The Evolution of the NFL Quarterback
Stage I: Independence – The Game Breaks away from Rugby and Run Only
1869 – The origins of football, and thus the passing game, began in college. American football evolved from the sport of rugby football. The first game of American football was played on November 6, 1869, between two college teams, Rutgers and Princeton, under rules resembling a mix of rugby and soccer.
1876 – Yale vs Princeton, in which Yale’s Walter Camp threw forward to teammate Oliver Thompson as he was being tackled. The referee tossed a coin to make his decision and allowed the touchdown to stand.
1880 – A set of rule changes drawn up from 1880 onward by Walter Camp, the “Father of American Football,” established the snap, eleven-player teams, and the concept of downs.
1895 – The University of North Carolina used the forward pass in an 1895 game against the University of Georgia. The game was scoreless and UNC was in a punting situation. The punter (name unknown) ran to his right and tossed the ball to George Stephens who ran 70 yards for a touchdown and UNC won 6-0.
1903 – The idea of throwing an overhand spiral is credited to two men, Howard R. “Bosey” Reiter of Wesleyan University. He learned it from St. Louis University, Eddie Cochems.
1905 – Football comes under fire after 18 players died due to injuries in 1904. President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid believer in the game of football, did not want the game banned due to it be dangerous, and pushed hard for to legalize the forward pass to lessen the threat of injury. Walter Camp had no interest in adding the forward pass to football, but Roosevelt won out and possibly saved football.
1905 – In an experimental game, Washburn University and Fairmount College used the pass before new rules allowing the play were approved in early 1906. Credit for the first pass goes to Fairmount’s Bill Davis, who completed a pass to Art Solter.
1906 – In December of 1905, at Roosevelt’s request, representatives of 62 schools (the forerunner of the NCAA) met in New York to change the rules and make the game safer. They legalized the forward pass, abolished the dangerous mass formations, created a neutral zone between offense and defense and doubled the first-down distance to 10 yards, to be gained in three downs. Passes couldn’t be thrown over the line on five yards to either side of the center. An incomplete pass resulted in a 15-yard penalty, and a pass that dropped without being touched meant possession went to the defensive team.
1906 – St. Louis quarterback Bradbury Robinson completed the first legal pass on September 5, 1906 when he threw 20 yards to Jack Schneider in a scoreless tie against Carroll College and St. Louis went on to win the game 22-0. A month later Wesleyan’s Sam Moore completed a pass to Irwin van Tassel in a game against Yale and it made a some news in the press.
1906 – The first forward pass in a professional football game is thrown in an Ohio League (the predecessor of today’s NFL) game played on October 25, 1906. The passer was George W. (Peggy) Parratt of the Massillon, Ohio Tiger’s. Parratt completed a short pass to end Dan Riley in a game played at Massillon against a team from West Virginia.
Stage II: A Successful Pass Game – Pop Warner and the Single-Wing Formation
1907 – The first “passing” offense in football history might be credited to Pop Warner who created a new offense dubbed “the Carlisle formation,” an early evolution of the single-wing formation. The Carlisle Indians (an all-Native American squad later lead by Jim Thorpe) opened the 1907 season outscoring their opponents 188-11 before traveling to Philadelphia to meet undefeated and un-scored upon University of Pennsylvania. In front of 22,800 fans Carlisle won 26-6, outgaining Penn 402 yards to 76. The success of the passing game changed football forever.
1909 – The rules are changed to eliminate the penalties for incomplete passes and throwing the ball over the center of the line.
1912 – Change in ball shape. The football up to 1912 was still essentially a rugby ball. The increased use of the forward pass encouraged adoption of a narrower ball.
Stage III: National Prominence – The Legend of Knute Rockne is Born
1913 – In a Notre Dame victory over Army the forward passing game took a step in popularity when Irish quarterback Gus Dorais completed 14 of 17 passes for 243 yards in a shocking 35-13 victory. Receiver routes and timed passes were practiced and planned, possibly for the first time. The future Notre Dame legendary coach, Knute Rockne, caught some of the passes including a touchdown, and the legend of the passing game was born.
1914 – Knute Rockne was recruited by Peggy Parratt to play for the professional Akron Indians where Parratt had Rockne teamed up for several successful forward pass plays. Rockne then joined former teammate Gus Dorais to play with the professional Massillon Tigers. Rockne and Dorias brought the forward pass to professional football from 1915 to 1917 and led the Tigers to the championship in 1915.
