History of the NFL from the year you were born

Published 6:00 am Friday, November 5, 2021

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History of the NFL from the year you were born

The NFL as we know it was formed in 1920 (albeit under a different name). The genesis of American football looked much different from the game we are familiar with today; 101 years ago, the sport did not include current mainstays like night games and televised broadcasts. Only two current franchises have survived throughout the NFL’s entire history (the Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals), so there are lots of unfamiliar names in the league’s early days. For example, Canton, Ohio, is often recognized today as the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but in the early 1920s, the Canton Bulldogs were one of the NFL’s premier clubs. Not everything was so unfamiliar 100 years ago, as names such as George Halas and Red Grange, stars of the NFL’s adolescence, still carry an air of reverence.

As the leather helmets and run-heavy trademarks of football gave way to gunslingers and $200 cleats, the NFL underwent a bevy of changes. Teams were spread around the continental U.S. and “Monday Night Football” became a staple of prime time television. Oh, and a little event called the Super Bowl, first played in 1967, has become a de facto national holiday for Americans.

As the NFL remembers its first 101 years, Stacker looked at the most memorable pigskin moments over that span. Using information and data from authoritative football record-keepers like NFL.com and Pro Football Reference, we count down the history of the NFL from the year you were born.

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1920: NFL inaugural season

On August 20, the American Professional Football Conference (also known as the American Professional Football Association) was formed and began play in October. This league would become the forebearer of the modern-day National Football League.

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1921: Green Bay Packers’ arrival

Coached by Curly Lambeau (who would later have a stadium named after him), the Green Bay Packers were born. John Clair of the Acme Packing Company was awarded the team, which lasted much longer than other expansion franchises that year, like the Minneapolis Marines and Louisville Brecks.

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1922: APFA name change

On June 24, the American Professional Football Association changed its name to the National Football League. The league’s clubs met at the Hollenden Hotel in Cleveland and also voted to prohibit the use of college players.

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1923: Canton repeat

For the second straight year, the Canton Bulldogs went undefeated. Posting an 11-0-1 record, the Bulldogs won their second—and last—league championship.

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1924: Cleveland takeover

The Canton Bulldogs were purchased by a franchise in Cleveland, whose owner, Samuel Deutsch, effectively made the Canton team inactive and moved the club’s players to northern Ohio. The new Cleveland Bulldogs won the NFL title.

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1925: Red rookie sensation

Harold “Red” Grange entered the NFL as a rookie with the Chicago Bears. On November 26, Grange, fresh out of the University of Illinois, gained 36 yards in front of an estimated 36,000 fans at Wrigley Field. Grange would become one of the NFL’s first stars, entering the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.

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1926: Staving off an upstart

In an effort to gain more money for his client Red Grange, C. C. Pyle formed a new league—the American Football League—to scare the NFL. This would be the creation of one of several leagues to take the AFL name. Grange played one season in the new league before returning to the NFL.

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1927: Dropping extra weight

The NFL shrank from 22 to 12 teams. With the league now concentrated on the East Coast, major markets like New York began to play a larger role in the growth of American football.

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1928: Red retires (for now)

After suffering a severe knee injury in 1927, Grange retired in 1928. Although he wouldn’t be the same runner again, Grange eventually returned to the gridiron, starring as a defensive back.

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1929: Sunday Night Lights

In November, the NFL held its first game under lights. The Providence Steam Rollers brought in floodlights to Kinsley Park Stadium—their temporary home—but lost to the Chicago Cardinals, 16-0.

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1930: George Halas retires

Before George Halas coached seven championship teams, he was a football player. In fact, Halas coached through most of his playing career—which ended after the 1928 season—and even played professional baseball with the New York Yankees. In 22 at-bats, Halas collected two hits.

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1931: Green Bay three-peat

The Packers became the first team to win three consecutive titles. Posting a 12-2 record, Johnny Blood led the way with 14 touchdowns.

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1932: First indoor game

Because of the bitter Chicago winter, the NFL played its first indoor game. The championship battle was held at Chicago Stadium, whose dimensions only allowed for an 80-yard field. The host Bears were successful, winning 9-0, although an important touchdown thrown from Bronko Nagurski allegedly violated rules that forward passes had to be thrown from five yards behind the line of scrimmage.

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1933: The forward pass becomes modernized

Because of Bronko Nagurski’s controversial pass, the NFL legalized forward passes from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. Although the play was still rarely used at the time, it would eventually revolutionize the way football was played.

