NFL History: The Super Bowl Era

The inaugural Super Bowl (January 15, 1967); the AFL/NFL merger in 1970; and the premiere of Monday Night Football (ABC 1970), helped catapult the NFL past MLB as America’s game by the 1980’s.

NFL 1970's logos

American football in its Super Bowl era is defined by specialists on offense; at quarterback, running back, lineman, and receiver. Defenses also became specialized, but less so, as it has always been every defensive players job to tackle & create turnovers. Special teams were one of the biggest innovations of this era; as coaches started realizing its value in scoring and determining field position.

Straight-ahead toe punchers were the NFL place-kicking style since its beginnings and predominated since the drop-kick disappeared in the 1930’s, when the rugby ball was replaced with the more throwable modern design.
In the early NFL, many games were lost/tied due to missed extra points/short field goal attempts. In the era of 16-20 man rosters, where physical survival was always the most important skill; those who took kicks could not be called place kickers in the modern sense.

Norwegian place kicker Jan Stenerud (K  Kansas City Chiefs 1967-85) revolutionized American football with European football (soccer) skills, bringing distance and accuracy to NFL kicking during his 19 seasons. NFL field goal percentage increased steadily during his career, as did the distance from which head coaches would allow their kickers to attempt field goals.

In the KC Chiefs 23-7 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV (1970), Stenerud scored the first nine points on field goals of 48, 32 and 25 yards, in a game that was over by halftime. He led the league in FG % 4 times, and was always at or near the top in FG% from 40+ yards. Jan Stenerud was the first place kicker to regularly convert 50+ yard FG attempts.

Ray Guy 8

Ray Guy (P Oakland/LA Raiders: 1973-86) specialized in punting opponents into poor field position.  In ways never seen before, Guy revolutionized NFL punting with his whip-like flexibility, leading the NFL in punting average 3 times and finishing 10 seasons in the top-5.  His accuracy at pinning opponents close to their goal line compelled the NFL to start tracking “punts inside the 20” in 1976.  He was the first punter to understand the importance of net yards per punt (punt yards minus return yards), applying extreme “hang time” to his punts.  Ray Guy would boom 50- yard cloud-scrappers, allowing his coverage teams time to defend against a big returns. Many times from his end zone, he would blast a punt over the returner’s head, completely flipping field position for his team.

Ray Guy, a #1 pick by innovative owner Al Davis in 1973 (and one of the most valuable players in modern NFL history), was finally inducted into Canton in 2014.  He’s currently listed beneath “Coaches” and “Contributors” in the NFL HoF ‘by position’ listing.  Most old-timers don’t consider punters & kickers as ‘real’ football players, even though these positions have historically had a huge impact on winning & losing.

The 1970’s NFL was innovated and dominated by modern-era coaches including; Don Shula (Miami Dolphins), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), Al Davis/John Madden (Oakland Raiders), and Tom Landry (Dallas Cowboys).  Steroids became part of the landscape for NFL linemen, and artificial turf added another occupational hazard for players. An increased incidence of skin burns, ligament tears and concussions all awaited those who played in stadiums equipped with artificial turf.

Artificial Turf & the NFL

The greatest QBs of the day were Bob Griese (Miami 1967-80), Roger Staubach (Dallas 1969-79), Dan Fouts (San Diego Chargers 1973-87), and Ken Anderson (Cincinnati Bengals 1971-86) .  The best running backs of this era were O.J. Simpson (Buffalo Bills 1969-79) and Walter Payton (Chicago Bears (1975-87).  Both of these ball carriers played on poor teams for most of their careers, which added proof to the argument that a great quarterback was necessary for a championship team.

O.J. Simpson was a college football star at USC, winning the Heisman Trophy in 1968 before transitioning into a NFL superstar. The charismatic Simpson was a poster child for the NFL in the 1970’s & 1980’s.  After retiring from the NFL, he did color commentary on Monday Night Football, starred in television commercials, and even Hollywood movies– always as a friendly & joking personality.  Simpson was notorious among ex-players for beating his wife, and his true nature was finally revealed to the American public in 1994-95; when he was compelled to hire a top legal team to buy an acquittal for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, despite overwhelming physical evidence against him.

