on each side at 15, and the playing field was set at dimensions of 140 feet by 70 feet. An officiating crew of a referee and two judges was required at all games, and scoring was standardized with four touchdowns given the same value as a single “goal” (the kicking play we refer to as a “field goal” today).
In one famous example of how disorganized early football games were, the first ever college football championship game saw one play in which the legality of a scoring play (in which the player being tackled passed the ball to a teammate, a play we would refer to today as a “lateral”) was determined by a coin toss, the ultimate demonstration of just how contested and arbitrary were the rules.
It was at this point that Walter Camp, the man widely heralded as the “Father of American Football” entered the scene.
Walter Camp started out as a standout athlete at Yale University, earning honors in each of the sports offered by the school after enrolling in 1876. Camp became Yale’s representative at the Intercollegiate Football Association in 1878, and kept the post all the way until his death in 1925.
In his first meeting with the Association, in his third year as an undergraduate at Yale at age 19, Camp proposed his first rule change which, after being ratified in 1880, has been preserved to the present day: to reduce the number of players on each team from 15 to 11.
At this same meeting, Camp also introduced his ideas to change the rugby-style “scrum” that establishes possession of the football to the more organized “scrimmage,” and the proposal of a consistent center-quarterback exchange at the line of scrimmage was passed by the Association in 1880 and introduced shortly thereafter.
What would follow these early efforts was a period of time marked by the following progression: the adoption of a new rule, resistance from the college teams required to follow the rule, the bending of the rule to suit the interests of the teams, and subsequent new additions and tweaks to the rule (most often invented and introduced by Walter Camp himself).
Here’s an example:
Consider the line of scrimmage. As soon as this innovation was introduced, Princeton abused it to slow down the game interminably, preventing possession from ever returning to the other team. This led to slow, boring contests which often resulted in zero points being scored the entire game.
In response, Walter Camp proposed in 1882 that a team lose possession of the football if they failed to move the ball a minimum amount of yards in a certain number of downs. These down-and-distance rules, after some tweaking and tinkering, began to give American Football a distinct character from rugby, (as well as to completely separate it from soccer), and the rules endure to this day.
This process of tinkering lasted from the end of the 1870s all the way through the turn of the 20th century.
It was an iterative process, with the first official rule book published by Walter Camp in 1887 and frequently revised and edited thereafter. The biggest engine of change to the game was the simultaneous movement for the games to be more fair, by adopting more rules, as well as for an individual team to be able to gain a competitive advantage, by bending those rules ever so slightly.
This meant that while Walter Camp was employed as the head coach of the Yale football team, he was simultaneously undergoing both processes, trying to implement rule changes that would keep things fair while trying to give his own team a slight competitive advantage.
These were the conditions that would eventually yield changes such as blocking (originally called “interference”), legal and illegal tackling rules, and the timing and spacing of the modern game.
But while the culture of football did change dramatically during the time of Walter Camp and beyond, with the first nighttime game in 1892 and the first helmets being worn in 1893, no invention would prove more integral to the modern culture of football than the forward pass.
The Forward-Thinking Forward Pass
Inside of the football culture described above, in which a variety of different clubs and organizations were trying, adopting, rejecting, and perfecting a variety of different rule changes, it stands to reason that a host of different styles and strategies would have been tried out, sometimes by accident.
One example of this was the forward pass, which was first documented in an 1895 college football game between the North Carolina Tar Heels and the University of Georgia Bulldogs.
In a scoreless game, the Tar Heels had the ball in a punting situation. With a rush from the Bulldogs coming quick and almost certain to block the kick, the punter rolled out to his right and threw the ball in desperation to the fullback, who scampered away for a game-winning 70-yard touchdown.
The head coach for the Bulldogs was furious, and protested animatedly to the referee. But for whatever reason, the play stood as called, and the forward pass entered into the cultural consciousness. Famed sportswriter John Heisman, after whom the Heisman Trophy is named, watched the play unfold and later wrote a personal letter to Walter Camp on the possibility that the “forward pass” could change the game forever.
One of the primary reasons why the forward pass was preferred to other budding strategies of the time – for example, the “flying wedge” – was player safety. In 1905, primarily due to massed plays like the flying wedge in which large groups of players rammed forcibly into (and over) opposing groups, there were an astonishing 19 fatalities across the nation due to on-field football injuries.
