Why America Added a 4th Down

[url=http://slam.canoe.ca/Slam/Football/NFL/2012/02/02/19330381.html]http://slam.canoe.ca/Slam/Football/NFL/ ... 30381.html[/url]

Three downs to gain 10 yards. Live punts. And a 110-yard field.

Sound familiar? It sure does: Canadian football, right?

But did you know that those same rules were in effect in American football from 1906 to 1911? Of course you didn't. Few American football fans even know it.

It was exactly 100 years ago Friday — Feb. 3, 1912 — that the U.S. college football rules committee (there was no pro league yet) agreed to pass the last of a series of sweeping, epochal rules changes that would forever differentiate, and define, the American game.

Those new rules included:

adding a fourth down;

shortening the playing field between the goal lines to 100 yards;

creating a 10-yard end zone behind each goal line;

increasing the value of the touchdown from 5 points to 6;

allowing forward passes to be thrown across the goal line;

removing the 20-yard downfield limit on forward passes.
David Nelson, the longest-serving college rules-committee member and the game's foremost rules authority, wrote before his death in 1992 that these changes "laid the foundation for the game as we now know it."

And they were a long time in coming.

Click here to see the field changes

For the six seasons prior to 1912, college teams had struggled mightily to muster much offence. Games were borrrring. But at least players weren't getting killed much anymore.

Killed?! Yes, killed. Let us wind the clock back even farther to explain.

Pre-1906 football in America remains, in all likelihood, the most violent form of sport conceived by man since the Roman Empire. Slugfests, bloodbaths, melees — these were the terms used by witnesses, participants and historians alike to describe the various incarnations of football, from its inception in America in 1869 until its most wanton forms of violence were finally legislated out starting in 1906.

Until then, teams had three downs to gain five yards. Both touchdowns and field goals were worth five points. Forward passes were illegal. The most daring, wide-open offensive plays were end runs. Protective equipment was sparse. Slugging was commonplace. And the mashing, smashing, pulling, tugging and even tossing of ball carriers by teammates and tacklers alike rendered the sport, in essence, a savage form of goal-line offence — from start to finish.

"Every day one hears of broken heads, fractured skulls, broken necks, wrenched legs, dislocated shoulders, broken noses, and many other accidents of a more or less serious nature," the New York Times' football correspondent wrote in 1893.

Even deaths were commonplace. Every year, high school and college football players in America died from severe injuries suffered on those old 110-yard football fields.

After the 1905 season, when at least three more college players were killed, public pressure to both tame and open up the game hit its zenith. When U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to abolish the sport unless its rulesmakers went back to the drawing board, they finally did — reluctantly.

De facto rules czar Walter Camp suggested going from three downs to gain five yards, to three downs to gain 10. University of Chicago coach Amos Alonzo Stagg and other influential experts agreed. The thinking was that doubling the distance to be gained in the same three-down series would compel teams to drastically open up their playbooks and formations and, thus, make the game safer.

Some coaches didn't buy it for a second.

One was Fielding H. "Hurry Up" Yost, who predicted that three downs to gain 10 yards would result in an even more conservative game, with no-less-compressed action. With first downs so hard to make, contests would become little more than punting duels, Yost of Michigan promised, with outcomes hinging on fortunate bounces and fluke plays. He and others advocated four downs to gain 10, insisting offences needed that extra down.

Camp and co. prevailed, though. Even with the addition of rules allowing forward passes and onside, live-ball punts, the critics' prognostications proved immediately correct in 1906.

"The game is now largely dependable on chance," Yost said just a few weeks into the season. "I think it will be absolutely necessary to reduce the distance to be gained after this season to, say, seven yards, or else to allow four downs."

He was ignored.

Finally, after five more seasons of low scores and puntfests (teams usually kicked the ball away on first or second down in their own end of the field), America had had it with three-down football.

The fourth down was added, permanently.

Almost as radical and invigorating to scoring was shortening the field to 100 yards, so as to make room for "forward pass zones" — what we now call end zones. The restrictions on passing from 1906-11 seem quite comical today, but it's no wonder coaches were hesitant to have their teams attempt many throws.

For instance, in the first year of the forward pass, 1906, the penalty for an incompletion was not loss of down, but loss of ball — a turnover! In subsequent years, that rule was 'softened' to a 15-yard penalty. As well, the passer had to be at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage when he threw the ball, and he couldn't throw farther downfield than 20 yards.

Nor could he throw across the goal line; if he did, it was a touchback and a turnover. Defences quickly exploited that advantage. Whenever they were pushed back inside their 15-yard line, all 11 defenders would merely jam the box, with the fear of a pass play virtually non-existent. The result: offences seldom could run it in, and few touchdowns were scored.

The intention of allowing passes to cross the goal line, and into the newly created end zones, was to loosen goal-line defences, and increase scoring opportunities for offences. Starting in 1912 it did.

So why couldn't the rulesmakers keep the field 110 yards long? Simple.

Permanent, concrete stands already had been erected around a few big-time college teams' fields. And massive, immovable wooden bleachers hugged just about everybody else's. Rulesmakers wanted the new end zones to be deep enough to effectively aid the passing game. Thus, there was only one option — short of demolishing stands everywhere.

