- For other uses of the abbreviation "NFL," see NFL (disambiguation).
The National Football League (NFL) is the largest and most popular professional American football league in the world, consisting of thirty-two teams from American cities. The league was formed in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association, which adopted the name "National Football League" in 1922.
Prior to the 1960s, the most popular version of American football was played collegiately. The NFL's greatest spurt in popularity came in the 1960s and 1970s, after the challenge to its supremacy by the rival American Football League (AFL, 1960-1969). Scoreboard clocks with official time; national network television coverage; the two-point conversion; sharing of gate and television revenue between home teams and visitors; and ultimately the sport's championship game, the Super Bowl, all came about as a result of the AFL's influence. The NFL's current makeup and geographic expanse, as well as its style of play, rules, media coverage, playoffs and championship games, were enhanced by its merger with the American Football League, effective with the 1970 season.
In recent decades, the NFL traditionally started the regular season on Labor Day Weekend and lasted through Christmas week. However, declining television ratings on Labor Day have pushed the start of the regular season ahead one week (which is where scheduling currently stands), although for the past two years, the regular season has begun on the Thursday after Labor Day.
At the end of each season, the winners of the playoffs in the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference meet in the NFL championship, the Super Bowl, held at a pre-selected neutral site. One week later, selected all-star players from both the AFC and NFC meet in the Pro Bowl, currently held in Hawaii.
Current NFL franchises
At the conclusion of each 16-game regular season, six teams from each conference qualify for the playoffs, which culminate in the Super Bowl:
- The four division champions, which are seeded #1 through #4 based on their regular season won-lost-tied record, and
- Two wild card qualifiers (those non-division champions with the conference's best won-lost-tied percentages), who are seeded #5 and #6 within the conference.
The #3 and #6 seeded teams, and the #4 and #5 seeded teams, face each other during the first round of the playoffs, dubbed the "Wild Card Round." The #1 and #2 seeds from each conference do not participate in this round, earning an automatic berth in the following week's "Divisional Playoff" games, where they face the Wild Card survivors. The #1 seeded team plays against the lowest remaining seed while the #2 seeded team plays the other remaining team. In a given game, whoever has the higher seed gets the home field advantage.
The two surviving teams from the Divisional Playoff games meet in Conference Championship games, with the winners of those contests going on to face one another in the Super Bowl.
The terms "Wild Card Round" and "Divisional Playoffs" originated from the playoff format that was used before 1990. During that time, three division winners and two wild card teams from each conference qualified for the playoffs. Only the wild card teams played during the first round, while all of the division winners waited until the following week to play.
The NFL's method for determining its champions has changed over the years. For the history of the process see National Football League championships.
Many of the USA's college football players want to play in the NFL. There is a highly organized and formal process called the draft (currently consisting of seven rounds) that takes place over two days in April, in which all NFL teams participate. The NFL team with the worst record in the previous year gets first pick of the draft. That is, the team is the first to select a player from a pool of all eligible college players in the country. The idea is that weak teams can thereby become strengthened over time, in the specialties where they need strengthening. Draft picks continue, in the order from the weakest team to the strongest team, and once all teams have picked one player, they all pick again starting with the weakest team.
Draft picks are frequently traded in advance for players and other draft picks. For example, before the draft occurs, Team A might trade its first-round draft pick plus a certain player (who already plays for Team A) to Team B in exchange for another particular player who already plays for Team B.
Occasionally a player drafted out of college will go right into a "first-string" position as the team's primary player in that position. However, these players usually begin as second- or third-string backups, only playing games if the first-stringer is injured, or if there has been a runaway score and the coach decides to put a backup in the game for a little experience, and to ensure his first-stringer doesn't get injured at the end in a play that is not meaningful to the team.
See List of NFL first overall draft choices
Salaries and the salary cap
The minimum salary for an NFL player is $225,000 in his first year, and rises after that based on the number of years in service:
|Years Experience ||Minimum Salary |
|0 ||$225,000 |
|1 ||$300,000 |
|2 ||$375,000 |
|3 ||$450,000 |
|4-6 ||$525,000 |
|7-9 ||$650,000 |
|10+ ||$750,000 |
These numbers are set by contract between the NFL and the players' union, the National Football League Players' Association. These numbers are of course exceeded dramatically by the best players in each position.
