History of the NFL: Greatest games, teams and players

nfl timeline history

There are 26 seconds left in the Super Bowl, and the Patriots are leading 28-24. But they are in deep trouble as the ball is placed at their 1-yard line and Seattle has it. The Patriot defense literally just stopped Marshawn Lynch from punching it in by tackling him miraculously at the 1.

But now all seems lost because the Seahawks still have 3 attempts to score the title-clinching touchdown. The University of Phoenix Stadium and its 65,000 attendants are trembling.

Malcolm Butler is an undrafted free agent cornerback for the New England Patriots. He has been playing all of the second half because Kyle Arrington didn’t have a good game against Seattle’s receiving corps, and this called for desperate measures. But what good can a cornerback do for a defense when the ball is at the 1-yard line, and it’s all a matter of muscle and blocking?

Well, the Seahawks decide to line up in a stack formation on the strong side, with Russell Wilson, their quarterback, in the shotgun. This is a pass play…

There are 74 cameras and thousands of cell phones on the venue ready to capture that moment.

Malcolm Butler undercuts the route of wide receiver Ricardo Lockette and intercepts the ball. The stadium erupts. Commentators from 170 countries scream while others watch in disbelief. Butler is weeping surrounded by his ecstatic teammates as they are leaving the field.

The Patriots are champions once again, and Tom Brady gets his 4th ring. The team would go on to make 3 more Super Bowl appearances winning 2 of them.

This is NFL history, and this scenario sounds as if it happened 75 years ago (with the exclusion of the cameras, coverage, and attendance) and that we are now re-watching an old black-and-white game film.

Wrong, this happened on February 2nd, 2015, during Super Bowl XLIX.

It goes to show you that every year NFL history is rewritten, and more breathtaking moments are continually being added to the countless history books of this great game.

The play above also goes to show you that when you throw the ball, three things can happen, and two of them are bad. This is a pretty conservative notion, and it was expressed by Darrell Royal in 1962 when the game of football consisted mainly of ground running plays.

Wait, the NFL is 60-years old? That much?

Wrong again. It’s older than that.

This is how it all started.

nfl 1920

It is not a coincidence that the NFL Hall of Fame is located in Canton, Ohio. This is because that’s the birthplace of the league.

It was 1920 (September 17th to be exact) when a few men gathered in Canton and founded the first American Football league. The full name was the “American Professional Football Association” (APFA). This happened at the Hupmobile showroom because we didn’t expect them to meet at a conference hall in a 5-star hotel anyway.

Well, there was also another reason for this location to be picked. The owner of the team, called Canton Bulldogs, was also the owner of the showroom. His name was Ralph Hay, and even though he was very involved in all this, he didn’t become the first president of the pro league.

Jim Thorpe was elected as the inaugural president of the APFA. He was aged 33 at that time and was still an active professional athlete. He didn’t play only football but also competed in baseball, basketball, pentathlon, and decathlon winning Olympic medals along the way.

At this point, though, very few people actually cared that the first professional football league in the world had just been established.

Did any pros play the game before that?

William Heffelfinger FOOTBALL

Yes and no. There was no real professional football prior to the APFA being founded. However, at the end of the 19th century (1892), William Heffelfinger was offered an impressive sum to play in just one football game. Pudge (as his nickname went) was a star athlete, and he got $500 just to appear in the match.

Many people consider this to be the true start of professional football. Even though this is technically correct, the game was played with little regularity. Also, the whole thing was very localized – mainly around the Midwest. There was no organization, no governing body of all this. Rules weren’t clear and were interpreted differently.

Some sort of order had to be established, and this led to the events we described above.

Football in The 20s

There were eleven teams (franchises) that established the APFA:

  • Decatur Staleys
  • Chicago Cardinals
  • Akron Pros
  • Canton Bulldogs
  • Hammond Pros
  • Massillon Tigers
  • Muncie Flyers
  • Rock Island Independents
  • Rochester Jeffersons
  • Cleveland Indians
  • Dayton Triangles

Even before the beginning of the season, the Massillon team withdrew. However, the league grew in numbers immediately as 4 new teams joined:

  • Buffalo All-Americans
  • Columbus Panhandles
  • Detroit Heralds
  • Chicago Tigers

The first champion was the Akron Pros, who had a league record of 8-0-3. At this time, playoffs were not played.