With the game rising in popularity across the United States and parents becoming increasingly vociferous in their denunciations of the game, on October 9th, 1905, the President, Theodore Roosevelt, held a meeting with representatives from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale in order to send the message that the game must be made safer.
With Roosevelt a big sportsman in his day and a strong proponent of competitive physical activity, it’s highly unlikely that he wanted to abolish the game; as a parent of four boys who spanned ages 8-18, it’s instead likely that he was thinking about the safety of his own children.
Two months after the President’s call, 62 colleges and universities across the nation met in New York City to discuss changes to the rulebook that could make the game safer. In addition to starting the union that would eventually become known as the NCAA, most important among the decisions made was the official legalization of the forward pass. The first ever legal forward pass was thrown in Waukesha, Wisconsin the following September, in a game pitting Carroll College against St. Louis University.
After this seminal event that introduced passing offense into the game (and also saw various rules to prevent the dangerous wedge plays that were causing fatalities), a slew of additional changes ensued that honed and refined the passing game, in the same iterative pattern we have previously described.
First of all, between the meeting with Teddy Roosevelt in 1905 and the United States’ entrance into World War II in 1941, the dimensions of the football itself were changed three times, each time making the ball less spheroid and more oblong, so as to be easier to grip and throw with one hand.
In 1909, a goal from the field (field goal) was decreased in value down to 3 points; in 1912, a touchdown was increased in value up to 6 points. In 1922, the point after attempt was introduced. In 1927, the goal posts were moved back to the end line, rather than at the front of the end zone. In 1929, the two-point conversion was added.
In addition to these official rule changes that encouraged the growth of the passing game, (particularly those changes implemented by the NFL after the professional league diverged from college rules in 1933), coaches and players were simultaneously coming up with new strategies that they could use to optimize passing offense, including the huddle and the pre-snap shift.
However, it’s important to note that even though the forward pass had quickly made the game of football considerably safer and more sustainable, the passing game of the first half of the 20th century looked very different to the precision offenses we see on television today.
While most of these rule changes would ultimately be changed before World War II rolled around, when the forward pass was first introduced into the league it came with the following limitations:
- Receivers can only catch passes in certain sections of the field
- A forward pass that hits the ground before touching a player is live, and can be recovered by either team in the same way as a fumble would be today
- If a forward pass touches another player and then hits the ground, it is a live ball and can be recovered by either team
- Passers must be five yards to the left or right of center in order to throw
- Passers must be five yards behind the line of scrimmage in order to throw
- Only one pass may be thrown in each set of downs
- If a team passes more than once in a set of downs, a five-yard penalty is enforced
- If a forward pass falls incomplete in the end zone, possession is given to the other team
In addition to these rules, the passing game was very unsafe for players in the beginning stages. The first roughing the passer penalty was introduced relatively soon after the legalization of the forward pass, in 1914, but pass interference-type fouls – especially those occurring more than 20 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage – were not penalized until well after World War II, leaving players receiving the football uniquely vulnerable and susceptible to injury.
In this way, while the passing offenses ushered in by the conference with Teddy Roosevelt in 1905 bore little resemblance to the precision passing game of today’s NFL, the establishment of the passing game was a hugely important step in the development of American Football as a whole.
Correspondingly, it’s little surprise that as major rule changes such as the line of scrimmage, regulated down-and-distance, 6-point touchdowns, and forward passes became standard features of American Football, the sport exploded in popularity, with the professional league we call the NFL coming into existence in 1919 and college football starting new traditions such as bowl games throughout the 1930s.
Unfortunately, however, just as the sport was moving towards the height of its popularity, (spurred on in large part by a newfangled contraption called a “radio”) many young people were forced to “pass” on football (no pun intended) in order to serve the United States in World War II.
For a brief period, football, along with the rest of the nation’s leisure activities, was put on hold.
Free Substitution & Full Specialization
The United States’ involvement in World War II was not only decisive for the history of the country, but it was also decisive for the history of the game of football, due to a crucially important rule change that came about by sheer happenstance.