Escalating player salaries throughout the 1980s led to the creation of a salary cap, a maximum amount of money each team can pay its players in aggregate. The cap is determined via a complicated formula based on the revenue that all NFL teams receive during the previous year. For the 2004 season, the NFL's salary cap will be approximately $ 80.5 million, an increase of $ 5.5 million from 2003.
Proponents of the salary cap note that it prevents a well-financed team in a major city from simply spending giant amounts of money to secure the very best players in every position and thus dominating the entire sport. This has been seen as a problem in American baseball, among other sports. Proponents also claim that player salaries are out of control, and that fans end up paying higher ticket prices to pay for these salaries. Critics of the salary cap note that the driving reason for the cap was to maximize the profitability of the NFL teams, and limit the power of NFL players to command the high salaries they are said to deserve in exchange for bringing in large numbers of paying fans to the stadiums. They also note that the salary cap could hypothetically drive prospective athletes to other sports that do not cap the salaries of players.
Main article: Black players in American professional football
Although the NFL in 2004 is dominated at virtually every position by African-American athletes, that was not always the case. The league had a few black players until 1933, one year after entry to the league of George Preston Marshall. Marshall's policies not only excluded blacks from his Washington Redskins team but may have influenced the entire league to drop blacks until 1946, when pressure from the competing All-America Football Conference induced the NFL to be more liberal in its signing of blacks. Another theory holds that the NFL like most of the United States during the Great Depression would fire black workers before white workers. Still, Marshall refused to sign black players until threatened with civil-rights legal action by the Kennedy administration in 1962. This action, and pressure by another competing league, the more liberal American Football League, slowly managed to reverse the NFL's racial quotas. The American Football League's Denver Broncos were the first modern team to have a black quarterback, Marlin Briscoe, in 1968; and the American Football League's Buffalo Bills were the first to have a black starting quarterback, James Harris, in 1969.
Even after that, for many NFL teams the door would remain closed to black quarterbacks through the 1970s. 1978 Rose Bowl MVP Warren Moon played for six seasons in the CFL before his abilities finally landed him the starting role with the Houston Oilers. It took until 1988 before a black quarterback started for a Super Bowl team, when Doug Williams won it for the Redskins. To this day, the NFL's head-coach hiring policies are questioned, and it has had to institute measures to attempt to have black head-coach candidates be treated more equitably.
The NFL on television
The television rights to pro football are the most lucrative (and most expensive) rights of any sport available. In fact, it was television that brought pro football into prominence in the modern era of technology. Since then, NFL broadcasts have become among the most-watched programs on American television, and the fortunes of entire networks have rested on owning NFL broadcasting rights.
From the very beginning of the television era, NBC was a prime innovator in football coverage. They were the first major television network to cover an NFL game. In 1939, they televised a game between the Eagles and the Brooklyn football Dodgers. In 1950 the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins televised all their home and road games. The DuMont Network televised the 1951 NFL championship across the entire United States. In 1955 NBC became the televised home to the league championship game. The 1958 championship game played at Yankee Stadium went into sudden death overtime. This game was seen by many through out the country and is credited with increasing the popularity of pro football in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
CBS took over television coverage of the NFL in 1956, while in 1960 the American Football League was first covered by ABC. This was the first-ever cooperative television plan for professional football, in which the AFL office negotiated an ABC-TV contract, the proceeds of which were divided equally among member clubs.
Just as the American Football League innovated rules and policies that the more conservative NFL would later emulate, ABC-TV initiated new game-coverage concepts, in which CBS lagged behind. In a 1961 home game of the San Diego Chargers, ABC-TV introduced the concept of "miking" players in live action, with a microphone on Chargers quarterback Jack Kemp and a combination of several aerial and field-level cameras (an advance later erroneously attributed to NFL Films). ABC-TV also also featured sensitive field microphones so the TV audience could hear the game action. This while CBS covered NFL games with a stationary camera at midfield and microphones only in the pressbox. Later NBC picked up coverage of the AFL.