Some exciting things happened back then because teams got disbanded after a losing season (Detroit Heralds, Chicago Tigers), while others made deals between one another. The first player transfer happened between Akron and Buffalo when a player (Bob Nash) was sold for $300, together with a percentage of the gate receipts.

Reading this now surely puts a smile on your face.

Lambeau and Halas

Over the next two years, two historical names emerged. Curly Lambeau and George Halas. The first one purchased the Green Bay Packers for $50 and went broke. The team was then owned by a public corporation established by local merchants. It remained like that, and today the Packers are the only publicly-owned team in the NFL.

George Halas played for the Chicago Staleys and was also their head coach. He renamed the team to Chicago Bears in 1922, and they are currently one of two original franchises still in the NFL. The other one is the Chicago Cardinals, and they now play their home games in Arizona.

Over the remainder of the decade, the number of teams playing in the NFL changed constantly. It grew to 21 but was then reduced to 12 because of financial reasons. In 1928 only 10 teams were playing.

Here’s how the 30s went

1930 Spartans

1932 was a year of innovations. Playoffs were still not a thing, but because the Spartans and the Bears finished with the same record, there had to be a tie-breaker game to determine the champion. The playoff game happened at the Chicago Stadium.

An interesting fact here is that this is an indoor venue. Due to this, the field was significantly constrained, goal posts had to be moved, hash marks were rearranged. From our point of view, it was a mess. The bears probably think otherwise because they won 9-0.

Another valuable addition was the introduction of official statistics. Who would suspect that stats would be such a driving force in all US sports over the next decades?

The next year saw the forward pass being made legal as long as it happened behind the line of scrimmage. So far, players had been allowed to throw only from at least 5 years behind the line.

Other notable things to mention from that decade:

  • The number of franchises kept growing. Art Rooney’s Pirates (now Steelers) joined. The same family still owns the team.
  • The NFL was split into two divisions.
  • Championship games were now scheduled before the season.
  • The NFL saw its first 1000-yard rusher – Beattie Feathers.
  • Players could be cut now.
  • The first college draft was held in 1936.
  • AFL was created. It rivaled the NFL.
  • All of this happened under Joe Carr as president of the league. He passed away in 1939.

The next two decades

During the 1940s and 1950s, the NFL kept improving and growing. These two decades were also a time of many “firsts.”

It didn’t take long for a championship game to be broadcast on radio. This actually happened in the first year of the 40s decade. The Bears won against the Redskins 73-0, and 120 radio stations transmitted the game. The collective cost for the rights was $2500, which needless to say, was an incredible sum for the time.

During the next year, the NFL got its first commissioner. The position was no longer called “president” and was taken by Elmer Layden.

The first health concerns were raised between the 42’ and the 43’ season. The league made all players wear helmets. But please don’t think that these helmets were something special. They were made out of leather, so when you had a helmet to helmet hit, it was still a pretty dangerous experience.

Over the following two seasons, Pittsburgh merged with Philadelphia and Chicago Cardinals for a season each. This was the first such action and was needed because of the ongoing World War II.

Players were recruited in the army, and most teams were depleted. When the war was over, among the 638 players called by the military, 21 were dead.

Some other notable events from that time

  • 1945 – the AAFC (All-America Football Conference) was established
  • 1946 – The Rams moved to LA, thus making football truly a national sport.
  • 1948 – the first painted helmet was made
  • 1949 – teams started transferring from one league to another, and this is how the merger between the NFL and the AAFC was complete. From then on, the NFL Championship game was only one.
  • 1950 – the NFL created the American and the National conferences. They came in place of the existing Western and Eastern Divisions.