In 1997, a civil court awarded a judgment against Simpson of the $33.5 million for their wrongful deaths. In September 2007, Simpson was arrested in Las Vegas and charged with numerous felonies, including armed robbery and kidnapping. He was found guilty in 2008, and sentenced to 33 years in prison. He will not be eligible for parole until 2017.


More than anyone else, O.J. Simpson personifies the ugliness lurking behind the NFL’s benevolent mask.

—–End of 1st Quarter

NFL HoF comparison Example #2: 1970’s-era WR comparisons

Fred Biletnikof (1965-78 Oakland) 190 G, 589 Catches, 15.2 Yds/Catch, 76 TD
Cliff Branch (1972-85 Oakland)  183 G, 501 Catches, 17.3 Yds/Catch, 67 TD
John Stallworth (1974-87 Pittsburgh) 165 G, 537 Catches, 16.2 Yds/Catch, 63 TD
Lynn Swann (1974-82 Pittsburgh) 116 G, 336 Catches, 16.3 Yds/Catch, 51 TD

Listed alphabetically, the best player of these four was Cliff Branch, and he’s only one not in the NFL Hall of Fame.

Cliff Branch

Mobsters were still welcome to buy NFL franchises.  In 1977  Eddie DeBartolo, Sr (after being refused in a half-dozen attempts to buy a MLB franchise) purchased the San Francisco 49ers and turned it over to his son, Eddie, Jr.  Wikipedia describes DeBartolo Sr. as “a powerful strategic thinker.”  Dan Moldea shares this research:

“U.S. Customs Service had received information from one of its special agents, William F. Burda, in January 1981 that the DeBartolo organization ‘through its control of particular state banks in the state of Florida is operating money-laundering schemes, realizing huge profits from narcotics, guns, skimming operations, and other organized-crime-related activities. This organization is reported to have ties to [Carlos] Marcello, [Santos] Trafficante, and [Meyer] Lansky; and because of its enormous wealth and power has high-ranking political influence and affiliations.'”

In other words, the shopping malls that made Eddie DeBartolo’s fortune were financed with laundered Colombian drug money.


The 1980’s were dominated on the field by Bill Walsh (San Francisco 49ers head coach & GM) and Joe Gibbs (Washington R-word head coach), both winning 3 Super Bowls for their franchises. Pro football’s greatest stars were Joe Montana and a legendary college draft class in 1983, that had three HoF QBs: Dan Marino (Miami 1983-99), John Elway (Denver 1983-1998) and Jim Kelly (USFL/Buffalo 1983-96).

Outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor (NY Giants 1981-93), became the new NFL prototype on defense, terrorizing offenses with his unique brand of intelligence, athleticism & skill. He was unintentionally responsible for one of the most gruesome injuries in modern football history, breaking Washington R-word QB Joe Theismann’s leg [and ending his career] on Monday Night Football. To Taylor’s credit, he immediately signalled to the R-words bench to get their medical staff on the field, as Taylor was horrified by what he had just done. ABC showed the definitive shot, a ‘reverse angle’ replay of this injury, over & over during its broadcast.


The USFL challenged the NFL monopoly from 1983-85, and did well in three seasons using a spring schedule that challenged MLB.  Casino & real estate mogul Donald Trump owned the New Jersey Generals. In his blustering George Steinbrenner-like fashion, Trump outbid the NFL for one college star after another; while never coming close to winning a championship.

Doug Flutie & Donald Trump

By 1985, Donald Trump was using his free-spending ownership in the New Jersey Generals to push for a merger with the NFL, which would significantly increase the value of his franchise.

Hershel Walker & Trump-usfl

Trump’s clout forced the USFL into rapid expansion, as they moved to a fall schedule in 1986.  Other USFL owners realized the futility of going head-to-head with the NFL, and the league went bankrupt before the ’86 season– slowly dying in court.  Its greatest stars such as QBs Jim Kelly and Steve Young went back to the NFL teams that claimed their draft rights.


