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The forerunner of American football may have been a game played by the ancient Greeks, called harpaston. In this game there was no limit to the number of players. The object was to move a ball across a goal line by kicking it, throwing it, or running with it. Classical literature contains detailed accounts of the game, including its rougher elements, such as ferocious tackling.

Most modern versions of football originated in England, where a form of the game was known in the 12th century. In subsequent centuries football became so popular that various English monarchs, including Edward II and Henry VI, forbade the game because it took interest away from the military sport of archery. By the middle of the 19th century, football had split into two distinct entities. Still popular today, these two sports were soccer and rugby. American football evolved from these two sports. The sport called soccer in the United States is still known as football throughout much of the world.

Knute Rockne As a player and team captain, Knute Rockne developed the forward pass, opening new areas of offense and helping popularize the game of football. As a coach, Rockne’s brilliant strategies and inspirational talks made him one of football’s most successful coaches ever.

Most football historians agree that the first organized football game took place on November 6, 1869, when teams from Rutgers and Princeton universities met in New Brunswick, New Jersey. In the early games, each team used 25 players at a time. By 1873 the number was reduced to 20 players, and by 1876 it was further reduced to 15 players. In 1880 Yale coach Walter Camp set the number at 11 players. He also created the quarterback position and the system of downs.

In the early 1900s college football games were popular sports spectacles, but the professional game attracted limited public support. College games were extremely rough, and many injuries and some deaths occurred. Educators considered dropping the sport despite its popularity on campuses, and United States president Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent advocate of strenuous sports, declared that the game must be made safer. As a result, football authorities revamped the game, and many of the rougher tactics were outlawed.

College coaches such as Amos Alonzo Stagg, Pop Warner, Bob Zuppke, and Knute Rockne developed many of the early offensive techniques and play formations. Following very few historical precedents, these men invented unique strategies that changed the nature of football forever.

Stagg was instrumental in developing the between-the-legs snap from center to quarterback, the player in motion in the backfield before the snap of the ball, the onsides kick, the early T-formation, and many other innovations. In 1906 Warner unbalanced his line, placing four players on one side of the center and two on the other side, while shifting the backfield into a wing formation. The quarterback functioned as a blocker, set close behind the line and a yard wide of the center. At the same depth, but outside the line, was the wingback. Deep in the backfield was the tailback, who received most of the snaps, and in front and to the side was the fullback. This formation became known as the single-wing, and it remained football’s basic formation until the 1940s.

Coach Zuppke ran single- and double-wing formations at the University of Illinois, often sending four or five receivers downfield in pass patterns. At Notre Dame in 1923 and 1924, Rockne instituted his famous Four Horsemen offense. Rockne set up the backs in a four-square, box alignment on one side. Then, in what was called the Notre Dame Shift, the backs would shift out of the box and into a single or double wing.

The first professional football game in the United States took place in 1895 in the town of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, between a team representing Latrobe and a team from Jeannette, Pennsylvania. In the following years many professional teams were formed, including the Duquesnes of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; the Olympics of McKeesport, Pennsylvania; the Bulldogs of Canton, Ohio; and the team of Massillon, Ohio. Noted college players who took up the professional game during its early years include Willie Heston (formerly at the University of Michigan), Fritz Pollard (Brown University), and Jim Thorpe (Carlisle Indian School).

The first league of professional football teams was the American Professional Football Association, formed in 1920. The admission fee was $100 per team. The teams pledged not to use any student player who still had college eligibility left, as the goodwill of the colleges was believed to be essential to the survival of the professional league. Thorpe, a player-coach for one of the teams, became president of the league during its first year.

The American Professional Football Association gave way in 1922 to the NFL. Red Grange, the famous halfback from the University of Illinois, provided a tremendous stimulus for the league when he joined the Chicago Bears in 1925 and toured the United States that year and the next. His exciting play drew large crowds. Thereafter, professional football attracted larger numbers of first-rate college players, and the increased patronage made the league economically viable.

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

The popularity of the professional game slowly began to equal its college rival after the NFL instituted its first player draft in 1936. As many talented college players opted to play in the NFL, the professional game also drew more fans. The Chicago Bears, the Chicago Cardinals, the Detroit Lions, the Green Bay Packers, and the New York Giants were some of the league’s dominant teams during the period. Outstanding players included running back Cliff Battles, quarterback Sammy Baugh, running back Tony Canadeo, and receiver Don Hutson. The Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II (1939-1945), however, drained many of the early professional franchises of money and players.

