When the NFL first started in 1920, it wasn’t the high-flying spectacle it is now. Here are the moments that shaped America’s game in 100 years of the NFL.
The 10 Biggest Changes in 100 Years of the NFL
The Forward Pass
The passing game isn’t nearly what it used to be during the early years of the NFL. The NFL in its early stages resembled a game closer to that of the game of Rugby and forward passes were considered illegal.
When forward passes were allowed—although still rare—quarterbacks could only throw the ball forward from within five yards of the line of scrimmage. It wasn’t until 1933 that the NFL began to separate itself from college football where they began to allow forward passes from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. This is what would come to shape the game of football that we know today.
At this same time, it was rare to see a quarterback throw for big numbers. In the 1932 season, no quarterback threw for more than 640 yards or nine touchdowns. In 2015, we saw Drew Brees throw for 505 yards and seven touchdowns in one game—an NFL record for passing touchdowns in a single game.
The volatility of one team going from the bottom dwellers to winning a super bowl title in a couple of seasons is what makes the NFL Draft one of the most exciting sports events of the year.
In 1936, the NFL, in a bid to restore a competitive and take leverage away from the players, held its inaugural draft. Franchises would begin taking turns selecting college players, with the worst team from each previous season picking first. Before then, the players held all the cards as teams would engage in chaotic bidding wars to sign amateur players right out of college.
Within the next 30 years, every other major sports league would follow suit and hold their own inaugural draft.
During the league’s formative years, its players and coaches were almost exclusively white, despite having a handful of black players in its very early seasons. Between 1934 and 1946, there were no black players at all.
Ultimately, in 1946, UCLA Bruins running back, Kenny Washington—who is regarded as one of the best collegiate players ever— broke the race barrier and became the first African-American to sign an NFL contract.
From then on, the NFL slowly integrated black players into the league, with most coming from the AFL/NFL merger in 1970.
As of 2014, the NFL’s player pool was 68% African-American. But the issues of race in sports is still ongoing despite the NFL’s ground-breaking Rooney Rule (2003), which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for every head coaching vacancy. As of the beginning of the 2019 NFL season, only three of the 32 NFL head coaches are African-American.
The NFL’s early years were chaotic in terms of teams’ schedules. At one point, there was no set schedule and franchises wound up playing any teams they could arrange a match with, which even included teams from outside of the league. Because of the unorganized structure of the games, the amount of match-ups teams got varied widely. Some teams were able to play 10 or more games, while the Muncie Flyers played just one, to which they lost and put them in last place.
Oddly enough, there was no championship game in the early years. Title winners were voted on by team owners at an end-of-season meeting. In 1933, the NFL revised its strange formula and had its inaugural title game between the Chicago Bears and New York Giants. In 1936, the NFL would begin having all nine teams play 12 games each, and since 1978, the regular season has been comprised of 16 games for each team.
It’s frightening to imagine the kind of helmet-to-helmet contact we see today happening with the soft leather caps players wore in the NFL’s early years. In the 1940s and 1950s, the NFL finally moved on to using plastic helmets with face masks to polymer helmets that are universal in today’s game.
The decision to move away from the leather caps was intended to improve player safety. But brain injuries like CTE are still a key concern today and the league continues to push rule changes around the league and make that kind of harsh contact illegal in the game.
In 2013, the league was sued by nearly 4,500 former players for concussion-related injuries.
The AFL Merger
In 1959, the founding of the American Football League (AFL) quickly threatened the dominance of the NFL by luring away top college recruits with lucrative contracts. The NFL recognized that the competition could threaten their talent pool and profitability and by 1966, a deal was agreed to merge the two leagues. The NFL kept its name and the AFL and NFL franchises were separated into two conferences: the AFC and the NFC. At the end of each season, the conference champions would play each other, spawning one of the biggest sporting events in the world…
The Super Bowl
The Super Bowl regularly attracts over 100 million viewers worldwide each year, more than any annual sporting event except the Champions League final. That’s impressive—thanks to the NFL’s marketing strategy—considering American Football is difficult for most outside of the U.S. to understand.
Super Sunday has essentially become a national holiday for American Football fans, and traditions like Super Bowl parties and prop bets have spread to countries even outside of the US.
The Halftime Show
Some of the biggest musical acts in the world like Prince, Michael Jackson, and Beyoncé have produced iconic performances at the Super Bowl halftime show. It’s the biggest in-game entertainment that no other sports league sees and is a big component to just how successful the super bowl is.
Until the 1990s, the half-time show would only feature a marching band with a theme like A Salute to the Big Band Era or It’s a Small World. It wasn’t until Michael Jackson’s iconic 1993 91 million viewer performance that changed everything. The half-time show from then on would be a coveted gig for the world’s biggest artists.
Since then, the half-time show has essentially been as memorable as the game itself. Some unforgettable moments from over the years include Janet Jackson’s Nipplegate, Katy Perry’s ‘Left Shark’, and Lady Gaga’s leap from the stadium roof.
The Salary Cap
Aside from the draft, the salary cap is the NFL’s greatest leveler. While sports like baseball and soccer (sorry, football fans) tend to reward the owners with the deepest pockets, when the NFL introduced the salary cap in 1994, a teams’ success no longer relied on how much money came out of their pockets but on good coaching and talent evaluation.
Take the New England Patriots for example. They have dominated the league since 2000 and their success can be largely attributed to three-time league MVP, Tom Brady—the (almost) undisputed GOAT quarterback and former sixth-round draft pick—and three-time Coach of the Year, Bill Belichick, rather than the checkbook of owner Robert Kraft.
While the NBA and MLB have both played games in London in the last year, it was the NFL that really pioneered the international expansion. The NFL played a handful of exhibition games at Wembley in the 1980s and instantly won over the fans. Now, the NFL attempts to hold a few regular-season games in London every year, thanks to a deal made by Jacksonville Jaguars owner, Shahid Kahn, in 2013. International expansion has even reached Mexico City and it could end up being only a few years from now that we see a league expansion move internationally.