The NFL Players Association had misrepresented & betrayed its rank-and-file since its inception in 1956. The NFL owners didn’t even he recognize the NFLPA as the official bargaining agent for the players until 1968.  A 1974 players strike ending in a defeat for the players. The 1982 strike ended with a players revolt against their own union, with NFLPA executive director & head lawyer Ed Garvey stepping down.

Even more disastrous for the NFL players, was the 1987 strike which collapsed within a month, after the owners brought in replacement players.  Approximately 15% of the NFLPA’s members crossed picket lines to play during the strike including veteran stars: Mark Gastineau, Randy White, Joe Montana, Doug Flutie, and Steve Largent.

A collective bargaining agreement that allowed NFL players to benefit from free agency wasn’t ratified until 1993.   Still today, no NFL contract is guaranteed.  If a player blows out a knee after signing a multi-million dollar deal, he can be cut & released from his contract by the team.  Signing bonuses have been notoriously clawed back by ownership.


In 1985, William “Refrigerator” Perry (DT 1985–1993) became a prototype for sports de-evolution, by becoming the first 300-pound NFL lineman; helping the Chicago Bears win the Super Bowl—-


In 1979 ESPN was launched, providing 24-hour a day sports programming.  In 1987, ESPN gained partial rights to the National Football League.  Players salaries and owner franchise values have skyrocketed since, due to massive broadcast revenues. Today the NFL Network is a successful premium channel, delivering 24/7 NFL content.

The NFL adopted instant replay into its officiating in the 1980’s/1990’s, due to massive referee incompetence. Instant replay has likely been used to fix NFL playoff games and decide Super Bowls; the most infamous example is the Tuck Rule game, which is better seen than explained.

The NFL in the 1990’s was initially dominated on the field by the post-Bill Walsh San Francisco 49ers, led by QB Steve Young (1984-99) & WR Jerry Rice (1985-2004); then the Jimmy Johnson coached Dallas Cowboys, led by WR Michael Irvin (1988-99), RB Emmitt Smith (1990-2004), and QB Troy Aikman (1989-2000).

Three-time MVP, QB Brett Favre (1991-2010) restored legitimacy to the Green Bay Packers, with his unique combination of gun-slinging playmaking & good-sport toughness.  Deion Sanders (ATL/SF/DAL, 1989-2005) was likely the best NFL cornerback and one of the best punt returners, ever– an electrifying playmaker.  Barry Sanders (RB Detroit Lions 1989-98) may have been the NFL’s best ball carrier ever.


In the 2000’s the New England Patriots, coached by Bill Belichick were the NFL’s only sustained dynasty. Free agency, with its salary cap restrictions made it difficult for championship teams to maintain a stable nucleus, with contending teams constantly poaching their rosters.

Belichick and the Patriots front office, were among the first in football to use statistical analysis metrics, equivalent to sabermetrics in baseball, to quantify player value in terms of wins.  This gave New England a consistent edge in player drafting as well as on-the-field tactics & overall strategy.

Modern NFL play-calling is high-percentage short-gain/low-risk passing on early downs, and going for it more frequently on 4th-down; passing up field goal attempts for potential touchdowns– providing the distance for a first down/touchdown is makeable. The most valuable position in football is by far, quarterback.  It’s not impossible, but it is very difficult to win a Super Bowl without at least an above-average QB.

Some of the best players from 2000-present were/are: QBs Peyton Manning (Indianapolis Colts 1998-present), Tom Brady (New England Patriots 2000-present), Drew Brees (SD/New Orleans Saints 2001-present). The best play makers were RB LaDainian Tomlinson (SD Chargers 2001-11), WR Randy Moss (MN/OAK/NE 1998-2012) and punt return specialist Devin Hester (Chicago Bears 2006-present).


Unfortunately by this time, off-the-field problems were starting to overshadow the actual football.  Team captain & star middle linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, Ray Lewis was a suspect under investigation for a double murder committed on Jan. 31, 2000. The NFL intervened on Lewis’ behalf, and he was dropped as a suspect by the police.