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1934: The ‘Sneakers Game’

Because of icy conditions in New York’s Polo Grounds, the New York Giants switched to basketball shoes in their championship game against the Chicago Bears. The Giants then scored 27 straight points, winning 30-13.

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1935: The draft is born

Future NFL Commissioner Bert Bell introduced the idea of an annual draft on May 19. The following February, teams would select amateur players at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia. Clubs with the worst records from the prior season would choose first, and the league champion selected last. Decades later, the draft became a massively televised event and a highlight of the sports calendar.

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1936: Equal scheduling begins

In the NFL’s first 16 seasons, schedules were not as meticulously crafted as they are today. But in 1936, each team began playing the same amount of games. The Packers, with a regular-season-best 10–1–1 record, won the NFL championship.

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1937: Sammy Baugh begins a storied career

Sammy Baugh made his NFL debut for the Washington Redskins, earning First Team All-Pro honors with a league-leading 1,127 yards passing. Baugh, on his way to a Hall of Fame career, helped lead Washington to a title.

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1938: First All-Star Game

Los Angeles Times sports editor Bill Henry was part of a group that introduced the concept of an NFL All-Star Game. In the format, the NFL champion would take on a team of All-Pros from around the league. The maiden game was played at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field.

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1939: Football on TV

NBC broadcasted a Brooklyn Dodgers vs. Philadelphia Eagles matchup from Ebbets Field. Clouds meant that cameras did not have sufficient light to film, and the picture sent out was often too dark for audiences. About 1,000 fans tuned in.

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1940: A Bears mauling

Using the newly invented “T-formation,” the Bears romped Washington in the NFL title game, 73-0. George Halas, coach of Chicago, sent a man in motion with the quarterback still under center, and the movement created a free-flowing offense Washington was not prepared for.

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1941: Elmer Layden becomes first Commissioner

Elmer Layden first made a name for himself as a member of Notre Dame’s legendary “Four Horsemen” backfield during the 1924 college football season. After a stellar collegiate career, Layden made more history when he was named the NFL’s first commissioner. Layden was given authority to settle all disputes between players and clubs and helped mend fragmentation that splintered professional football in its early years.

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1942: World War II impacts the NFL

As Americans dug in for the war effort, the NFL was not immune to losing employees to service. Some teams even eventually suspended operations, while coaches also signed up to serve their country—George Halas left his coaching position with the Bears to join the U.S. Naval Reserve.

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1943: The formation of the ’Steagles‘

Because of the loss of players helping fight World War II, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers could not field full teams. So these two Pennsylvania rivals formed one squad, aptly named the “Steagles.” The team, which overcame early quarrels, went 5–4–1 but only lasted one season.

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1944: The Boston Yanks?

Ted Collins started a new Boston-area franchise and, after getting shut out of Yankee Stadium years earlier, decided to call his team the unfathomable name of the Yanks. Many baseball fans in Boston and New York might consider the Boston Yanks name sacrilege—particularly since they played their home games in Fenway Park, the home of Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox. The following year, the Yanks combined forces with a team from Brooklyn.

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1945: Mourning the loss of 21 alumni

As World War II drew to a close, many NFL players returned to the gridiron. However, 21 NFL alumni (current and former players, coaches, and executives) died serving their country in the war. Among the fallen was All-Pro tackle Al Blozis.

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1946: Kenny Washington and Woody Strode make history

Before the 1946 season, the Los Angeles Rams signed Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, who became the first African American players in the modern NFL era. Washington played three seasons, scoring nine touchdowns, while Strode played one season, catching four passes.

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1947: A win for Bidwell

On April 19, Charles Bidwell, owner of the Chicago Cardinals, died. Eight months later, his team won the NFL championship, its first ever. Twenty years later, Bidwell was enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

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1948: A helmet gets a new look

Fred Gehrke was more than a football player. An art major, Gehrke was quite the sketcher, and one day created a new look for his team’s helmets—he suggested adding horns to the Los Angeles Rams headwear, a look that would become iconic. The Rams, thanks to Gehrke’s work, became the first team to wear a decal on its helmets.

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1949: One thousand times two

For the first time in NFL history, two rushers ran for at least 1,000 yards. Steve Van Buren picked up 1,146 yards for the Philadelphia Eagles, while Tony Canadeo of the Green Bay Packers registered 1,052 yards.