Rams Los angeles

In 1950 something significant happened to the NFL. The Rams’ move to LA had an incredible impact on the popularization of the sport. The team was the first to have all its games televised. This included not only the home games but also the away ones. Other organizations quickly followed this example, and local TV deals were made rapidly. Just a year later, in 1951, the Championship game was televised nationally. The rights cost $75,000. The NFL had arrived.

Even though it was still early, and the passing game was virtually dead, some teams were becoming smart with their passing ideas. It started to become harder and harder for defenses to play against the throwing game because every offensive player was eligible to receive a pass

This was put to an end in 1951 when the league prohibited offensive linemen from catching a forward pass.

Quarterbacks come and go

Otto Graham

The year 1955 was an interesting one when it came to the quarterback position. No specific rules were changed, but two players were in the spotlight, so to say. The first one was Otto Graham, who exited the league for good. What he had done with the Cleveland Browns was monumental.

Graham took the team to 10 consecutive championship games in the AAFC. Of course, the team was coached by Paul Brown, who also gave his name to the franchise. To this day, the team from Cleveland still has the name “Browns.”

While one quarterback retired, another one entered the stage. The Baltimore Colts recruited Johnny Unitas through one phone call. Johnny U, as people call him, is one of the greatest players to have ever graced the field.

He is considered to be the first modern quarterback prototype. Unitas had exceptional passing skills and was consistently followed by media attention. He was the first nationwide fan-favorite in America.

Unitas also played in “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” This was the Championship game in 1958, during which the Colts beat the Giants 8:15 after overtime. It was the first sudden-death overtime game in the NFL. According to many, this game sparked the real nationwide popularity of the game of football.

Another pro league in the new decade? Not again! Lamar Hunt will forever have his name scribed in golden letters in the history books of the NFL. The reasons are many, but in 1959 he gathered some influential people from around the country and proposed them to create a new professional football league. It was called the AFL (American Football League).

During the 50s, the NFL became really popular mainly thanks to the extensive radio and TV coverage. It was only a matter of time before more people were keen on founding and investing in new franchises. Hunt sensed that and took advantage of the situation. On January 26, he was elected president of the AFL.

The new league adopted many new and dynamic rules (the 2-point conversion after a touchdown, for example) and was quick to generate interest by TV networks.  Some rules, however, were implemented by both leagues. In 1962 grabbing another player’s facemask was prohibited.

The Mid-sixties and the resolution between the AFL and the NFL

afl nfl

The next few years were very turbulent in terms of the relations between the two leagues. They had a major monopoly lawsuit in which the AFL was the plaintiff. This dragged for 3 and a half years before the court ruled in favor of the NFL.

Additionally, each league conducted its own college draft, had its own schedule, championship game, and TV rights. Still, the game of football was growing nationwide popularity, and there was only one possible outcome.

Thanks to efforts on Lamar Hunt’s side and Al Davis (the legendary Raiders owner and coach, who was also the AFL president at the time), the two leagues merged in 1966. Focal points of the merger were:

  • The new expansion league had 26 teams, soon to be 28.
  • The draft was a joint one now
  • Schedules would still be separate, but there would be only 1 championship game
  • The rights to the Championship game were given to one TV network for 4 years. It cost $9.5 million.

The Super Bowl era was here

first superbowl in history

The 60s decade also brought us the name Super Bowl. It wasn’t used right away, though. The first 3 final games had the very dull “AFL-NFL World Championship Game” as a name. It was again Lamar Hunt the one to make things right. He came up with the name “Super Bowl” after seeing his children play with a toy called “Super Ball.”

The name didn’t catch on until Super Bowl III when the Jets defeated the Colts 16-7. This is the famous game in which Joe Namath – the legendary Jets quarterback, guaranteed a win.

Vince Lombardi

This was also the decade during which one of the most iconic names in the sport emerged. We are talking about Green Bay Packers coach and president, Vince Lombardi. You perhaps recognize his last name, also thanks to the fact that the Super Bowl cup is called “The Lombardi Trophy.”

His Gren Bay Packers managed to win three straight NFL titles before the merger and two more after it. In fact, Lombardi won Super Bowls I and II. In 1968 he stepped down from his coaching position at Green Bay and remained president for one more season.

