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NFL100: 90-year-old rules made for a different game



People who saw a NFL game 90-years ago would almost not recognize the game played today. Back in the 1930s, the pro game had some rules that are mind-boggling.

In the early years of the NFL, if a player fell or was knocked down, he could still crawl or get up and run again. The defender had to tackle the ball carrier and hold him down in order for the official to blow the play dead. Can you imagine the ball carrier getting tackled and squirming to get free today?

There were initially no hash marks on a football field. The offense put the ball in play wherever the last play ended. In other words, if the play ended three yards in bounds, the next snap happened right there. The offense had to adjust it’s formation to reflect where they next snapped the ball. There was a special rule provision, adopted in 1933, that allowed the officials to move the ball 10-yards onto the field of play from the sideline to avoid those scenarios.  In 1945, the NFL adopted the first hash marks, 20-yards from the sideline. The hash marks have moved further into the middle of the field over the years until today, where hash marks are 70-feet, nine inches in from each sideline.

NFL umpire works a 1938 New York – Washington game (New York Giants)

The kicking game

The NFL has experimented where to put the goal posts a few times. The pro and college game began with the goal posts on the end line. In 1933, the NFL moved goal posts to the goal line (see photo above). For many years, offenses used the goal posts as a pick. Passes and punts from the end zone had to avoid hitting the goal post (the offense had the option of adjusting the ball up to five yards outside the hash mark without penalty if the goal posts interfered with their kick or other play). In 1967 the NFL mandated that the goal posts be painted gold, and be offset from the goal line. In other words, the posts would be around a yard into the endzone and a stanchion extend the cross bar over the goal line. In 1974, in a move for safety and to encourage more touchdowns, the NFL moved the goal posts back to the end line and I predict they will stay there forever (unless the NFL outlaws the kicking game altogether!). In 1967, the NFL mandated that every field have the yolk-shaped goal posts. Up until then, teams could have the “H” shaped goal posts, like the photo above.

Up until 1948, kickers had to have a player hold the ball for a free kick (kickoff). If they were able to construct an artificial tee out of a mound of dirt, and the ball would stay put, the rules permitted dirt tees. In 1938, the rule stated that a dirt tee could not exceed three inches. Finally, in 1948, the NFL allowed the kicker to use a “flexible artificial tee.”

Three yards and a cloud of dust encouraged

It’s a foreign concept today, but the NFL discouraged the passing game in the 1930s. In 1934, the NFL had a rule that stated that if there was an incomplete pass in the end zone on fourth down, or if there were two incomplete passes in the end zone in the same series, the play resulted in a touchback! So, if he was first and goal on the nine yard line, and the offense threw two incomplete passes into the end zone on first and second down, the defense got the ball via touchback on their own 20 yard line! Up through 1974, an incomplete pass into the end zone on fourth down resulted in a touchback, if snapped inside the 20-yard line. Starting in 1975, the defense took over after a fourth down incomplete pass into the end zone, from the previous spot.

NFL had mercy on the passing game in 1934, as it stated that an incomplete pass was simply a loss of down at the previous spot. Up until 1934, an incomplete pass resulted in a loss of down and a five-yard penalty from the previous spot! Can you imagine Phillip Rivers and Tom Brady operating under 1934 passing rules?!

Up until 1938, the quarterback had no special protection. Starting in 1938, the referee had the right to penalize the defense 15-yards for roughing the passer if the passer had released the ball. In the ensuing years, the passer has been afforded more, and more and … more protections. Quarterbacks from Sammy Baugh to Pat Mahomes were/are grateful for that 1938 rule.

Big fouls = big yardage penalties

Today, a holding penalty puts the offense in a difficult position to keep the drive alive. Up through 1977, a holding penalty almost assuredly killed a drive. A holding penalty used to be 15-yards, from the spot of the foul. So, if the offense held five yards behind the line of scrimmage, the hold actually was a 20-yard penalty! Starting in 1978, all illegal blocking fouls (except personal fouls) were reduced from 15 to 10 yard penalties.

But, up until 1940, the offense might as well have given the ball to the defense immediately if they got flagged for clipping. Before 1940, a clipping penalty was a 25-yard penalty from the spot of the foul. From 1940 to today, the penalty is 15-yards.

Helmets optional?

You may have noticed the kicker in the above photo, kicking the ball without a helmet. Up until 1942, players could play without a helmet. Starting in 1943, players were required to wear “head protectors.” The NFL outlawed plastic helmets in 1948. Face masks were optional until 1955 (after 1955 a player could petition the commissioner to not wear a face mask). In 1956, the NFL made a rule that made grasping the face mask illegal except for the runner. Beginning in 1962, the face mask rule included the ball carrier and mandated a 15-yard penalty and ejection of flagrant.

And, a recent rule everybody loved to hate

Finally, while we might not consider it an arcane rule today (since we still remember it clearly!), in 2049 we will view The Tuck Rule as an ancient, weird rule. The Tuck Rule came into the league in 1999, and allowed the passer to stop his throwing motion and bring the ball back into his body. If the passer lost the ball in the process of “tucking” it, it was an incomplete pass instead of a fumble. No one thought much of it, until the Patriots – Raiders divisional playoff game after the 2001 season. Referee Walt Coleman properly enforced the unpopular rule – and never officiated another Raiders game the rest of his career. The ruling gave the Patriots another chance to win the game in overtime, sent them to Super Bowl XXXVI, and launched the Brady – Belichick dynasty. The Tuck Rule was mentioned in every quarterback pass-fumble call and replay for the next 11-years when the NFL finally repealed the rule.

If you think there are some weird NFL rules today, just remember, weirder rules existed, some in the not-too-distant past!

Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"