Ray Lewis

Lewis was never able to produce the clothes he was seen wearing the night of the homicides. The Ravens won the Super Bowl a year later, and Ray Lewis (1996-2012) went on to become arguably the greatest middle linebacker in NFL history.  The murders have never been solved.

In June 2002 Pat Tillman, a linebacker for the Arizona Cardinals enlisted in the United States Army, motivated by patriotic duty after 9-11. The NFL assisted the Bush administration in its use of Tillman as propaganda to sell its dirty “War on Terror.”


Pat Tillman  served several tours before he died in the mountains of Afghanistan on April 22, 2004– in a friendly-fire incident.

The US Army initially reported Tillman had been killed by enemy fire, and maintained this lie for over a month; until the Pentagon notified the Tillman family that he had died as a result of friendly fire. In 2007, Kevin Tillman also an Army Ranger in a convoy behind his brother Pat at his end; read testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, of the Pentagon’s version of Pat’s ‘heroic’ death.

“Above the din of battle, Corporal Tillman was heard issuing fire commands to take the fight to an enemy on the dominating high ground. Always leading from the front, Corporal Tillman aggressively maneuvered his team against the enemy position on a steep slope… in the face of mortal danger, Corporal Tillman illustrated that he would not fail his comrades. His actions are in keeping with the highest standards of the United States army.”

Pat Tillman was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for valor, for his fictional bravery. The Bush administration cynically lied about Tillman’s friendly-fire death, to exploit its propaganda value.

Pat Tillman friendly fire death

—-End of 3rd Quarter

By 2006, Atlanta Falcons QB Michael Vick was implicated in a dog fighting scandal, involving over seventy dogs, most of them pit bulls showing signs of injuries. Vick and four of his associates were convicted for conspiracy in interstate commerce and unlawful animal cruelty. Michael Vick served 21 months in prison. He was reinstated by the NFL in 2009.


Sexual assault allegations were made against Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger in 2008 & 2009.   In 2010, after intense pressure from the NFL, the district attorney for the plaintiff held a press conference to announce that Roethlisberger would not be charged; expressing how the plaintiff no longer wanted to pursue criminal charges due to the level of media attention. The district attorney stressed that she was not recanting her accusation.


The NFL handed Ben Roethlisberger a 6-game suspension (later reduced to 4 games) in 2010, for “ungentlemanly conduct.”

From 2009-11, the New Orleans Saints operated a slush fund that paid out bonuses for inflicting crippling injuries on opposing players.  Players targeted by the Saints coaching staff included star QBs Brett Favre (Vikings) & Kurt Warner (Cardinals). NFL officiating was so incompetent that none of the bounty hits in question were ever penalized or deemed illegal by in-game officials.

Saints bounty Brett Favre

In 2012, the NFL owners locked out its referees, and started the season with replacement officials, despite safety complaints from the NFLPA. The owners were refusing to pay the modest referee union demands, amounting to a $3.2 million/year, in a $9 billion/year league.  By Week 3, hapless NFL officiating was taken to a new low during Monday Night Football, when Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson threw the first game-winning interception in league history. Embarrassment over the inexplicable replay decision forced the owners to give in to union demands, which amounted to an extra $100,000/year expense for each of the 32 NFL team owners.

New-era NFL owners are mostly billionaires, buying franchises for personal amusement as well as seeking public subsidies for new stadiums. Since the 1980’s, 70% of the cost for new NFL stadiums has been paid for by taxpayers; for which team owners keep all revenues on tickets, concessions, parking and television broadcasts– for games played in publicly-financed buildings.

In 2013, Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, was ordered by a federal judge to pay $85 million for “organized crime fraud,” finding him in violation of the New Jersey state RICO act.

Today, the NFL is still opening new stadiums with synthetic playing surfaces, despite overwhelming research and player preference towards playing on natural grass.

Player compensation for concussion related diseases and other realities of post-NFL life have been slow in actualization.  The NFL continues to take the stance that its game is safe, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The NFL denies players are getting brain damage from concussions received during NFL games & practices.