After the United States entered the war, large numbers of young men who would have otherwise played football at the college or professional level were drafted to go overseas and fight in the war, meaning that the numbers of players available to field a competitive team plummeted. In the NFL alone, 638 men who had played in league games joined the service, and ultimately 21 of these men died in action.
In fact, it’s entirely possible that there were more football games played on the various military bases during wartime than there were in professional and college stadiums from 1941 to 1945.
In response, many institutions suspended their football program, in the case of college teams. For professional franchises, many teams folded, and a few combined with another franchise in order to field enough players to keep afloat (such as the short-lived “Steagles,” who played home games in both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia).
Specifically, the rule in question was first implemented on April 7th of 1943, when the league adopted what is called “free substitution.”
Previously, NFL teams had kept the same players on the field in all three phases of the game – offense, defense, and kicking plays. In many cases, the men would play every single snap. For example, in 1943, the final season before free substitution was implemented, Washington Redskins’ player Sammy Baugh led the league in passing, punting, and interceptions (a feat referred to then as a “Triple Crown”).
However, while the expectation (similar to contemporary soccer) that most all players remain in the game for the entire duration of play certainly does have the appeal of seeming especially tough or strenuous, this was also the very same reason that so few of the men who did not go overseas had the physical abilities to play at a high level for every snap of the game.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the context of the war, the ability for players to freely come on and off the field under the new free substitution rule was officially named the “two-platoon” system, because it enabled the strategy for one entire unit (or “platoon”) to come off the field, while another came on.
Eventually, the “two-platoon” system would be expanded to a “three-platoon” system, pioneered by LSU coach Paul Dietzel in 1958. As soon as Dietzel’s first team became tired (the “White Team”, that played both first-string offense and first-string defense), the unit would be replaced by one of two other units: the “Gold Team” (second-string offense) or the “Chinese Bandits” (the second-string defense).
The Chinese Bandits were so named because of their reputation for being slightly less talented than the White Team but considerably more tenacious, and Dietzel’s three-platoon Tigers went undefeated and won the national championship in 1958.
While of course we know the end of the story – that the substitution of different units on and off the field has come to characterize modern day football – it’s important to note that this liberal application of the free substitution rule did not begin until well after the rule was first adopted in 1943. And even when it was, there was a serious stigma attached to utilizing a multi-platoon system.
This was first seen in 1946, when the free substitution rule was retracted upon the return of the World War II soldiers from overseas. Substitutions were limited to three players or less at a time, and still only allowed in the stoppage of time between plays.
For the next decade, free substitution and the two-platoon system was hotly debated, and the rules oscillated widely to try and accommodate the prevailing beliefs. In 1949, free substitution was again adopted for a one-season tryout, and in 1950 it was reinstated wholesale. Three short years later, it was abolished once again, and substitutions were granted only once per quarter.
In the subsequent decade, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, the rules moved back in the opposite direction, progressively liberalizing substitution and moving the league back towards platoon football.
Even still, though, coaches neither embraced nor even fully understand the true value of free substitution until roughly the mid-1960s. Even in the championship-winning LSU program mentioned above, the second and third platoons were used only to provide a rest for the first platoon, which played both offense and defense.
Around 1965, however, coaches and players finally began to understand that free substitution could be used to embrace the idea of specialization, and the development of new “special teams” units began to become popular in college football. Players such as placekickers or punters were increasingly understood to function only in kicking situations, never even entering the game in any other situation.
In earlier eras of gridiron football, part of the ideal that players strove for was to have the endurance, durability, and brute strength necessary to play every snap of every game for an entire season. Having the ability to be multi-talented, with distinctions such as the “Triple Crown”, was deeply held in the hearts and minds of players.
But as with many of the trends that we have seen appear over the history of the league, the era of free substitution and full specialization rapidly took hold because it offered a competitive advantage.
This advantage came with the following simple truth: A player who can competently play multiple positions will never be as good as a player who can expertly specialize in one position. If an offensive lineman for a team must also play cornerback, it stands to reason that it would be impossible for that player to be big and strong enough to take on a massive defensive lineman who plays only that position.
For example, the starting center for the NFL Championship-winning Chicago Bears in 1940 was 6’1” and weighed 237 pounds (Clyde “Bulldog” Turner). The starting center for the NFL Championship-winning Philadelphia Eagles in 1960 was 6’3” and weighed 233 pounds (Chuck Bednarik, widely heralded as one of the last players in NFL history to play full starter snaps on both offense and defense).