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1950: The introduction of the Pro Bowl

Because of World War II, the NFL ceased holding all-star games. But beginning with the 1950 season, the format was reintroduced with Los Angeles as the host site.

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1951: Nationwide TV coverage

The DuMont Network broadcasted the NFL Championship Game nationwide on December 23. The Network paid $75,000 to air the contest, culminating in a 24-17 victory for the Rams over the Browns.

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1952: End of the single-wing

During the NFL’s early years, the single-wing formation was all the rage. But by 1952, the formation had all but been abandoned, with the Steelers the last team to regularly employ it. Finally, the Steelers changed to the more modern T-formation, whereby three offensive players line up behind the quarterback.

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1953: Jim Thorpe dies

Jim Thorpe, a Native American who was one of the country’s earliest sports heroes, died on March 28. Thorpe starred at the 1912 Summer Olympics, played baseball in the majors, and made the Hall of Fame as a football dynamo. In 1951, a Hollywood film about his exploits, “Jim Thorpe—All-American,” was released.

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1954: Joe Perry sets a record

While the NFL had seen two players rush for 1,000 yards in a season, never had one running back achieved 1,000 yards in consecutive years. That changed when Joe Perry of the San Francisco 49ers accumulated 1,049 yards in 1954, adding onto the 1,018 he tallied the season before. In both years, Perry was named an All-Pro and selected to the Pro Bowl.

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1955: Welcome to sudden death

“Sudden-death” overtime rules were introduced in a preseason game between the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams. The rule was instituted by the game’s promoter, Harry Glickman; if the game went to overtime, the first team to score would be deemed the winner. “I didn’t think there was a chance in a million it would be used,” Glickman said of the rule after the game.

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1956: The NFL Players Association is formed

Creighton Miller, a general manager of the Cleveland Browns and a former college player and attorney, agreed to help Browns players organize a players association. Miller contacted players around the league to join his effort, and the first meeting of the NFL Players Association took place at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Since then, the NFLPA has negotiated the rights of players and even stood strong on their beliefs during work stoppages.

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1957: The Jim Brown era begins

Making his debut in 1957, Jim Brown almost immediately dashed into the record books. During his second pro season, Brown set an NFL record with 1,527 rushing yards. The future Hall of Famer led the league in rushing in eight of his nine seasons but also became noted in life for his civil rights work and as an actor.

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1958: The Colts and Giants stage a classic

Not only was the 1958 Championship tilt between the Colts and Giants the first official game to reach a sudden-death overtime, but many football fans and historians consider it “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” The contest had the extra drama of overtime but was also broadcast to a national audience. A last-second field goal sent the game to overtime, where Alan Ameche scored the game-winning touchdown in a 23-17 Colts victory.

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1959: Vince Lombardi hired by Green Bay

Vince Lombardi, a New York native and assistant coach with the Giants, was hired by the Green Bay Packers to become their head coach on January 28. Lombardi, noted for his glasses and toothy smile, was a two-time Coach of the Year and Super Bowl champion; today, the Super Bowl trophy is named in his honor.

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1960: The launch of the AFL

American businessmen such as Lamar Hunt, Bud Adams, and others were unsuccessful in convincing the NFL to expand, so they launched the American Football League. Play began in 1960, with the Houston Oilers as the first champion. Although the AFL folded in 1970, it revolutionized the NFL by introducing a more uptempo style of play and led to a merger that expanded the NFL’s footprint nationwide.

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1961: The Hall of Fame gets a home

On April 27, Canton, Ohio, was named the site for the future Pro Football Hall of Fame building. The location made sense, as the NFL formed in Canton in 1920. Each summer, the annual preseason Hall of Fame Game and enshrinement ceremony unofficially kicks off the NFL season.

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1962: The NFL wins a major court case

The upstart AFL took the NFL to court, claiming the older league held a monopoly over the sport. But a U.S. District Court in Baltimore ruled against the AFL’s antitrust case. Relations between the two leagues would remain contentious throughout the decade.

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1963: Gambling suspensions levied

Paul Hornung, a future Hall of Famer and Most Valuable Player of the 1961 season, was suspended by the NFL for gambling on football games. Six members of the Detroit Lions were also suspended or fined. Hornung was reinstated one year later and won multiple NFL championships.

