The origins of the NFL: the birth of the league and the arrival of the draft


The NFL is mighty today, but believe it or not, it had humble beginnings. As the last hours of this hundredth season approach, TDActu invites you to discover the origins of the richest sports league in the world.

After the emergence of the game and the professional debut last week, place today at the first years of the league and its significant evolutions between the years 1920 and 1950, with between the birth of the draft or the playoffs.

National Football League

As the 1920s roared, the American Professional Football Association sputtered. College football remained king. It drew crowds of up to 100,000 as professional franchises came and went. Other teams were added, some of which still exist today, such as the Packers, who joined in 1921, or the Giants (1925). The lack of organization has become a recurring theme, the absence of a playoff system has made the championship all the more controversial. And it took another decade for the first endgame pattern to appear.

Needing a leader with business acumen, the owners replaced Jim Thorpe at the helm of the league with Joe Carr, owner of the Columbus Panhandles. Carl Storck of Dayton was appointed secretary-treasurer. Carr took matters into her own hands to clear up the gray areas. He moved the association’s headquarters to Columbus, drafted regulations, gave teams territorial rights, restricted player movement, set membership criteria for franchises, and published a leaderboard for the first time so that the APFA has a clear champion. Despite this, there was confusion from the 1921 championship, where 22 teams took the start. A match, which was initially only an exhibition, turned into a decisive encounter. The Chicago Staleys defeated the Buffalo All-Americans 10–7. With 9 wins and one loss apiece, Carr ruled in favor of the Staleys, giving George Halas his first league title. The latter had obtained a draw less than their opponents.

The APFA did not change its name until June 24, 1922 to become the National Football League, a name still used today. The league continued to grow, and teams like the Canton Bulldogs, Frankford Yellow Jackets, or Providence Steam Roller all won championships. However, the NFL failed to gain fans as quickly as it wanted. This was largely due to the geographic location of the league, where all teams were concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest. From 1925, professional football began to gain popularity with the signing of college phenom Red Grange. The famous halfback (former name for the runners) joined Chicago, which became Bears. He toured the country that year, as well as the next, promoting the sport. His exciting game drew large crowds, allowing the professional world to pick up more top-notch college players. Stadium attendance increased, making the league economically viable.

George Marshall (owner of the Redskins) and Dan Topping (co-owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers) surrounding Joe Carr (Photo: NFL.com).

The arrival of the playoffs and the draft

At a special meeting in Cleveland on April 23, 1927, Carr decided to secure the league’s future by eliminating financially weak teams, and consolidating quality players onto a limited number of more successful teams. The new-looking NFL now includes 12 teams whose “center of gravity” has left the Midwest to shift to the major cities of the East. Over the next five years, the championships ran their course with multiple team changes. Like the rest of the US economy, the number of hires fluctuated from year to year. The NFL was also hard hit by the Great Depression.

1932 changed the game in the league, with a change in the allocation of titles. At the time, the team with the highest winning percentage was declared the champion. That season, the Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans tied for first place. As there was no way to decide between them, the league office organized an additional match to determine the winner. The game was held on December 18, and had to be moved inside Chicago Stadium due to cold weather and heavy snow. The indoor arena could only hold an 80-yard field with the sidelines coming directly up against the walls. The posts were moved from the back of the end zone to the goal line, and for security reasons the hashmarks were drawn 10 yards from the walls, which represented the boundary of the pitch. The Bears won 9-0 in front of a crowd of 11,198, thanks in part to a controversial touchdown pass from Bronko Nagurski for Red Grange. The Spartans claimed that Nagurski was not 5 yards from the faceoff line when throwing the ball, thus violating the existing passing rules at that time.

This championship has become one of the most important in the history of the NFL. Before the start of the following season, the owners adopted some of the basic rules of the game, such as the use of hashmarks or the placement of posts on the goal line. To prevent the Nagurski pass controversy from repeating itself, the league also allowed the quarterback free positioning behind his faceoff line, as is currently the case. The 80-yard field was never seen again. Much like the Spartans after the 1933 season, where they were sold for $7,952.08 and transferred to Detroit to become the Lions.