After World War II, college teams were allowed free substitution of players—that is, a player could enter and leave the game an unlimited number of times, as long as the ball was not in play during the substitution. This feature of the game led to the modern two-platoon system, in which one group of 11 players enters the game to play offense and a second group enters to play defense. The trend toward platoons crossed over to the professional game.

In 1946 the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) was established as a rival to the NFL. The new league included the New York Yankees, the San Francisco 49ers, the Baltimore Colts (now Indianapolis Colts), and the Los Angeles Dons. The most powerful team in the new league was the Cleveland Browns, coached by football innovator Paul Brown.

Although talented, the quarterbacks of the 1930s and early 1940s seldom completed more than 50 percent of their passes. A major cause of these low percentages was the primitive nature of pass-blocking strategies. With little protection, passers always had to throw while avoiding incoming rushers. Brown installed a blocking system that radically transformed the passing game. He changed the system by arranging the linemen in the form of a cup that pushed most pass-rushers to the outside and provided a safe area, called a pocket, from which the quarterback could pass. Using the strategy, Brown coached Cleveland to four AAFC championships from 1946 to 1949.

In 1950 the Browns, 49ers, and Colts joined the NFL in a merger of the two leagues. The move ushered in a period of popularity and prosperity. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s players such as quarterbacks Norm Van Brocklin, Y. A. Tittle, and Johnny Unitas; receiver Tom Fears; running back Jim Brown; defensive back Tom Landry; linebacker Ray Nitschke; and all-around standout Frank Gifford ignited the league and attracted fans. During the period a select group of franchises won NFL championships, including Cleveland (1950, 1954, 1955), Detroit (1952, 1953, 1957), and Baltimore (1958, 1959). The advent of television helped to popularize the professional game when in 1956 the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) began to broadcast select games.

In 1960 the Packers reached the NFL championship game but lost to the Philadelphia Eagles. Nevertheless, the game signaled the rise of the Green Bay franchise under head coach Vince Lombardi. An intimidating and motivating individual, Lombardi led Green Bay to the NFL title the following year and added two more NFL championships in 1962 and 1965.

Seeing that a profit could be made from professional football, Texas businessman Lamar Hunt formed the American Football League (AFL) in 1960 as a rival to the NFL. Teams in the new league included the Houston Oilers, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Oakland Raiders, and the New York Jets. The two leagues fought bitterly for players, media attention, and profits. Standouts in the new league such as Jack Kemp, Lance Alworth, and Joe Namath helped the AFL establish itself on par with the NFL.

In 1966 the two leagues agreed on a merger plan. The first AFL-NFL World Championship Game, featuring the AFL-champion Chiefs and the NFL-champion Packers, was played in January 1967. The Packers won the contest, later renamed Super Bowl I, 35-10. In 1968 the Packers defeated the AFL’s Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl II, but the game validated the AFL’s talent. In 1969 the AFL’s Jets defeated the Colts in a huge upset in Super Bowl III. In 1970, the leagues merged into two 13-team conferences under the NFL name. The Browns, Colts, and Pittsburgh Steelers joined the 10 AFL teams to form the AFC, and the remaining NFL teams formed the NFC.

During the early 1970s offensive play suffered as result of complex defensive strategies. Three coaches in particular, Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys, Chuck Noll of the Steelers, and Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins, created defensive tactics that closed passing lanes and forced offenses to rely on running the ball. The shift resulted in defensive units with names such as the Doomsday Defense of the Cowboys, the Steelers’ Steel Curtain, the Minnesota Vikings’ Purple People Eaters, and the Los Angeles Rams’ Fearsome Foursome. In 1972 Miami’s unheralded defense teamed with a celebrated offense led by quarterbacks Bob Griese and Earl Morrall, and the Dolphins compiled a record of 14 wins and 0 losses—becoming the only team to finish a NFL regular season undefeated. Following their perfect season Miami won Super Bowl VII.

