The NFL is currently celebrating its 100th anniversary, but today’s game bears little resemblance to the 1920 incarnation of the league. Chances to the rules and societal norms have evolved the game from a run-heavy affair to the game we all know and love. In this two-part series, let’s take a look back the moments which shaped America’s game.
The 10 Biggest Changes in 100 Years of the NFL, Part One
The Forward Pass
Today’s NFL is all about the quarterbacks, so it’s crazy to think that there was a time where passing simply wasn’t a part of the game. During the NFL’s infancy, quarterbacks were only allowed to throw the ball within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Due to this restriction, teams took to running in what was essentially a glorified game of rugby.
The game changed forever in 1933 when the NFL abolished the five-yard rule. Slowly but surely, the passing game took over the league as football went vertical. In 1932, no quarterback eclipsed 640 passing yards or nine passing touchdowns. In 2018, Patrick Mahomes threw for 582 yards and 10 touchdowns in the first two games of the season.
The NFL Draft
Big-market teams have a natural advantage in the NFL’s open market, as they’re able to offer larger contracts to more desirable players. This puts small market teams at a disadvantage, desperately signing whatever players the big-market teams left behind. This was the way of the NFL prior to the 1936 NFL Draft.
In order to create some semblance of parity, the NFL installed the draft in order to control where prospective players would go to start their NFL careers. This also helped out ownership, as players could no longer hold out for the highest bidder. While implementing the draft took money away from the players, it installed a semblance of balance and competition in a formerly lopsided league.
It’s no surprise that a league founded in 1920 was exclusively white in its’ early years. The United States didn’t outlaw segregation until 1964, and the NFL was no pioneer early on. While the league had some African American players in their inaugural season, the league was completely white from 1934 to 1946.
That all changed when Kenny Washington signed with the Los Angeles Rams. While he doesn’t have the name value of a guy like Jackie Robinson, Washington permanently broke the NFL’s race barrier. The initial integration took a while to catch on, but as of 2014 the NFL was actually 68% African American.
It’s crazy to think about now, but the NFL didn’t have an actual schedule out of the gate. Teams would basically play anyone they could schedule a game against, including teams from outside the league. There was no limit on how many (or how few) games each team played, and there was no championship game to decide a dinner.
The NFL eventually decided enough was enough and hosted the first ever championship game in 1933, with the Chicago Bears triumphing over the New York Giants. In 1936, the league agreed to a 12-game schedule for all nine of their teams. In 1978, the league implemented the current 16-game schedule.
Antonio Brown would not do well in the 1920’s. While today’s helmets put a focus on safety and preventing brain trauma, the helmets of yesteryear had no such safety precautions. Anyone’s who’s seen even a black and white photo of old-school football knows about the leatherbound “helmets” worn back in the day. These obviously didn’t provide much in terms of protection, which led to serious head problems for several players in the early days.
The NFL gradually moved away from leather, but they’ve still got a long way on their quest for safety. Roughly 4,500 former players sued the league for concussion-related injuries in 2013, and CTE continues to be a significant worry for current and former players. The NFL has tried to combat this with an increased focus on helmet protocol and limiting head-to-head hits, but they can only do so much.
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