American football resulted from several major divergences from rugby, most notably the rule changes instituted by Walter Camp, considered the “Father of American Football”. Among these important changes were the introduction of the line of scrimmage and of down-and-distancerules. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, gameplay developments by college coaches such as Eddie Cochems, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Knute Rockne, and Glenn “Pop” Warner helped take advantage of the newly introduced forward pass. The popularity of collegiate football grew as it became the dominant version of the sport in the United States for the first half of the twentieth century. Bowl games, a college football tradition, attracted a national audience for collegiate teams. Bolstered by fierce rivalries, college football still holds widespread appeal in the US.
The origin of professional football can be traced back to 1892, with William “Pudge” Heffelfinger’s $500 contract to play in a game for theAllegheny Athletic Association against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. In 1920 the American Professional Football Association was formed. This league changed its name to the National Football League (NFL) two years later, and eventually became the major league of American football. Primarily a sport of Midwestern industrial towns in the United States, professional football eventually became a national phenomenon. Football’s increasing popularity is usually traced to the 1958 NFL Championship Game, a contest that has been dubbed the “Greatest Game Ever Played”. A rival league to the NFL, the American Football League (AFL), began play in 1960; the pressure it put on the senior league led to a merger between the two leagues and the creation of the Super Bowl, which has become the most watched television event in the United States on an annual basis.
Although there are mentions of Native Americans playing ball games, modern American football has its origins in traditional ball games played at villages and schools in Europe for many centuries before America was settled by Europeans. There are reports of early settlers atJamestown, Virginia playing games with inflated balls in the early 17th century.
Early games appear to have had much in common with the traditional “mob football” played in England, especially on Shrove Tuesday. The games remained largely unorganized until the 19th century, when intramural games of football began to be played on college campuses. Each school played its own variety of football. Princeton students played a game called “ballown” as early as 1820. A Harvard tradition known as “Bloody Monday” began in 1827, which consisted of a mass ballgame between the freshman and sophomore classes. Dartmouthplayed its own version called “Old division football”, the rules of which were first published in 1871, though the game dates to at least the 1830s. All of these games, and others, shared certain commonalities. They remained largely “mob” style games, with huge numbers of players attempting to advance the ball into a goal area, often by any means necessary. Rules were simple and violence and injury were common. The violence of these mob-style games led to widespread protests and a decision to abandon them. Yale, under pressure from the city of New Haven, banned the play of all forms of football in 1860, while Harvard followed suit in 1861.
While the game was being banned in colleges, it was growing in popularity in various east coast prep schools. In 1855, manufactured inflatable balls were introduced. These were much more regular in shape than the handmade balls of earlier times, making kicking and carrying easier. Two general types of football had evolved by this time: “kicking” games and “running” (or “carrying”) games. A hybrid of the two, known as the “Boston game”, was played by a group known as the Oneida Football Club. The club, considered by some historians as the first formal football club in the United States, was formed in 1862 by schoolboys who played the “Boston game” on Boston Common. They played mostly between themselves, though they organized a team of non-members to play a game in November 1863, which the Oneidas won easily. The game caught the attention of the press, and the “Boston game” continued to spread throughout the 1860s.
The game began to return to college campuses by the late 1860s. Yale, Princeton, Rutgers, and Brown all began playing “kicking” games during this time. In 1867, Princeton used rules based on those of the English Football Association. A “running game”, resembling rugby, was taken up by the Montreal Football Club in Canada in 1868.
Rutgers v. Princeton (1869)
On November 6, 1869, Rutgers University faced Princeton University in a game that is often regarded as the first game of intercollegiate football. The game was played at a Rutgers field under Rutgers rules. Two teams of 25 players attempted to score by kicking the ball into the opposing team’s goal. Throwing or carrying the ball was not allowed. The first team to reach six goals was declared the winner. Rutgers won by a score of six to four. A rematch was played at Princeton a week later under Princeton rules (one notable difference was the awarding of a “free kick” to any player that caught the ball on the fly). Princeton won that game by a score of eight to zero. Columbia joined the series in 1870, and by 1872 several schools were fielding intercollegiate teams, including Yale and Stevens Institute of Technology.
