A very short history of 1st down

Football formation, 1903

Football formation, 1903

I’m still working on the puzzle in American football’s history I touched upon in an earlier post, here — namely, why the original formulation of football’s 1st down rule included awarding a new set of downs for the loss of ten yards.

As I mentioned in that previous post, this odd-sounding (to us, now) rule element suggests that early football operated within the framework of a quite different mindset or mentalité. One of the vexing problems associated with researching this mentalité is that the backwards-movement 1st down doesn’t seem to have attracted much commentary, whether in books about the history of football, contemporary press reports, or other sources.  Mark F. Bernstein’s excellent history (1), for instance, offered merely this: “Curiously, the original rule also gave the team a first down if it lost ten yards — a team could continue to hold the ball, in other words, by losing ground as well as by gaining it.” Curiously, indeed!  Yet Bernstein’s narrative provided not a single additional word about the seeming curiosity.   The absence of commentary is, in a way, as historiographically inviting as it is frustrating.  After all, the absence of contemporary commentary may suggest that the backwards 1st down provision required no commentary — or, in other words, that it was so deeply embedded and secure in the prevailing mentalité that it necessitated no discussion.  Maybe.    

It’s generally conceded that the cardinal innovation that set American football on a new course, now leaving behind its progenitor sport, English rugby, was the invention of “the snap.”  Much needs to be said about this fateful invention, but I’m not going to say it here or now.  For now its sufficient to note that the snap emerged — evolved, really — very early after the U.S.’s first collegiate rugby game was played at Cambridge, in May, 1874.  By the later 1870s some form of the snap had become customary in the emerging American game. The first 1st down rule followed not too very long afterward — it, one of the results of the rules conclave of October 14, 1882.  (It’s interesting to try to imagine what the sport of American football was like before downs were incorporated into its rules!)  The first 1st down rule’s rendering read as follows:

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. Consecutive means without leaving the hands of the side holding it. (2)

Park H. Davis

Park H. Davis

A word should be said about the word “fairs” in the new rule.  Fairs were episodes of live ball play that began with throw-ins from the sideline after a ball had gone out of bounds on the previous play.  This ingredient in the rule was of course a holdover from rugby, and, interestingly, it offered yet another instance in which the evolution of American football’s rules followed, rather than initiated, changes in the customary play of the sport.  Fairs — or sideline throw-ins — would not be formally eliminated from the sport until 1901.  Yet, and as Parke H. Davis — an early player, coach, and historian of the game — wrote in his 1917 book, the elimination of fairs

…brought no change in the play since it had gone out of use actually years before, but the dropping from the code of the obsolete legislation on the subject marked the final passing of one of the great features that existed and still exists in the English game. (3)

Our present-day formulation of the 1st down rule — four downs to gain 10 yards (with, of course, no backwards yardage provision) — would not become installed into football’s architecture until 1912, fully thirty years after the introduction of the 1882 rule.  The developmental process — like so much in the story of this early evolution in football’s rules — was incremental and interesting.  In 1887, the backwards-movement 1st down requirement was doubled to 20 yards.  In 1900, the same element was tightened so that a team could make use the backwards-movement provision only once in any given possession; Yale’s use of the backwards option twice in its 1899 game against Harvard was regarded by the rules committee as an illegitimate game-delaying tactic.  In 1904, the backward 1st provision was eliminated entirely; the rules committee thought, said one contemporary newspaper report, “…a team that could not make its distance should not be permitted to retain the ball, but should be forced to punt or give up the ball to its opponent” (4).  And, finally, in 1906, the forward yardage requirement rose to 10 yards (although still in three downs, not four).  And, finally, in 1912, the modern 10-yards-gained-in-four-downs rule was installed, and there of course it has stayed ever since.

Some underlying change in football’s mentalité over the course of this history de-legitimized the backwards 1st down provision.  But what, in broad terms at least, was that change?  Stay tuned, I’m still looking into it!


(1) Mark F. Bernstein, Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001, p. 20.

(2) The rule’s text quoted in:  Park H. Davis, Football: An American Intercollegiate Game, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1917, p. 470.

(3) Davis, ibid., p. 107.

(4) ‘”Hurry-Up” Yost Writes of New Football Rules,’ State [newspaper report, Columbia, South Carolina], May 19, 1904.

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