Both CBS and NBC televised the first Super Bowl in January 1967. Then, in 1970, the NFL began playing games on Monday night, thus a unique partnership between the NFL and ABC was launched, and the Monday Night Football franchise was born. MNF itself pushed the limits of football coverage with its halftime highlights segment, occasional banter from Howard Cosell and Dennis Miller, and celebrity guests such as John Lennon and President Clinton. Today, Monday Night Football consistently ranks among the most popular primetime broadcasts each week during the NFL season.
Each of the three major networks had their own talent. Announcers such as Cosell, Frank Gifford, and Al Michaels (from ABC); Pat Summerall and John Madden (from CBS); and Curt Gowdy, Dick Enberg, Marv Albert, Jim Simpson, and Jim Lampley (from NBC), all had their own unique analysis of the game. Even the individual networks' football coverage was innovative. For example, CBS' The NFL Today was the first pre-game show to have a female co-hostess, (Phyllis George); and NBC made history in the 1980s with announcerless football, one-announcer football, and even the first female play-by-play football announcer (which in its own way, set the mold for female sportscasters of today).
The Super Bowls were also ratings blockbusters for the networks that aired it, assuring them of annual ratings victory, and drawing in millions and millions of dollars in advertising.
Expansion to cable
The middle of the 1980s ushered in the cable era, and in 1987, ESPN became the first cable network to broadcast NFL games. Chris Berman helped redefine the pre- and post-game shows when he launched NFL Countdown and NFL Primetime, and they have since become the top-rated pre- and post-game shows on television. ESPN's contract to show National Football League games on Sunday evenings marked as a turning point for ESPN, transforming it from a smaller cable TV network to a marketing empire.
For a few years in the 1990s, Turner's TNT network broadcast Sunday night games for the first half of the season before ESPN took it over full-time in 1997.
In December 1993, CBS (which had been home to National Conference games for 38 years) lost their rights to the fledging Fox Network. Fox offered a then-record $1.58 billion to the NFL over four years for the rights, significantly more than the $290 million CBS was willing to pay. Fox was only seven years old and had no sports division, but it began building its own coverage by hiring many former CBS personalities such as Summerall and Madden. Fox's NFL rights ownership made the network a major player in American television by giving it many new viewers (and affiliates) and a platform to advertise its other shows. In the meantime, CBS lost several affiliates, and ratings for its other programming languished.
NBC's rebound in the ratings in both the 1980s and 1990s (after years in the bottom of the ratings cellar) were attributed in part to its continuing coverage of the NFL. But with television contract re-negotiations in early 1998 ushering in the era of multi-billion dollar broadcasting agreements, an era of pro football broadcasting would soon came to an unceremonious conclusion. CBS, stung by Fox's surprise bid four years earlier, aggressively sought to reacquire some broadcasting rights. CBS agreed to pay $4 billion over eight years ($500 million per season) to air American Conference games. NBC, meanwhile, had indicated a desire to bid for Monday Night Football rights in 1998, but gave up when the financial stakes skyrocketed. And so, after six decades, NBC, the network that helped define pro football on television, lost its rights to air the NFL, thus marking the beginning of a slow (and continuing) decline for the Peacock network's sports division.
Fox extended its National Conference deal by agreeing to a $4.4 billion contract ($550 million per season), which included rights to half the Super Bowls during that time. Meanwhile, ABC retained its longtime rights to Monday Night Football by also paying $4.4 billion over eight years. ESPN agreed to a $4.8 billion ($600 million a season) deal to become the sole cable broadcaster of NFL games. All the eight-year deals last through the 2005 season.
NFL broadcasting today
Today, despite annual financial losses, CBS continues its position as the prime network for NFL football (with its American Conference package), although Fox continues to air National Conference games, ESPN still airs Sunday night games, and ABC has its Monday Night Football franchise. The current NFL television contract ends with the 2005 season, and negotiations for new contracts have already begun. As of November 9, 2004, both Fox and CBS have renewed their broadcast rights through 2011, while the Sunday and Monday night packages remain up for grabs, perhaps opening the door for the return of pro football to NBC. The cost of television rights is expected to continue to rise.