Mike Webster

Performance-enhancing drug (PED) suspensions are a weekly occurrence; here is the ever-expanding list. Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is now the preferred PED, due to its difficulty to detect with testing.


Obesity and unhealthy playing weights for modern NFL linemen is an ugly scandal the NFL refuses to seriously discuss publicly.  Player weights at all positions have increased at least 30-50% since the 1970’s.

As discussed earlier, alcohol & gambling have always been part of the NFL. Bootleg whiskey from the 1920’s has been replaced with omnipresent beer advertising for every game.  In the 2000’s, domestic violence & DUI arrests for NFL players became common news.


Today, billions of dollars are collectively bet on every NFL contest.  Nevada is the only state where sports bookmaking is legal in the US.  Las Vegas bookies establish and monitor the betting line of every NFL game. Over 99% of football betting (office pools, fantasy leagues, handshake wager, etc.) is illicit. Accurate team injury reports are required by the NFL, and teams are fined by the league office if they don’t strictly comply. Cooperation from the NFL is insisted upon by their mobster partners, so they can set an accurate betting spread.

NFL Security is employed by the league to deal with every scandal in this media-driven age.  Justice Department officials are employed by the NFL to do research, use their contacts, and develop attack-campaigns designed to intimidate, squash and/or blacklist any perceived opponents of the NFL.

The NFL is a non-profit, and Commissioner Roger Goodell takes home over $30 million annually for carefully filtering & interpreting any NFL information released to public. He has been aggressive in his use of public relations in the NFL’s attempts to bury all scandals.  Dan Moldea’s Interference, neatly characterizes the function of NFL Security officials:

Phil Manuel, former Senate investigator: “The oldest trick in the book is to hire old Justice Department officials and make them understand that they are to protect the security of the NFL owners.”

An IRS agent taken off an NFL-related gambling probe: “What we’ve got here are connections among the Cosa Nostra, the federal government, the big attorneys in the D.C. area, sports figures, and the television news media. We were getting too close to the people at the top. [He] was being protected by people within the Justice Department.” p. 171

“We have a basic rule in the NFL,” says a former law enforcement official who advises the NFL of security matters.” It is to keep it upbeat and keep it positive. But above all keep it quiet.” p. 33

—–Two-Minute Warning

As far as what sports fans can learn about the NFL from its pre-Super Bowl era– it is sketchy at best.
Too little data exists (even for many skill-position players such as QB, RB, WR), while most players (offensive linemen & all defensive players) have no meaningful records of their actions.
The all-NFL/all-pro designation is nothing more than sportswriter & coaches opinion, from its inception in the 1930’s.
There is virtually no game film, and what little exists is usually of poor quality and not available to the average fan.
This lack of objective data for player performance, along with its omnipresent mobster & gambling influence, are the defining features of early American football.

In 1985, a Harris Poll showed the NFL was more popular among US sports fans than MLB: 24% to 23%.  In 2014, 35% of sports fans called the NFL their favorite sport, while only 14% preferred MLB.

NFL Militarism

The NFL reflects popular culture in decline.  Its glorification of violence dovetails with militarism and ruling-class values. It is a difficult, but necessary task to reduce it’s hold on popular consciousness.  The NFL, like capitalism itself, is rotten to its core and cannot be reformed– both will have to be revolutionized by the people, before its self-destructiveness reaches the limits of human sustainability.

Click here to read Part 1– American Football: Early NFL History

American Football & Early NFL History

Baseball has many hidden lessons in its vast database, as every player’s actions are precisely recorded at the plate, in the field, and on the mound.
These player records exist back to baseball’s infancy, in the 19th century.

American football (NFL in particular) on the other hand has very little historical data for its individual players as field goals (FG), extra points (XP) and safeties, as well as any touchdowns (TD) scored via offense, defense or punt/kick returns; weren’t recorded in the NFL until 1932.  Rushing attempts, number of receptions (& total yards for each), along with quarterback (QB) stats; were also not kept until 1932.

