The history of the forward pass

Rows of american football balls in NFL Experience in Times Square, New York,


Any given Sunday, you can turn on an NFL game and see the likes of Drew Brees and Tom Brady throwing long bomb passes 50-yards down field. At one time in the NFL, a forward pass of this nature was something no football quarterback could complete. The mere idea was completely foreign to players. Football fans can see some of the most amazing passes each weekend in the modern NFL and Betway NFL  gives fans the chance to wager on the teams they believe will win. 

The forward pass not only changed the NFL, it made it completely different than college football for a number of decades. It also led to further separation from the sport of rugby, which is what inspired America’s favorite sport. 

The NFL before the forward pass

In the early 1900s, college football had become a major sport in the United States. Professional football was around and the NFL was a few years away, but by 1905, college gridiron was outdrawing professional baseball. It proved even back then, that gridiron football was actually America’s game rather than baseball.

At the time, gridiron was very much like rugby. Teams lined up with the ball being passed hand to hand to the quarterback from the center. The ball was moved down the field via running plays with now aerial passes being attempted, made, or allowed.

In 1906, the forward pass was legalized, but it wasn’t until a year later that it was embraced by one man. Glenn Scobey (Pop) Warner was the head football coach at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. He took the forward and turned it into a tool that would change the game.

Warner had turned Carlisle Indian Industrial School’s football team into a strong contender each year thanks to his creativity. Warner was not afraid to add trick plays to deceive opposing teams. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School quickly began to showcase just how important the forward pass could be. It also demonstrated how deadly a pass could be to defenses who didn’t know how to defend against it or predict where the ball was going. 

The NFL begins adopts the forward pass

Imagine watching an NFL game from over 100 years ago and seeing nearly every play look the same. The quarterback hands the ball off to a running back and they attempt to allude tacklers. Teams lineup once more and do it all over again. 

On October 27, 1906, the first forward pass completion in a professional football game occurred. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the first pass completion occurred when Masillon’s George Parratt connected with Dan Riley. 

Although pro football existed in America, there were issues with it. Gambling scandals had rocked Masillon and Canton, damaging gridiron’s appeal in the state of Ohio. Meanwhile, players often moved from team to team without much notice. Football clubs would sign the best players away from rivals by offering them more money. The amount of money being spent on top players crippled teams financially. It also had an effect on the fan bases as fewer people attended pro games compared to the collegiate version.

These problems with pro football led to the formation of the NFL on August 20, 1920. Eight teams started that first season with only four completing it due to financial and personnel issues. The league would grow from there with the forward pass becoming a big part of it. 

Forward pass evolution

When the NFL first began, the forward pass was a tool teams could use but it still wasn’t a major weapon like it would become years later. One of the earliest NFL rules involving the forward pass was quarterbacks had to be at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage to attempt the pass. If quarterbacks were not five yards behind the line of scrimmage, then a penalty was called. 

Pass plays remained rare in the NFL as the power run remained the go-to play for teams. However, in 1933, the NFL decided to experiment with the forward pass and to separate itself further from the college game and rugby. In addition, the league wanted to add some more excitement as run play after run play wasn’t the best spectator sport to watch. 

From that point, quarterbacks, or any other players, could make a forward pass from any point behind the line of scrimmage. The change opened up the game allowing offenses to quickly move downfield. It inspired quarterbacks to not only be good runners, but good passers too. 

Changes in the shape and size of the actual football also helped. The quality of footballs became more standard. Footballs in the early 1900s were shaped more like a watermelon than like the balls seen in the NFL today. When the forward pass was first introduced, these balls were difficult to throw. Footballs of the day resembled rugby balls still rather than the ones thrown by Patrick Mahomes in 2019. 

How different is the NFL with the forward pass?

The forward pass changed the NFL completely. Had the forward pass not been adopted and used extensively, the NFL may have not lasted. Modern football is all about passing and the average NFL quarterback throws for over a hundred yards in a game. 

In 1932, eight teams contested the NFL season. Green Bay Packers quarterback Arnie Herber lead the NFL in passing yards with 639. Herber attempted just 101 passes throwing nine touchdowns. The inaccuracies of the day can be shown in his interceptions which stood at nine and pass completion rate which was 36.6%.

The 2018 NFL season showed just how far the league has come with the forward pass. Ben Roethlisberger led the league with 452 pass completions on 675 attempts. He also led the NFL in passing yards with 5,129. Meanwhile, Patrick Mahomes threw 50 touchdown passes, the most in the NFL during the season. Herber and the quarterbacks of 1932 would be shocked at the dependency on the pass in modern football and the feats of modern signal callers.

The forward pass has come a long way in the NFL. It is now a pass first league with a lot of excitement that hinges on quarterback’s arm. How will the pass evolve in the next 100 years?

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