- 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 1958 NFL championship game which went into overtime.
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
The NFL season begins with each team playing a four-game pre-season schedule in August and early September. The regular season starts the week after the pre-season ends. Each team plays 16 games during a 17-week period. Traditionally, every game is played on Sunday afternoon with one game per week being played in Sunday night, and another game being played on Monday night. Once in a while, special games are played to coincide with the holidays, most noticably on Thanksgiving day. Every team plays every other team in their divison twice: once at home, and once on the road. The remaining games on the schedule are determined by the NFL.
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:
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.
Currently the NFL's CBA (collective bargining agreement) expires in 2008 but to prevent any cancelations and such, the NFL is talking about extending it right now. This has been a heated isue with the expensive stadium costs and such.
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, simply fired black workers before white workers, but this could hardly account for the league's apparent "all-white" policy during this period. Still, Marshall refused to sign black players until threatened with civil rights legal action by the Kennedy administration in 1962, in which it was explained to him that his lease on the then-new D.C. Stadium, which was at the time controlled by the United States Department of the Interior, would be voided if he continued to refuse to sign any black players. This action, and pressure by another competing league, the more racially-liberal American Football League, slowly managed to reverse the NFL's racial quotas. The AFL's Denver Broncos were the first modern-era team to have a black starting quarterback, Marlin Briscoe , who started the fourth game of the 1968 season, and broke pro football rookie records for passing yardage and touchdowns. The next year 1969, another American Football League team, the Buffalo Bills were the first professional football team of the modern era to begin the season with a black, James Harris as their starting quarterback. The Chicago Bears had a black quarterback in 1953, Willie Thrower, who played in only one game and did not start in any games. After that, no old-line NFL team had a black starting quarterback until the Steelers' Joe Gilliam in 1972.
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. See NFL on television for more information.
The NFL on video games
NFL and EA Sports produce versions of the game on PC and various game consoles approximately every year, called Madden NFL, being named after football commentator John Madden. (See Madden NFL series for a detailed description of each.) There are also Street versions of the game (see NFL Street series and NFL Blitz for more information).
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 (Soldier Field) during the second quarter, cutting visibility to about 15-20 yards for the rest of the game. The fog is so thick that TV and radio announcers had trouble seeing what was happening on the field. Both teams were forced to use their running game because receivers could not see long passes thrown to them. The Bears ended 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 appeared to be on his way to score the game tying touchdown. But he fumbled the ball at the 3-yard line. The Broncos recovered the ball, gave the Browns an intentional safety, and went 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 on NBC 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 kicked what appears to be the game-winning field goal with 1:05 remaining. While millions of irate fans, missing the finale, jammed NBC's phone lines, the Raiders scored 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 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 end zone where tight end Dave Casper fell on it for a touchdown. After this play, it was made illegal to move the ball foward by deliberately swatting or kicking it after a fumble, and in the final two minutes of each half, a forward fumble recovered by the offensive team is spotted at the point the fumble, not the point of the recovery.
- The Ice Bowl (December 31, 1967 NFL Championship) The Packers beat the Cowboys at Lambeau Field. The temperature was reported at 13 below zero Farienheit. The NFL Films presentation of this event in which the playing surface was referred to as "the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field" has been the source of endless imitation and parody.
- 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 NFL team to have a perfect season, capped by winning Super Bowl VII.
- The Miracle at the Meadowlands (November 19, 1978, Eagles vs. Giants) at Giants Stadium Leading 17-12 with less than 20 seconds left in the game, Giants Quarterback Joe Pisarcik tried to hand off to a running back instead of kneeling with the ball. The exchange was fumbled and the Eagles' Herman Edwards picked up the loose ball and runs for the game winning touchdown.
- The Comeback (January 3, 1993, 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) at The Coliseum With 16 seconds left in the game the Titans received a "squib" kickoff. The Titans' Lorenzo Neal handed the ball to Frank Wycheck , who then lateraled the ball to his teammate, Kevin Dyson, who then ran the length of the field down the sideline 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 caught the winning touchdown pass among "the sea of hands" of three Dolphins defenders.
- The Snow Plow Game (December 12, 1982, Dolphins vs. Patriots) at Foxboro Stadium After a blizzard holds both teams scoreless, Patriots head coach Ron Meyer orders the area where the ball is to be spotted cleared by a snow plow. The successful kick is the game winner.
- Wide Right (January 27, 1991, Super Bowl XXV) With only a few seconds left, Scott Norwood was called in to kick a 47-yard field goal for the Buffalo Bills, who were down 20-19 against the New York Giants. The kick had plenty of distance, but sailed wide right, beginning the Bills' streak of four consecutive Super Bowl losses.
The following are nicknames that are considered common knowledge among NFL fans:
- America's Team -- Nickname given to the Dallas Cowboys due its having a large number of fans who live outside its immediate local area (the term itself is derived from the title of the team's 1979 highlight film).
- Black Hole -- Name of the section behind the south end zone in Oakland Coliseum, known for having some of the most rabid fans in the NFL.
- Cheeseheads -- Green Bay Packers fans who wear foam triangles made to look like cheese on their heads.
- Dawg Pound -- Name of the bleacher section behind the east end zone in Cleveland Browns Stadium, also known for having some of the most rabid fans in the NFL.
- Dirty Birds-- The 1998 Atlanta Falcons.
- Doomsday Defense -- The 1970s Dallas Cowboys defensive team.
- The Electric Company -- The 1970s Buffalo Bills offensive linemen.
- Fearsome Foursome -- The 1960s Los Angeles Rams defensive linemen.
- Franco's Italian Army -- Fans of Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris.
- The Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field -- Nickname given to the home field of the Green Bay Packers, as the grass frequently becomes frozen due to Green Bay, Wisconsin's winter climate.
- The Greatest Show on Turf -- The 1999-2001 St. Louis Rams offensive team.
- The Hogs -- The 1980s Washington Redskins offensive linemen.
- Hogettes -- Rabid Washington Redskin fans who dress in drag and wear pig noses.
- Monsters of the Midway -- The 1960s Chicago Bears.
- No-Name Defense -- The 1970s Miami Dolphins defensive team.
- Orange Crush -- The 1970s Denver Broncos defensive team.
- The Purple People Eaters -- The 1970s Minnesota Vikings defensive team.
- Raider Nation -- Oakland Raider fans.
- Steel Curtain -- The 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers defensive team.
- Terrible Towel -- a gimmick used by fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers to cheer for their team.
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)