Rules standardization (1873-1880)
On October 19, 1873, representatives from Yale, Columbia, Princeton, and Rutgers met at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City to codify the first set of intercollegiate football rules. Before this meeting, each school had its own set of rules and games were usually played using the home team’s own particular code. At this meeting, a list of rules, based more on soccer than on rugby, was drawn up for intercollegiate football games.
Harvard, which played the “Boston game”, a version of football that allowed carrying, refused to attend this rules conference and continued to play under its own code. While Harvard’s voluntary absence from the meeting made it hard for them to schedule games against other American universities, it agreed to a challenge to play McGill University, from Montreal, in a two-game series. The McGill team traveled to Cambridge to meet Harvard. On May 14, 1874, the first game, played under “Boston” rules, was won by Harvard with a score of 3-0. The next day, the two teams played rugby to a scoreless tie.
The Rutgers College football team of 1882, wearing uniforms typical of the period
Harvard quickly took a liking to the rugby game, and its use of the try which, until that time, was not used in American football. The try would later evolve into the score known as the touchdown. In late 1874, the Harvard team traveled to Montreal to play McGill in rugby, and won by three tries. A year later, on June 4, 1875, Harvard faced Tufts University in the first game between two American colleges played under rules similar to the McGill/Harvard contest, which was won by Tufts 1-0. The first edition of The Game-the annual contest between Harvard and Yale-was played on November 13, 1875, under a modified set of rugby rules known as “The Concessionary Rules”. Yale lost 4-0, but found that it too preferred the rugby style game. Spectators from Princeton carried the game back home, where it also became popular.
On November 23, 1876, representatives from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia met at the Massasoit House in Springfield, Massachusetts to standardize a new code of rules based on the rugby game first introduced to Harvard by McGill University in 1874. The rules were based largely on theRugby Football Union’s code from England, though one important difference was the replacement of a kicked goal with a touchdown as the primary means of scoring (a change that would later occur in rugby itself, favoring the try as the main scoring event). Three of the schools-Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton-formed the Intercollegiate Football Association, as a result of the meeting. Yale did not join the group until 1879, because of an early disagreement about the number of players per team.
Walter Camp: Father of American football
Walter Camp is widely considered to be the most important figure in the development of American football.
Walter Camp, the “Father of American Football”, pictured here in 1878 as the captain of the Yale football team
As a youth, he excelled in sports like track, baseball, and soccer, and after enrolling at Yale in 1876, he earned varsity honors in every sport the school offered.
Camp became a fixture at the Massasoit House conventions where rules were debated and changed. He proposed his first rule change at the first meeting he attended in 1878: a reduction from fifteen players to eleven. The motion was rejected at that time but passed in 1880. The effect was to open up the game and emphasize speed over strength. Camp’s most famous change, the establishment of the line of scrimmage and the snap from center toquarterback, was also passed in 1880. Originally, the snap was executed with the foot of the center. Later changes made it possible to snap the ball with the hands, either through the air or by a direct hand-to-hand pass.
Camp’s new scrimmage rules revolutionized the game, though not always as intended. Princeton, in particular, used scrimmage play to slow the game, making incremental progress towards the end zone during each down. Rather than increase scoring, which had been Camp’s original intent, the rule was exploited to maintain control of the ball for the entire game, resulting in slow, unexciting contests. At the 1882 rules meeting, Camp proposed that a team be required to advance the ball a minimum of five yards within three downs. These down-and-distance rules, combined with the establishment of the line of scrimmage, transformed the game from a variation of rugby or soccer into the distinct sport of American football.
Camp was central to several more significant rule changes that came to define American football. In 1881, the field was reduced in size to its modern dimensions of 120 by 53 1/3 yards (109.7 by 48.8 meters). Several times in 1883, Camp tinkered with the scoring rules, finally arriving at four points for a touchdown, two points for kicks after touchdowns, two points for safeties, and five for field goals. In 1887, gametime was set at two halves of 45 minutes each. Also in 1887, two paid officials-a referee and an umpire-were mandated for each game. A year later, the rules were changed to allow tackling below the waist, and in 1889, the officials were given whistles and stopwatches.
After leaving Yale in 1882, Camp was employed by the New Haven Clock Company until his death in 1925. Though no longer a player, he remained a fixture at annual rules meetings for most of his life, and he personally selected an annual All-American team every year from 1898 through 1924. TheWalter Camp Football Foundation continues to select All-American teams in his honor.