In 1980, the starting center for the Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh Steelers was 6’1” and weighed 255 pounds (Mike Webster). In 2000, the starting center for the Super Bowl winning St. Louis Cardinals was 6’3” and weighed 280 pounds (Mike Gruttadauria), and his backup, who started for the Rams the subsequent season (Andy McCollum), was 6’4” and weighed 300 pounds.
In this simple example, extended and expanded across all positions, we get a taste for just how important was the implementation of the free substitution rule in the development of football as we know it today.
But even with the down-and-distance rules fully implemented by 1885, the forward pass fully implemented by 1915, and free substitution fully implemented by 1945, it would be another 30 years before the next major wave of NFL rule changes would come about, and usher in the modern era of football.
Modern Rules for a Modern Game
As we mentioned above, the history of the game of American football has progressed in a cyclical pattern since its popularization in the United States midway through the 19th century.
However, the development of the game itself (its rules, strategies, styles, and fads) has not always tracked with the development of the outward manifestations of the (its leagues, organizations, programs, and associations). This is the key difference between football as a game and football as a business.
For example, the establishment of the rival American Football League in 1960, the subsequent competition for players, and the eventual AFL-NFL merger that fully integrated the two leagues by 1960 was a seminal event in the history of football as a business, setting the foundation for the professional product that NFL fans enjoy today.
And it’s true that the decade of competition between the NFL and the AFL did improve the product tremendously from a business standpoint: Player contracts inflated tremendously, incentivizing the best college athletes to go pro; TV executives began to see the value in the league, and inked lucrative deals; and new and flashy innovations added to the game made football form-fitted for the new age of television, including names on the backs of jerseys, a skinnier football, more colorful jerseys, and others.
After all of these changes were ushered in by the NFL-AFL merger, the business of football has remained relatively unchanged, with the product that we see on television today being very similar in nature to the product that was put out in the 1970s, simply with better technology and more money involved.
However, during this modern period in which the business of football has remained relatively consistent, the game itself has continued to undergo changes in the same iterative pattern we described above.
There are several examples of the changes to the game of football that have come about during the modern era: The kickoff has gone through a series of iterations, first to make the play more exciting, then to make it safer; the two-point conversion and extra point rules have fluctuated to add more drama to the game; and a host of other minor changes have taken place.
Once again, this development in the history of football occurred in the same cyclical pattern we have previously described: first, a new rule is implemented; next, coaches and players resist the change; then, they find a way to bend the rule in order to gain a competitive advantage; finally, the rules are tweaked once again to catch up with the new developments, and the cycle begins again.
In the 1950s, the rule change that coaches and players were reacting to was the very free substitution rule described above. As offenses began to specialize with bigger linemen and faster wide receivers, defenses started to specialize in an equal and opposite fashion. There was certainly resistance to the new “platoon” system, but younger, more forward-thinking programs started to evolve and adapt.
Because of this development, in the next turn in the cycle, offenses found that they could press a competitive advantage by sending receivers downfield, and the long passing game became viable.
In response, defenses quickly realized that something needed to be done to prevent receivers from getting open down the field, and so in the 1960s the technique known as “bump and run” coverage was born.
Exemplified by Pittsburgh Steelers’ Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount, bump and run was a very physical technique that could effectively shut down wide receivers for an entire game, as big and strong cornerbacks would simply move receivers off their routes consistently to disrupt the passing game.
The use of this technique came to a dramatic head in a 1973 playoff game, in which star rookie wide receiver Isaac Curtis, of the Cincinnati Bengals, was held to only one catch for 9 yards against the bump and run coverage of the opposing Miami Dolphins.
Subsequently, Paul Brown, namesake of the Browns organization as well as the founder, owner, and head coach of the Bengals, (and also, not coincidentally, a prominent member of the NFL’s Competition Committee) maintained that the coverage was unfair, giving the defense an unfair advantage, and advocated that the rule be changed.
Brown won out, and the illegal contact rule (also referred to at the time as the “Isaac Curtis rule”) was fully implemented in 1978, and prevented defenders from making contact with a receiver more than 5 yards downfield.
