The Modern NFL Wouldn’t Exist Without the Forward Pass

Modern NFL

The NFL wouldn’t exist without the forward pass. It seems a dramatic statement, right? But in the 19th century, ‘football’ was soccer or rugby. There was the run, there was the kick. But no forward pass.

Modern NFL Wouldn’t Exist Without The Forward Pass

Author of Reading Football, Michael Oriard described the forward pass as “completely alien to the game of the football.” Players would hammer into each other attempting to incrementally move the ball. Punting was half the game.

Violence and Death

There was no professional football, it was played in college. The game was violent and brutal, as John J. Miller, author of The Big Scrum says. In 1905, 18 players died. Columbia, Northwestern, Stanford, and UCLA switched to rugby. But the game was dull and by the dawn of the 20th century, much of the country was ready to abolish it.

Theodore Roosevelt and Paul Dasher Saved Football

Walter Camp was a key man in developing the rules and positions and had no desire for the forward pass. He wanted it to be illegal. The best he could do was enforce the rule that you couldn’t score a touchdown with a forward pass.

President Theodore Roosevelt intervened. He considered it the greatest sport because it “tested” people. He implored coaches from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to save football. Roosevelt approached Paul Dasher, the most famous referee of that era. Dasher put his full support into changes to eliminate brutality in the game, pushing for the forward pass. It was legalized in the spring of 1906

The Ball

In 1869, the ball was… a rugby ball was designed for kicking. Former NFL MVP Boomer Esiason said it was “like throwing a weighted basketball with laces.” The size was reduced for the first time in 1909, but being heavier and harder, it was even worse to throw.

The Day It All Changed

The forward pass was still a hated concept. Headlines across the country featured words like “doomed,” “blacklist,” “will not last.” Schools in the east considered it a “coward’s trick.” Throwing a forward pass meant a team wasn’t able to slug it out.

On November 1, 1913, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish transformed it from trick to tactic. The game against the Army Black Knights was the turning point. Army was a powerhouse. However, they were brought to their knees when Notre Dame quarterback Gus Dorais threw to tight end, Knute Rockne. Dorais completed 14 of 17 pass attempts for 243 yards.

This game was a cultural hallmark. Why? Because it was the first successful exploiting of the forward pass with New York sportswriters present. The forward pass was finally ‘approved’. The game became dynamic. Thereafter, the 20s and 30s were dominated by Rockne’s ‘Notre Dame Shift’ and Pop Warner’s single-wing offense.

Quarterbacks Weren’t Stars

It’s mind-boggling, but the quarterback wasn’t the leader. The ball was snapped to a halfback or tailback. The single-wing play relied on a kick, a run, and a pass in that order. A drop kick was the main way to score points. It wasn’t a mere afterthought.

The T Formation Flipped Professional Football

Clark Shaughnessy was nicknamed the Mad Scientist, pioneering a T formation that would flip the football world. To the majority, it was ridiculous that any play didn’t rely on the kick. As former quarterback Doug Flutie said, “putting your hands under the center’s butt” to receive the ball was just awkward. The Chicago Bears shut down the critics in the 1940 NFL Championship with a staggering 73-0 win over the Washington Redskins.

The Dawn of the AFL: the Star Quarterback is Born

The T formation led to the ball being streamlined specifically for the forward pass. Named the ‘Duke’ after Wellington Mara, then owner of the New York Giants. Easy to throw and hard to kick, it signaled the death of the dropkick. The tight spirals paired with the re-engineered forward pass led to the birth of a distinctly American game, and a distinctly American hero.

The position of quarterback was the fulcrum point where everything changed. There is no other position in any sport quite like that of the quarterback. 1960 was the dawn of the AFL.  Sid Gillman implemented the concept of vertical passing. It became the most important thing; ergo the quarterback became important.

The Spalding J5-V ball accentuated the forward pass. Longer, thinner, a missile cutting through the air. Compared to the 50-ton mega bomb, it glamorized the notion of the forward pass. The players saw the appeal of a vertical game.

Defense Almost Ruined the Forward Pass

From 1970 began an era ruled by defense. The forward pass was dying. Doing the opposite of everyone else, San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh set up the run with the pass and was written off as eccentric. They were labeled a finesse team – throwing the ball wasn’t how real men played football. He stuck to his ‘West Coast offense’ and kept on winning. Super Bowl XIX was his. The forward pass had conquered football after 75 years of opposition. Walsh can be credited for making usage of the forward pass what it is today.

The Forward Pass Saved The Nfl

Think. Football could’ve been abolished. The forward pass made it safer, but also fun. Back then, you saw scrums resembling rugby. Now, you see a ball hurtling through the air. Think of the greatest players of the last 50 years, and you’ll realize the forward pass was at the center of their greatness.

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