National Football League

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"NFL" redirects here. For other uses, see NFL (disambiguation).
NFL logo

The National Football League (NFL) is the largest professional American football league, consisting of thirty-two teams from American cities and regions. The league was formed in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association, which adopted the name "National Football League" in 1922. The NFL is one of the major professional sports leagues of North America.

Prior to the 1960s, the most popular version of American football was played collegiately. The NFL's greatest spurt in popularity came in the 1960s and 1970s, after the 1958 NFL Championship Game (which went into overtime) and with the merger of the rival American Football League (1960-1969) which introduced major on- and off-the-field innovations that were eventually adopted by the NFL.

In recent decades, the NFL regular season had traditionally started on Labor Day Weekend and lasted through Christmas week. However, declining television ratings on Labor Day have pushed the start of the regular season ahead one week. This is where scheduling currently stands, with the first game of the season being played on the Thursday after Labor Day (the remaining Week 1 games are played three to four days later).

At the end of each season, the winners of the playoffs in the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference meet in the NFL championship, the Super Bowl. This game is held at a pre-selected site which is usually a city that hosts an NFL team. One week later, selected all-star players from both the AFC and NFC meet in the Pro Bowl, currently held in Hawaii.


Current franchises

NFL logo

The National Football League

AFC East North South West
Buffalo Bills
Baltimore Ravens
Houston Texans
Denver Broncos
Miami Dolphins
Cincinnati Bengals
Indianapolis Colts
Kansas City Chiefs
New England Patriots
Cleveland Browns
Jacksonville Jaguars
Oakland Raiders
New York Jets
Pittsburgh Steelers
Tennessee Titans
San Diego Chargers
NFC East North South West
Dallas Cowboys
Chicago Bears
Atlanta Falcons
Arizona Cardinals
New York Giants
Detroit Lions
Carolina Panthers
St. Louis Rams
Philadelphia Eagles
Green Bay Packers
New Orleans Saints
San Francisco 49ers
Washington Redskins
Minnesota Vikings
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Seattle Seahawks

Regular season

The NFL season begins with most teams playing four "pre-season" exhibition games from early August through early September. Two "featured" exhibition games, the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game and American Bowl, don't count toward the normal allottment of four games, so the four teams playing in those games each end up playing five exhibition games.

The regular season starts the weekend after Labor Day. Each team plays 16 games during a 17-week period. Traditionally, every game is played on Sunday afternoon with the exception of one game per week being played in Sunday night, and another game being played on Monday night. In recent years, the league has started scheduling a nationally telecast regular season game on the Thursday night prior to the first Sunday of NFL games to "kickoff" the season. In addition, the Dallas Cowboys and the Detroit Lions each host a game on Thanksgiving Day. For the last 3 weeks or so of the regular season, after the end of the college football season in the US, the league typically schedules 2 or 3 nationally televised games on Saturday afternoons or evenings. In 2005, with Christmas falling on a Sunday, the NFL has flipped their normal schedule for that weekend, having the normal slate (less the Sunday night contest) of Sunday games on Saturday (Christmas Eve day), with two nationally televised games on Sunday (Christmas Day), similar to what the NFL did in 1994 with the afternoon games on Saturday, and the primetime games the following 2 days (Detroit at Miami on Sunday, San Francisco at Minnesota on Monday).

Currently, each team's regular season schedule is set using a pre-determined formula: [1]

  • Each team plays every other team in their division twice: once at home, and once on the road (6 games).
  • Each team plays the four teams from another division within its conference on a rotating three-year cycle (4 games).
  • Each team plays the four teams from a division in the other conference on a rotating four-year cycle (4 games).
  • Each team plays 2 games versus two teams within its conference based on the prior year's standings. These games match a first-place team against the first-place teams in the two same-conference divisions the team is not scheduled to play that season. The second-place, third-place, and fourth-place teams in a conference are matched in the same way each year.