Passer rating was first developed in the 1930’s, using available measures to determine overall effectiveness at the quarterback position.  Although its formula has varied, it is still the best statistic for the position; as all the best quarterbacks, 1) stay on the field and, 2) have the highest passer ratings of their era.  The first great NFL QB [and nickname] was Slingin’ Sammy Baugh (Washington R-words 1937-52).

MLB vs. NFL stats comparison

Jim Thorpe was a multi-sport star in the early 20th century; here are his MLB career numbers in six seasons, mostly with the NY Giants.
In 289 games (1913-1919) as an outfielder, Thorpe batted .252/.286/.362.
NL averages in 1917 were .249/.305/.328, so we can rate him as slightly below-average in getting on-base, but above average in power; making him roughly an average big-leaguer of that era.

Jim Thorpe is also in the NFL Hall of Fame (HoF), a charter inductee in 1963.
These are his career NFL stats: Eight seasons, 52 games played as a halfback; 6 TD rushing, 4 TD passing.

Jim Thorpe football

With this paltry amount of data, how is anyone supposed to know anything about what kind of football player Jim Thorpe was, outside of anecdotal & subjective opinion?
If it is impossible to determine this for a charter NFL HoFer, then what does that say about the less-than-star players of the early NFL era?
It says their contributions in blood, broken bones & shattered teeth weren’t even worth noting, because the only records that mattered were gate receipts & betting slips.

—– Timeout!

American football has its origins in English rugby.
By the late 19th century, most Ivy-league & midwestern universities had rugby & football clubs.
As a violent mob game, deaths from injury were common in its early era.
The popular use of mass-formations such as the flying wedge, in which a large number of offensive players charged as a unit against a similarly arranged defense, resulted in brutal collisions often leading to serious injuries and deaths.
Helmets weren’t mandatory in the NFL until 1943.

Walter Camp (player Yale 1876–1882) has been given the title “Father of American Football”, for inventing football’s line of scrimmage and the system of downs.

Field goals were lowered to 3 points in 1909, and touchdowns were raised to 6 points in 1912.

The NFL was formed in 1920, primarily as a vehicle for gamblers. MLB owners had just installed judge Kenesaw “Mountain” Landis as their commissioner, in order to clean up the Black Sox Scandal and restore public trust in baseball.  Judge Landis was firm & uncompromising in banning eight Chicago White Sox players for life, for conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series.  Gangsters were shut out of baseball and needed a new sport to fix.

Al Capone

Much like professional boxing, NFL history is dominated by organized crime.  In the early 1920s, Chicago Bears owner George Halas turned to Charles Bidwill, gambler & bootlegger associate of kingpin gangster Al Capone, for financial help.

In 1932, Charles Bidwill bought the Chicago Cardinals, which his family still owns today.

In the 1920’s, towns like Hammond IN, Pottsville PA, and Duluth MN had NFL teams. The NFL needed a franchise in New York for the league to succeed.  In 1925 NFL President, Joseph Carr recruited bookmaker Tim Mara to establish the NY Giants football team.

Art Rooney, a notorious gambler purchased the rights to establish the Pittsburgh Pirates (renamed Steelers) in 1933. Rooney financed the team for its first decade on racetrack winnings– via inside tips courtesy of his bookie friend, Tim Mara.

These are just a few capsule biographies of the legendary owners enshrined in Canton, OH. More can be read in Dan Moldea’s book Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football.

George Halas

In its earliest days, professional football was shunned by universities, with many college administrators prohibiting their players from having anything to do with the NFL.  It wasn’t until 1936, that a college draft system was finally agreed upon by the universities & the NFL.

Most players were paid under $100/game, and NFL games were commonly fixed.  Players would also bet their game salary, if they were confident of a win.  Key players could be bribed to throw a contest since there was little media interest outside of the tabloid press. Football players & fans were heavy-drinking roughnecks, so mobsters in the bootlegging & gambling rackets were natural partners for the NFL.

The NFL Championship Game of 1946 proved how deep gambling interests ran in professional football.  New York Giants players, Frank Filchock & Merle Hapes, took bribes from gamblers to throw the championship game; which the Bears won 24-14.


