You need only look at the old leather helmets that football players used to wear to see just how much the NFL has changed over the years. The current league culture’s preoccupation with head injuries makes the “Leatherhead” days seem quaint and antiquated, along with many other past league practices.
But even though the National Football League has gone through so many changes over the last century that the game that was played back then seems almost unrecognizable to the game that is played today, it is nonetheless important for football fans and especially for gamblers to learn their history.
Why? How in the world could learning about the history of the league help me make money gambling on the NFL?
Why? Because while it’s true that a large portion of gambling is purely a numbers game, based on assessing the value of bets and making rational decisions, the NFL is a business about people. The best gamblers are the ones who know how to base their decisions on more than just numbers and statistics, but to also see things on the level of the real people responsible for those numbers and statistics.
Let’s take for an example the Cincinnati Bengals’ organization.
Let’s say that you find a bet on the Cincinnati Bengals’ chances of winning in the playoffs, and you think that there is serious value in the wager. You do your homework, and you feel that you have an excellent handle on all of the numbers and statistics required for you to be able to make a rational decision, and all signs are pointing towards the Bengals to finally break their streak of missed playoff opportunities and finally win a game in the postseason.
But how well do you really know the Cincinnati Bengals’ organization? How well can you trust the numbers?
Even gamblers with just a cursory knowledge of the Bengals’ franchise know that the team’s majority owner and de facto general manager, Mike Brown, is not only an octogenarian, but he’s also one of the most widely-criticized executives in football. More experienced gamblers will know that the recent success of the team during the Andy Dalton era has been primarily the result of Brown’s stepping out of the day-to-day football operations and giving over control to a committee.
And when we ask the question of why Mike Brown makes decisions the way that he does, we need look no further than his father, Paul Brown.
Paul Brown was the founder and first head coach of both Ohio NFL teams: the Cleveland Browns, who bear his name, as well as the Cincinnati Bengals, whose new venue built at the turn of the 21st century still stands today as “Paul Brown Stadium.” Many of the attributes that permeate the Bengals’ organization today during the Mike Brown era – stinginess in contracts; rigorous expectations on player loyalty; etc. – are a direct legacy of Paul Brown, passed down directly from father to son.
So in this way we see that in the case of Cincinnati, the history of the NFL is not some meaningless, shadowy backdrop: Current management is only two small steps removed from the post-World War II era of NFL football.
And it’s not just the Bengals. Consider the Raiders, whose current owner Mark Davis took over control of the franchise when his father Al passed away in 2011. Not only is Al Davis remembered for being the general manager of the Raiders for nearly four decades, but his leadership of the AFL (as we’ll go on to explain below) was one of the most important factors leading to the AFL-NFL merger that gave us pro football as we know it today.
While it’s true that the game of football will always be played be young men (the Tom Brady’s and Adam Vinatieri’s of the world notwithstanding), it’s also true that the game will always be run by old men. And everywhere you look there are examples of how the game these old men played when they were young bleeds over into the everyday goings-on of the league today.
So ask yourself a simple question: Do you really think the casual gambler, unaware of the history of the franchise he’s betting on, is better off than the gambler who knows the history front to back?
Of course the gambler who knows the most about the history of the NFL has that much more of an advantage over his less educated peers. And in a business with as tight margins as NFL gambling, that knowledge could potentially be the difference between making a killing and losing a fortune.
For this reason, in this section we’ll go over the entire history of the NFL, starting all the way back at the beginning with football’s roots in rugby, and moving on all the way through the 20th century to the game that we know and love today.
Before Football: roots in rugby pre-1876 all the way up to the beginning of the first NFL, in 1902
To truly start at the beginning with football’s roots, it’s necessary to go all the way back to ancient times. Even in the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans, people were playing ball games that vaguely resembled today’s football.
The great Roman politician Cicero, a century before the birth of Christ, even described one scene in which a man who was being shaved in a barber shop was killed Sweeney Todd style after a primitive football was kicked into a barber’s shop.
But while people playing games that featured kicking air-filled balls stretches all the way back to the B.C. years, across several different indigenous cultures across the world, the primary progenitor of the game we call “American Football” started in the Middle Ages in Europe, particularly in Great Britain.
