History Of American Football & How It Started

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: December 28, 2023

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 with its popularity soaring each season, and its roots can be traced back to the number one pioneer, Walter Camp.

American football has taken over the United States as one of the mainstream sports, tracing its humble beginnings to a game between Princeton and Yale on November 6, 1869, a game that looked more like a mix of rugby and soccer. It has since evolved and continues to grow, steering away from the half rugby-half soccer style to the thrilling spectacle we see in the National Football League today.

In this article, like a seasoned quarterback spotting a receiver in a busy field, we will break down the history of American Football and how it’s evolved over the years, shedding light on its transformation from a rudimentary rugby-like game to the much-loved spectacle akin to the baseball season in its excitement and allure.

The reputation and history of football have always been known as a ground and pound sport, a far cry from the dainty finesse of games like baseball.

However, over the decades, it’s slowly starting to become a finesse game on offense rather than the old-school physical gameplay style, 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 look at the oldest piece of footage that we could dig up.

This clip is from 1903. The most notable takeaway from this clip is how the offense and the defense are lined up tightly together. It looks more like a rugby scrum than it does an actual game of modern-day football. However, similar to watching a baseball game where strategies are constantly evolving, football too began to change, mirroring the dynamic nature of its players and audience.

The history of football shows us that a known ancestor of football is the game of rugby. The transformation of this game over the years is equally fascinating and illustrative of how sports adapt to the needs of its players and viewers.

American Football History Timeline

1906

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 or 2 receivers split wide to maximize space and big-play chances, thereby steering the game away from its rugby origins.

1912

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 initially 4 points to 3.

1933

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 quickly.

1938

Roughing The Passer penalty was instilled into the rule book.

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. Sammy helps to bring eyeballs to the sport as he becomes one of the best two-way players to ever play the game. Football games now have players that are marketable and bring attention to the American Professional Football Association.

1947

The referees decided to add an extra official, the Back Judge.

This may not seem like a major rule change, however, the field was now surrounded by referees who could accurately call each penalty. Each referee now had a specific area they would watch, allowing them to focus on and narrow their penalty view.

1950

Substitutions used to be only three men at a time. The rule committee got rid of that rule and now allowed unlimited substitutions.

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.

1950

A rule was put in place that 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. Five eligibles are only allowed to catch the ball, and players are now categorized by size, strength, and speed.

1952

The Pittsburgh 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.

This new style of offense allowed teams to be more physical at the point of attack, as well as use misdirection as they did in the single wing.

1955

Implemented a rule change that marks a player down if touched by a defender and any part of his body (excluding hands are feet) hits the ground. This helped clarify when the ball was officially over.

1972

Hash marks were moved originally from 15 yards from the sideline to 23.1 yards from the sideline. Out of all the rule 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!

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.

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1978

5 yard contact rule for corners is implemented. 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.

1980

Players are restricted from striking, clubbing, or hitting the head and neck area. This is to protect players and a personal foul could be called.

1984

Long standing passing and rushing records are broken, and would soon take years to break them again. Dan Marino passed for 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns. Eric Dickerson rushed for 2,105 yards and Walter Payton rushed for a career mark of 13,309 yards.

1986

Owners adopted a policy that allowed for instant replay. This is the first step to making sure that every call was properly made.

2010

Targeting penalties are now called more than ever. The NFL implements a rule to protect players who catch the football and quarterbacks who throw the football. The second they receive or throw the ball they are protected for the short term.

Ejections and suspensions are now seen.

The NFL also adopts a sudden death penalty format. Each team gets an opportunity to score a touchdown. If neither team scores, the team who scores points will win the game.

Keep Learning

These are all of the innovations that have taken place in American football. If you want to learn more about football and increase your football IQ, we recommend taking the Beginner’s Guide To Football below.

The Ultimate Football Guide

Why spend hours on Google and YouTube trying to learn football yourself? We’ve created a simple guide to help make you the smartest person in the room.

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!

About the author 

Chris Haddad

Chris Haddad is the founder of vIQtory Sports & high school coach for over 12+ years. He has been featured as an authority on Hudl, Bleacher Report and countless other football-centric platforms. Chris continues to study and provide valuable content for those looking to learn more about the game of football.

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