Stage IV: Birth of the NFL – The Passing Game Wins the First NFL Championship
1920 – The formation of the American Professional Football Conference (APFC) which was changed to the American Professional Football Association (APFA) which consisted of 14 teams. Jim Thorpe is their first president. The Decatur Staleys (now the Chicago Bears) and the Chicago Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals), still remain.
1922 – The APFA changed its name to the National Football League (NFL).
1929 – NY Giants quarterback Benny Friedman led the league with 20 touchdown passes. He is believed to have completed over an unheard of 50% of his passes (official stats weren’t being kept yet).
1932 – The first ever NFL playoff game has the Chicago Bears going up against the Portsmouth Spartans (Detroit Lions). The game was scoreless until the fourth quarter, when Bronko Nagurski faked a plunge, dropped back and threw a controversial pass to Red Grange for the game-winning touchdown. The pass was controversial because in 1932, a player needed to be at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage in order to be eligible to pass.
1933 – Bears’ owner-coach George Halas proposes and the NFL legalizes the forward pass from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. The change gave life to the passing game and increased scoring. It made the NFL game different from the college game. They also created the first NFL Championship Game which would be played by the two division winners.
1933 – On December 17 the Bears hosted the New York Giants at Wrigley Field in Chicago in the inaugural NFL Championship Game. The back-and-forth game was led by Giants quarterback Harry Newman who went 13-19 for 206 yards, 2 TD’s and 1 Int. But in in the third quarter fullback Bronko Nagurski (2 for 2 and 2 TD’s) threw an 8-yard pass to end Billy Karr to put the Bears ahead by two . The Giants regained the lead when Newman threw his second touchdown pass of the game. But in the closing minutes, Nagurski threw a 14 yard pass to Bill Hewitt who lateraled to Karr who raced into the end zone to give the Bears the victory and the NFL Championship and the pass took another step in becoming the way to win in the NFL.
1934 – A slimmer and more aerodynamic football was introduced.
1936 – Throughout the thirties the Green Bay Packers, led by head coach Curly Lambeau, were a team whose main offensive weapon was the pass. They would pass on any down, from anywhere on the field, thus modernizing and popularizing the passing game. In 1936 Packer quarterback Arnie Herber and receiver Don Hutson became the first big-time QB-WR duo and won the NFL Championship.
1937 – Washington Redskin head coach, Ray Flaherty, is credited with inventing the screen pass. Sammy Baugh throws 3 TD’s (18 of 33, for 335 yards) against the unprepared Chicago defenses in 28-21 victory for the NFL Championship.
Stage V: A Rebirth – The New T formation: Halas /Luckman vs. Flaherty/Baugh
1935 – The T formation might be the oldest offensive formation in American football invented by Walter Camp in 1882. University of Chicago head coach, Clark Shaughnessy befriends George Halas and they discuss Shaughnessy’s vision for a hand-to-hand snap and a new T-Formation. Shaughnessy could not implement the offense due to the lack of talent until he went to Stanford in 1940.
1939 – A more aerodynamic ball makes the passing game more enticing. The Chicago Bears and George Halas adopt the T formation. The T formation made use of “man-in-motion” which made one of the three running backs into a receiver as he left the backfield. The “T” evolved into a much more effective passing offense than the single-wing. It put one player behind center and it called on that player to handle all the team’s passing duties, essentially creating the modern quarterback.
1940 – The T formation changes the NFL when in the 1940 NFL championship the Bears, led by quarterback Sid Luckman, destroy the Redskins, 73-0. It is still the greatest blowout in NFL history. Sid Luckman will go on to win four NFL Championships. Weeks later Clark Shaughnessy’s undefeated Stanford Indians used the T-formation to win the Rose Bowl.
1943 – During World War II, teams were playing with depleted rosters, so the league permitted substitutions. In 1950, the NFL made new free substitution rules changing the game into one of specialized positions. This allowed for the specialized players: Fast receivers who couldn’t play defense, quarterbacks who were great throwers only, and more.
1945 – The Redskins Sammy Baugh takes the T formation into a new world by completing 70.3 percent of his passes (71.2% is the current record by Drew Brees) and almost eclipsed the unheard of 3,000-yard passing mark in 1947 (2,938 yards). This was more than double the NFL record of Philadelphia’s Davey O’Brien’s 1,324 yards in 1939. Baugh’s numbers make him the closest thing to a modern quarterback before the arrival of Otto Graham.
