THINKING OUT LOUD: Loose ten yards for a 1st down — really?

Editor’s note:  I been feeling quite flummoxed of late by my faltering efforts to investigate the early history of the evolution of American football’s rules.  In response, I’m going to offer some tentative and meditative posts here at this blog — let’s say to let off some “mental steam” (if such a thing exists!) and, at the same time, also convey something of the nature of my enterprise so far.  Let’s see how this goes.

American football emerged out of English rugby in the final quarter of the 19th century.  Parke Davis termed the Harvard-McGill game, on May 15, 1874,

American football emerged out of English rugby in the final quarter of the 19th century. Parke Davis termed the Harvard-McGill game, on May 15, 1874, “America’s first intercollegiate game of Rugby football.”

I think it all started when I began musing about why the rules of a game ever change. If both teams are obliged to play by the same rules, then both teams must of course face up to the same sets of disadvantages and advantages that any fixed system of rules happens to impose.  Why then change anything?  A related, and no less interesting, question concerns why some games or sports experience big and repeated changes in their rules over a given period while others experience hardly any.  Nineteenth century baseball and football are good examples — with baseball’s rules changing little and football’s a lot.  The story of a sport’s rule changes suggests that rules are in turn lodged in higher planes or frameworks of values and value-related circumstances, which in turn play out in rule changes.

Michael Oriard, in a luminous and wonderful essay on football’s early rule changes (1), has parsed the question in terms of competing institutional interests.  Following Walter Camp, the father of American football, Oriard’s analysis outlined how separate parties to the sport — collegiate football’s players themselves, coaches, university faculties, and fans — each represented different, and sometimes competing, interests in the game.  “The early years of football thus illustrate most concretely,” Oriard wrote, “the messy relations and complicated distribution of power among ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ of culture” (p. 93). Another potential interpretive perspective is more internalist and dialectic. Modifying one rule may create unintended and unanticipated consequences for other rules and a sport’s play.  Hence, rule changes may create stresses because of the interrelatedness of a game’s underlying rule architecture.  Incidentally, Oriard’s essay touched on several aspects of this kind of dynamic, too.    

There is yet another dimension of the dynamics of rule changes that also merits our attention. This one concerns what might be called the mentalité associated with a given body of rules at a moment in historical time.  What I mean by this term is (a) a mindset, (b) a body of not necessarily fully explicit ideas and expectations, and (c) a body of fundamental understandings about a game and its rules.  I noticed the presence of an alien mentalité, for example, when I tried to read late 19th or early 20th century news accounts of football games.  Whereas it’s a relatively easy matter for me to read and understand sports journalists’ reports of football games played nowadays, reading these 100-year-or-more old reports of games often left me puzzled about meaning and about what was actually being described.

Walter Camp, 1878

Walter Camp, 1878

There are other ways to detect the presence of alien mentalités too.  Let’s consider one that gave me the title for this post.  It is generally held that the introduction of “the snap” was the innovation that launched American football on a quite different evolutionary path from its progenitor sport, English rugby.  Walter Camp called the snap “…the backbone to which the entire body of American football is attached.”  The American game’s snap — which granted the team in possession the right to an unimpeded transfer of a dead ball from the ground to the quarterback — harbored manifold and profound implications for the sport’s subsequent development.  It replaced rugby’s “scrummage” (or “scrum”) with our game’s “scrimmage.”

We need to engage the historical imagination to understand what I wish to examine now.  Suppose you are sitting in the bleachers watching an intercollegiate rugby/football game in November, 1880.  The two teams have decided to use the new American “scrimmage,” instead of rugby’s “scrum” to put the ball in play. It should be noted, incidentally, the new snap maneuver in 1880 was still a far cry from what we’re familiar with today.  The ball was snapped with the foot.  The maneuver underwent a long evolution over the decade of the 1880s, and the hand snap wasn’t customarily in use until the 1890s.  Walter Camp described this evolution’s early stage as follows:

The Americans started with the English scrimmage, kicked at the ball, and pushed and scrambled for a season, until it was discovered that a very clever manifestation of the play was to let the opponents do the kicking—in fact, to leave an opening at the proper moment through which the ball would come, and a man a few feet behind this opening could always get the ball and pass it while the men who kicked it were still entangled in the scrimmage. After a little of this, no one was anxious to kick the ball through, and the rushers began to roll the ball sidewise along between the lines. Then almost immediately it was discovered that a man could snap the ball backwards with his toe, and the American outlet was installed.  (Camp, American Football, 1914 edition)

Whether by foot or hand, the snap introduced a fundamental change into the game.  Now one team — the team on “offense” — could be relatively certain it would retain the ball over a sequence of plays or live ball episodes.  The snap, in turn, stimulated the development of all manner of sophisticated and complicated plans or “plays” the offense could now try out. In rugby, the sport left behind, post-scrum possession of the ball remained a chancy matter.