For the 2005 season, the assignments are the following:


  • AFC East v. AFC West
  • AFC North v. AFC South
  • NFC East v. NFC West
  • NFC North v. NFC South


  • AFC East v. NFC South
  • AFC North v. NFC North
  • AFC South v. NFC West
  • AFC West v. NFC East

For the 2006 season, the assignments will be:


  • AFC East v. AFC South
  • AFC North v. AFC West
  • NFC East v. NFC South
  • NFC North v. NFC West


  • AFC East v. NFC North
  • AFC North v. NFC South
  • AFC South v. NFC East
  • AFC West v. NFC West

Sixteen Game Schedule

Through 1977, the NFL schedule consisted of fourteen regular season games played over fourteen weeks. Opening weekend typically was the weekend after Labor Day, or even two weekends after Labor Day. Teams played six, or even seven preseason games. In 1978, the league changed the schedule to include sixteen regular season games and four preseason games. From 1978-1989, the sixteen games were played over sixteen weeks.

In 1990, the NFL introduced a bye-week to the schedule. Each team would play sixteen regular season games over seventeen weeks. One week during the season, on a rotating basis, each team would have the weekend off. As a result, opening weekend was moved up to Labor Day weekend. In 1993, the league adjusted the schedule to include two bye weeks per team, and the sixteen games were played over eighteen weeks. In 1994, the schedule was changed back to seventeen weeks.

In 2001, the NFL decided to move opening week to the weekend after Labor Day. Television ratings seemed to be sagging due to the holiday, and the stadium crowds were apparently lacking due to vacationing fans. In addition, it would leave the three-day holiday weekend alone to the opening weekend of college football, preventing conflicts, and maximizing exposure. In 2002, the NFL began scheduling a Thursday night special opening game, which would be nationally televised. Festivities and a pre-game concert would kick off the season.

  • In 1999, the NFL moved the first week of the season one week later due to the conflict with January 1, 2000. The Y2K problem sparked travel concerns for the final week of the season, and playoffs. By moving the season a week later, the NFL hoped to prevent teams traveling complications.
  • For most years, there has been an open weekend between the Conference Championship games and the Super Bowl. In the 1990 season, there was no bye, as the league was still adjusting the schedule from adding the bye week during the season. In the 1993 season, there was no bye week since the regular season consisted of eighteen weekends. The bye week was simply removed. In the 1999 season, the bye week was removed to accommodate the schedule being moved ahead one week. In the 2001 season, the bye week dissappeared when the league moved opening weekend a week later. It caused scheduling problems when Super Bowl XXXVI had to be delayed. By the 2003 season, the bye week was restored. In the 1982 strike-shortened season, a postseason tournament replaced the traditional playoff format. The Super Bowl bye week was removed to accomadate the longer, expanded playoffs.


Main article: NFL playoffs

At the conclusion of each 16-game regular season, six teams from each conference qualify for the playoffs, which culminate in the Super Bowl:

  • The four division champions, which are seeded #1 through #4 based on their regular season won-lost-tied record, and
  • Two wild card qualifiers (those non-division champions with the conference's best won-lost-tied percentages), who are seeded #5 and #6 within the conference.

The #3 and #6 seeded teams, and the #4 and #5 seeded teams, face each other during the first round of the playoffs, dubbed the "Wild Card Round." The #1 and #2 seeds from each conference do not participate in this round, earning an automatic berth in the following week's "Divisional Playoff" games, where they face the Wild Card survivors. The #1 seeded team plays against the lowest remaining seed while the #2 seeded team plays the other remaining team. In a given game, whoever has the higher seed gets the home field advantage.

The two surviving teams from the Divisional Playoff games meet in Conference Championship games, with the winners of those contests going on to face one another in the Super Bowl.

The terms "Wild Card Round" and "Divisional Playoffs" originated from the playoff format that was used before 1990. During that time, three division winners and two wild card teams from each conference qualified for the playoffs. Only the wild card teams played during the first round, while all of the division winners waited until the following week to play.

League championships

The NFL's method for determining its champions has changed over the years. For the history of the process see National Football League championships.

The draft

For more details on this topic, see NFL Draft.

Many of the USA's college football players want to play in the NFL. There is a highly organized and formal process called the draft (currently consisting of seven rounds) that takes place over two days in April, in which all NFL teams participate. The NFL team with the worst record in the previous year gets first pick of the draft. That is, the team is the first to select a player from a pool of all eligible college players in the country. The idea is that weak teams can thereby become strengthened over time, in the specialties where they need strengthening. Draft picks continue, in the order from the weakest team to the strongest team, and once all teams have picked one player, they all pick again starting with the weakest team.