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1964: NFL Films created

Ed Sabol was a small-time filmmaker who occasionally shot NFL games. In 1964, the NFL purchased his studio and NFL Films was created. For nearly 50 years, Sabol’s work and that of his son, Steve, were instrumental in documenting the history of the league with never-before-seen mic’d up footage.

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1965: The addition of southern flavor

The cities of Atlanta and Miami were awarded expansion franchises, moving professional football into parts of the nation long dominated by the college game. The Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins would begin play in 1966, and both teams’ stadiums would play huge roles in the future of hosting Super Bowls.

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1966: The AFL-NFL relationship grows

What began with a few secret meetings eventually blossomed into one of the most important moments in professional sports history. In 1966, heads from the AFL and NFL agreed to merge leagues and host a World Championship Game beginning in 1967.

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1967: Super Bowl I

After the Kansas City Chiefs won the AFL championship and the Green Bay Packers took home the NFL title, the two clubs met in the first Super Bowl. Played in Los Angeles on January 15, the Packers dominated the Chiefs, 35-10. Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr was named the game’s MVP, and he and his teammates took home $15,000 each for their victory.

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1968: The ’Heidi Bowl’

Today, satellite TV and streaming packages negate the worry of NFL fans ever missing a second of action. But in 1968, football on television still had its bumps, made evident by the November 17 game between the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets. With the Jets ahead but the game running long, NBC decided to switch off the football broadcast to air the film “Heidi.” Millions missed out on watching a stunning Oakland comeback, and scores of fans bombarded the network with complaints.

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1969: The AFL earns legitimacy

The Jets avenged their loss in the “Heidi Bowl” by defeating the Raiders in the playoffs. After winning the AFL championship, New York would take on the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. Despite entering as 19-point underdogs, Jets quarterback Joe Namath guaranteed his team would win—and win they did, 16-7. The victory was the AFL’s first in the Super Bowl and legitimized the league amongst its NFL brethren.

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1970: Monday Night Football debuts

ABC acquired rights to broadcast NFL games on Monday nights, events that became among the most viewed on television. The defending champion Jets took on the Cleveland Browns in the first matchup, and for the next five decades, Monday nights became synonymous with football. Calling the action were legendary voices like Keith Jackson and Howard Cosell.

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1971: Super Bowl V nailbiter

Jim O’Brien successfully converted a field-goal attempt with five seconds remaining in Super Bowl V, clinching a title for the Baltimore Colts. The Colts’ 16-13 win over the Dallas Cowboys made up for their surprising defeat in Super Bowl III, but it was the last time that the franchise reached an NFL title game while located in Baltimore. In a rarity, Chuck Howley, a Dallas linebacker, was named the game’s MVP despite coming out on the losing side.

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1972: The ’Immaculate Reception’

Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception” is often considered one of the most iconic plays in NFL history. In a tightly contested playoff game between the Steelers and Raiders, Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw a pass that deflected off an Oakland player and into the hands of Harris just before the ball hit the ground. Harris scampered in for the go-ahead touchdown and the Steelers advanced to the AFC Championship Game.

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1973: Miami’s perfect run

By winning Super Bowl VII, the Miami Dolphins became the first—and only—team to win the Super Bowl with a perfect record. Going 14-0 in the regular season, the Dolphins won 11 contests by more than one touchdown, then cruised through three playoff games for their unmatched 17-0 mark.

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1974: Goalposts pushed back

In a drastic change, the NFL decided to move the goalposts from the front of the end zone to the back lines. This added approximately 10 extra yards to field-goal and extra-point attempts, but also removed an unnecessary physical impediment to plays near the goal line. The move resulted in 208 fewer made field goals from the year before.

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1975: Refs get mic’d up

With television playing a growing role in football’s popularity, the details of referees’ decisions became more important. Beginning in 1975, refs on the field began wearing wireless mics so fans at home and in the stands could clearly hear penalties being dished out.

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1976: NFL’s worldwide footprint grows

On August 16, the first NFL game held outside of North America took place in Tokyo’s Korakuen Stadium. The St. Louis Cardinals topped the San Diego Chargers, 20-10, in front of 38,000 fans. Some players suffered from food poisoning and the standard jet lag, but the preseason game was a success and the first of many trips to countries outside of North America for the NFL.

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1977: Walter Payton sets single-game record

Walter Payton, while battling the flu, rushed 40 times for 275 yards against the Minnesota Vikings on November 20, setting a single-game NFL record. Payton, a future Hall of Famer and Super Bowl champion, would hold the record until 2000 when it was broken by Corey Dillon.