The Birth of Rugby
All the way back in the 12th century, large groups of Brits could be seen trying to move an object, perhaps an inflated animal bladder, from one spot to another, meanwhile another group tried just as desperately to stop them from making it there.
One reason we know that people were playing these early forms of football during this time period is because we know that other people were trying to stop people from playing. There were more than 30 attempts to ban football in England alone between the 14th and 17th centuries.
But when it became clear that the establishment was unable to stop the people from playing – especially young people, who didn’t have much else to do – towns and schools eventually started to at least place some limits on the game; rules and codes that would make the game a little bit safer.
The next big challenge was to try and get multiple different teams from multiple different locations to play by the same rules. For example, one little village in Warwickshire, a county in the middle of England, was able to develop a set of rules that eventually caught fire in the mid-19th century. The town was called Rugby.
Arrival in America
By the later part of the 19th century, there were nearly a hundred different clubs or social groups that started playing football according to the rules of “those boys up in Rugby.” As the British Empire was the premier naval superpower of the time, the game was also spreading across the seas to a variety of current or former British colonies, including Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and those pesky states in North America that had won their independence one scant century before.
Before long, the game was being molded and modified at the end of the 19th century in the United States, primarily by the teams of colleges or universities. As rivalries between these institutions were fierce, students would look for any excuse to beat up on another school’s students, and the game of football provided just such an opportunity.
And as more and more colleges began to participate in the game, more and more institutions were put in place to standardize, regulate, and profit off of the new game’s growing popularity. It didn’t take long for professionals to catch on that they could make money continuing to play the game they had played in college.
In fact, the first known example of professional gamblers trying to fix a professional sporting event occurred all the way back in 1906, in a game between the Canton Bulldogs and the Massillon Tigers.
The stage was set for professional football to surge onto the scene.
Professional Football Kicks Off
The first paid football transaction that could be deemed “professional” occurred in 1892, in a group of teams known as the Western Pennsylvania Senior Independent Football Conference. At the time, despite having been in existence under the current Constitution for just over 100 years, the United States was still much more of a regional than a national entity.
For footballers, what this meant was that competitions between teams that hailed from different states was rare in the first decade or two of professional football. There were certainly no national tournaments or regulations that extended across state lines.
In fact, the very first “NFL,” in 1902 – a group of Pennsylvania football clubs that attempted to expand their reach and called themselves the “National Football League” – wasn’t able to convince a single team outside the state of Pennsylvania to join their league.
The important thing to note about this period in the history of football, during the two decades straddling the turn of the 20th century, was that despite the fact that a national football league had not yet come into existence, the game was growing in grassroots popularity.
Individual states were developing cooperative football organizations; individual cities and communities were becoming bonded to their teams; rivalries were beginning to spring up between neighboring communities; and individual players were starting to make a name for themselves on a broader scale.
Around the turn of the 20th century, professional football was starting to become a money machine.
And starting around 1910, as players and teams grew and grew in reputation while interstate travel became easier and easier, teams increasingly began to undertake “barnstorming tours” across individual regions. The best team from one state’s league would boast that it could easily take on the best of the best from another state, and they’d take their show on the road to try and do just that.
In response, a few regions – such as the Eastern Seaboard connecting Philadelphia, New York City, and New Jersey – finally developed those interstate leagues that had failed to launch in the opening decade of the 20th century. These interstate games would be highly publicized in newspapers (as this was an era even before radio) and led to ever increasing popularity and notoriety for the game and its players.
However, the expansion of the game was not without consequences.
When the leagues were all primarily intrastate, things were simple, and cheap. Imagine: a small group of men taking their weekend off to travel a few hours by carriage to a nearby community and try to push forward a pile of other men so that they could move the pigskin ball towards a goal.
Attendance would end up at only a few hundred at the most popular matchups, and managers of the club (if there was a manager) felt no obligation to pay the players much of anything, because there wasn’t much money to go around. And the men themselves weren’t relying on their “professional football” careers to pay the bills, as when the weekend was over they were back to their day jobs.
But as more people started showing up to the stadium, and venues started to be able to sell seats for more and more money, individual games would become so valuable that players now had a financial incentive to make that two-day trip to a neighboring state, even if it meant missing a day of work.
