The History of the NFL

The History of the NFL

The National Football League is the highest level of competition for American football. The sport itself can be traced back to the 19th century, which was created when its rules diverged from the sports of association football (soccer) and rugby football (rugby), two games that were growing in popularity in England at the time.


Similar divergences occurred to create Gaelic football and Australian rules football, both of which have a number of similarities to American football.


Walter Camp – The Father of American Football

Some of the most notable changes in the rules that distinguished American football from its counterparts was pioneered by Walter Camp. He was a graduate of Yale University where he was also a football coach. He is credited with inventing the line of scrimmage and the downs system that are major elements in American football today.


The Birth of the National Football League

The NFL was formed in 1920 and was originally known as the American Professional Football Association, this name lasted only two years and was formally changed to the National Football League in 1922. Ten teams filled the original line up, representing just four states. These teams had existed prior to the creation of the league, and played in their respective regional leagues.


Of the original ten teams that took part in the inaugural year, just two remain today. These are the Chicago Bears (who were originally called the Decatur Staleys) and the Arizona Cardinals (who were originally the Chicago Cardinals). For the NFL’s second season, the Green Bay Packers (originally known as the Green Bay Acme Packers) also joined the league. This makes them the oldest NFL team that has operated within the same location continuously.


Growth and Stabilisation

Although the league was founded in 1920, the first NFL championship game was not held until 1933. Around this time, the NFL expanded with new teams whilst simultaneously working to formalize the governance structure of the league. This would be important in securing its modern day success, since the sport needs to operate as a commercial operation just as much as a league of sports teams.


Off Field Competition

Whilst promoting competition on the football field, the NFL has faced its own competition on a few occasions in its history. The All America Football Conference (AAFC) was founded in 1944, consisted of 8 teams and ran for four seasons between 1946 and 1949. The AAFC was founded by several wealthy people who had unsuccessfully attempted to buy NFL teams.


The AAFC challenge came at a very opportune moment. Normally new leagues are at a distinct disadvantage against their established rival, but the NFL had not operated at its full strength or capacity during World War II with teams temporarily merging or suspending their operations. Despite this, the AAFC was unable to sustain itself financially but did succeed in attracting many of the country’s best players. Ultimately the NFL absorbed the AAFC in 1950 with the former AAFC team, the Cleveland Browns, dominating the NFL for the next 7 years.


The other major challenge to the NFL came from the American Football League (AFL), which ran for 10 seasons between 1960 and 1969. Also started by people who had unsuccessfully tried to have NFL teams, the AFL was made up of teams that had hoped to be included in an expanded NFL championship.


TheAmerican football world was woken up to the challenge of the AFL in 1960 when it signed 75% of the players picked in the NFL’s first round draft. The tough competition between the two leagues led to a surge in player salaries and lower game attendances across both leagues as fans were too thinly spread.



The Birth of the Super Bowl

The competition between the NFL and the AFL ultimately led to the creation of the Super Bowl. The leagues agreed to merge in 1966, with the first step in this being a championship game that pitted the winner of each league against each other to decide the champion of champions that year.


The Conferences

After 1970 when the NFL and AFL merged, the league was split into two conferences, the similarly named AFC and the NFC. On their way to the Super Bowl, teams must win their respective conference. According to Oddschecker, the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs are the two best tipped teams for victory in the AFC, based on the fact that the former has won the last 3 AFC titles, and the latter was their rival in the final.


Team Relocations

The first few years of the NFL saw a number of teams merging, relocating or folding due to financial difficulties. This was particularly prevalent during World War II when there were fewer players available. After the absorption of the AAFC, the financial position of teams stabilised until the NFL’s next rivalry with the AFL in the 1960s. The mid to late twentieth century saw a number of teams relocate to different parts of the country.


Examples of these relocations include:

The Chicago Cardinals to St Louis in 1960
The Los Angeles Chargers to San Diego in 1961 (joining the AFL)
The Oakland Raiders moving to Los Angeles in 1982
The Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis in 1984
The Houston Oilers to Nashville in 1998


Teams have also been known to move several times. For example, after moving there in 1982, the Raiders moved back to Oakland in 1995. However, Los Angeles was left without a franchise and the St Louis Rams and San Diego Charges moved back to the city in 2016 and 2017 respectively.


The NFL has an interesting history. It is one of the most popular sports leagues in the United States, however, it has had to fight to earn this status. Initially created after its rules diverged from similar English sports, American football had a turbulent time in the 20th century as the NFL fended off attempts for other leagues to also diverge from it. Ultimately, the challenge from the AFL helped to create the Super Bowl, which has grown to become one of the biggest events on the US sporting calendar

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