Then, in 1969 he became part-owner and head coach of the Washington Redskins. Under him, the team got its first winning season in franchise history. There is little doubt that Lombardi is among the greatest, if not the greatest coach, of all time. Among his accomplishments, we see:

  • 5 titles
  • 2 times coach of the year
  • NFL Pro Hall of Fame member
  • Member of the Packers’ and Redskins’ Hall of Fames
  • Playoff record of 9-1
  • Total win-loss record of 96-34-6

The game continues to develop and grow

The 70s saw the NFL become the most popular sport in the USA. TV rights deals’ numbers were off the charts, players were making a lot of money, and owners finally started paying attention to benefits.

Extra money was given away for insurance, dental expenses, widows’ benefits, etc. The growth of technology helped the NFL skyrocket, and Super Bowls were now sold out ahead of time. In 1973, the Super Bowl between Miami and Washington was viewed by 75 million people.

Just for context, the most-watched NBA game ever (Game 6 of the 1998 finals) was viewed by 36 million people. The NFL was light years ahead of that number almost 3 decades earlier.

Other changes were made to the rules, the goalposts set-up as well as the players’ numbers and nameplates.

At Super Bowl IX, the NFL saw its first significant dynasty emerging. The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Minnesota Vikings and won their first of four Lombardi Trophies for this decade. They won in

  • 1974 (SB IX)
  • 1975 (SB X)
  • 1978 (SB XII)
  • 1979 (SB XIV)

In the following decades, people would often critique the Steelers for having won so many Super Bowls in a short period because there was no salary cap in the NFL at the time. Teams were able to collect as much talent as possible as long as they were able to pay the players.

Meanwhile, parts of what we see today in the NFL began shaping up. 1977 saw the first collective bargaining agreement being signed between the owners and the Players Association. Additionally, a 16-game regular season was implemented. 4 pre-season games were added, and the playoff format was determined.

All in all, player safety was steadily making its way into the life of the NFL.

The 80s and the 90s in a nutshell

After 1980, the NFL turned into this huge money-making machine and shaped up in the way that we know it today. During these 2 decades, there were signature dynasties, colossal coaches, and legendary superstars. Apart from that, nothing historic happened except for the steady growth of the game:

  • Each consecutive year, TV networks marked better ratings.
  • Radio agreements were now worth more than $10 million.
  • Attendance was at 93% and kept rising.
  • Numerous rule changes and tweaks took part. Instant replay was introduced.
  • Teams migrated and changed names.
  • Athletes became more potent, more durable, faster. Records were shattered every year.
  • The passing game was now the primary weapon of the best teams in the league.
  • The Super Bowl was televised in over 60 countries.
  • ESPN was the first basic cable network to broadcast an NFL match.
  • In 1994, the salary cap was adopted.

Every game turned into a huge media event. Sundays became holidays around the country. NFL franchises became these vast corporations with dozens of employees. Coaches and assistants were busy coming up with plays nobody had seen before. There were schemes now, tendencies, analytics.

The stage was set for the greatest dynasties in NFL history to emerge.

The 5 dynasties that ruled over the NFL

Granted, it is safe to say that there had been more than 5 signature dynasties in the league, but all of them can be thoroughly described in a whole other piece. We have decided to highlight the 5 that we like the most, in no particular order.

The Steelers and their crazy 70s

We already mentioned the Steelers’ run in the 70s above, but now it is time to dedicate a separate section to them.

It can be argued that the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise is the first true dynasty of the NFL as they were the first team to win 4 Lombardies. Vince Lombardi himself won 5 titles, but only 2 were in the Super Bowl era.

Chuck Noll is the legendary coach who led the franchise to their 4 titles. His first draft pick ever? “Mean” Joe Greene. Terry Bradshaw was at the helm as a quarterback.

The Redskins in the mighty 80s

All the credit here has to go to coach Joe Gibbs. He will remain in NFL history as the only coach to have won a Super Bowl title with 3 different quarterbacks. Yes, they didn’t throw the ball a lot, but their O-line led by Russ Grimm was the staple of the dynasty.