And at first, when the money started to roll in, (including gambling money from fixed games), there were no regulations of any kind. How could there have been? There was no governing body to keep everyone in line, and teams could do well as they pleased.
The first and most immediate outcome of this lack of regulation was that the parity in the league rapidly vanished. The richest teams coming from the most affluent areas saw their profits inflate well beyond some of the poorer teams, and correspondingly their rosters were stocked with better players.
So what did the rich teams do?
To give a hypothetical example, imagine a game between a rich team and a poor team. After a game in which the rich team’s highly-paid and highly-touted roster won handily, the rich team’s intrepid manager would corner the poorer team’s best players – or perhaps even their one true star player – and make him a financial offer to play for the big boys that he simply couldn’t refuse.
When the poorer team – outraged – became desperate and tried to match the richer team’s offer, a bidding war would ensue, and before long these bidding wars would go on to significantly decrease competitiveness among football teams. In general when professional teams are divided into haves and have-nots, the games stop being fun to watch, people stop buying tickets, and the whole brand suffers.
In addition, paying these inflated contracts starts eating into teams’ profit margins, the ultimate end goal.
It was clear that some sort of governing body was necessary to regulate these types of concerns. And in a pattern that would be repeated later on in the history of the NFL, bidding wars that decreased both competitiveness and profits became the impetus for teams to come together in union and submit to a governing body.
In the late 1910s, this meant the establishment of the very first National Football League.
Forging the National Football League
The professional football association that we know today as the National Football League began in August of 1920, first titled the “American Professional Football Conference,” which within a month changed its name to the “American Professional Football Association.”
Within the first two years, membership in the association would jump from 11 founding teams to 22, and the league would again change its name one final time, to the “National Football League.”
Two of the 1920 founding members of the American Professional Football Conference are still in existence today. The Chicago Cardinals (who now play in Arizona) and the Decatur Staleys (now the Chicago Bears) have both fielded a team in every single year of the league’s existence, now closing in on an even century.
The Green Bay Packers, who were founded in 1919, lay claim to the title of longest-running franchise to maintain its original location, but the team did not join the league until 1921, a year after its foundation.
In the initial 12 years of the league’s existence, play was very haphazard. Due to the lack of firm regulations or strict enforcement, teams were frequently added or removed from the league, and games were often played against non-league or collegiate opponents (as college football remained much more popular than professional, and thus these games could be even more lucrative for owners and managers).
This meant that some teams played more or fewer games than other teams, which made the legitimacy of crowning a champion of the league suspect, as championships were then awarded based on total win-loss record.
More importantly, however, the league’s popularity continued to grow. New technologies that began to take off around the time of the league’s inception (including automobiles and radio) were making the fan experience more engaging and more accessible than ever before, and the league’s annual revenue stream increased dramatically.
A few more of today’s NFL franchises joined the league during this expansion period from 1920-1932. The New York Football Giants joined the league in 1925, and the Portsmouth Spartans (who would later relocate to Detroit and become the Lions) joined in 1930.
As the NFL continued to expand, the league was split into two divisions: an eastern division and a western division. Franchises continued to spring up, change hands, absorb other franchises, relocate, and change names seemingly each year. In this context, franchises started progressively moving into larger cities for increased support: a franchise known then as the “Pittsburgh Pirates” came into existence, later to become the Steelers, as well as a team calling themselves the “Philadelphia Eagles.”
How WWII Affected the NFL
From the mid-1930s up until the United States’ entrance into World War II, a few major developments began to shape the league dramatically. First, in 1936 the NFL began an annual draft of the best college players, a practice no doubt influenced by the Draft Act of 1916 that had boosted military enrollment during World War I. This was a major step towards legitimizing professional football for college athletes.
Three years later, NFL fans were able for the first time to watch a game on a newfangled contraption called a “television”: On October 22, 1939, some 1000 people would tune into their sets to watch the Philadelphia Eagles lose to the home team Brooklyn Dodgers by a score of 23–14.
It’s also important to note that several of the rules and regulations that have become an integral fabric of today’s NFL were proposed, tried, and ultimately agreed upon during this era, including a myriad of specific rule changes, a fixed schedule, a multi-game championship tournament, and many others.
