Sunday, July 15, 2012

American Football as Played on the Field

Before continuing with the games, a post on the development of American football will give a better idea of what the game was like in the first decade or so of the twentieth century. "Football" games date back to the Middle Ages in Europe, but the modern game of English football became codified in 1863 with the creation of the Football Association (FA). Association football, or "soccer," grew in popularity in the United States in the late-nineteenth century.

During this same time, another "football" game became institutionalized in the United Kingdom. In 1871, twenty-two amateur teams formed Rugby Football Union. Rugby, a sport named for the school where it started, featured carrying the ball, touchdowns, tackles, punts, and field goals. American football evolved from this game.

The first intercollegiate "football" game was played on November 6, 1869. About two hundred spectators witnessed Rutgers defeat Princeton six goals to four in a game that resembled a cross between a soccer match and a street fight. These contests became common among elite colleges in the Northeast United States.

In 1874, Harvard played a series of soccer and rugby matches with McGill University (McGill is located in Montreal, Canada. These were likely the first international football contests for an American team). After these contests, Harvard adopted rugby over soccer. Soon, other schools followed suit.

Changes to the rules in the 1880s, influenced by Walter Camp of Yale, led to the creation of American football. This new sport departed from rugby in that a line of scrimmage replaced the scrum, the offense had a set number of attempts to advance the ball a certain distance (originally three downs to gain five yards), a lined field ("gridiron"), and tackling below the waist.

These modifications reduced the game's improvisational style associated with rugby and led to more set plays and strategies. Offensive innovations, such as the short-lived "Flying Wedge"and other mass momentum plays, increased American football's brutality resulting in more injuries and deaths. Several attempts to reform the game in 1890s failed to increase safety. Criticism mounted and some doubted the future of American football.

The crisis came to a head during the 1905 season. Three college players and eighteen participants at all levels of the game died either while playing or as result of injuries sustained on the field. On October 9, 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt held a White House conference of representatives from the "Big Three" (Harvard, Yale, and Princeton) with the hopes of finding a way to preserve the game through reforms.

The conference formed the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS). This institution, the forerunner of the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), appointed a rules committee that attempted to increase players' safety by "opening" the game.

The rules changes for the 1906 season included:
  1. Three downs to gain ten yards.
  2. Legalization of the forward pass (limited to under twenty yards and none across the goal line).
  3. Six men on the line of scrimmage for the offense.
  4. Certification of officials. 
The LSU game against the University of Havana in 1907 operated under these rules, as well as the Rollins College game in 1908 and the Tulane game in 1910.

The next major rules changes, which created "modern" American football, came in 1912. They included:
  1. Four downs to gain ten yards.
  2. Liberalization of the forward pass.
  3. One-hundred yard field with ten yard endzones. 
  4. Touchdowns account for six points.
The rest of the games played between U.S. and Cuban teams operated under the rules for the modern game and the modifications to them that occurred between 1912 to 1956.

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