Changing the Rules archived

Changing the Rules archived

See All News


Week 12

First down at the 55-yard line

November 27, 2011

The dimensions of a National Football League field have remained unchanged since the league's founding in 1920. The field measures 53 1/3 yards wide and 100 yards long between goal lines and also includes a pair of ten-yard deep end zones.

There has been a change, however, to the size of the field since professional football's birth in 1892. When William "Pudge" Heffelfinger was first paid $500 to play for the Allegheny Athletic Association, the length of the field was actually 110 yards long and included a 55-yard line. Also, at that time the end zones were essentially nonexistent. The goal line represented the end of the field.

It was not until 1912 that the length of the field was changed to 360 feet (120 yards), while the width remained the same (53 1/3 yards). The field was 100 yards from goal line to goal line, with ten-yard end zones, the exact same size of a football field today.

2011 NFL Rule Book Excerpt

           Rule 1- The Field

           Section 1 - Dimensions

                  PLAYING LINES
                  The game shall be played upon a rectangular field, 360 feet in length and 160 feet in width. The lines at each end of the field are termed End Lines.  
                  Those on each side are termed Sidelines. Goal Lines shall be established in the field 10 yards from and parallel to each end line. The area
                  bounded by goal lines and sidelines is known as the Field of Play. The areas bounded by goal lines, end lines, and sidelines are known as the End

Week 11

3rd down and five…time to punt

Nov. 20, 2011

2011 NFL Rule Book Excerpt

           Rule 3 - Definitions

           Section 7 - Down

                  SERIES OF DOWNS
                  Article 2 A Series of Downs is the four consecutive charged scrimmage downs allotted to the offensive team during
                  which it must advance the ball to a yard line called the necessary line in order to retain possession.

                  NECESSARY LINE
                  The Necessary Line is always 10 yards in advance of the spot of the snap (which starts the series) except when a goal
                  line is less than 10 yards from this spot. In that case the necessary line is the goal line.

The number of downs and the distance to gain a first down has not always been the same. When pro football began in 1892, the offensive squad had to only gain five yards within three downs to gain a first down. In 1906 the distance then changed to 10 yards in the allotted three down allowance. Finally in 1912 a fourth down was added.

The game of professional football has changed drastically in the last 50 years. Oddly enough, the number of first downs logged by a team in each game has changed very little. Below is a ten-year sample of first down performance going back to the 1940 NFL season.

Season Season Average of First Downs Gained Per Team Average Per Game
1940 126 11.5
1950 204 17.0
1960 201 16.75
1970 221 15.8
1980 305 19.1
1990 284 17.8
2000 295 18.4
2010 303 18.9

Week 10


Nov. 13, 2011

           NFL Rule 11, Section 1, Article 2

                  Types of Scoring Plays. Points are scored as follows:
                       (a)    Touchdown: 6 points;
                       (b)    Field Goal: 3 points;
                       (c)    Safety: 2 points:
                       (d)    Successful Try after touchdown: 1 point (Field Goal or Safety) or 2 points (Touchdown)

The values of scoring have undergone several changes since the birth of professional football in 1892. So much so that if the scoring values that were in place close to 110 years ago were still the standard, it would have a dramatic effect on the outcome of many of today's games.

In fact, had an older scoring system been in place in the early '70s, the outcome of Super Bowl V would have been completely different. Baltimore Colts' first-year kicker Jim O'Brien (right) booted a 32-yard field goal in the waning seconds of that title matchup against the Dallas Cowboys. His kick broke a tie game and gave the Colts a 16-13 victory for their first Super Bowl championship. Had the scoring values from 1892 been in place, the Colts would have needed to score a touchdown and convert their extra point just to tie the game.

Super Bowl V Score TDs 1892 Value PATs 1892 Value FGs 1892 Value Safety 1892 Value 1892 Total
Baltimore Colts - 16 2 8 1 2 1 5 0 0 15
Dallas Cowboys - 13 1 4 1 2 2 10 0 0 16
Pro football scoring values in 1892: TD = 4 pts; PAT = 2 pts; Field Goal = 5 pts; Safety = 2 pts.

Here are some of the changes to the game's rule book as it pertains to scoring.

1897 – Touchdown increased to 5 points; Point After Try reduced to 1 point

1904 – Field Goal reduced to 4 points

1909 – Field Goal reduced to 3 points

1912 – Touchdown increased to 6 points

1994 – Two-point conversion adopted by the NFL as option following a touchdown

Each Sunday during the NFL season we examine one of the league rules that shape the game as we know it.

Week 9

The Forward Pass

Nov. 6, 2011

The forward pass has been a legal practice in the game of professional football since 1906. George “Peggy” Parratt of the Massillon (Ohio) Tigers holds the distinction as being the first man in pro football history to successfully complete a pass. Parratt hooked up with end Dan “Bullet” Riley against the combined Benwood-Moundsville, W. Va. team on Oct. 25 that year.

The rule change to allow passing was actually predicated by the college rule book. Professional football at the time, mostly because there was no organized league, strictly adhered to the college rules of the day. 

At that time, however, the passing game did not resemble the air-it-out type of attack that teams operate today.  In fact, the rules in place didn’t really encourage the pass at all. To legally pass the ball, the thrower had to be at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage. The penalty if this rule was not adhered to: a turnover to the defense. The rules even stipulated that if a pass was incomplete and untouched by either team the ball would also turn over to the defense.

1906 Spalding’s Official Foot Ball Guide excerpt

        Rule 14

                  (a) A player may throw, pass, or bat the ball in any direction except toward his opponents’ goal.
                  Loss of 5 yards.

                  (1) One forward pass shall be allowed to each scrimmage, provided such pass be made by a player who was behind the line of scrimmage when the
                  ball was put in play, and provided the ball, after being passed forward, does not touch the ground before being touched by a player of either side.


                  (1) If a forward pass be made by a player who was not behind the line of scrimmage when the ball was put in play, the ball shall go to the opponents
                  on the spot where the pass was made.

                  If the ball, after being passed forward, touches the ground before being touched by a player of either side, it shall go to the opponents on the spot  
                  where the pass was made.

Many tweaks to the passing rules occurred over the years since the practice was legalized. The biggest may have been in 1933 when the National Football League, which had formed in 1920 and had operated under the college rules, finally developed their own rule book. That year the league made provisions to allow a forward pass from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage as opposed to the five-yard buffer requisite. 

This change grew out of a controversial touchdown pass thrown by Chicago Bears fullback Bronko Nagurski in the 1932 indoor playoff game that decided the ’32 league title. In that game against the Portsmouth Spartans, Nagurski faked a run towards the line and then quickly threw a TD pass to Red Grange. The Spartans contested that Nagurski was not five yards behind the line when he fired the pass. The play stood and the Bears later added a safety to put the final touches on their 9-0 victory.

At the league meetings the next off season, Spartans coach George “Potsy” Clark lobbied for a change in the rules to allow passes anywhere behind the line of scrimmage as he argued “because Nagurski will do it anyway!”

1933 NFL Rule Book Excerpt

Forward Pass

                  The passer may pass the ball from any point behind the line of scrimmage.



Archived "Changing the Rules"

Weeks 1-4

Back to news