As with the rest of popular culture, when the Japanese air force bombed the American fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7th of 1941, the National Football League went through a great drought during World War II as people everywhere devoted their energies to the war effort. With most teams seeing a high percentage of their players shipped overseas to fight, teams had to either combine and consolidate (such as the “Steagles,” who played home games in both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia), or simply fold.
However, also tracking with the rest of popular culture, when the war was won and postbellum industry continued to boom in the United States, the NFL enjoyed a great period of expansion from 1945 on.
Importantly, despite the fact that since the very beginning of professional football in America there had been a large number of different leagues available for franchises to participate in, the NFL enjoyed a monopoly in the years immediately following the war. Due in part to the stress and economic strain that had accompanied the Great Depression and World War II, many of the smaller leagues had folded, leaving the league without any major competition for players or teams.
The NFL’s monopoly over professional football would soon end, though, with the development of the new, upstart American Football League.
NFL vs. AFL
It’s important to remember that while the NFL had become relatively stable after the end of World War II, the championship game played at the end of the year to determine the best team in the league would not be called the “Super Bowl” for another almost 30 years.
The first nationally televised game was one such pre-Super Bowl championship. Now known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the 1985 NFL championship between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants not only helped to legitimize professional football because of the large TV audience, but also because of the thrilling last second ending, which fans across the nation would remember for years.
But once again – this championship game was not a Super Bowl. The story of the tradition that we know today as the Super Bowl begins with the start of the American Football League.
The seeds of the American Football League (or AFL) were planted largely due to the monopoly that the NFL had over professional football by the end of the 1950s.
Being the only major league to remain in operation throughout the Great Depression and World War II, the NFL not only flourished in the postwar boom, but also managed to absorb the only major league that sprung up after the war ended – the All-American Football Conference (AAFC).
The AAFC had been dominated by the Paul Brown’s namesake franchise the Cleveland Browns, believe it or not, for the entire duration of its four-year tenure, and eventually ended up with three of its franchises getting absorbed into the NFL: the Browns, the San Francisco 49ers, and the original Baltimore Colts, each of whom joined the NFL in 1950.
In the ensuing decade, there would be no real challengers to the NFL, which had grown to be almost as popular as “America’s pastime,” professional baseball, despite being almost entirely confined to those Midwestern and Northeastern states north of the Mason-Dixon line. The NFL only had two franchises west of the Mississippi and south of the nation’s capital: the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams.
For a flourishing American South that had enjoyed college football religiously for decades, as well as blossoming young cities springing up all across the Western United States, the idea of nationally televised professional football without any southern representation was unbearable for some young and intrepid football managers.
This was why some entrepreneurial types that had the cash, such as Lamar Hunt, of Texas oil money, decided to try and purchase an existing NFL franchise and move it down south, or to create or co-opt a franchise that could join the league as an expansion franchise.
But when in September of 1959 Hunt found himself unable to buy his way into the league, rebuffed by commissioner Burt Bell, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
Bell felt that the prospect of expanding the NFL was too great a risk to their newfound popularity and financial success, but he still initially gave his blessing to the new “American Football League” that Hunt was organizing.
By the opening day of the new AFL season in September of 1960, the new league President Lamar Hunt had organized six teams, to the NFL’s twelve. Playing for the AFL included the Boston Patriots, the Buffalo Bills, the New York Titans, the Houston Oilers, the Denver Broncos, the Dallas Texans, the Oakland Raiders, and the Los Angeles Chargers.
Despite the fact that only four of these six teams were opening up shop in new markets where there was no existing NFL team, (Boston, Denver, Houston, and Buffalo), when the Chargers relocated to San Diego in 1961 and the Texans moved to Kansas City in 1963, the AFL began to widen its range. The addition of the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals to the young league in 1965 and 1967, respectively, also served to expand the legitimacy and popularity of the rival AFL.
It was at this point that the AFL had grown enough to become a serious challenger to the NFL.
