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History Of American Football [How It Started]

American football is one of the most exciting and electric sports currently being played by athletes. It’s been a long road to get to where we are today.

American football has electrified the United States as one of the mainstream sports. It first started as a game of rugby and soccer combined. It has since evolved and continues to evolve.

In this article, we will break down the history of American Football and how it’s evolved over the years.

american football
Present Day American Football

Early Days In American Football

The reputation and history of football have always been known as a ground and pound sport. 

However, over the decades, it’s slowly starting to become a finesse game on offense rather than the old-school ground and pound style of gameplay – with the most recent innovation on offense happening in the past 20 years.

How did we get to this point of spread offenses and quick/speed players rather than the big-on-big style of play? Let’s take a look at the oldest piece of footage that we could dig up.

American Football In The Early Days

This clip is from 1903. 1903!!! The most notable takeaway from this clip is how the offense and the defense are within a 12×12 yard box. It’s your classic, give the ball to your best athlete and let him slam it up the middle.

The history of football shows us that a known ancestor of football is the game of rugby.

Offensive Innovation Timeline

It wasn’t until 1906 that the forward pass was legalized. Dan Riley caught the first completion (thrown by George Parratt). This opened the doors for the offense, forcing defenses to cover all 53.3 yards of the field. This allowed offenses to move from a traditional tight formation to have 1-2 receivers split wide to maximize space and big-play chances.

Between 1909-1912, the rules committee altered a few scoring plays. Touchdowns were changed from 5 points to 6. Field goals were also changed from originally 4 points to 3.

Flash forward to February 25, 1933 – The forward pass is legalized from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. We’re now seeing lateral passes, swing passes, “now” routes, and plays designed to get athletes in space as quickly as possible.

1938 – Roughing the Passer was instilled. Quarterbacks are now protected after they throw the football. The rules committee realizes how valuable the position is and mutually agrees that the QB can’t be touched after he throws.

1943 – Sammy Baugh led the league in passing, interceptions, and punting.

1947 – Adding an extra official, The Back Judge – This may not seem like a major rule change. However, the field was now surrounded by referees. Each referee now had a certain area they would watch, allowing them to focus on and narrow their penalty view.

1950 – Unlimited substitutions used to be only 3 men at a time. Teams are now using personnel sets based on down and distance. The goal line and short-yardage ground and pound start to form as teams can now be more creative with how they script their game plan.

Passing Innovations

January 18, 1950 – no Tackle Guard or Center is eligible to catch a pass. This rule seems a bit late as the ball has been sent through the air for almost 20 years since this rule was set in place. 5 eligibles are set in stone, and players are now designated by size, strength, and speed.

1952 – The Pittsburg Steelers are the last team to abandon the single-wing offense. Instead (like every other team in the league at the time), they adopt the “T” formation.

1955–  Rule change which marks a player is down if touched by a defender and any part of his body (excluding hands are feet) hit the ground. This helped clarify when the ball was dead

1972 – Hash marks were moved originally from 15 yards from the sideline to 23.1 yards from the sideline. Out of all the rules changes on the list, this is one of the more important changes.

For reference, high school hash marks are 17.8 yards from the sideline. When the ball is run out of bounds, the ball is placed on the hash. This gives the offense 35.6 yards of field to run plays to the field or open side (with only 17.8 yards to the boundary or the closed side of the field). The 35.6 yards allow the offense to have more space to run/pass to the open side of the field.

However, as mentioned, in 1972, the hash marks were moved to 23.1 yards. This meant the game is played more in the middle of the field (the middle point of the field from the sideline is 26.65 yards). It forces the defense to cover all 53.3 yards of the field. Offenses like the West Coast Offense were born, which were able to expose teams horizontally. This changed the history of football (in the NFL) as we know it!

Introducing Wide Receivers

1974 Contact with Eligible Receivers restricted – Players were now restricted from colliding with eligible receivers as they ran routes downfield. This opened up the vertical pass game as receivers focused more on stretching the field rather than dodging defensive backs.

1978 – 5 yard contact rule for corners. Enter Mel Blount. 6’3 205 pounds and one of the most physical corners the NFL has seen. Mel was notorious for stuffing receivers at the line of scrimmage and making sure they ended up on the ground every play. Mel’s style of play was instrumental in helping change the NFL as we see it today.

The rule states that a defensive back/linebacker can not contact a receiver OUTSIDE of 5 yards from the line of scrimmage (otherwise known as the Mel Blount rule). This rule puts a tremendous amount of stress on defensive backs, as they are at a disadvantage. As expected, the NFL exploded with passing yards as the Super Bowl racked up over 500 yards passing.

Conclusion

In the most recent days, we’ve seen an explosion of offense. For example – the most recent super bowl featured Tom Brady and Nick Foles combining for over 800 yards through the air. As offenses continue to evolve, the passing records will continue to be broken.

How will we see offenses reach even greater heights shortly? What rule change do you not agree with and think should be changed back? What rule had the biggest impact on the history of football? Let us know in the comment section below!