The NFL has a long history that dates back to its founding in 1920 in Canton, Ohio, as the American Professional Football Association. The league would change its name in 1922 to the National Football League, or as most people today know it as the NFL. Since then, the NFL has made many changes throughout its existence.
The NFL’s Early Years 1922-1932
After the name change in 1922, the NFL season would have a total of 18 teams, four of which were new to the NFL that year. At the end of the season, the team with the best record was declared the NFL Champions. That format would be the format for determining the NFL Champion until 1933.
The 1932 season would see the NFL only field eight teams. By the end of the 1932 NFL season, two teams would be tied with the same record, prompting the first-ever playoff game to determine who the NFL Champion would be. The Portsmouth Spartans would go against the Chicago Bears for the title of NFL Champion, with the Bears winning the game by a score of 9-0. It was here that the NFL would make its first major change.
The NFL Evolves With Rule Changes, The Playoff Format, and The NFL Championship Game 1933-1965
With the first-ever playoff game in the NFL being widely successful, the NFL would divide their teams into two separate divisions. The leaders from each division would face each other in the NFL Championship game. By 1960, the NFL would have a playoff game between the runner-ups of both conferences, which would be called the Playoff Bowl. The game would be played after the NFL Championship game and would determine which team would be in third place in the NFL behind the winner and loser of the NFL Championship game.
These changes in the NFL also entailed rule changes in the league. These major rule changes included the following:
- Forward Passes became legal anywhere behind the line of scrimmage, changing the rule of needing to be five yards behind the line before the player could legally throw a pass.
- Hash marks and inbounds lines added.
- Moved the goalposts to the goal line of the endzone. The NFL would change the rule in 1974, placing the goalposts back to the end line of the endzone.
- Ruled a punt a touchback when the punt hits the goalpost before being touched by any player.
- Ruled a ball kicked behind the goal line that hits the goalpost and rolls back out of the endzone or is recovered by the kicking team a safety.
- Hand-to-hand forward passes made behind the line of scrimmage that is incomplete would be ruled a fumble.
- Incomplete passes no longer incurred a five-yard penalty.
- An illegal forward pass thrown beyond the line of scrimmage became a five-yard penalty from the spot of the foul.
- Introduced the NFL Draft in 1936.
NFL and AFL Merger 1966-1970
The NFL and the AFL would strike an agreement to merge the two football leagues into one league during a meeting they had in 1966. During the meeting, the NFL would change the NFL Championship game to the Super Bowl and have the game played against the playoff winner of the NFL Championship and the playoff winner of the AFL Championship. The NFL-AFL merger would be completed by the start of the 1970 season. The NFL became the namesake of both leagues, and the teams in the NFL were placed in the National Football Conference while the AFL teams were placed in the American Football Conference. The NFL also placed three teams from the 16 NFL teams into the AFC. Those teams were the Baltimore Colts, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Cleveland Browns.
The NFL Since Their Merger With The AFL 1971-Present Day
Since the 1970 merger and the two leagues being divided into two conferences with 13 teams each, the NFL had made changes and added additional teams to the league. What started as a 26-team league in 1970 has changed into a 32-team league. The NFL has also changed the number of games played from 14 games in 1971 to 17 games in 2021.
The playoff format has also been overhauled since 1971, where only three division winners and one wild card made the playoffs in each conference. In 2020, the NFL allowed for three wild card teams to make the playoffs to go along with the four division winners. The winner from each conference championship game still faces each other in the Super Bowl.