The effect of the new rule on the game was dramatic, and immediate. In 1977, the final season before the rule change was implemented, the average number of passing yards per game across the entire league exactly matched the average number of rushing yards. By 1980, a short three seasons later, there was an average of 135 more passing yards than rushing yards.
After it became clear that the change in coverage rules was due to have a long-standing impact on the game of American Football itself, traditionalists began coming out of the woodwork to protest the change. In this way, the cycle that we mentioned above merely repeated, wherein a new rule change is resisted by those who had come to know and love football before the change.
As the game progressively moved towards an emphasis on precision passing over smash-mouth, rough-and-tumble running plays, proponents of the old way (who many times happened to be the same proponents of the tougher, more difficult one-platoon era) called out receivers as getting too much protection, and bemoaned limitations placed on hard-hitting defensive backs that they perceived to be unfair.
In fact, the committee’s intention was to remedy a situation they perceived to be unfair, that wide receivers were penalized for making contact to a defensive back down the field, but that defensive backs were not penalized for making the same contact to the receiver.
Either way, though, whether the committee was right or wrong, the fact remains that the introduction of downfield protection for wide receivers dramatically changed the game of American Football, incentivizing teams to devote resources to the downfield passing game over and above the run game.
Without the rule change of the mid-1970s penalizing illegal contact, it’s safe to say that the modern game of American Football wouldn’t bear much resemblance to the game we all know and love today.
Conclusion: The Future of Football
People have been playing ball games throughout all of recorded history, and even as far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans we find evidence of people playing (and spectating) a game very similar in nature to today’s rugby.
After culture began to revive following the Dark Ages, ball games steadily developed in Europe, gaining enough popularity to be banned by many subsequent generations of government officials. Eventually, different games started to diverge, and the forerunners of today’s “Soccer”, “Rugby”, and “American Football” were born.
Before there could be an American Football, however, there had to be an America. After a few generations spent settling the United States, violent scrums involving the kicking and moving of a ball started to crop up in schools across the young nation, and eventually, by the middle of the 19th century, the game of football was starting to become an intramural fixture in the colleges and universities of America.
From there, the history of American Football followed a cyclical pattern: First with colleges as the forging fire, and subsequently with the National Football League, the game underwent a series of five major, overarching changes, each occurring at roughly 30-year intervals:
- Around 1855, the first intercollegiate football games were beginning to be played, providing an exponential increase in the popularity and viability of the young sport.
- Around 1885, the movement towards standardization of proprietary rules and codes yielded a series of key innovations, including Walter Camp’s down-and-distance rules.
- Around 1915, to address the mounting safety concerns that threatened the sport, the forward pass was legalized and subsequently adopted, along with roughing-the-passer rules.
- Around 1945, in response to the dramatic loss in personnel due to World War II, free substitution rules were adopted, beginning the “two-platoon” era of specialization.
- Around 1975, caused in part by increasingly specialized offensive positions, rules protecting wide receivers downfield were implemented, yielding an explosion in passing offense.
Following this trend forward, it’s a natural reaction to wonder what the next major shift in the history of American Football will be, whether or not the trends in the league that we saw around 2005 have served to impact the league as much as the trends listed above, and what the league will look like in 2035.
One of the most noticeable trends in the league that peaked around 2005 was the development of the dual-threat quarterback position, a fad in the league that many would say began with Steve Young in the mid-1980s, and was subsequently picked up and carried forward (no pun intended) by quarterbacks like Randall Cunningham, in the mid-1990s, and Donovan McNabb in the early 2000s.
One could argue that Michael Vick was the true exemplar of this trend, as in 2006 Vick set the all-time record for most rushing yards gained by a quarterback, with 1,039. In addition to leading the league in yards per rushing attempt, Vick also managed to end up in the top 10 in the league in passing touchdowns, as well as the 5th-highest percentage of passing touchdowns.
Only time will tell whether the trend towards dual-threat quarterbacking will end up remembered as the dominant trend of the mid-2000s that ushered in an important change in the way we play the game. Certainly, quarterbacks who are able to run the ball have become much more valuable in today’s NFL, and Michael Vick will be the first to say that he did in fact “revolutionize the game.”
Ultimately, however, the future history of the game of American Football has yet to be written.