Field and players
The numbers on the field indicate the number ofyards to the nearest end zone.
American football is played on a field 360 by 160 feet (109.7 by 48.8 m). The longer boundary lines are sidelines, while the shorter boundary lines are end lines. Sidelines and end lines are out of bounds. Near each end of the field is a goal line; they are 100 yards (91.4 m) apart. A scoring area called an end zone extends 10 yards (9.1 m) beyond each goal line to each end line. The end zone includes the goal line but not the end line. While the playing field is effectively flat, it is common for a field to be built with a slight crown-with the middle of the field higher than the sides-to allow water to drain from the field.
Yard lines cross the field every 5 yards (4.6 m), and are numbered every 10 yards from each goal line to the 50-yard line, or midfield (similar to a typical rugby league field). Two rows of short lines, known as inbounds lines or hash marks, run at 1-yard (91.4 cm) intervals perpendicular to the sidelines near the middle of the field. All plays start with the ball on or between the hash marks. Because of the arrangement of the lines, the field is occasionally referred to as a gridiron.
At the back of each end zone are two goalposts (also called uprights) connected by a crossbar 10 feet (3.05 m) from the ground. For high skill levels, the posts are 222 inches (5.64 m) apart. For lower skill levels, these are widened to 280 inches (7.11 m).
Each team has 11 players on the field at a time. However, teams may substitute for any or all of their players, if time allows, during the break between plays. As a result, players have very specialized roles, and, sometimes (although rarely) almost all of the (at least) 46 active players on an NFL team will play in any given game. Thus, teams are divided into three separate units: the offense, the defense and the special teams.
Start of halves
Similarly to association football, the game begins with a coin toss to determine which team will kick off to begin the game and which goal each team will defend. The options are presented again to start the second half; the choices for the first half do not automatically determine the start of the second half. The referee conducts the coin toss with the captains (or sometimes coaches) of the opposing teams. The team that wins the coin toss has three options:
They may choose whether to kick or receive the opening kickoff.
They may choose which goal to defend.
They may choose to defer the first choice to the other team and have first choice to start the second half.
Whatever the first team chooses, the second team has the option on the other choice (for example, if the first team elects to receive at the start of the game, the second team can decide which goal to defend).
At the start of the second half, the options to kick, receive, or choose a goal to defend are presented to the captains again. The team which did not choose first to start the first half (or which deferred its privilege to choose first) now gets first choice of options.
A standard football game consists of four 15-minute quarters (12-minute quarters in high-school football and often shorter at lower levels), with a 12 minute half-time intermission after the second quarter. The clock stops after certain plays; therefore, a game can last considerably longer (often more than three hours in real time), and if a game is broadcast on television,TV timeouts are taken at certain intervals of the game to broadcast commercials outside of game action. If an NFL game is tied after four quarters, the teams play an additional period lasting up to 15 minutes. In an NFL overtime game, the first team that scores wins, even if the other team does not get a possession; this is referred to as sudden death. In a regular-season NFL game, if neither team scores in overtime, the game is a tie. In an NFL playoff game, additional overtime periods are played, as needed, to determine a winner. College overtime rules are more complicated and are described in Overtime (sport).
A line of scrimmage on the 48-yard line. The offense is on the left.
A quarterback searching for opportunity to throw a pass.
A running back being tackled when he tries to run with the ball.
A quarterback preparing to throw a pass.
Forward pass in progress, during practice.
A kicker attempts an extra point.
Advancing the ball
Advancing the ball in American football resembles the six-tackle rule and the play-the-ball in rugby league. The team that takes possession of the ball (the offense) has four attempts, called downs, in which to advance the ball at least 10 yards (9.1 m) toward their opponent’s (the defense’s) end zone. When the offense succeeds in gaining at least 10 yards, it gets a first down, meaning the team has another set of four downs to gain yet another 10 yards or to score. If the offense fails to gain a first down (10 yards) after 4 downs, the other team gets possession of the ball at the point where the fourth down ended, beginning with their first down to advance the ball in the opposite direction.
Except at the beginning of halves and after scores, the ball is always put into play by a snap. Offensive players line up facing defensive players at theline of scrimmage (the position on the field where the play begins). One offensive player, the center, then passes (or “snaps”) the ball backwards between his legs to a teammate behind him, usually the quarterback.
Players can then advance the ball in two ways:
By running with the ball, also known as rushing.
