American Football is the game we follow today in the United States. We call it “football” but its true heading is “American Football.”
Have you ever wondered why Europeans, in South America and well, just about every other portion of the globe they call soccer “football”? Why is that?
The answer is: it has always been called football.
In fact, North America is the only portion of the globe that calls football “soccer.” It is supposed that the Roman army invented this game in order to keep their soldiers in top shape as football is not only a running game, but one that allows few substitutes per game and is very competitive.
But it was the English who took football to heart. In 1863 they devised “The Laws of the Game” by “The Football Association,” commonly called Association Football. Young boys who would inquire if they wanted to play football or “association”, would shortened the name down to “assoccer” and then later just “soccer.”
But the game was called football. And in every corner of the earth it is known as that – except the United States and Canada. Which, it still is.
From the game of football sprang up the game of rugby, whose rules are labeled “Rugby Football.” Other football rules games were subsequently invented such as Gaelic Football, Australian Rules Football, Canadian Football and American Football.
But American Football was birthed specifically from rugby. That means that soccer is the grandfather of American Football. That is why American Football plays 11 a-side and uses red flags and yellow flags, kickoffs and punts and goalposts and goal lines and tackles and offsides and on and on.
The origins of American Football was very brutal and rough. It was common in each game to slug your opponent in the face if the referee wasn’t paying attention.
Almost anything went. It was part of football to be rough, to use the hands, elbows and knees to batter the opponent. Split lips, cracked ribs, knocked-out teeth, gashed tongues, smashed noses, flattened ears and the twisting of limbs happened all the time.
And the running game was king. From the origins of American Football in 1876 until 1905, any forward pass was illegal. So, “two yards and a cloud of dust” was just about every play with originally two halves of 45 minutes each – just like in soccer.
There are numerous rules that were once the origins of American Football and have since changed for one reason or the other. Here are just a few.
In today’s game, everyone knows the center gets the ball back to the quarterback and then that play begins. However, there was an evolution to this simplistic thing called “the snap.”
As it is now, in the game’s beginning the center’s job was to begin play by getting it to the quarterback and then the play would proceed. But there were issues.
At first, the center stood up straight and with the back of his cleat would push the ball backwards. This was called “heeling.” This came from rugby and is how a scrum begins. The problem with heeling was once the ball was pushed backwards, all the defensive player in front of the center had to do was jam the center backwards thus kicking the loose football which would then go somewhere besides in the hands of the quarterback.
The next method used was for the center to squat to the side of the football, and then pick the ball up and hand it to the quarterback in a quick sideways motion. Again, once the ball was lifted, a crafty defensive player would reach out his hand and attempt to swat the ball away before the exchange to the quarterback. This often caused fumbles as well.
The Father of American Football, Walter Camp, was in Toronto one weekend to watch a Canadian Football League game between Toronto and Saskatchewan. The centers for both teams crotched over the ball and snapped it between their legs. This protected the ball exchange to the quarterback and thus the play had a successful beginning.
Today, this method is all you see. However, heeling and the sideways snap are still legal but rarely used.
There is a trick play found usually at the youth level using the sideways snap that is effective. The play is called “wrong ball.”
Here’s how it works. The quarterback lines up and then looks down at the ball, then yells at his coach that there is something wrong with the ball. The coach then instructs his quarterback to bring him the ball so that he can investigate. The center then sideways snaps the ball to the quarterback. However, the defense is confused by the sideways snap and does nothing. Meanwhile, the quarterback holds the ball up and walks parallel down the scrimmage line towards his coach. The coach looks around like he is searching for another ball to use. When the quarterback gets near the sideline, the coach simply says “Go.”
The entire play is predicated on the defense never seeing a sideways snap with the belief that it is not normal. Below is an example of “wrong ball.” Watch how the center side snaps the ball to the quarterback. As soon as he does, the play is live. Then notice how the coach is looking for another ball, then gives the signal.
Forward pass restrictions
In 1876, the very first American Football organization formed called the Intercollegiate Football Association (IFA).
The forward pass was not part to the origins of the game. In 1906, the forward pass became a legal play, but had little effect on the game for at least a decade with IFA schools.
The ball was still a big rugby ball that looked more like a watermelon. The interior was a pig’s bladder which held the air and was wrapped literally in the leather skin of the pig – thus the term “pigskin.”