In an attempt to maintain public interest in the game during the early 1970s, NFL administrators brought the hash marks in closer to the center of the field to give offenses more room to throw wide passes. The move, which increased scoring and made the game more exciting, also helped bolster the running game. In 1972 ten NFL runners gained more than 1,000 yards in one season for the first time in history. During the next season, Buffalo Bills running back O. J. Simpson rushed for more than 2,000 yards, the first time a player had gained that many yards in a single season.

Quarterbacks such as the Cowboys’ Roger Staubach and the Steelers’ Terry Bradshaw quickly developed playing styles that took advantage of the openness of the field created by the rule change. Both quarterbacks developed aggressive passing attacks that depended on pinpoint accuracy. During the mid- to late 1970s and early 1980s, an intense rivalry between Dallas and Pittsburgh drew fans to the game. Pittsburgh won four Super Bowls (1975, 1976, 1979, 1980), while Dallas won in 1978. The Steelers’ 1979 victory over the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII is considered one of the most memorable games in the sport’s history.

Television continued to play a role in the popularization of the game, and in 1970 the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) created Monday Night Football, hosted by former quarterback Don Meredith and commentators Keith Jackson and Howard Cosell. After one season former NFL player Frank Gifford replaced Jackson. Each week during the regular season the show featured a popular match-up. It was an instant success and became one of television’s longest-running sports programs. After Meredith and Cosell retired, a number of former NFL players served as announcers on the show, including Dan Dierdorf, Fran Tarkenton, O. J. Simpson, and Lynn Swann.

The San Francisco 49ers were the dominant team of the 1980s, as quarterback Joe Montana keyed the team to four Super Bowl victories (1982, 1985, 1989, 1990). Montana, who benefited from good blocking protection, read defenses well and could pass while scrambling away from tacklers. His favorite receiver was Jerry Rice, who eventually became the NFL career leader in career touchdowns. Other powerful teams during the 1980s included the Chicago Bears, the Washington Redskins, and the Raiders, who moved from Oakland to Los Angeles after the 1981 season, and back to Oakland after the 1994 season.

In the mid-1980s a new type of defensive player emerged. While speedy defensive backs covered equally fast wide receivers, a player called the rush-linebacker emerged with one specialized duty: pressuring the quarterback. With no pass-coverage responsibilities, the fast and strong rush-linebacker focused his attention on the quarterback and the running backs. The New York Giants’ Lawrence Taylor, perhaps the best player of all time at this position, led New York to a Super Bowl victory in 1987.

The late 1980s saw players pushing to improve their labor situation. In 1989 the threat of a lawsuit caused the NFL to change its original policy and allow college underclassmen to enter the draft. Juniors and third-year sophomores are now eligible, and many college stars turn professional before exhausting their college eligibility.

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

In the early 1990s quarterback Jim Kelly and running back Thurman Thomas led the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances (1991–1994). However, they lost them all. Dallas returned to the Super Bowl in 1993 behind running back Emmitt Smith and quarterback Troy Aikman. The pair led the Cowboys to Super Bowl victories that year and in 1994 and 1996.

Perhaps the greatest offensive players of the 1990s were running back Barry Sanders of the Lions and quarterbacks Steve Young of the 49ers, Dan Marino of the Dolphins, and John Elway of the Denver Broncos. Sanders led the NFL in rushing several times and became the first running back to rush for more than 1,000 yards in ten consecutive seasons (1989-1998). Young led the NFC in passing during five seasons (1991-1994 and 1996) and led the 49ers to a Super Bowl victory in 1995. Marino became the NFL’s all-time passing leader by passing for 61,361 yards and 420 touchdowns. Elway led the Broncos to five Super Bowl appearances between 1987 and 1999, winning in 1998 and 1999. All of these players retired at the end of the decade.

The 2000 and 2001 Super Bowls ushered in a new era for the NFL, as the St. Louis Rams defeated the Tennessee Titans and the Baltimore Ravens beat the New York Giants for each franchise’s first Super Bowl title. New stars such as quarterbacks Peyton Manning of the Colts and Dante Culpepper of the Vikings, defensive players Jevon Kearse of the Titans and Ray Lewis of the Ravens, running backs Eddie George of the Titans and Edgerrin James of the Colts, and receivers Rod Smith of the Broncos and Isaac Bruce of the Rams may be the leaders of the next generation to carve an NFL legacy.

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