By throwing the ball to a teammate, known as a forward pass or as passing the football. The forward pass is a key factor distinguishing American and Canadian football from other football sports. The offense can throw the ball forward only once during a down and only from behind the line of scrimmage. The ball can be thrown, pitched, handed-off, or tossed sideways or backwards at any time.
A down ends, and the ball becomes dead, after any of the following:
The player with the ball is forced to the ground (a tackle) or has his forward progress halted by members of the other team (as determined by anofficial).
A forward pass flies beyond the dimensions of the field (out of bounds) or touches the ground before it is caught. This is known as an incomplete pass. The ball is returned to the most recent line of scrimmage for the next down.
The ball or the player with the ball goes out of bounds.
A team scores.
Officials blow a whistle to notify players that the down is over.
Before each down, each team chooses a play, or coordinated movements and actions, that the players should follow on a down. Sometimes, downs themselves are referred to as “plays.”
Change of possession
The offense maintains possession of the ball unless one of the following things occurs:
The team fails to get a first down- i.e., in four downs they fail to move the ball past a line 10 yards ahead of where they got their last first down (it is possible to be downed behind the current line of scrimmage, losing “yardage”). The defensive team takes over the ball at the spot where the 4th-down play ends. A change of possession in this manner is commonly called a turnover on downs, but is not credited as a defensive “turnover” in official statistics. Instead, it goes against the offense’s 4th down efficiency percentage.
The offense scores a touchdown or field goal. The team that scored then kicks the ball to the other team in a special play called a kickoff.
The offense punts the ball to the defense. A punt is a kick in which a player drops the ball and kicks it before it hits the ground. Punts are nearly always made on fourth down (though see quick kick), when the offensive team does not want to risk giving up the ball to the other team at its current spot on the field (through a failed attempt to make a first down) and feels it is too far from the other team’s goal posts to attempt a field goal.
A defensive player catches a forward pass. This is called an interception, and the player who makes the interception can run with the ball until he is tackled, forced out of bounds, or scores.
An offensive player drops the ball (a fumble) and a defensive player picks it up. As with interceptions, a player recovering a fumble can run with the ball until tackled, forced out of bounds, or scores. Backward passes that are not caught do not cause the down to end like incomplete forward passes do; instead the ball is still live as if it had been fumbled. Lost fumbles and interceptions are together known as turnovers.
The offensive team misses a field goal attempt. The defensive team gets the ball at the spot where the previous play began (or, in the NFL, at the spot of the kick). If the unsuccessful kick was attempted from within 20 yards (18.3 m) of the end zone, the other team gets the ball at its own 20 yard line (that is, 20 yards from the end zone). If a field goal is missed or blocked and the ball remains in the field of play, a defensive player may pick up the ball and attempt to advance it.
While in his own end zone, an offensive ball carrier is tackled, forced out of bounds, loses the ball out of bounds, or the offense commits certain fouls. This fairly rare occurrence is called a safety.
An offensive ball carrier fumbles the ball forward into the opposing end zone, and then the ball goes out of bounds. This extremely rare occurrence leads to a touchback, with the ball going over to the opposing team at their 20 yard line (Note that touchbacks during non-offensive speplays, such as punts and kickoffs, are quite common).
A team scores points by the following plays:
A touchdown (TD) is worth 6 points. It is scored when a player runs the ball into or catches a pass in his opponent’s end zone. A touchdown is analogous to a try in rugby. Unlike rugby, a player does not have to touch the ball to the ground to score; a touchdown is scored any time a player has possession of the ball while the ball is on or beyond the opponents’ goal line (or the plane above it).
After a touchdown, the scoring team attempts a try (which is also analogous to the conversion in rugby). The ball is placed at the other team’s 3-yard (2.7 m) line (the 2-yard (1.8 m) line in the NFL). The team can attempt to kick it over the crossbar and through the goal posts in the manner of a field goal for 1 point (an extra point or point-after touchdown (PAT)), or run or pass it into the end zone in the manner of a touchdown for 2 points (a two-point conversion). In college football, if the defense intercepts or recovers a fumble during a one or two point conversion attempt and returns it to the opposing end zone, the defensive team is awarded the two points.