Stage VI: A New Coaching Philosophy – Paul Brown and Otto Graham
1946 – A new professional league is created called the All-America Football Conference (AAFC). One of the teams, the Cleveland Browns was coached by Paul Brown. He evolved the T formation to a new level by using his incredible preparation skills and his new quarterback Otto Graham. Brown developed detailed pass patterns that exploited weaknesses in defenses and he created the passer’s pocket, an offensive line scheme to give the quarterback extra time. He took strategy and preparation to a new level unheard of level. His coaching tree flows all the way to Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick and beyond.
1950 – The AAFC and the NFL merge brings three AAFC teams Rams, Colts and Browns, into the NFL. The NFL Championship, after years of defensive struggles, was a offensive quarterback classic between the former AAFC’s teams the Browns and Rams. The game featured the Los Angeles Rams great quarterback Bob Waterfield vs.the Cleveland Browns lead by the great Otto Graham. Losing QB Bob Waterfield went 18-31 for 312 yards, 1 TD – 4 Int. While Otto Graham went 22-33, for 298 yards, 4 TD’s – 1 Int and rushed for 99 yards. Once again, the game was changed forever.
1958 – The Baltimore Colts led by Johnny Unitas win the NFL Championship in what is to be known as the “The Greatest Game Ever Played”. It was the first NFL playoff game to go into sudden death overtime. The final score was Baltimore 23, New York 17. The game features what is considered by some to be the first “two-minute offense” by Johnny Unitas.
1959 – By the end of the decade Otto Graham, Norm Van Brocklin, and Y.A. Tittle had changed the NFL into a different game (on both sides of the ball) than the game of Walter Camp. Baltimore Colt Johnny Unitas just threw for an NFL record 32 touchdowns and just missed 3,000 yards passing.
Stage VII: A More Exciting League – The AFL: Sid Gillman and Joe Namath
1960 – On August 14, 1959, at the call of Dallas businessman Lamar Hunt, a new professional football league to be called the American Football League (AFL) was organized to begin play in 1960. The AFL rule book is more passer-friendly than the NFL, as George Blanda said, “Our goal was to score a lot of points, open up the game, and make it more viewable.”
1960 – Johnny Unitas becomes the first NFL quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards. Frank Tripuka and Jack Kemp of the AFL both eclipse the mark.
1961 – Los Angeles Chargers of the AFL head coach, Sid Gillman, takes Paul Brown’s preparation to a new level with his in-depth film study. With film study came the idea of reading defenses. His quarterbacks were taught to coverage sheets so that by merely glancing at a defense you know the total coverage design. The way he viewed the passing game was different. For the most part the game of football is thought of as a vertical game, the length of the field, but Gillman also thought of it as horizontal game. He used the width of the field in his passing designs. Gillman envisioned “down-the-field football”. He saw that timing of the delivery is essential and it is the single most thing to successful passing. Gillman,was the first coach with the philosophy of using the passing game to set up the run. The descendants of Gillman’s coaching tree, including Bill Walsh, Al Davis, Chuck Noll, and Mike Holmgren, have won 20 Super Bowls combined. Al Davis said ”Sid Gillman was the father of modern-day passing.”
1966 – On June 8 the AFL and NFL announced a merger and many ideas and rules of the AFL were adopted by the NFL.
1967 – Joe Namath throws for 4,007 yards smashing all AFL and NFL records.
Stage VIII: Era of Legends – The Original Super Bowl Greats
1966 – Bart Starr wins Super Bowl I and in 1967 Super Bowl II.
1968 – The AFL Champion New York Jets led by quarterback Joe Namath upset the heavily favored NFL Champion Baltimore Colts 16-7 in Super Bowl III. It is the first Super Bowl win for the AFL, bringing more legitimacy to the AFL, the AFL’s emphasis on the pass, and to AFL quarterbacks. The legend of Joe Namath along with the idea of the NFL being a quarterback-centered league are forever cemented in history at this time.
1969 – AFL great Len Dawson and the Kansas City Chiefs win Super Bowl IV.
1971 – Roger Staubach wins the first of two championships.
1972 – Bob Griese wins his first of two consecutive Super Bowls, including one over Fran Tarkenton and the Minnesota Vikings.
1974 – Terry Bradshaw wins his first of four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
1976 – The Raiders and Ken Stabler defeats Fran Tarkenton and the Vikings.