The team made the Super Bowl 4 times between 1982 and 1991. They won 3 of the matches.

  • 1982
  • 1987
  • 1991

Another historical achievement is the fact that Doug Williams was the first African-American quarterback to lift the trophy. Other notable players worth mentioning are:

  • Darryl Green – cornerback
  • Charles Mann – defensive lineman
  • Dexter Manley – defensive lineman
  • Barry Wilburn – safety

Cowboys and their 90s run

This dynasty wouldn’t have been possible without the boldest, largest trade in NFL history. The then-new head coach of the Cowboys, Jimmy Johnson, decided it was time for radical change. He traded the franchise’s running back and best player – Herschel Walker to the Vikings. The trade also involved the Chargers together with combined 18 players and draft picks.

Needless to say, back then, everyone thought Johnson had lost his mind. However, the Cowboys used all those draft picks and strengthened the team across the board. The offensive line was known as the “Great Wall of Dallas.” Hall of fame quarterback Troy Aikman had all day to decide what to do with the ball.

But there were 2 more Hall of Fame players on that offense – running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin. They won Super Bowls XXVII, XXVIII, and XXX.

The 49ers who ruled the game well into the 90s

Starting in 1981, when San Francisco won SB XVI, they managed to win at least 10 games each season for the next 16 years.

Many believe that the 49ers are the first team to have started playing modern football as we know it. The West Coast offense was the absolute staple of the organization. It was created and implemented by hall of fame coach Bill Walsh. We can safely say that he propelled the game of football to another dimension.

Quarterback Joe Montana was there for 4 Super Bowl wins, and he was widely regarded as the best quarterback of all time until someone else made an appearance in the new century. Montana and Walsh won in:

  • 1982
  • 1985
  • 1989
  • 1990

In 1991, there was a quarterback change, and Steve Young took over the starting job after Montana went to the Chiefs. With Young, San Francisco won again in 1995.

We simply cannot skip mentioning the greatest wide receiver of all-time – Jerry Rice, who was also part of the incredible 49ers run.

The Patriots’ dark empire

We said that we aren’t ordering these dynasties in any particular order…but who are we kidding? The Patriots 2-decade rule is the absolute best dynasty in the NFL, if not in all US sports.

This franchise under the ownership of Robert Kraft, the guidance of head coach (and de-facto general manager) Bill Belichick, and impeccable play of superstar quarterback Tom Brady did not allow any other team any breathing room for 20 years.

The Patriots made 9 Super Bowl appearances between 2001 and 2020. They won 6 of those.

Tom Brady was selected with the 199th pick in the 6th round of the 2000 NFL draft. He made the team and, in 2001, replaced injured franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Brady never gave Bledsoe the starting job back ever again after winning the Super Bowl in the 2001 season.

Since 2002, the franchise has won 17 division titles, of which 11 were won consecutively. The 2008 season was a down year for the team as Tom Brady tore an ACL and missed the season. This year, the Patriots also missed the playoffs.

Apart from that, it has been all complete mayhem, domination, and record-shattering. In 2007, the Patriots did not lose a game in the regular season, finishing 16-0. However, they lost the Super Bowl to the New York Giants that season.

Many argue that the dynasty can be split into two dynasties because the Patriots essentially had 2 Super Bowl runs. They won their first 3 titles in the following seasons:

  • 2001
  • 2003
  • 2004

Then, they won again in these seasons:

  • 2014
  • 2016
  • 2018

There was a 10-year gap between their 3rd and 4th title, but what many people forget is that the Patriots were pretty much in contention each one of these years. In 2007 they made the Super Bowl but lost, and in 2011 they again made the Super Bowl but lost. In seasons 2006, 2012, 2013, and 2015 the Patriots played in the AFC Championship game, meaning that they were within arm’s reach of actually making the Super Bowl 13 times in 20 seasons.

On the way out

We hope you have enjoyed our brief outline of the NFL’s extensive history. The league celebrated its 100th – year anniversary in 2020, and we see no reason why it wouldn’t keep going for at least a 100 more.