Rules go way back for football

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 5, 2004

Recently I mentioned there were college sports officials who were able to do a very good job by using their knowledge of the game combined with sound judgement but with only a rudimentary knowledge of the rules.

While it remains necessary for a competent official to know the game and exercise good judgment, no official can long maintain a roster position without an absolutely thorough knowledge of the game’s rules.

While thinking about rules, I did some research on changes to football rules over the years.

Email newsletter signup

The NFL, NCAA and high school rules differ in many respects, but those rules have remained similar enough the average fan can follow all three easily.

From the game’s beginning in 1869 when football was mostly a derivation of rugby until 1906 when the forward pass was legalized, most rule changes were designed to improve the player’s safety.

In spite of these changes, in 1908 33 college football players died from their football injuries, and that brought about five major changes in playing rules.

Among those were the offense have seven men on the line of scrimmage, pushing or pulling the ball carrier was no longer allowed, interlocking interference was outlawed and the flying tackle was banned.

If that hadn’t happened, President Teddy Roosevelt was prepared to outlaw football.

During the infancy of the passing game from 1906 until 1912, an incomplete pass or a pass completed in your opponent’s end zone was a turnover.

Changes in 1912 not only liberalized forward passing rules to allow a touchdown for a pass completed in the end zone and making an incomplete pass cost only a loss of down (in 1926 and for a short time after that an incomplete pass resulted in a five-yard penalty) but also included the current rule that a team had four downs to move 10 yards to earn a first down.

Also, the field was shortened from 110 to 100 yards, and the value of a touchdown increased from five to six points.

The 1927 changes included moving the goal posts back from the goal line to the end line. The NFL kept them on the goal line until the 1960s.

After 1937 all players were required to have numbers on their jerseys and that year also saw the first official statistics kept.

Because of the onset of World War II, in 1941 substitution rules were relaxed to basically allow unlimited substitutions.

The two-point conversion from the 3-yard line was introduced in 1958 and was followed in 1959 with a slight relaxing of the limited substitution rule which had been reinstated in 1952.

That rule was tweaked until the late 1960s when unlimited substitutions of players was written back into the rules. That single rule (plus the facemask rule) has brought the game into the wide-open era we all know now.

Next week we’ll have some interesting information about basketball rules, starting with Dr. Naismith’s original 13 rules.

And that’s official.

Al&160;Graning is a former SEC official and former Natchez resident. He can be reached at