Stage IX: Defense Dominates as the West Coast Offense is Born
1970 – A passing scheme designed by former Bengals assistant Bill Walsh formulated what has become popularly known as the West Coast Offense (an insult years later used by Bill Parcels). During his tenure as assistant coach for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1968 to 1975, Walsh works under Paul Brown. Bengals quarterback Virgil Carter would be the first player to successfully implement Walsh’s system, leading the NFL in pass completion percentage in 1971. Ken Anderson later replaced Carter as Cincinnati’s starting QB, and was even more successful. In his 16-year career in the NFL, Anderson made four trips to the Pro Bowl, won four passing titles, was named NFL MVP in 1981, and set the record for completion percentage in a single season in 1982 (70.66%).
1974 – A package of rules are passed to increase scoring. The “Isaac Curtis rules” which restricts defenders’ downfield contact with receivers. This rule change came up because of a playoff game where the Miami Dolphins roughed up Curtis, star rookie receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals, and limited him to one catch for nine yards and Miami’s won 34-16. Paul Brown was an influential member of the Competition Committee and pulled for the rule change. Brown was quoted saying after the league approved the rules change in 1974. “I don’t think he ever got 5 yards downfield. But this rule wasn’t put in just for him. It was put in to make the game exciting.” Goal posts are moved from the goal line to the end line, immediately making every kick 10 yards longer and getting the post out of the way of pass patterns in the end zone helps the passing game.
1974 – St. Louis Cardinals hire Don Coryell as their head coach and he and Jim Hart finish among the top each year in passing totals and go 31-11 in three seasons.
1977 – Defenses adapt throughout the mid-seventies and get bigger, better and more dangerous. Passer ratings and scoring plummet to lows not seen in decades. Pete Rozelle stated the desired intent unambiguously when he asked for: “more long-gainer plays, more passes, more scoring.”
1978 – New NFL rules make for revolutionary changes in pro football. The first change permits contact only within five yards of the line of scrimmage. This allowed for quick slants by receivers. The second major rule change allows offensive lineman to extend their arms and push with open hands. This allowed for better blocking, fewer penalties. These changes lead to more success with the pass and an increase in scoring (21%). Finally, the 16-game regular season was adopted thus increasing the yearly statistical performance potential of every quarterback.
1979 – The Paul Brown offense of the fifties that Sid Gillman, evolved in the sixities, strikes offensive gold with and Don Coryell’s evolved version called “Air Coryell” in the seventies. It was a pass first offense that used receiver motion and single back sets. San Diego Charger quarterback Dan Fouts was the general for “Air Coryell” and together they torched the NFL breaking records including Joe Namath’s all-time passing mark throwing for 4,082 yards.
1979 – Bill Walsh is hired as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Walsh drafts Joe Montana in the third round. Together they revolutionized the passing offense of the NFL. The high-percentage, low-risk passing attack changed used the pass to set up the run, flipping football’s philosophy upside down.
1980 – Dan Fouts breaks his own NFL record throwing for 4,715 yards.
1981 – Dan Fouts breaks his own NFL record throwing for 4,802 yards. Bill Wash and Joe Montana win the Super Bowl beating Ken Anderson and the Cincinnati Bengals.
Stage X: The New Age of QB – Rule Changes = Increase in Statistics
1983– Miami rookie Dan Marino leads the Dolphins to the Super Bowl, but loses to the 49ers (Joe Montana, Bill Walsh, and the West Coast Offense).
1984 – Dan Marino throws for a record 48 TD’s and breaks the 5,000 yard barrier finishing with a record 5,084 yards. St. Louis Cardinal’s Neil Lomax throws for 4,614 yards, Phil Simms throws for 4,044 yards.
1996 – NFL announces they’d actually enforce the illegal contact penalty, created in 1978, more stringently than before.
2001 – NFL announced roughing the QB penalty would be enforced more strictly and specifically targeted late hits.
2002 – NFL bans helmet-to-helmet contact with a QB at any time.
2004 – NFL tightens already existing rules for illegal contact, pass interference, and defensive holding.
2006 – NFL bans hits to the QBs below their knees.
2008 – After Carson Palmer and Tom Brady suffered serious, high-profile knee injuries, the NFL enacted several rules to restrict the actions of defensive pass rushers. Rules have also been enacted to prevent concussions, including a prohibition on hitting defenseless receivers and launching and leading with a helmet or shoulder into the opponent’s helmet or neck area.
2009 – NFL bans contact to the head of a defenseless receiver.
2011 – Drew Brees throws for an NFL record 5,476 yards and completes an NFL record 71.4% of his passes.