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1978: Schedule expands to 16 games

The NFL changed the regular-season schedule from 14 to 16 games. This standard has remained intact since 1978, but there are current rumblings of moving to an 18-game schedule, while reducing the number of preseason games.

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1979: Steelers’ decade of dominance

The Steelers wrapped up the 1970s with another Super Bowl championship. The 35-31 win over the Dallas Cowboys was Pittsburgh’s third of the decade—their success would carry over to 1980 when they won an unprecedented fourth Super Bowl.

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1980: The Raiders sue the league

The Raiders, in an attempt to move from Oakland to Los Angeles, were blocked by the NFL. As a result, the Raiders and the Los Angeles Coliseum, their proposed new home, filed an antitrust suit. The Raiders eventually won their case and began play in Los Angeles in 1982. The event would not be the first time the Raiders moved or sued the league.

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1981: The 49ers begin a dynasty

After opening the season 1-2, the 49ers won 12 of their last 13 games, and took the NFC West by six games. San Francisco eventually swept their way through the playoffs to win their first of four Super Bowls in the 1980s. Quarterback Joe Montana was named to his first of eight Pro Bowls after throwing for 3,565 yards.

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1982: Strike stops play

A 57-day players’ strike led to a shortened nine-game season. Seeking more lucrative salaries, the players received higher minimum pay and increased benefits.

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1983: Temporary playoff expansion

Because of the strike, the NFL implemented a special 16-team postseason tournament. When the dust settled, Washington topped Miami, 27-17, in Super Bowl XVII. John Riggins earned MVP honors.

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1984: The Colts leave Baltimore

After about a month of negotiations, the Colts left Baltimore for Indianapolis. A fleet of moving vans quietly cleaned out the team’s facility in suburban Maryland and headed west, leaving behind 31 years of history. The Colts were also considering Phoenix as a destination.

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1985: The Super Bowl Shuffle

Behind a dominating defense, the 1985 Chicago Bears danced over their competition. En route to an eventual Super Bowl title, the Bears filmed a music video for “The Super Bowl Shuffle.” Replete with cheesy moves and even cheesier lyrics, the video is an homage to the Bears’ bravado, which culminated with a 46-10 shellacking of the New England Patriots.

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1986: Instant replay infancy

Limited usage of instant replay was approved by NFL owners for the 1986 season. Officials were the only ones authorized to initiate a review, and the cameras often missed certain angles. By 1992, the system was canceled, but it returned with better parameters in 1999.

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1987: Another labor battle

A 24-day players’ strike once again interrupted NFL operations. One game was taken off the schedule before teams began using replacement players. A few non-replacements crossed the picket lines, but the three weeks without a majority of NFL regulars often drew sparse crowds. The players eventually gave in but continued to work hard and ultimately won a free-agent system with a salary cap.

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1988: Johnny Grier makes history

On September 4, Johnny Grier made his officiating debut and became the NFL’s first African American referee. He would later officiate Super Bowl XXII, which saw Washington quarterback Doug Williams become the first African American quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl.

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1989: A Super Bowl classic

Super Bowl XXIII was a rematch between the 49ers and Bengals, who played a tight game in Super Bowl XVI, won by San Francisco, 26-21. Cincinnati led Super Bowl XXIII with just over three minutes remaining, before Joe Montana led the 49ers on a game-winning drive, hitting John Taylor in the end zone with 34 seconds left.

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1990: Hello, bye weeks

For football fans, it’s the one week per year that many dread—the bye week. Beginning in 1990, each team was given one week off between playing 16 regular-season games. One of the reasons behind the move was that football on television had become so lucrative, so expanding the season could further fill the league’s coffers.

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1991: Giants win a classic

Super Bowl XXV began with Whitney Houston’s rousing rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (the game was played in the midst of the Gulf War) and ended with one of the most tense moments in Super Bowl history. Trailing 20-19, the Buffalo Bills attempted a 47-yard field goal, but Scott Norwood’s kick sailed wide right. With the miss, the New York Giants won their second Super Bowl.

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1992: Instant replay dissolved

By a vote of 17-11, NFL owners stopped the use of instant replay. The system was first used in 1986, but because of inconsistencies, instant replay did not provide the desired effect. However, after many controversial missed calls, the system would return in 1999

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1993: Carolina and Jacksonville enter the NFL

The NFL welcomed two new franchises: the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars. Both teams would begin play in 1995, pushing the league to 30 teams.

