With football now dominated by rocket-armed quarterbacks and fleet-footed receivers, it’s hard to imagine the sport without the forward pass. Gambling, however, was illegal for nearly four decades after the sport was created. When the overtaking was finally cleared in 1906, to improve player safety, critics predicted it would dilute the rugged essence of the sport and drive fans away. But it had the opposite effect.
In the early years of football, footage was difficult to acquire; the points were even rarer. Wearing little padding and protective gear, players who used their bodies as rams suffered not only kicks, bites, and eye gashes, but also twisted thorns and cracked skulls.
But football was not only extremely violent. It was deadly.
the Chicago Tribune reported 18 football-related deaths in 1904, mostly among prep school players. After 19 more died the following year, universities such as Stanford, Northwestern, and Duke gave up football. Others threatened to do the same if changes were not made.
Restrictions on offenses relating to impediments to success
Spurred on by President Theodore Roosevelt, a football enthusiast who feared the game would be banned if it was not made safer, more than 60 schools came together after the 1905 season and approved the rule revisions. Among them were the abolition of dangerous mass formations, the creation of a neutral zone between attacks and defenses, the doubling of the distance of the first try to 10 meters and the legalization of the forward pass.
Although any player behind the line of scrimmage was allowed to pass, the rules committee imposed severe restrictions that hampered infractions. Passes could not be thrown or caught within five yards of either side of the line of scrimmage, and only both ends of the line of scrimmage were eligible for catching.
Additionally, passes that crossed the goal line resulted in touchbacks to defenses, and out of bounds throws were awarded to defenses where they left the field. Passes that touched the ground without being touched by any player resulted in turnovers.
“The forward pass has been so well surrounded by restrictions that it makes it a game that must be carefully practiced and performed well to be useful,” wrote Rules Committee member Walter Camp, a staunch enemy of the game.
Supporters of the pass, such as Georgia Tech coach John Heisman, believed the forward pass would inject speed and skill into football and open the game by forcing defenders to extend their coverage. But opponents such as Camp believed it emasculated the brutal nature of the sport.
“Many predict the ruin of the game through drastic reform,” reported the New York Times changes in the rules of the sport before the 1906 season.
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Restrictions discourage the use of the forward pass
Those who feared that the forward pass would immediately ruin football didn’t have to worry as old-school coaches at top colleges in the East saw it as a risky gimmick. Yale only attempted three assists in his first game of the season. Everything has failed.
“Well executed they are without a doubt very spectacular, but the risk of dropping the ball is so great that it makes the practice extremely dangerous and its timeliness questionable,” he added. New York Times editorialized.
Unlike the elites in the East, University of Saint Louis coach Eddie Cochems gave the new rule the test of the old college. Before the start of the 1906 season, he cloistered his team in a Jesuit retreat in Wisconsin, as he later wrote, “for the sole purpose of studying and developing the pass.”
In Saint Louis’ opener against Carroll College on September 5, 1906, Bradbury Robinson threw football’s first legal forward pass. The throw hit the ground intact, resulting in a turnover. But Robinson later connected on a 20-yard touchdown pass. Thanks in part to the forward pass, the undefeated Saint Louis dominated his 1906 opponents, 407-11.
Glenn “Pop” Warner also embraced the forward pass as a way for his 1907 Carlisle Indian Industrial School team to compete for collegial powers with stronger, deeper rosters. Warner designed the “Carlisle Formation,” a precursor to the one-wing attack, which offered players the option of running, passing or kicking.
Carlisle presented his aerial game in front of 20,000 fans in Philadelphia against the University of Pennsylvania in an unbeaten battle. Playing in his first college game, Jim Thorpe was among the Carlisle players who managed an assist in Carlisle’s decisive victory.
Carlisle’s shutout loss the following week at Princeton, however, demonstrated the limits of the forward pass. Without pass interference penalties, the Princeton defenders continually grabbed Carlisle receivers to keep them from catching the ball.
Because the rulebook discouraged passing, football continued to be a ground-and-pound game, and deadly. the Chicago Tribune reported 31 football-related deaths between September 1908 and the summer of 1909, and the Army and Navy canceled their 1909 seasons after each team had a player who died from football injuries.
Continuing deaths have made additional adjustments to the handover rules, such as no longer performing intact throw turnovers. The aerial game, however, remained a passing fantasy until a relatively unknown Catholic school used it to mark one of college football’s biggest upheavals.
Passing Stuns Army of Notre-Dame in 1913
Prior to the 1913 season, Gus Dorais and Knute Rockne of Notre Dame practiced the foremost pass while overseeing life in Ohio. The training paid off when the Irish launched a high-level assault on West Point that overwhelmed the army on November 1, 1913.
Notre Dame opened the scoring when Dorais threw a 40-yard touchdown pass that Rockne caught in stride, and the shots kept coming in as the Irish scored five touchdowns. Dorais completed 14 of 17 passes for 243 yards in the victory that put Notre Dame on the football map.
“Everyone seemed amazed,” Rockne later wrote. “There had been no hurdles, tackles, dives, or crushing of fibers and tendons. Just a long distance touchdown by rapid transit.
The passing techniques used in the early 1900s differed from those with which football fans are accustomed today. Some players left their feet for jump passes, while others threw soccer balls from below or vertically.
As the forward pass became more common, football itself evolved from a watermelon-shaped orb that could be thrown in the shot put to a thinner oval that was easier to grip and could be launched in a spiral.
In the 1930s, spirals were flying off the hands of Texas Christian University quarterbacks Sammy Baugh and 1938 Heisman Trophy winner Davey O’Brien. Using a spread attack with two wide receivers and two slit receivers, TCU a tossed the ball up to 40 times in a game, and their star quarterbacks ultimately brought their aerial skills to the very young National Football League.
Handover rules are changing to favor quarterbacks
After being drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, O’Brien set an NFL record in his 1939 rookie season with 1,324 passing yards, before being passed by Baugh the following year. “Slingin ‘Sammy” set another record in 1947 when he threw for almost 3,000 yards, a mark that would not be passed until Johnny Unitas did so in 1960.
The running game, however, has remained an attacking mainstay.
When Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson led the NFL with 2,667 passing yards in 1974, it was over 1,000 less than Washington’s Sonny Jurgensen in 1967. The NFL responded in the 1970s by allowing offensive linemen to block with their hands and by tightening the restrictions on contact defenders could do with receivers.
Since the turn of the century, the NFL has enacted other rule changes to encourage passing, such as a ban on helmet shots and low blows to the quarterback. The pass-happy game fueled the growth of fantasy football leagues and television ratings. Defying the prediction that it would cause the sport to disappear, the forward pass made soccer America’s most popular sport.
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