And it’s crucially important to understand just how meaningful this competition between the two leagues was. While franchises from rival leagues weren’t competing against each other on the field, they were competing against each other off the field in a variety of different contexts:
Bert Bell and the NFL finally decided to break from their protective stance and signed new expansion franchises to compete with the AFL’s popularity, including the Minnesota Vikings and the Dallas Cowboys.
The AFL won a five year, $36 million contract with NBC beginning in 1965, and with television contracts being scarce and providing one of the most incredibly lucrative opportunities to invest in a league and its franchises, this was a huge blow to the NFL.
The AFL introduced a variety of improvements to the game that the NFL soon copycatted, including a narrower ball that was easier to throw, a 14-game schedule (instead of the NFL’s 12), flashier game plans, two-point conversions, and names on the backs of players’ jerseys.
With the leagues closer than ever before in terms of popularity and profitability, rival franchises competed heavily for the best college prospects, with the AFL first taking players that NFL players had passed over – in some cases unfairly – and ultimately having a draft of their own.
At this point, while the competition between the two leagues had been a positive thing in prompting the NFL to adopt some new innovations that the AFL had brought to the game, it started to become clear that the rivalry was getting out of hand, and becoming a detriment to the quality of the product itself.
Something had to give, and it was at this point that discussions began about merging the two leagues.
NFL + AFL: The Merger
Contract inflation and bidding wars between teams for the best players had been one of the biggest issues causing the original establishment of the first interstate leagues in the early 1920s; in the same way, they formed the biggest issues between the young AFL and the established NFL in the early 1960s.
Consider this: For years, both the NFL and the AFL put on a draft for the best college prospects, meaning that it was entirely possible for both an AFL team and an NFL team to draft the same player. For those 21-year old men that were being drafted, the decision was pretty simple: Show me the money!
Take for instance quarterback Joe Namath, who had the choice to play for either the AFL’s New York Jets or the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals.
The Jets offered the young college athlete a $427,000 contract, which at roughly $3.2 million in today’s dollars was the biggest contract ever offered a college player, and even threw in a new car to sweeten the deal.
And it wasn’t always so clear-cut and above-board, either – there was also a huge amount of shady dealing going on behind closed doors, with coaches and managers from one league dishing dirt on the other league, and generally doing anything they could to woo the best players to play for their team.
But while the rivalry between owners and front office members between the two leagues was certainly heated, there was one thing they could all agree on: Things were getting out of hand.
Imagine: Some franchises would end up spending huge sums of money simply to draft rookie prospects, when many of these prospects ultimately didn’t work out in the end. Even worse was when a team would win a bidding war, invest a huge amount of money into a rookie prospect, release the young man after he failed to pan out, and then find a few months later that he had signed with a different team and gone on to enjoy huge success that the rival league was profiting off of.
Eventually, things got so heated that owners were no longer even honoring legal contracts. Pete Gogolak, the first soccer-style placekicker that the league had seen, was in 1966 the first player to end up under contract for both an NFL and an AFL team, a breach of trust that escalated the conflict between the leagues and hurt the credibility of both.
From the perspective of the team owners and league executives, across both the AFL and the NFL, it was clear that these developments were not going to end well. The players had far too much power, with the option to simply void a contract they found undesirable to play for more money in the rival league, and franchises were breaking the bank simply to woo players to their teams.
Despite the considerable animosity between the higher-ups in both leagues, when it became clear that the competition was causing both parties to lose money, the NFL approached the AFL to initiate discussion of a merger, which was eventually finalized in June of 1966.
Among the many stipulations of the agreement, the leagues agreed that they would hold a common college draft, the first of which occurred in 1967; they agreed to expand the league to 24 teams (to be increased up to 28 by the year 1970); and most importantly, they agreed that the final team standing at the end of the season would be crowned world champion of football, in a game pitting the best team from the American Football League against the best team from the National Football League.
Importantly, however, two minor changes were still required before this game began to resemble the Super Bowl that we celebrate today as an unofficial national holiday.
First, after the merger it took three years before the league fully merged to become one unified National Football League with two conferences, instead of two distinct leagues combined together. The NFL Commissioner became the commissioner of both leagues, and the AFL logo and name were retired.