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1994: The Bills go 0-for-4

For the fourth straight year, the Buffalo Bills reached the Super Bowl. And for the fourth straight year, the Buffalo Bills lost a Super Bowl. Despite touting a stout offense featuring Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, and Andre Reed, these Bills live on in infamy as bridesmaids.

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1995: Leaving Los Angeles

On July 22, the Los Angeles Raiders moved back to Oakland, where they previously played from 1960 to 1981. The City of Angels would not see professional football again until 2017 when the San Diego Chargers and St. Louis Rams relocated to Los Angeles (the Raiders were in discussions to come back but ultimately chose Las Vegas as their new home for 2020).

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1996: Baltimore welcomes back football

In the NFL’s continuous game of musical chairs, the city of Baltimore welcomed back professional football. The Browns left Cleveland and were renamed the Ravens, who over the years became recognized by their defensive intensity. Since their inception, the Ravens have won two Super Bowls.

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1997: Tennessee strikes oil

The Oilers completed their move from Houston to Memphis and became the Tennessee Oilers. In two years, after having moved to Nashville, they would change to the Titans and make their first—and only—Super Bowl.

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1998: John Elway finally wins the big one

John Elway lost three Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos before reaching the big game again in 1998. Taking on Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers, Elway would not be denied a fourth time. Tied 24-24, the Broncos, led by Elway, drove down the field late in the fourth quarter and scored to pull ahead for good with just under two minutes remaining.

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1999: Cleveland gets the Browns back

After watching their beloved team taken away and reincarnated as the Ravens in Baltimore, Clevelanders started anew in 1999, as the Browns began operations again in the NFL. The team retained their previous history, logos, and colors—it was like they (almost) never left.

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2000: The Greatest Show on Turf

The St. Louis Rams took the NFL by storm with a high-powered offense nicknamed “The Greatest Show on Turf.” Kurt Warner, a former Arena League quarterback, led the attack, aided by the brilliance of Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, and Torry Holt. In Super Bowl XXXIV, it was the Rams defense, though, that made the game’s crucial play, stopping the Tennessee Titans offense one yard short of a game-tying touchdown.

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2001: September 11 halts the season

The Week 2 games of the 2011 season were postponed due to the attacks on September 11. Members of the New York Giants and Jets volunteered in the tragedy’s wake, and the Jets played in one of the first major sporting events back in the New York area on Monday Night Football, on October 1, against the 49ers.

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2002: The Texans are born

The Houston Texans, the NFL’s 32nd franchise, began play in the former home of the Oilers. It wouldn’t be until 2011 that the team made the playoffs, but Houston has won five division titles this decade.

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2003: Tampa Bay wins first Super Bowl

The Buccaneers were long a franchise associated with losing. But in 2003, under John Gruden and led by a defense that featured Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp, the Bucs captured their first Super Bowl title. Because Gruden formerly coached the Raiders, the AFC champion that season, the game was often called the “Gruden Bowl.”

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2004: Maurice Clarett challenges the rulebook

At Ohio State, running back Maurice Clarett was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year and had many NFL scouts salivating. But a dismissal from school put his future in jeopardy, and in 2004 Clarett challenged an NFL rule that stated college players must be three years removed from graduating high school to enter the Draft. Clarett lost his case but was eventually selected in the 2005 Draft; however, he never played in the league.

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2005: Hurricane Katrina displaces the Saints

The destruction that Hurricane Katrina caused on the Gulf Coast also forced the NFL’s Saints to temporarily move from New Orleans. The Saints’ home stadium, the Louisiana Superdome, was converted into a shelter for displaced residents, while the team played games in San Antonio.

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2006: The ‘No Fun League’

Players like Chad Johnson and Terrell Owens became noted for flamboyant touchdown celebrations, sometimes using props on the field (or even procuring ones off the field) to celebrate a score. But in 2006, the NFL created stricter rules against celebrations, stating props would be disallowed, as would performing an act while on the ground. As a result, some began calling the NFL the “No Fun League.”

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2007: The Patriots run through the regular season

For the first time in NFL history, a team won all 16 of their regular-season games. The New England Patriots looked to be unstoppable, thanks to the brilliance of Tom Brady and Randy Moss. Their closest regular-season game came in Week 17, a 38-35 win against the stingy New York Giants. A little over a month later, the Giants would get revenge, upsetting New England in Super Bowl XLII.

