This is my belated fourth installment in my series on why Americans don’t play soccer, while the rest of the world does. The previous parts can be found here: Part I, Part II, and Part III. The gentlemen pictured above are the Yale football team of 1879. The one in the middle holding the ball is Walter Camp, who would soon be the most influential individual in the development of American football.
The last installment left us with the cliffhanger that American universities had, thanks to the intransigence of Harvard, adopted Rugby rather than Association football. If you look closely, however, you will find that American universities no longer play Rugby, or at least not as a money sport. There is no such thing as Big Time College Rugby.
At the same time, it is obvious to even the casual observer that American football is related to Rugby. Their balls are similarly prolate spheroids. They can have a player running while carrying the ball, and sometimes passing it to a comrade running alongside and slightly behind. They both score points by kicking the ball over a crossbar between two uprights. And so on. Yet for all these similarities, the overall pattern of play is vastly different. Rugby has a more-or-less continuous flow, much like soccer, while a game of American football comprises a series of set-piece plays, with everything stopping between each. So what happened? How did we get from there to here?
A preliminary point is that the game Harvard played, learned from McGill, wasn’t precisely the same as that played by the Rugby Union. The notable difference is that under the Rugby Union rules of that day touchdowns did not score points. They merely gave the team making the touchdown the opportunity to score by kicking the ball through the uprights. McGill’s version modified this, counting touchdowns in the scoring. This was initially a fairly minor point. The 1876 rules, negotiated between the American colleges, counted a proper goal as equal to four touchdowns, making touchdowns essentially a tie breaker. What is important is that they felt free to monkey with the rules, rather than conforming to English practice. This was not a given. American cricketers occasionally suggested modifying the rules, and were consistently firmly smacked down. The Laws of Cricket as codified by the Marylebone Cricket Club (a name to be spoken reverently, with a solemn mien) were sacrosanct. The Rugby Union had nothing like the cultural standing of the English cricket establishment, giving the Americans free rein–which license they took full advantage of.
In about 1880 there were three critical rules developments that would define American football: the scrimmage, offensive blocking, and the requirement to move the ball to retain possession.
The scrimmage is a modification of the Rugby scrummage, invariably shortened to the “scrum.” The scrum is vaguely familiar to the average American sports fan: a mass of sweaty humanity grappling one another and thrusting. One need not be finely attuned to homoerotic subtexts to find this memorable. But what is the point, and how does it actually work?
The point of a scrum is to put the ball back in play when neither side has full possession. It is the Rugby equivalent of basketball’s jump ball or hockey’s face off. In it, each side has three players line up facing the other side, with a mass of players immediately behind the front three. The ball is tossed into the middle, and the fun begins! The idea is that the middle of those three guys (Spoiler alert: a/k/a in the “center”) will hook the ball back with his foot, hence his being called the “hooker.” He has his arms over the shoulders of the guys on either side, the “props,” who hold him up (or, one could say, “guard” him). If the hooker succeeds, the ball eventually works its way out the back of the throbbing mass of humanity, where a “back” picks it up and normal play resumes. Even if the hooker doesn’t get the ball, each side will try to push forward. They might push right past the ball, which achieves the same end, or at least keep things moving in the right direction.
The scrum, while sometimes dramatic, is actually a pretty lousy solution to the problem of putting the ball back in play. The first problem is that it is absurdly dangerous. If the scrum collapses, which it frequently does, this drives the hooker’s head into the ground: an open invitation to spinal chord injuries. But even if manly men are unconcerned with such trivialities, the scrum doesn’t actually give both sides a fair shot at possession. In a jump ball or face off, the ball (or puck) is initially handled by a neutral official. A scrum is given to one side, and a player from that side tosses the ball into the scrum. In theory he is supposed to put it down the middle, but of course he never does. The result is that in modern Rugby the team awarded the scrum end up with the ball 92% of the time (if Wikipedia is to be believed).
