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The National Football League (NFL) is the largest professional American football league, 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. The NFL is one of the major professional sports leagues of North America.
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, and with the merger of the rival American Football League (1960-1969) which introduced major on- and off-the-field innovations that were eventually adopted by the NFL.
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 four 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 site, usually in a city that hosts an NFL team. One week later, selected all-star players from both the AFC and NFC meet in the Pro Bowl, currently held in Hawaii.
NFL Team Home Game Tickets
Arizona Cardinals | Atlanta Falcons | Baltimore Ravens | Carolina Panthers | Cleveland Browns | Chicago Bears | Cincinnati Bengals | Dallas Cowboys | Denver Broncos | Houston Texans | Indianapolis Colts | Jacksonville Jaquars | K. C. Chiefs | Miami Dolphins | New England Patriots | New York Giants | New York Jets | Oakland Raiders | Philadelphia Eagles | San Diego Chargers |San Francisco 49ers | Seattle Seahawks | St. Louis Rams | Tampa Bay Buccaneers | Tennessee Titans | Washington Redskins
The NFL season begins with most teams playing four "pre-season" exhibition games from early August through early September; the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game and American Bowl don't count towards the normal allottment of four games and therefore the four teams playing in those games play five exhibition games. The regular season starts the weekend after Labor Day. Each team plays 16 games during a 17-week period. Traditionally, every game is played on Sunday afternoon with the exception of one game per week being played in Sunday night, and another game being played on Monday night. In recent years, the league has started scheduling a nationally telecast regular season game on the Thursday night prior to the first Sunday of NFL games to "kickoff" the season. In addition, the Dallas Cowboys and the Detroit Lions each host a game on Thanksgiving Day. For the last 3 weeks or so of the regular season, after the end of the college football season in the US, the league typically schedules 2 or 3 nationally televised games on Saturday afternoons or evenings. In 2005, with Christmas falling on a Sunday, the NFL has flipped their normal schedule for that weekend, having the normal slate (less the Sunday night contest) of Sunday games on Saturday (Christmas Eve day), with two nationally televised games on Sunday (Christmas Day), similar to what the NFL did in 1994 with the afternoon games on Saturday, and the primetime games the following 2 days (Detroit at Miami on Sunday, San Francisco at Minnesota on Monday).
Currently, each team's regular season schedule is set using a pre-determined formula: 
- Each team plays every other team in their division twice: once at home, and once on the road (6 games).
- Each team plays the four teams from another division within its conference on a rotating three-year cycle (4 games).
- Each team plays the four teams from a division in the other conference on a rotating four-year cycle (4 games).
- Each team plays 2 games versus two teams within its conference based on the prior year's standings. These games match a first-place team against the first-place teams in the two same-conference divisions the team is not scheduled to play that season. The second-place, third-place, and fourth-place teams in a conference are matched in the same way each year.
For the 2005 season, the assignments are the following:
- AFC East v. AFC West
- AFC North v. AFC South
- NFC East v. NFC West
- NFC North v. NFC South
- AFC East v. NFC South
- AFC North v. NFC North
- AFC South v. NFC West
- AFC West v. NFC East
For the 2006 season, the assignments will be:
- AFC East v. AFC South
- AFC North v. AFC West
- NFC East v. NFC South
- NFC North v. NFC West
- AFC East v. NFC North
- AFC North v. NFC South
- AFC South v. NFC East
- AFC West v. NFC West
Sixteen Game Schedule
Through 1977, the NFL schedule consisted of fourteen regular season games played over fourteen weeks. Opening weekend typically was the weekend after Labor Day, or even two weekends after Labor Day. Teams played six, or even seven preseason games. In 1978, the league changed the schedule to include sixteen regular season games and four preseason games. From 1978-1989, the sixteen games were played over sixteen weeks.
In 1990, the NFL introduced a bye-week to the schedule. Each team would play sixteen regular season games over seventeen weeks. One week during the season, on a rotating basis, each team would have the weekend off. As a result, opening weekend was moved up to Labor Day weekend. In 1993, the league adjusted the schedule to include two bye weeks per team, and the sixteen games were played over eighteen weeks. In 1994, the schedule was changed back to seventeen weeks.
In 2001, the NFL decided to move opening week to the weekend after Labor Day. Television ratings seemed to be sagging due to the holiday, and the stadium crowds were apparently lacking due to vacationing fans. In addition, it would leave the three-day holiday weekend alone to the opening weekend of college football, preventing conflicts, and maximizing exposure. In 2002, the NFL began scheduling a Thursday night special opening game, which would be nationally televised. Festivities and a pre-game concert would kick off the season.
