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
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
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
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.