by Dan Ford
Every sport has a benchmark in its evolution. Some sports, like baseball, are so steeped in tradition and statistics that change is difficult. I think the designated hitter in the American League was the last significant change in our national pastime. And that was in 1973. Basketball has a little more creativity, spurred mostly by the creation of the rival American Basketball Association in 1967 with its three-point shot and the multi-colored ball. Other than taller and taller players at the college and pro levels, and the elimination of the jump ball, basketball hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years.
Football is another matter. The sport is so flexible that a “Competition Committee” of the NFL meets every winter to update the way the pro game is played. That decision ultimately filters down to the amateur level as well.
If you returned a kickoff or punt from the end zone for a touchdown (100 yards or more) back over 40 years ago, your feat will never be outdone because the rule was changed to automatically call a touchback if the ball is kicked to the end zone. In fact, due to the potential for injury on kickoffs, they are likely to be eliminated altogether one day soon.
One rule that changed in 2015 at the NFL level requires the extra point to be placed at the 15 yard line instead of the two yard line which makes the extra point less likely. Only five kickers were perfect on extra points during the season. NFL kickers missed 71 kicks in 2015 compared to just 8 from the shorter distance in 2014. Now we fans have to hold our breath when our favorite team tries that late game extra point in a close contest.
So, kudos to football and the Competition Committee for not letting traditional or statistics stop the evolution of the game of football.
Having said all of that, what is the most dramatic improvement to the game of football over the years? Legendary figures like Walter Camp and Amos Alonzo Stagg invented the line of scrimmage and the huddle respectively. President Teddy Roosevelt threatened to ban the violent game in 1902 prompting the invention of the forward pass. How about the two-point conversion replacing the automatic one-point try regardless of the way it was achieved? The domed stadium? Television broadcasts? Cheerleaders? All of those are important but for my money, the hash mark is the most important.
In 1932 the NFL was preparing to hold its first official championship game. The league was founded in 1920 but there were no organized scheduling or post season games. The owners held their annual meeting in January and voted on the champion who was almost always the team with the best winning percentage even though some teams played a few games and others played as many as 18. By 1925 the league consciously started pricing out the smaller towns with high annual fees or entry fees into the league, hoping to model their fledgling league into something akin to major league baseball. By 1932 there were just eight cities (compared to 21 in 1921). Rules dictated the standings would count only those games played before December 15th. The Chicago Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans tied for the regular season and had played each other twice, splitting those games as well. The league agreed to a post-season game to determine the champion on December 18th on Chicago’s Wrigley Field. It would be the first such game and would spawn a championship game every year thereafter.
Due to a severe snow and wind storm in the Chicago area, the game had to be moved indoors into Chicago Stadium. The field was only 80 yards long and 45 yards wide (compared to a 100×66 yard football field). The stadium was used effectively for rodeos and the circus but the narrow playing field left little room on the sidelines. So the goalposts were moved to the goal line and hash marks were created 10 yards from the sideline.
Understand that prior to this time the ball was placed wherever the ball carrier was stopped. If he was stopped on the sidelines or out of bounds, the ball had to be put into play there. You can imagine that the next play would likely be a move toward the center of the field rather than down the field, even if it meant losing some yardage to get toward the center. Consequently, offensive strategies avoided running toward the sidelines and risking being trapped. Further plays on the drive would likely stall the drive. Scores were low. Offensive plays were power moves determined by the strength of the interior. Kicking was an important part of the game. A consistent strategy was to play for field position and hope your opponent made a mistake from their own end zone resulting in a safety. It happened often.
The 1932 game is perhaps best remembered for the touchdown pass from Bronco Nagurski to Red Grange which was seemingly illegal because the passer was required to be five yards behind the line of scrimmage before passing and most observers say the Bronk wasn’t. Chicago got a safety later and won the game, 9-0, under the protest by the Spartans. However, the hash mark was a big success and NFL officials recognized how it could open up the game. The next season the hash mark was put on all NFL fields and the game blossomed into more of an offensive endeavor for all concerned.
So what revolutionized football the most? No it wasn’t Pete Rozelle, America’s Team, Friday Night Lights or even Peyton Manning. It was a simple mark placed across another line and known as the Hash Mark.