The style of pro football broadcasting is ever changing, with its female hostesses/sideline reporters, visual first-down markers, advanced graphics, and new multi-camera angles, all of which will carry football telecasts into the new century.
NFL Network and NFL Films
In 2003 the NFL launched its own specialty channel, the NFL Network. The new channel's coverage focuses on the NFL (as would be expected), although it will also be used to screen Canadian Football League games as per the terms of a working agreement with the CFL that was renewed in 2004.
NFL Films, which provides game films to media outlets for highlight shows, is owned by the NFL.
The NFL's status as a prime offering by the networks has led some to conclude that unbiased coverage of the league is not possible. ESPN attempted to run a dramatic series showing seamier aspects of pro football, Playmakers, but dropped the series after the league threatened to exclude the network from carrying its games. "NFL Films", though technically superb, with stunning action shots, essentially produces commercials for the NFL.
In the history of the NFL, certain events have become lore. The following are plays and events that are considered common knowledge among NFL fans.
- The Catch (January 10, 1982, Cowboys vs. 49ers in NFC Championship) With 58 seconds left and the 49ers down by 6, Joe Montana threw a very high pass into the endzone. Dwight Clark lept and completed a fingertip catch for a touchdown. The 49ers won 28-27 and made it to the Super Bowl.
- The Drive (January 11, 1987, Browns vs. Broncos in AFC Championship) Broncos trailed 20-13, muffed a kickoff return, and started from their 2-yard line with 5:32. In 15 plays, John Elway drove his team 98 yards for a touchdown to tie the game, which the Broncos won in overtime.
- The Fog Bowl (December 31, 1988, Eagles vs. Bears in NFC Semifinal) A heavy, dense fog rolled over the stadium during the 2nd quarter, cutting visibility to about 15-20 yards for the rest of the game. The fog is so thick that TV and radio announcers have trouble seeing what is happening on the field. Both teams are forced to use their running game because receivers cannot see long passes thrown to them. The Bears end up winning 20-12.
- The Fumble (January 18, 1988, Browns vs. Broncos in AFC Championship) Trailing 31-38 with 1:12 remaining in the game, the Browns' Earnest Byner appears to be on his way to score the game tying touchdown. But he fumbles the ball at the 3-yard line. The Broncos recover the ball, give the Browns an intentional safety, and go on to win 38-33.
- "The Greatest Game Ever Played" (December 28, 1958, Colts vs. Giants in NFL Championship) In the first ever sudden-death overtime in NFL history, Fullback Alan Ameche's 1-yard touchdown run gives the Colts a 23-17 win over the Giants. The nationally televised game was watched by over 50 million people and helped springboard the NFL's popularity into the 1960s.
- The Hail Mary (December 28, 1975, Cowboys vs. Vikings in NFC Semifinal) The term hail mary pass originated during this game. With 24 seconds left in the game, Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach threw a desperate 50-yard winning touchdown pass.
- The Heidi Game (November 17, 1968, Jets vs. Raiders) With its nationally televised game running late, NBC begins to show the movie Heidi just moments after the Jets' Jim Turner kicks what appears to be the game-winning field goal with 1:05 remaining. While millions of irate fans, missing the finale, jam NBC's phone lines, the Raiders score 2 touchdowns in the final minute to win 43-32.
- The Guarantee (January 12, 1969, American Football League Jets vs. NFL Colts in Super Bowl III) The 17-point favorite Colts, are beaten 16-7 by Joe Namath, Johnny Sample, Randy Beverly and the New York Jets. Namath "guaranteed" a win for the Jets at The Miami Touchdown Club just a few days before the game.
- The Exclamation Point (January 11, 1970, American Football League Chiefs vs. NFL Vikings in Super Bowl IV) The 14-point favorite Vikings, are beaten 23-7 by Len Dawson, Johnny Robinson, Otis Taylor and the Kansas City Chiefs, evening the series at 2-2 and showing that the Jets victory for the AFL was no fluke.