When that ball became damp or wet from rain, sweat, mud or spit, the ball became heavy. Most players who attempted passes tossed it with both hands, or cradled it between the elbow and wrist and heaved it. It was most difficult to handle with one hand and because of its size, wasn’t conducive for gripping much less throwing.
With the forward pass came IFA rules regarding its usage.
Here is a laundry list of odd rules regarding the forward pass in its infancy:
- The player tossing the ball had to throw within five-yards of the line of scrimmage
- A limit of 20-yards was placed on how far a pass could be thrown
- Any incomplete pass netted a 15-yard penalty plus loss of down
- A penalty was accessed for more than one incomplete pass in a series of downs
- It was perfectly legal to tackle the receiver as the ball was in the air
- Possession transferred to the opposing club if a pass failed to touch a player from either team before touching the ground
- Either team could recover a pass touched by an opponent
- Limit of one pass forward or backwards each scrimmage down
Offensive punt for yardage
Another odd rule in the origins of the game involved punts.
In soccer, only the goalkeeper can punt the ball because he is the only player that may use his hands.
In rugby, players who are in possession of the ball will punch, drop kick or punt the ball downfield while running when they suspect they are about to be tackled. This enables the possibility of a teammate picking up the ball downfield which then allows that team to keep possession and attempt to advance play towards the goal try line.
The same principal was also used originally in American Football.
The offensive unit would punt the ball downfield and the ball could be recovered by the offense. In this case, the yards gained counted with a continued possession. This meant that one team could punt on second down, recover the ball, and start over with a new set of downs after the gained yardage.
Originally, a point after touchdown was worth a whooping four points.
In rugby, when a try was made - that sport’s version of a touchdown – the player who scored the try was given the opportunity to kick for points towards the goalposts. This kick was unimpeded.
However, the ball was brought out straight from the point of the try. American Football first used this rule, but used a line of scrimmage with blockers just like today. The player who scored the touchdown would kick from the same point he scored. Often, when the score was towards the sidelines this created horrible angles since the goal posts were located on the goal line - just like in rugby.
So, the player would either place kick or usually drop kick the ball towards the uprights in the hope that the ball would somehow make it through some very bad angles. A rugby ball would drop kick easily if you knew how it bounced off the turf. Today’s football and its much slimmer shape would be difficult to predict where the ball would go.
Or, the kicker had an option.
The IFA rules allowed that after the snap was received, a player could punt the ball over to another player who was more directly in front of the goalposts, who would then drop kick it through the uprights. This was called a “punt-out option” and explains why PATs were worth four points.
When a player was tackled out-of-bounds, the next play began one yard into the field of play. Balanced offensive lines weren’t invented yet, so for the next play, the farthest player on the end was the center.
This meant the next down was wasted on getting the ball more into the center of the playing field.
In 1941 in the NFL, the first playoff system was installed. Up until that time, whichever team had the greatest win-percentage was declared the league champions.
However, back in 1932 there was a one-game playoff.
The Chicago Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans ended their seasons with identical win percentages. Ties did not count in the standings and both ended with 6-1 records. It was decided to have a one-game playoff in Chicago to determine the NFL champion.
Since this game would be an additional revenue maker, the home of the Bears, Wrigley Field, seated over 41,000 whereas the Spartans home field’s capacity was just 8,200.
Two days before the game, a huge blizzard struck the Chicagoland area. It was deemed that Wrigley wasn’t feasible for a game much less the idea of shoveling snow off all those seats while the blizzard was still in effect.
So, the NFL decided to use Chicago Stadium, home of the hockey Blackhawks. Of course, the outdoor field didn’t fit indoors, so instead they cut the field down to 80-yards long by 45-yards wide. This jammed right up against the hockey sideboards which were still up.
Several rule changes were made for this one game such as every time a team crossed the 10-yard line the ball was moved back 20-yards to allow for the shortened field.
Bears head coach George Halas saw putting the ball back in play so close to the sideboards as an issue. He then painted “hash marks” 10-yards from each sidelines. When a player was pushed into the sideboards and ruled out-of-bounds, the next play began at the nearest hash mark. The following year, the NFL made this a standard part of the field while college football followed shortly thereafter.
In the game of American Football in the 1890’s, any fumble out-of-bounds that went completely over the sidelines or goal lines - or over the fence for that matter - was the possession of the team that retrieved it first. This was officially abolished by the IFA in 1901.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association