- In 1999, the NFL moved the first week of the season one week later due to the conflict with January 1, 2000. The Y2K problem sparked travel concerns for the final week of the season, and playoffs. By moving the season a week later, the NFL hoped to prevent teams traveling complications.
- For most years, there has been an open weekend between the Conference Championship games and the Super Bowl. In the 1990 season, there was no bye, as the league was still adjusting the schedule from adding the bye week during the season. In the 1993 season, there was no bye week since the regular season consisted of eighteen weekends. The bye week was simply removed. In the 1999 season, the bye week was removed to accommodate the schedule being moved ahead one week. In the 2001 season, the bye week dissappeared when the league moved opening weekend a week later. It caused scheduling problems when Super Bowl XXXVI had to be delayed. By the 2003 season, the bye week was restored. In the 1982 strike-shortened season, a postseason tournament replaced the traditional playoff format. The Super Bowl bye week was removed to accomadate the longer, expanded playoffs.
- Main article: NFL playoffs
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.
- Main article NFL Draft
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 $230,000 in his first year, and rises after that based on the number of years in service:
|Years Experience||Minimum Salary|
Exhibition game minimum is $10,000.00 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 and the advent of free agency in 1992 led to the NFL's adoption of a salary cap in 1994, 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 was $ 80.582 million, an increase of $5.5 million from 2003. The cap for the 2005 season is expected to be approximately $85.5 million.
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, long dominated since the advent of free agency by large market teams. They point to the relative parity of competition that exists in the NFL as of 2005 compared to Major League Baseball as evidence that the NFL salary cap preserves competitive balance. They claim fans end up paying higher ticket prices to help pay for escalating player salaries. These concerns, among others, led in part to modified salary cap adoption in the National Basketball Association in 1984 and the National Hockey League in 2005.
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; furthermore, they attribute NFL competitive parity instead to the league's extensive revenue sharing policies.
The NFL's current CBA (collective bargining agreement) expires in 2008.
- Main article: Black players in American professional football
Although the current NFL is well-represented 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.
Although there is no official discrimination against white players playing certain positions in the modern NFL, most positions are filled by blacks. There has been increasing discrimination against white running backs, defensive backs, and receivers, who have been less and less visible for the last 25 years. In 2005, a minimal majority of offensive linemen are white. Most quarterbacks, punters, and kickers are white, while almost all running backs, wide receivers, defensive backs, defensive linemen, safeties, punt returners, and kickoff returners are black. Increasingly, positions such as tight end, fullback, and linebacker are represented by blacks. The NFL is 69% black, with whites making up the majority of the remaining players, followed by Pacific Islanders, Hispanics, and Asians.
- Main article: 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.
NFL and EA Sports partner up to produce a video game based on the league 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 is also a Street version of the game (see NFL Street series for more information).
Competitors of the Madden NFL series included ESPN NFL Football and NFL Blitz, However, in December 2004, EA signed an exclusive agreement with the NFL, meaning the Madden series would be the only franchise allowed to use NFL team and player names.
Commissioners and presidents
- 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)
Rules named after players
The following is a partial list of rules that were enacted largely based on a single player's exploits on the field.
- the Bronko Nagurski Rule -- forward passing made legal from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. Enacted in 1933. Prior to this rule change a player had to be 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage to throw a forward pass.
- the Deacon Jones Rule -- no head-slapping. Enacted in 1977.
- the Deion Sanders rule -- no excessive end zone celebrations.
- the Emmitt Smith Rule -- no taking your helmet off on the field of play. Enacted in 1997.
- the Erik Williams rule -- no hands to the facemask by offensive linemen.
- the Fran Tarkenton rule -- a line judge was added as the sixth official. Enacted in 1965.
- the Ken Stabler rule -- on fourth down or any down in the final two-minutes of play, if a player fumbles, only the fumbling player can recover and/or advance the ball. Enacted in 1979.
- the Lester Hayes rule -- no "stickum" allowed. Enacted in 1981.
- the Lou Groza rule -- no artificial medium to assist in the execution of a kick. Enacted in 1956.
- the Mel Renfro rule -- allows a "double touch" by the offense. Enacted in 1978.
- the Michael Irvin rule -- no taunting. Another rule, resulting in offensive pass interference, prohibiting WR's to push off CB's, is also often called "the Michael Irvin rule."
- the Bert Emanuel rule -- the ball can touch the ground during a completed pass as long as the receiver maintains control of the ball.
- the Roy Williams rule -- no horse-collar tackles. Enacted in 2005.
See the external, Professional Football Researchers Association, link below for more "player named" rules, and background information on how these rules came about.
- ^ NFL scheduling formula at NFL.com