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2008: The Lions flop through the regular season

While the Patriots displayed excellence during the 2007 regular season, the Detroit Lions displayed the antithesis of excellence in 2008. The Lions lost all 16 of their games, becoming the first NFL team to go 0-16 (the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 0-14 in 1976).

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2009: The Saints’ and Colts’ collision course

The New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts began the 2009 season a combined 27-0. This led many to predict a Super Bowl showdown for February 2010, which took place in Miami at Super Bowl XLIV. The Saints, behind Drew Brees, topped Peyton Manning and the Colts, in one of the most anticipated matchups in recent memory.

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2010: Making Week 17 more meaningful

Beginning in 2010, Week 17 of the NFL season would only feature divisional matchups to add drama to playoff races, a scheme that has also been used in Major League Baseball.

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2011: The year of the quarterback

Three quarterbacks (Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Matthew Stafford) each threw for over 5,000 yards. Meanwhile, Aaron Rodgers posted a 122.5 quarterback rating, the highest in any single season. This year was clearly one for the quarterbacks, as the NFL solidified itself as a pass-happy league.

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2012: New overtime rules

Sudden-death overtime became no more. Now, if a game was tied after four quarters, each team would get a chance to score, unless the team who received the kickoff scored a touchdown on its first drive. If both teams connected on field goals on their first drive, the team that scored next was the winner.

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2013: Super Bowl blackout

Early in the third quarter of Super Bowl XLVII, the Superdome lost partial power and play was suspended. The blackout led to a 34-minute delay; when play resumed, the San Francisco 49ers stormed back from a 28-6 deficit but ultimately fell, 34-31, to the Baltimore Ravens. John and Jim Harbaugh became the first brothers to coach against each other in a Super Bowl.

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2014: A cold-weather Super Bowl

For the first time in NFL history, the Super Bowl was played outdoors in a cold-weather climate. Hosted in MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Super Bowl XLVIII didn’t encounter any snow—just a blizzard of offense from the Seattle Seahawks, who took down the Denver Broncos, 43-8, to win their first championship.

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2015: Pete Carroll’s controversial call

Trailing 28-24, Seattle was on New England’s 1-yard line. Instead of running the ball, though, with bruising back Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll called a pass play, which was intercepted by Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler. New England ran out the clock to further cement the Belichick-Brady dynasty, and Carroll’s unorthodox play call went down in history.

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2016: Peyton Manning rides off into the sunset

Two years after losing in the Super Bowl, Peyton Manning quarterbacked the Broncos back to the title game. Denver won the 50th Super Bowl largely thanks to defense, though, and linebacker Von Miller was named the game’s MVP. Manning finished his career with two Super Bowl rings, five MVP awards, and 14 Pro Bowl appearances.

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2017: A Falcons flop

The Atlanta Falcons appeared to be in control en route to their first Super Bowl title, with a 28-3 lead on the Patriots. But New England, behind Tom Brady, methodically staged a comeback in Super Bowl LI and won, 34-28, in overtime. This Super Bowl was the first to reach an overtime period.

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2018: A new stance on the national anthem

After Colin Kaepernick and other players began kneeling during the national anthem, the league’s owners created a new policy. The rule said players must stand while on the sideline but do not have to leave the locker room for the anthem. Despite the mandate, football players are still willing to use their platform to voice their criticism and opinions on a variety of social issues.

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2019: Replaying pass interference

After the Rams eliminated the New Orleans Saints in the playoffs after a controversial non-call that appeared to be pass interference, the league discussed a possible change. Previously, coaches could not ask for a replay on a pass interference or no-call, but that rule eventually changed. Fans of the Saints are likely not satisfied.


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2020: COVID-19 shakes up the game

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic touched all aspects of life, and the NFL was no exception. The draft was held virtually and preseason games were canceled. Players could decide not to play without affecting their contracts (66 chose to do so). And the roars of crowds packed into stadiums were replaced with cardboard cutouts in seats and fake cheers, bringing an eerie atmosphere to the games for viewers watching from home. Still, the season proceeded normally enough, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeating the Kansas City Chiefs at a Super Bowl that was technically the least-attended Super Bowl in the history of the NFL, with 22,000 fans spaced throughout the stadium.

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