Secondly, the name. The first two rocky years following the NFL-AFL merger in 1966 saw the Green Bay Packers emerge victorious at the end of the season, led by quarterback Bart Starr and legendary head coach Vince Lombardi. When Vince died of cancer in 1970, the trophy presented to the winner of the league’s championship game – which had by then picked up the half-joking moniker the “Super Bowl” – was officially renamed the Lombardi Trophy.
With these changes to the league, and the additions of the New Orleans Saints in 1967 and the Cincinnati Bengals in 1968, the National Football League took shape, and a new era was born: the Super Bowl era.
Today’s NFL: The Super Bowl Era
Since the beginning of the Super Bowl era, the National Football League has enjoyed ever-increasing popularity and financial success.
Incredibly, despite the fact that the entity is worth billions of dollars, the NFL has been managed by only three individuals since 1960: Pete Rozelle, who served as commissioner from 1960-1989; Paul Tagliabue, from 1989-2006; and Roger Goodell, who served as Tagliabue’s right hand man for years before taking over as commissioner in 2006. Goodell remains commissioner today.
Another way of looking at the history of the league since the beginning of the Super Bowl era is the comparative dominance of several different individual teams, with dynasties springing up across both conferences over the course of the last 40 years.
The first and what some would say most prolific dynasty was the reign of the Green Bay Packers at the very dawn of the NFL-AFL merger, which in fact ushered in the Super Bowl era itself. The Packers won five championships in seven years between the 1961 and 1967 seasons, and handily beat the AFL’s top team in both of the first two NFL-AFL Championship games.
It was during this period that the legend of “Titletown” was born, and the Lombardi Trophy got its name.
After the fifth Super Bowl in 1970 – the first bearing the name “Super Bowl” – the 1970s were dominated by three franchises: the Dallas Cowboys, led by Hall of Famers like Mike Ditka and Roger Staubach; the Miami Dolphins, who completed the first and only perfect season under legendary head coach Don Shula, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, forever remembered as the “Steel Curtain” dynasty with head coach Chuck Noll, quarterback Terry Bradshaw, and one of the best defenses in NFL history.
The Cowboys, Dolphins, and Steelers would go on to win 8 of the 10 Super Bowls of the 1970s.
The 1980s featured another set of dynasties. The San Francisco 49ers under head coach Bill Walsh, quarterback Joe Montana, and wide receiver Jerry Rice, made 9 playoff appearances during the decade and won four Super Bowls. The 1985 Bears, featuring what is widely considered the best defense in the history of the NFL, terrorized NFL quarterbacks for years during the 80s.
The Washington Redskins and New York Giants also claimed five of the 80s’ ten Super Bowls.
Incredibly, even this early in the story of the Super Bowl era we see the core individuals of today’s NFL beginning to enter the league. Current Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones purchased the team in 1989 at the age of 46, and hired his old teammate Jimmy Johnson to be the head coach of the team. The team would make it to the playoffs eight times in the 90s, winning three Super Bowls with the “big three” of Emmit Smith, Troy Aikman, and Michael Irvin.
The Cowboys’ big three was rivaled in the 90s by the comparable triplet of quarterback Steve Young, wide receiver Jerry Rice, and cornerback Deion Sanders – all three now in the Hall of Fame – with Young bringing the team to seven playoff appearances and a Super Bowl. The 49ers would end up seeing four of their playoff appearances ended by the Green Bay Packers, who won the Super Bowl in 1997 with gunslinging Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre.
By the end of the 1990s, with John Elway’s fifth Super Bowl appearance in the books and his career over, the dynasties of today’s NFL officially began. The 2000 season saw the New England Patriots bring in a new head coach from the division rival New York Jets and draft a quarterback in the 6th round, despite the fact that they had superstar Drew Bledsoe on the roster.
Five Super Bowl victories later, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have become the most decorated coach-QB combination in the history of the league.
Two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Ben Roethlisberger entered the league in 2004; Brett Favre unwillingly gave the keys to the franchise over to Super Bowl and league MVP Aaron Rodgers in 2008; and across the league we see the seeds of the modern NFL being planted in what seems only moments ago on the historical scale.
In conclusion, the last century of the NFL has passed by in a flash, and for fans and gamblers alike, it’s important to know your history.