Draft picks are frequently traded in advance for players and other draft picks. For example, before the draft occurs, Team A might trade its first-round draft pick plus a certain player (who already plays for Team A) to Team B in exchange for another particular player who already plays for Team B.

Occasionally a player drafted out of college will go right into a "first-string" position as the team's primary player in that position. However, these players usually begin as second- or third-string backups, only playing games if the first-stringer is injured, or if there has been a runaway score and the coach decides to put a backup in the game for a little experience, and to ensure his first-stringer doesn't get injured at the end in a play that is not meaningful to the team.

See List of NFL first overall draft choices

Salaries and the salary cap

The minimum salary for an NFL player is $230,000 in his first year, and rises after that based on the number of years in service:

Years Experience Minimum Salary
0 $230,000
1 $305,000
2 $380,000
3 $455,000
4-6 $540,000
7-9 $665,000
10+ $765,000

Exhibition game minimum is $10,000.00 These numbers are set by contract between the NFL and the players' union, the National Football League Players' Association. These numbers are of course exceeded dramatically by the best players in each position.

Escalating player salaries throughout the 1980s and the advent of free agency in 1992 led to the NFL's adoption of a salary cap in 1994, a maximum amount of money each team can pay its players in aggregate. The cap is determined via a complicated formula based on the revenue that all NFL teams receive during the previous year. For the 2004 season, the NFL's salary cap was $ 80.582 million, an increase of $5.5 million from 2003. The cap for the 2005 season is expected to be approximately $85.5 million.

Proponents of the salary cap note that it prevents a well-financed team in a major city from simply spending giant amounts of money to secure the very best players in every position and thus dominating the entire sport. This has been seen as a problem in American baseball, long dominated since the advent of free agency by large market teams. They point to the relative parity of competition that exists in the NFL as of 2005 compared to Major League Baseball as evidence that the NFL salary cap preserves competitive balance. They claim fans end up paying higher ticket prices to help pay for escalating player salaries. These concerns, among others, led in part to modified salary cap adoption in the National Basketball Association in 1984 and the National Hockey League in 2005.

Critics of the salary cap note that the driving reason for the cap was to maximize the profitability of the NFL teams, and limit the power of NFL players to command the high salaries they are said to deserve in exchange for bringing in large numbers of paying fans to the stadiums. They also note that the salary cap could hypothetically drive prospective athletes to other sports that do not cap the salaries of players; furthermore, they attribute NFL competitive parity instead to the league's extensive revenue sharing policies.

The NFL's current CBA (collective bargaining agreement) expires in 2008.

Racial policies

Main article: Black players in American professional football

Although the current NFL is well-represented at virtually every position by African-American athletes, that was not always the case. The league had a few black players until 1933, one year after entry to the league of George Preston Marshall. Marshall's policies not only excluded blacks from his Washington Redskins team but may have influenced the entire league to drop blacks until 1946, when pressure from the competing All-America Football Conference induced the NFL to be more liberal in its signing of blacks. Another theory holds that the NFL, like most of the United States during the Great Depression, simply fired black workers before white workers, but this could hardly account for the league's apparent "all-white" policy during this period. Still, Marshall refused to sign black players until threatened with civil rights legal action by the Kennedy administration in 1962, in which it was explained to him that his lease on the then-new D.C. Stadium, which was at the time controlled by the United States Department of the Interior, would be voided if he continued to refuse to sign any black players. This action, and pressure by another competing league, the more racially-liberal American Football League, slowly managed to reverse the NFL's racial quotas. The AFL's Denver Broncos were the first modern-era team to have a black starting quarterback, Marlin Briscoe, who started the fourth game of the 1968 season, and broke pro football rookie records for passing yardage and touchdowns. The next year 1969, another American Football League team, the Buffalo Bills were the first professional football team of the modern era to begin the season with a black, James Harris as their starting quarterback. The Chicago Bears had a black quarterback in 1953, Willie Thrower, who played in only one game and did not start in any games. After that, no old-line NFL team had a black starting quarterback until the Steelers' Joe Gilliam in 1972.