The best-known early-era football player was college star, Harold “Red” Grange.
Grange earned football fame & glory for his electrifying runs at the University of Illinois from 1923-25.
In his 20-game college career he ran for 3,362 yards; caught 14 passes for 253 yards; and completed 40-of-82 passes for 575 yards.
Grange, a 3-time All American, scored at least one touchdown in every college game he played, but one.

Nicknamed the ‘Galloping Ghost’, Grange barely lasted two seasons as a star in the NFL.
His left knee was crippled in a game against the Chicago Bears in 1927.
Grange missed 1928, and then re-joined Halas’ Bears for six relatively mediocre seasons, until he retired in 1934.

College football was more popular than the NFL into the 1950’s.
Michigan & Notre Dame built huge stadiums where students & alumni flocked to the spectacle, in a time before radio & television.
College coaches Glenn “Pop” Warner (coach 1895-1938)) and Knute Rockne (coach Notre Dame 1918–1930), are considered football’s greatest innovators of this era.

The NFL was dominated by tough and punishing two-way players such as Chicago Bears RB Bronko Nagurski (1930-43) and Green Bay Packers RB Johnny Blood (1925-38).  In 1925, rosters were limited to 16 players and the fat rugby ball couldn’t be thrown very far. Stretchers were routinely used to carry off injured players.

1924 Chicago Bears

Curly Lambeau, head coach for the Green Bay Packers (1919-1949) had been an early innovator; developing a passing attack and winning 6 NFL titles with great players such as Arnie Herber (QB 1930-45) & Don Hutson (WR 1935-45).

Curly Lambeau with Don Hutson (14) and Irv Comp--1944

Every NFL franchise has its sordid past, and the publicly-owned Green Bay Packers are no exception. The most notorious events in Packers history involved Curly Lambeau’s stand-off in the late 1940’s with the team’s executive committee, for control of the team.
The executive committee were a dozen power-hungry local businessmen that served as the Packers de facto front office.

Conflicts of interest arose over Rockwood Lodge, the training facility for the Green Bay Packers from 1946-49; insisted upon & designed at great expense, by Lambeau.

Rockwood Lodge was reviled by Packer fans, because it necessitated a drive outside the city to watch practices.
The players hated practicing on the field of rock, which created injuries and depleted their roster; the Packers went 3-9 in 1948, followed by 2-10 in 1949.
At the end of the 1949 season, the Green Bay Packers were on the verge of bankruptcy; three weeks behind on payroll & gate receipts to opponents, with no incoming revenue.
The Packers had become a target for contraction, as the impending AAFC merger would add new NFL franchises in large-city markets of Cleveland, San Francisco & Baltimore.
Curly Lambeau reportedly wanted to move the Packers to California; while fans & the executive council insisted the team stay in Green Bay.

PHOTO: Green Bay Packers/Stiller-Lefebvre

Rockwood Lodge was almost completely vacant on January 24, 1950, when it mysteriously burned to the ground; its cause remains unsolved to this day.
The only official response from the team after the incident came from Packers secretary-treasurer Frank Jonet, when he confirmed that Rockwood Lodge was fully insured.
One week later, Lambeau resigned his position with the Packers and moved to Chicago to coach the Cardinals.
The Packers, fell firmly under the control of the executive council and eventually received a $75,000 settlement from their insurance company; which prevented the team from folding.

Rockwood Lodge Packer practice

Larry Names, author of a definitive early history of the Green Bay Packers states: “Everyone in Green Bay knew at the time, that they went out there and burned that place to the ground to save the franchise…torching Rockwood Lodge is what allowed the Packers to survive.”

NFL Integration & Specialization of the Game

Black athletes had been allowed to play college football since the 19th century, although the ACC & SEC didn’t integrate until the 1960’s & 1970’s.
The NFL had a handful black players in its early years, but none ever played under a professional contract.
A Jim Crow owners agreement in 1932 (insisted upon by Washington R-words owner George Preston Marshall), barred blacks from the NFL until after WWII.

