The National Football League is the home of the most-watched spectator sport in the United States. It has a long, deep history and found its roots in the equally popular college game. The modern NFL as we know it began in 1970. Here’s how it started.
The Early Years
In 1920, ten teams from four different states formed the American Professional Football Association (APFA). Two of its original franchises – the Chicago Cardinals (now Arizona) and the Decatur Staleys (now the Chicago Bears) – still exist today. Two years after its formation, the league renamed itself the National Football League.
Most of the early teams were located in smaller cities, but by the late 1930s had relocated to larger ones. The first televised game featured the Philadelphia Eagles and the Brooklyn Dodgers (yes, many early teams took the same name as their city’s baseball team!). Despite being televised, the college game was still more popular than the professional game.
The Rival AFL
In 1960, a group of businessman that failed to buy into the NFL formed their own league – the American Football League. The new league competed head-to-head with the NFL for players which drove up salaries. The AFL, with team owners like Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders, started signing players away from the NFL. In return, the NFL began negotiations to merge the two leagues together. In 1968 the NY Jets led by charismatic superstar Quarterback Joe Namath defeated the Baltimore Colts to win Super Bowl III in a shocking upset which proved that parity did exist and that win incidentally publicly predicted by Namath helped facilitate the merger between the two rival leagues.
The AFL and NFL merged in 1970 and divided itself into two conferences. The National Football Conference, or NFC, was comprised mostly of teams from the old NFL. The American Football Conference (AFC) was made up of teams from the AFL. Three franchises – Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and the Baltimore Colts were moved to the AFC to even out the conferences. The sport continued to grow and solidified itself as America’s No. 1 spectator sport by the 1980s. That ranking has continued till today with the NFL broadcasting internationally and even playing games in Mexico and England.
As mentioned the AFC and NFC make up the NFL. Within each conference, there are four divisions: East North, South, and West.
The AFC consists of the following:
New England Patriots
Kansas City Chiefs
Los Andeles Chargers
New York Jets
The NFC consists of the following:
New Orleans Saints
Los Angeles Rams
Green Bay Packers
San Francisco 49ers
New York Giants
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
In 1966, the NFL began a championship played between the AFL and the NFL. The Green Bay Packers played the Kansas City Chiefs in the very first Super Bowl in January 1967. The game was not yet known as the Super Bowl. That would come with Super Bowl III, the first game to be marketed as a Super Bowl. Each and every year since, the champion of the AFC plays the champion of the NFC in the game that concludes the NFL’s playoffs. Traditionally the Super Bowl has been played in a warm weather venue however with domed stadiums its now possible to play the game in January anywhere that’s suitable.
Since the merger in 1970, the NFL has played an annual All-Star game held after the regular season has ended. The game is officially known as the AFC-NFC Pro Bowl pitting the best players in each respective conference against one another. The game has gone through some changes through the years. Since 1979, the game has been played in Hawaii every year but one. The league also experimented with an “unconferenced” format where two teams of players were selected in a draft. The league abandoned that approach. The Pro Bowl is now held annually the week before the Super Bowl. Mostly the game is a played as entertainment with offense taking the spotlight and nobody really willing to be injured by hitting too hard.
The modern NFL – a period of time that begins with the 1970 merger – has undergone some expansion. In 1976, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks joined the league. The Seahawks are the only NFL franchise to switch conferences twice. Seattle was originally in the NFC West but was moved to the AFC West before going back to its original division.
In 1995, the NFL welcomed the Jacksonville Jaguars to the AFC and the Carolina Panthers to the NFC. A year later, the Baltimore Ravens were enfranchised with the remains of the old Cleveland Browns. In 1997, the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee where they eventually became the Tennessee Titans. Two years later, the Cleveland Browns were reinstated and the 32nd NFL franchise, the Houston Texans, entered the league in 2002.
Hall of Fame
The Pro Football Hall of Fame opened in 1963 and is located in Canton, Ohio, the same city in which the APFA (which became the NFL) was founded. Each year, a 48-person selection committee determines which players, coaches, or special contributors to the game will be inducted. Players and coaches must have been retired at least five years to be eligible for the Hall. Any other contributor can be nominated at any time. It is the highest honor in professional football to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. There are currently 318 members enshrined. The first induction included legendary names like Jim Thorpe, Red Grange, Don Hudson, Ernie Nevers, Bronko Nagurski and George Halas. The 1971 class included Jim Brown perhaps the greatest player ever and Vince Lombardi arguably the greatest coach ever.
Any discussion of greatest NFL franchises has to start with the Green Bay Packers. Winners of 4 Super Bowls, 9 Pre Super Bowl Championships and 17 Division titles they set the standard for excellence all through the NFL’s formative growth years. The Lombardi Trophy is named for their great coach Vince Lombardi. The New England Patriots are right there in the discussion with 5 Super Bowl wins and their dominance since 2002 is unprecedented. They have won their division 13 times in the last 15 years.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick is the greatest modern age coach and Patriots owner Robert Kraft is considered one of the greatest owners ever. The Pittsburgh Steelers are probably third as they dominated the 1970’s and won 6 Super Bowls and have captured 21 Divisional Titles. Trailing these 3 would be the New York Giants, Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys and SF 49ers. You can pick your order for those 5 and you wouldn’t be wrong.