Even after that, for many NFL teams the door would remain closed to black quarterbacks through the 1970s. 1978 Rose Bowl MVP Warren Moon played for six seasons in the CFL before his abilities finally landed him the starting role with the Houston Oilers. It took until 1988 before a black quarterback started for a Super Bowl team, when Doug Williams won it for the Redskins. To this day, the NFL's head-coach hiring policies are questioned, and it has had to institute measures to attempt to have black head coach candidates be treated more equitably.

(disputed ) Although there is no official discrimination against white players playing certain positions in the modern NFL, most positions are filled by blacks. White running backs, defensive backs, and receivers have become less and less common over the last 25 years. In 2005, a slim majority of offensive linemen are white. Most quarterbacks, punters, and kickers are white, while almost all running backs, wide receivers, defensive backs, defensive linemen, safeties, punt returners, and kickoff returners are black. Increasingly, positions such as tight end, fullback, and linebacker are represented by blacks. The NFL is 59% black, with whites making up the majority of the remaining players, followed by Pacific Islanders, Hispanics, and Asians.


For more details on this topic, see NFL on television.

The television rights to pro football are the most lucrative (and most expensive) rights of any sport available. In fact, it was television that brought pro football into prominence in the modern era of technology. Since then, NFL broadcasts have become among the most-watched programs on American television, and the fortunes of entire networks have rested on owning NFL broadcasting rights.


For information on the development of football prior to formation of the NFL, see: History of American football.

Professional football dates at least to 1892, when an athletic club in Pittsburgh paid William "Pudge" Heffelfinger $500 to take part in a game. Over the next few decades, while most attention was paid to football at elite colleges on the East Coast, the professional game spread widely in the Midwest.

The American Professional Football Association was founded in 1920 at a Hupmobile dealership in Canton, Ohio. Legendary athlete Jim Thorpe was elected president. The group of 11 teams, all but one in the Midwest, was originally less a league than an agreement not to rob other teams' players. In the early years, APFA members continued to play non-APFA teams.

In 1921, the APFA began releasing official standings, and the following year, the group changed its name to the National Football League. However, the NFL was hardly a major league in the 20s. Teams entered and left the league frequently. Franchises included such colorful representatives as the Oorang Indians, an all-Native American outfit that also put on a performing dog show.

Yet as former college stars like Red Grange and Benny Friedman began to test the professional waters, the pro game slowly began to increase in popularity. By 1934 all of the small-town teams, with the exception of the Green Bay Packers, had moved to or been replaced by big cities. One factor in the league's rising popularity was the institution of an annual championship game in 1933.

By the end of World War II, pro football began to rival the college game for fans' attention. The spread of the T formation led to a faster-paced, higher-scoring game that attracted record numbers of fans. In 1945, the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles, becoming the first big-league sports franchise on the West Coast. In 1950, the NFL accepted three teams from the defunct All-America Football Conference, expanding to 13 clubs.

In the 1950s, pro football finally earned its place as a major sport. The NFL embraced television, giving Americans nationwide a chance to follow stars like Bobby Layne, Paul Hornung and Johnny Unitas. The 1958 NFL championship in New York -- considered by many to be the most-important game in the rise of the NFL -- drew record TV viewership and made national celebrities out of Unitas and his Baltimore Colts teammates.

The rise of pro football was so fast that by the mid-60s, it had surpassed baseball as Americans' favorite spectator sport in some surveys. As more people wanted to cash in on this surge of popularity than the NFL could accommodate, a rival league, the American Football League, was founded in 1960. The ensuing costly war for players between the NFL and AFL almost derailed the sport's ascent. In 1966, the leagues agreed to merge as of the 1970 season. The 10 AFL teams joined three existing NFL teams to form the NFL's American Football Conference. The remaining 13 NFL teams became the National Football Conference. Another result of the merger was the creation of the Super Bowl to determine the "world champion" of pro football.

In the 1970s and 80s, the NFL solidified its dominance as America's top spectator sport and its important role in American culture. The Super Bowl became an unofficial national holiday and the top-rated TV program most years. Monday Night Football, which first aired in 1970 brought in high ratings by mixing sports and entertainment. Rules changes in the late 70s ensured a fast-paced game with lots of passing to attract the casual fan.