The result is a long history of de-emphasizing the scrum. In the 1870s a scrum was held every time the ball carrier was tackled. Modern Rugby only uses it in more limited circumstances.
The Americans of the 1880s took a different tack, modifying the scrummage and renaming the new form the “scrimmage” (a dialectal variant of the word) to distinguish it. The scrimmage was still held after every tackle, but the ball carrier’s team automatically retained possession. The players still lined up, but the hooker of the possessing team was allowed to snap the ball back with his foot unimpeded. He snapped it to the guy immediately behind him, now called the “quarter back.” The quarter back was not allowed to advance the ball (a vestigial nod to the offsides rule: more on that below) but rather handed it off to the full back or one of the half backs, who ran with the ball (and who were the stars of the team who got the girls)
This change was critical to the character of the game. One characteristic of the scrum is that everything stops: The scrum is set up, and play recommences. The scrimmage retained this stop-and-start character. Rugby also changed what happened after the ball carrier was tackled, but favored solutions that created a continuous flow of play. The result, for better or worse, was the American football rhythm of a series of distinct planned plays, each with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
So now we can have set plays, but what are they allowed to do? The second great innovation was to allow offensive blocking. In Rugby, any player on the possessing team who is ahead of the ball is offsides, and not allowed to participate in the brawling around it. This is why you can’t have a guy run in front of the ball carrier to clear the way. Then some clever lad at Princeton in 1879 realized that this didn’t actually outlaw blocking: merely blocking in front of the ball. So players were placed on either side of the ball carrier. This was not done in English Rugby–not because it was illegal, but because everyone knew how the game was played that this wasn’t it. It never occurred to the rules makers to outlaw it. This serves as a cautionary tale about believing that the rules alone tell you how a sport is actually played.
These sidemen wouldn’t stop a defender from tackling from directly in front of the ball carrier, but they could protect his flanks. This proved effective, so other schools started doing it. There was only one referee at this time, who could hardly watch everything, so those guys on either side started cheating forward a bit, without consequences. And of course everyone else followed suit. They soon dropped the pretense, and simply ignored the offside rule after the ball was snapped back. This became accepted practice years before the rule was actually changed. I refer you to the previous paragraph’s cautionary tale.
So here we have set plays, with the vestigial scrum converted into two lines of men facing each other, and with the option of the offensive linemen attempting to shove their counterparts aside to create a gap for the ball carrier to run through. There is one more innovation to work through. The new system had no provision to keep a team from running out the clock. A team with both the lead and the ball could essentially take a knee every play. Or even without the lead.
Going into the 1880 Thanksgiving Day game between Princeton and Yale, Princeton was ahead in the standings, and needed only a tie to win the championship. Neither side scored in the first half. Princeton got the ball in the second half, and ran out the clock the entire half. Then the next year, the same thing happened, this time with both Princeton and Yale playing this “block game.” (No, I don’t know why both sides considered this the optimal strategy. I will have to figure that out some day.) The block game committed the unforgivable sin of sports: it was boring. The problem was so severe that some people advocated returning to the Rugby rules. Instead, in 1882 they devised an entirely new rule:
If on three consecutive fairs and downs a team shall not have advanced the ball five yards or lost ten, they must give up the ball to the other side at the spot where the fourth down was made.
I leave as an exercise for the student the contemplation of how the game would be had the retained the feature of a new set of downs if sufficient yardage is lost. In the meantime, they started putting lines across the field every five yards as a visual aid for how much yardage was required.
And there you have American football: A game showing its paternity, but distinctly different from Rugby. Coaches spend the next quarter century working out the implications of this new system. It turned out that the logical conclusion was a game with an unacceptably high fatality rate, so in the early 20th century the rules were revisited. Various reforms were introduced, including going from five to ten yards for a first down, on the theory that “three yards and a cloud of dust” required more open play than did “two yards and a cloud of dust.” Oh, and the forward pass. That, too.
This explains why American football, and its close relative Canadian football, are different from either Rugby or Association football. In Part V I will return to the mother country and how Association football became the game of the masses.