With that first playoff game leading to a successful end to the season, the league overhauled its system, breaking away from its past and college football. The owners agreed to split the league into two divisions, East and West, with the winners facing off in a title game, much like the current Super Bowl. The New York Giants and Chicago Bears faced off in the first Championship Game, which the Bears won 23-21. This new format was a resounding success, with fans enjoying the playoff concept at the end of the season. Still positioned on the East Coast and in the Midwest, the teams also began to change. Some of the 1920s-1930s disappeared completely, while others arose in their wake and found themselves in competition. The rosters that competed in the NFL Championship Game in the 1930s-1940s may look familiar. In addition to the Bears or Giants, the Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins have entered the spotlight.

In 1933, after his failure to recruit fullback Stanley Kostka from the University of Minnesota, Eagles co-owner Bert Bell realized his inability to compete in the NFL against teams with more money like the Giants, Bears, Packers or Redskins. He could no longer fill his stadium, even by charging very low prices (1 cent for children). He then proposed to the other owners to create a more equal system to give bad teams a chance to sign the best university players, in order to strengthen themselves and become more competitive. Despite the reluctance of the big cars, Bell prevailed. On May 19, 1935, the owners adopted the proposal. The league will now hold an annual draft of players straight out of the college ranks, where the weaker teams pick first and the champion last. The draft was born, and the first edition was held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia on February 8, 1936. The very first winner of the Heisman Trophy (top college player in the country), Jay Berwanger (halfback at the university from Chicago) was selected by the Eagles, but traded to the Bears. Considering that professional football was not a very lucrative career at that time, Berwanger quit his career and never played in the NFL. That same year, there was no franchise transaction and all the teams played an equivalent number of games, a first since the beginning of the professional era.

In 1934, professional football took another step in its growing notoriety. Primarily a working-class spectacle, a match created by Chicago Tribune columnist Arch Ward helped break down barriers. It pitted the defending champion against a selection of recently graduated college players. The Bears played in the first Chicago College All-Star Game on August 31, 1934, which ended goalless in front of 79,432 at Soldier Field. During the season, Chicago rookie Beattie Feathers became the first runner to break the symbolic 1,000-yard mark, with 1,004 units on 101 carries. The Thanksgiving game between Bears and Lions became the first nationally broadcast game, with Graham McNamee as a commentator for NBC Radio.

Draft instigator Bert Bell (Photo: Pro Football Hall of Fame).

Competition and game improvements

In the mid-1930s, and especially in the following decade, the popularity of professional sports increased tenfold in cities with an NFL team. Notably in New York, where there were no major universities to compete with in attracting spectators. Minor leagues like the American Association, Dixie League, or Pacific Coast Professional Football League have had modest local impact. The NFL has also been successful enough to attract competitors. The American Football League (AFL) was started in 1926 by Red Grange and his agent, but it only lasted a year. A second (1936-1937), then a third (1940-1941) AFL were also formed. But it was the All-America Football Conference (1946-1949) that seriously challenged the existing league hegemony, with teams like the San Francisco 49ers, the first version of the Baltimore Colts or Cleveland Browns, led by innovator Paul Brown. They all subsequently joined the NFL in 1950 as soon as their championship disappeared.

Although talented, quarterbacks of this time rarely completed more than 50% of their passes. One of the main causes was the simplistic nature of blocking strategies in the passing situation. With little protection, the passers always had to throw avoiding the opposing pressure. Brown installed a blocking system by positioning the linemen in the shape of a cup. This would push defenders out, and provide a safe zone, called the pocket, where quarterbacks could throw. Thanks to this strategy, Brown chained four consecutive titles between 1946 and 1949.

Other significant changes have emerged. In 1941, there was no longer a president at the head of the NFL, Elmer Layden was appointed commissioner, the very first in history. Under his leadership, the league revised its policy in the event of a tie at the end of a game by introducing the system of overtime with sudden death: the first to score wins the game. In 1943, the wearing of helmets was made compulsory and a schedule of 10 games for each team introduced. After World War II, college teams did not impose strict substitution rules. Each player could go in and out an unlimited number of times, provided the ball was not in play. This feature caught on at the professional level and led to the current offensive and defensive two-squad system.

Paul Brown and quarterback Otto Graham (Photo: Sports Illustrated).

Next chapter, the arrival of the American Football League and the birth of the Super Bowl.

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