A field goal (FG) is worth 3 points, and it is scored by kicking the ball over the crossbar and through the goal posts (uprights). Field goals may be placekicked (kicked when the ball is held vertically against the ground by a teammate) or drop-kicked (extremely uncommon in the modern game, with only two successes in sixty-plus years in the NFL). A field goal is usually attempted on fourth down instead of a punt when the ball is close to the opponent’s goal line, or, when there is little or no time left to otherwise score.
A safety, worth 2 points, is scored by the opposing team when the team in possession at the end of a down is responsible for the ball becoming dead behind its own goal line. For instance, a safety is scored by the defense if an offensive player is tackled, goes out of bounds, or fumbles the ball out of bounds in his own end zone. Safeties are relatively rare. Note that, though even more rare, the team initially on offense during a down can score a safety if a player of the original defense gains possession of the ball in front of his own goal line and then carries the ball or fumbles it into his own end zone where it becomes dead. However, if the ball becomes dead behind the goal line of the team in possession and its opponent is responsible for the ball being there (for instance, if the defense intercepts a forward pass in its own end zone and the ball becomes dead before the ball is advanced out of the end zone) it is a touchback: no points are scored and the team last in possession keeps possession with a first down at its own 20 yard line. In amateur football, in the extremely rare instance that a safety is scored on a try, it is worth only 1 point.
Kickoffs and free kicks
Each half begins with a kickoff. Teams also kick off after scoring touchdowns and field goals. The ball is kicked using a kicking tee from the team’s own 30-yard (27 m) line in the NFL and college football (as of the 2007 season). The other team’s kick returner tries to catch the ball and advance it as far as possible. Where he is stopped is the point where the offense will begin its drive, or series of offensive plays. If the kick returner catches the ball in his own end zone, he can either run with the ball, or elect for a touchback by kneeling in the end zone, in which case the receiving team then starts its offensive drive from its own 20 yard line. A touchback also occurs when the kick goes out-of-bounds in the end zone. A kickoff that goes out-of-bounds anywhere other than the end zone before being touched by the receiving team is a foul, and the ball will be placed where it went out of bounds or 30 yards (27 m) from the kickoff spot, depending on which is more advantageous to the opposite team. Unlike with punts, once a kickoff goes 10 yards and the ball has hit the ground, it can be recovered by the kicking team. A team, especially one who is losing, can try to take advantage of this by attempting an onside kick. Punts and turnovers in the end zone can also end in a touchback.
After safeties, the team that gave up the points must free kick the ball to the other team from its own 20 yard line.
Fouls (a type of rule violation) are punished with penalties against the offending team. Most penalties result in moving the football towards the offending team’s end zone. If the penalty would move the ball more than half the distance towards the offender’s end zone, the penalty becomes half the distance to the goal instead of its normal value.
Most penalties result in replaying the down. Some defensive penalties give the offense an automatic first down. Conversely, some offensive penalties result in loss of a down (loss of the right to repeat the down). If a penalty gives the offensive team enough yardage to gain a first down, they get a first down, as usual.
If a foul occurs during a down, an official throws a yellow penalty flag near the spot of the foul. When the down ends, the team that did not commit the foul has the option of accepting the penalty, or declining the penalty and accepting the result of the down.
Variations on these basic rules exist, particularly touch and flag football, which are designed as non-contact or limited-contact alternatives to the relative violence of regular American football. In touch and flag football, tackling is not permitted. Offensive players are “tackled” when a defender tags them or removes a flag from their body, respectively. Both of these varieties are played mainly in informal settings such as intramural or youth games. Another variation is “wrap”, where a player is “tackled” when another player wraps his arms around the ball carrier. Professional, intercollegiate, and varsity-level high school football invariably use the standard tackling rules.
Another variation is with the number of players on the field. In sparsely populated areas, it is not uncommon to find high school football teams playing nine-man football, eight-man footballor six-man football. Players often play on offense as well as defense. The Arena Football League is a league that plays eight-man football, but also plays indoors and on a much smaller playing surface with rule changes to encourage a much more offensive game.
Another variation often played by American children is called Catch and Run. In this game, the children split into two teams and line up at opposite sides of the playing field. One side throws the ball to the other side. If the opposing team catches the ball, that player tries to run to the throwing teams touchdown without being tagged/tackled. If no one catches the ball or if the player is tagged/tackled, then that team has to throw the ball to the opposing team. This repeats until the game (or recess period) is deemed over.