- The Holy Roller (September 10, 1978, Raiders vs. Chargers) The Raiders were trailing the Chargers with 10 seconds remaining. Quarterback Ken Stabler fumbled the ball and running back Pete Banaszak swatted it into the endzone where Tight End Dave Casper fell on it for a touchdown. After this play, it was ruled illegal to move the ball foward by swatting or kicking it after a fumble.
- The Ice Bowl (December 31, 1967 NFL Championship) The Packers beat the Cowboys at Lambeau Field. The temperature was reported at 13 below zero. By the end of the game, the field was a sheet of ice.
- The Immaculate Reception is the nickname given to the single most famous play in the history of professional American football. It occurred in an AFC semi-final game in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on December 23, 1972. The Pittsburgh Steelers were behind their longtime rival, the Oakland Raiders by the score of 7 to 6, facing fourth-and-ten on their own 40-yard line with 22 seconds remaining in the game and no time outs. Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw the ball to the Raiders' 35-yard line, toward fullback Frenchy Fuqua. Raiders safety Jack Tatum reached Fuqua just as the ball did. Tatum's hit knocked Fuqua to the ground. The ball bounced backward several yards. Steelers running back Franco Harris, after initially blocking on the play, had moved forward in case Bradshaw needed another eligible receiver. He scooped up the ball just before it hit the ground, apparently off the tops of his shoes, and ran the rest of the way downfield to score the touchdown that gave the Steelers a 12-7 lead with five seconds remaining in the game.
- Miami's Perfect Season (1972), The Dolphins are the only team to have a perfect season capped by winning Super Bowl VII.
- The Miracle at the Meadowlands (November 19, 1978, Eagles vs. Giants) Leading 17-12 with less than 20 seconds left in the game, Giants Quarterback Joe Pisarcik tries to hand off to a running back instead of kneeling with the ball. The exchange is fumbled and the Eagles' Herman Edwards picks up the loose ball and runs for the game winning touchdown.
- The Comeback (January 3, 1992, Bills vs. Oilers) With Quarterback Jim Kelly and Running Back Thurman Thomas out injured, Frank Reich and Kenny Davis led the Bills back from a 32 point deficit, to defeat the Oilers 41-38 in overtime in a wild card playoff game, the greatest comeback ever in pro football history.
- The Music City Miracle (January 8, 2000, Bills vs. Titans) With 16 seconds left in the game, the Titans' Frank Wycheck laterals the ball to his teammate, Kevin Dyson, who then run for the game-winning touchdown.
- The Sea of Hands (December 21, 1974, Dolphins vs. Raiders in AFC Semifinal) With 24 seconds left in the game, The Raiders' Clarence Davis somehow catches the winning touchdown pass among "the sea of hands" of three Dolphins defenders.
- The Snow Plow Game (December 12, 1982, Dolphins vs. Patriots) Patriots head coach Ron Meyer literally steals the game after a blizzard holds both teams scoreless with 4:45 remaining in the game. Before attempting a late field goal, Meyer orders the area where the ball is to be spotted cleared by a snow plow. The successful kick is the game winner. Ironically, the snow plow was driven by a convicted felon on a work release program.
Commissioners and presidents of the NFL
- President Jim Thorpe (1920-1921)
- President Joseph Carr (1921-1939)
- President Carl Storck (1939-1941)
- Commissioner Elmer Layden (1941-1946)
- Commissioner Bert Bell (1946-1959)
- Interim President Austin Gunsel (1959-1960, following death of Bell)
- Commissioner Alvin "Pete" Rozelle (1960-1989)
- Commissioner Paul Tagliabue (1989-present)
- "NFL Scores Nearly $18 Billion in TV Rights", by Stefan Fatsis and Kyle Pope, 01/14/1998, The Wall Street Journal (p. B1)  (http://subscribe.wsj.com/microexamples/articlefiles/NFLScoresNearly18BillionInTVRights.doc)
- NFL's Economic Model Shows Signs of Strain (http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A57668-2005Jan7?language=printer)
- NFL website (http://www.nfl.com)
- NFL History (http://cbs.sportsline.com/nfl/history) - Champion and Award Lists
- Dr. Eric Tulsky's Thoughts on Football (http://www.thoughtsonfootball.com)
- NFL Finals (http://www.superbowl-3.com)