The founding of the United States Football League in the early 80s was the biggest challenge to the NFL in the post-merger era. The USFL was a well-financed competitor with big-name players and a national television contract. However, the USFL failed to make money and folded after three years.

In recent years, the NFL has expanded into new markets and ventures. In 1993, the league formed the World League of American Football, (now NFL Europe), a developmental league now with teams in Germany and the Netherlands. The league played a regular-season NFL game in Mexico City in 2005 and intends to play more such games in other countries. In 2003, The NFL lauched its own cable-television channel, the NFL Network.

Video games

Electronic Arts publishes an NFL video game for current video game consoles and for PCs each year, called Madden NFL, being named after former coach and current football commentator John Madden. Prior to the 2005-2006 football season, other NFL games were produced by competing video game publishers, such as Sega and Midway Games. However, in December 2004, Electronic Arts signed a 5-year exclusive agreement with the NFL, meaning only Electronic Arts will publish games featuring NFL team and player names.

Commissioners and presidents

  1. President Jim Thorpe (1920-1921)
  2. President Joseph Carr (1921-1939)
  3. President Carl Storck (1939-1941)
  4. Commissioner Elmer Layden (1941-1946)
  5. Commissioner Bert Bell (1946-1959)
  6. Interim President Austin Gunsel (1959-1960, following death of Bell)
  7. Commissioner Alvin "Pete" Rozelle (1960-1989)
  8. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue (1989-present)

League offices


Rules named after players

The following is a partial list of rules that were enacted largely based on a single player's exploits on the field.

  • the Bronko Nagurski Rule -- forward passing made legal from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. Enacted in 1933. Prior to this rule change a player had to be 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage to throw a forward pass.
  • the Deacon Jones Rule -- no head-slapping. Enacted in 1977.
  • the Deion Sanders rule -- no excessive end zone celebrations.
  • the Emmitt Smith Rule -- no taking your helmet off on the field of play. Enacted in 1997.
  • the Erik Williams rule -- no hands to the facemask by offensive linemen.
  • the Fran Tarkenton rule -- a line judge was added as the sixth official. Enacted in 1965.
  • the Ken Stabler rule -- on fourth down or any down in the final two-minutes of play, if a player fumbles, only the fumbling player can recover and/or advance the ball. Enacted in 1979.
  • the Lester Hayes rule -- no "stickum" allowed. Enacted in 1981.
  • the Lou Groza rule -- no artificial medium to assist in the execution of a kick. Enacted in 1956.
  • the Mel Renfro rule -- allows a "double touch" by the offense. Enacted in 1978.
  • the Michael Irvin rule -- no taunting. Another rule, resulting in offensive pass interference, prohibiting WR's to push off CB's, is also often called "the Michael Irvin rule."
  • the Bert Emanuel rule -- the ball can touch the ground during a completed pass as long as the receiver maintains control of the ball.
  • the Roy Williams rule -- no horse-collar tackles. Enacted in 2005.

See the external, Professional Football Researchers Association, link below for more "player named" rules, and background information on how these rules came about.



  1. ^  NFL scheduling formula at

See also


The National Football League

AFC East North South West
Buffalo Bills Baltimore Ravens Houston Texans Denver Broncos
Miami Dolphins Cincinnati Bengals Indianapolis Colts Kansas City Chiefs
New England Patriots Cleveland Browns Jacksonville Jaguars Oakland Raiders
New York Jets Pittsburgh Steelers Tennessee Titans San Diego Chargers
NFC East North South West
Dallas Cowboys Chicago Bears Atlanta Falcons Arizona Cardinals
New York Giants Detroit Lions Carolina Panthers St. Louis Rams
Philadelphia Eagles Green Bay Packers New Orleans Saints San Francisco 49ers
Washington Redskins Minnesota Vikings Tampa Bay Buccaneers Seattle Seahawks
2005 NFL season
NFL seasons | NFL playoffs | AFC Championship Game | NFC Championship Game | The Super Bowl | Super Bowl Champions
NFL lore | NFL on television | The Pro Bowl | NFLPA | AFL | AFL-NFL Merger | NFL Europe | Defunct NFL teams
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