George Preston Marshall

In 1946, the Cleveland Rams received permission from the league to move to Los Angeles.
Los Angeles civil-rights activists successfully lobbied the (publicly-funded) LA Coliseum commission; insisting upon an integrated team as a term for lease approval.
UCLA football star Kenny Washington played for the LA Rams in 1946, becoming the first black athlete to receive a contract to play a professional American team sport.

Kenny Washington

The NFL initially adopted the rules of college football.  Starting in the 1930’s, the NFL made significant rulebook changes to separate itself from the college game.
The most significant NFL rule changes in its pre-Super Bowl era were:

1933– legalizing the forward pass from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage.
1950– unlimited free substitution.
1951– no tackle, guard, or center is eligible to catch a forward pass.

The new substitution rules were designed to open up the game by specializing offense, defense & special-teams platoons. As the number of players/team was steadily expanded from 32 in 1950, to 40 in 1964, these now-available roster spots would be filled with valuable specialists.

By the 1950’s, specialization of the game started to change its style, particularly in the evolution of the modern QB, led by Otto Graham (Cleveland Browns 1946–1955) and Johnny Unitas (Baltimore Colts 1955–1973).  This led directly to the television success of the NFL in the 1950’s, when it finally passed college football in popularity.

Johnny_Unitas 1967

Early modern-era QBs: Bart Starr (Green Bay Packers 1956–1971), Len Dawson (Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs 1962–1975), and Fran Tarkenton (Minnesota Vikings/NY Giants 1961–1978); helped move professional football from a three-yards-in-a-cloud-of-dust style, into a more wide-open passing attack.

Jim Brown (Cleveland Browns 1957-65) and Gale Sayers (Chicago Bears 1965-71) were the greatest running backs of the pre-merger era.


RB Paul Hornung (Packers) and DT Alex Karras (Lions) were suspended by the NFL in 1964, for betting on games. In Dan Moldea’s Interference, QB Len Dawson candidly discusses throwing games for money in the 1960’s.

Hornung and Bart Starr led the Green Bay Packers, coached under Vince Lombardi from 1959-67, to NFL dominance; winning 5 NFL championships, including the first two Super Bowls. Lombardi retired from coaching after Super Bowl II, and died of cancer in 1970.  The Super Bowl trophy has since carried his name.

The arrival of the AFL in 1960, challenged the NFL’s monopoly and brought other innovations to the pro game. Franchises were established in seven new cities: Houston, Denver, San Diego, Oakland, Buffalo, Kansas City & Boston; along with the Jets in NY. All are still in existence.
AFL team photos from the 1960’s show rosters filled with one-half black players; while the average NFL roster was less than one-quarter black players, and the Washington Redskins were the last NFL team to integrate in 1962—by government order.

The 1963 AFL San Diego Chargers are widely credited as pro football’s first steroid team, with its offensive lineman compelled to take steroids during training camp & throughout the season.
The Chargers won their only AFL title that year.

San Diego Chargers1963

The NFL Hall of Fame opened in 1963 in Canton, OH, with a charter class of 17 members; six of them coaches, owners or league executives.
Standards for the NFL Hall of Fame are inconsistent and nebulous, as demonstrated below:

NFL HoF Comparison Example #1:  Linemen from the 1950’s & 60’s


Art Donovan (DT)  Baltimore Colts (1950-61):
Career stats: 12 seasons, 138 games, 8 fumbles recovered, 1 safety
HoF card reads, “Five time All-Pro…Donovan developed into one of the best defensive tackles in league history…one of the most popular players in the league…many feel he was at least as valuable to the Colts as a morale builder with his sharp wit and contagious laughter.”


Jerry Kramer (RG)  Green Bay Packers (1958-68):
Career Stats: 11 seasons, 130 games
Not in the HoF; although he too was a five-time All-Pro, anchoring multiple championship teams.
There is no real career performance data for either, outside of all-pro voting. As far as anyone can tell, Donovan and Kramer were both dominant linemen, on opposite sides of the ball– essentially the same players in value. Can anyone explain why one is in the Hall of Fame and the other isn’t?  Maybe Jerry Kramer wasn’t very funny or popular.

Click here to read Part 2— NFL History: The Super Bowl Era