How Old Is the NFL?

If you’ve watched any football this season, you likely saw the #NFL100 hashtag during most broadcasts. The National Football League is celebrating its 100th season. However, we’re only on Super Bowl LIV (54). What happened before the first Super Bowl? And how far does gridiron football stretch?

The history of the NFL

Jim Lynch of the Kansas City Chiefs guards Riley Odoms of the Denver Broncos during an NFL football game in 1977
The Kansas City Chiefs’ Jim Lynch guards the Denver Broncos’ Riley Odoms in 1977 | Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The oldest football team in the NFL today is the Arizona Cardinals, which began as the Morgan Athletic Club. Although they won championships in 1925 and 1947, they’ve experienced a drought — the longest in American professional sports — since then.

The Cardinals were included in the initial league creation in 1920 along with 13 other teams (12 are no longer in the league). The Decatur Staleys are still playing today as the Chicago Bears.

In 1966, the NFL merged with its competitor, the American Football League. Beginning in the 1967 season, the two league champions played each other in what eventually became the Super Bowl. The Green Bay Packers won the first two Super Bowls, concluding their domination of the ’60s with five championships total.

In 100 years of NFL play, the league has implemented plenty of new rules. Some are logical and make sense for today’s game. Some, not so much.

New NFL rules

New rules tend to seem standard after a while. However, the NFL has been known to submit some strange potential changes. Everything in the league today was once a silly-sounding idea, including the forward pass and two-point conversion.

Newer football fans may recognize the two-point conversion as a sacred NFL rule. Teams down by eight (or 16) have some ability to get back into the game without having to score extra touchdowns or field goals.

Gambling on the two-point play is a statistic-focused coach’s dream. After all, the numbers say it works more often than it doesn’t. With PAT attempts moved 15 yards back in 2015, coaches and players have more incentive to try for two. However, the rule book has only included the two-point conversion since 1994, about 25% of the 100 NFL seasons.

Within the last decade, the NFL shortened the field on kickoffs twice: by moving the kick line to the 35-yard line and the touchback line to the receiving team’s 25. More teams are kicking touchbacks, and there’s a greater incentive to down the ball in the end zone or let it bounce through.

The touchback and kickoff changes are aimed at preventing high-speed collisions rather than increasing strategy. Other changes have also been safety-focused. The horse-collar tackle rule was only added in 2005. Before then, the violent method of yanking ball carriers down by the collar was commonplace.

The future of the NFL

As medical science improved, the NFL came under fire as unsafe. The NFL’s concussion protocol, launched in 2009, aims to protect players on the field and keep them off of it when they suffer a head injury.

Concussions are a tragic and dangerous injury, and the NFL is taking measures to prevent them. The next phase of NFL history will likely consist of the league making concessions to medical professionals.

After over 100 years, the NFL is an American institution and it’s not going anywhere. But today’s football is a radically different game from what they played in 1920. Who knows what the 2020 season will bring (besides Tom Brady who may be a given)?

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