First part of a November, 1892 New York Times report of a game between Harvard and Princeton.

First part of a November, 1892 New York Times report of a game between Harvard and Princeton.

Let’s return now to the game we’re watching in November, 1880.  At this very early stage of the new sport’s evolution not much else about the American version of “rugby football” will have changed from the progenitor sport, rugby.  In other words, you are still sitting there observing a rugby game, albeit now an innovated-upon and improved version of the sport because of the American snap.  Beyond the snap, the rest of the game’s play more or less conforms to the larger corpus of rugby’s rules and expectations.  In short, you are still observing the action within the overarching framework of rugby’s mentalité.

Granting enduring possession to one team very soon created a new problem for the American game.  A weaker team — or, for that matter, any team that chose to do so — could simply engage in an endless succession of plays resulting in little gain or little loss of yardage.  A limit on the offense’s number of “downs” hadn’t been introduced into the rules yet.  An entire half (or “inning,” as football’s halves were then termed) could be consumed by this stalling tactic.  The notorious Yale-Princeton “block games” of 1881 and 1882 made use of exactly this stalling tactic, to the chagrin of the fans and the press.  A chorus of calls for reform followed.

One of the solutions for the “block game” problem required that a team must move the ball a minimum number of yards in order to gain a new series of downs.  The new rule, introduced in October, 1882, mandated that the offense had three downs, to move the ball a minimum of five yards forward or — and this is the striking part of the rule — at least ten yards backward.  Incidentally, this innovation prompted inscribing the football field with yardlines every five yards, so that the referee had a little help in determining whether the necessary yardage had been gained or lost.

Did I say backward?  Was a first down awarded for either forward or backward movement of the ball?  Yes.  “Curiously,” wrote Mark F. Bernstein in his own excellent book on the history of the American game, “the original rule also gave the team a first down if it lost ten yards — a team could continue to hold the ball, by losing ground as losing ground as well as by gaining it” (2, p. 20).

This aspect of the 1882 rule is “curious” to us, of course, because it makes no sense within our present day football mentalité. What, then, was it about the mentalité of the game in 1882 — that is, when it still steeped in its rugby past — might explain the reward for backward movement the rule offered?  Might some aspect of rugby’s mentalité help us understand what looks to us, today, like some sort of typo?

One possible line explanation might bring into play the stationariness of the “block game” problem.  After all, the ball in a “block game” situation might not move more than a few feet forward or backward over an entire half.  Was the new rule, then, rewarding any movement, forward or backward, in order to solve only the stationariness problem?  Or, was there some other aspect of rugby’s  mentalité we need to consider?

I’ve been looking for discussions of the 10-yard-loss feature of the 1882 rule in contemporary newspaper accounts of games, in magazine articles, and in Walter Camp’s and Parke Davis’s books on football’s early history.  I’ve also looked for secondary accounts.  But, and so far, I’ve had no luck, I’m sorry to say.  The awarding of a 1st down for losing at least ten yards over the course of three downs remains, as I write this, a pretty dark and pretty mysterious feature of the mentalité of football’s very early history.


(1) Michael Oriard, “In the Beginning Was the Rule,” pp. 88-120 in: S.W. Pope (ed.), The New American Sport History: Recent Approaches and Perspectives, Urbana and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

(2) Mark F. Bernstein, Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

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2 Responses to THINKING OUT LOUD: Loose ten yards for a 1st down — really?

  1. ronroizen9 says:

    A volume titled *University Foot-Ball: The Play of Each Position Treated by a College Expert*, edited by James R. Church and published in 1893, touched briefly on the first-down rule’s role in addressing the notorious “block game” problem: “One large game under this style of play,” wrote Church, “showed that to hold public interest something must be done to break up the ‘block’ play. The five-yard gain or twenty-yard loss in three downs settled the question to the satisfaction both of the public and the players” (p. 4). The yardage loss element of this rule was increased from 10 yards to 20 in 1887. How, exactly, gaining a first down via a loss of yardage provided “satisfaction” to fans and players is not further described. I’m left suspecting simply that the ball’s movement on the field was the most pressing issue the rules committee faced. That is, if the “block game” left could leave the ball more or less at the same place on the field for an entire half, then a provision that moved the ball in one direction or the other served to solve that particular problem. Again, a quite different mentalite is obviously at work here.

  2. Pingback: A very short history of 1st down | Ron Roizen's blog

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