"The committee deemed it wise to shorten the length of the field from 110 to 100 yards," the New York Times explained, "and thus give plenty of room behind the line for the new forward pass zones."

By so doing, the length of the new field — with end zones included — remained 120 yards in length, as the old 110-yard fields had a small area beyond each goal line, much like a rugby field.

What about the width of the U.S. field? Since 1876 it always has been 53 1/3 yards wide. Canadian fields always have been wider — 65 yards.

Maybe if those 1906-11 American offences had had those extra 11 2/3 yards of width to work with, they never would have needed that fourth down — as Canadian teams happily have discovered over the generations.

As it was, the Americans truly needed it. One thing they won't ever abide is boring, low-scoring football.

Decent article dg, thanks for posting, we are discussing this on the Ticats forum so rather than copy and pasting what I'm saying there, I'll just leave it then.

good read, thanks

100 years ago today wow -- what a great article and great find Dg.

For Canadian Football, I have the following questions should anyone know one or more of them.

Even Wiki does not cover this history in that detail.

How long has Canadian football been played with three downs and ten yards, unlike American football as was three downs and five yards since downs were introduced in the early 1880s?

Over time how have the goal areas/end zones in Canadian football changed?

When was the number of men reduced from 15 to 12?

When was the forward pass introduced in Canadian football? Were there ever restrictions on its use like for five very dull years in American football from 1906 to 1911?

The rules were changed officially (or semi-officially) between 1900 and 1910, though different rugby unions had been experimenting with various "down and distance" ideas already in the late 1800s. From what I've read, I don't recall ever seeing anything about a 3 downs for 5 yards rule, but I think it was the Quebec union which required 5 yards to be gained specifically on the 3rd down.

2) Over time how have the goal areas/end zones in Canadian football changed?
I don't think Canada introduced the end zones until after forward passing was legalized, which happened around 1930. They were 25 yards then, and remained at that size until the 80s, when the Lions moved to BC Place, which could only accommodate 20 yard end zones.
3) When was the number of men reduced from 15 to 12?
It was reduced from 15 to 14 some time in the 1800s, and it was later reduced to 12, either in the late 1800s or early 1900s. It was made official at the same time as the 3 down for 10 yards rule was.
4) When was the forward pass introduced in Canadian football? Were there ever restrictions on its use like for five very dull years in American football from 1906 to 1911?
Late 20s or early 30s. I don't know about restrictions, but considering how much later it was adopted into Canadian football, I imagine they learned from the American mistakes and didn't have the same restrictions.

Most of this information can be found here,


(I wrote all of the above from memory, so I might not have the facts perfectly straight.)

There are some articles from Pro Football Researchers on the CFL too, that go into more detail about the rule changes. Their website is http://www.profootballresearchers.org/


It is funny to read this, because the only intelegent critisim that I have ever heard of the Canadian game revolves around the fact that you CAN fluke a game off if the offences aren't clicking. Basicly if the offences are morbund, then the game will be decided on turnovers, punts, punt returns and penalties..
A few intelegent football fans I know refer to the CFL as "blooper ball".
If you watched the 2010 season (especially the Argos) it was hard to argue.
I'm not saying we should go to four downs... but we do need to inject more offence into the CFL..... I'm sick and tired of watching puntfests the last few seasons. Maybe make certain defences illegal... I don't know the answer, but it started to get real bad when the CFL expanded the roster sizes a few years ago... they are expanding again this year,so hopfully it doesn't get even worse.

ahh balogna. turnovers and penalties are just as big a factor in NFL, and punts and punt returns are what helps make our game more exciting.

Well let’s take a look

Based on the stats site that FYB gave in the tread titled check it out
By the way FYB…just go here and stop complaining


You will get this for every team

[url=http://cfl.uploads.mrx.ca/league/pdf/en/stats/2011/BC_Team_Stats110747.pdf]http://cfl.uploads.mrx.ca/league/pdf/en ... 110747.pdf[/url]

First of all complaining that the game can be decided by punts and punt returns is like complaining that the game is decided by TD passes.......its part of the game

The NFL averaged 1017.78 plays with 346 yards offence
That’s 2.93 yards per play
The CFL averaged 1395.25 plays with 354 yards offence
That’s 3.94 yards per play

The CFL averages 1 full yard per play more than the NFL. Seems to me the NFL needs more offence

The CFL averaged 163.87 penalties or 1 penalty every 8.51 plays
The NFL averaged 102.75 penalties or 1 penalty every 9.9 plays

The CFL averages 1 more penalty every 1.4 plays but that can be attributed to the fact that the CFL has a longer season reg season 18 games to 16 and a shorter preseason 4 games to 2 and averages 77.51 plays per game compared to the NFL 63.61 plays per game

The NFL averaged 20.02 fumbles or 1 fumble every 50.02 plays
The CFL averaged 25.375 fumbles or 1 fumble every 54.99 plays

The CFL averages 1 less fumble every 5 plays (that would make the NFL blooper ball)

So who missed me?

I did, but my aim is lousy… :wink:

I was saying on the Cats forum, the best teams in the NFL all throw the ball to win and don't really play a possessional type game. 4 or 3 downs, doesn't matter with these teams, they are going to score regardless. In fact with 3 downs they might score more with good defence, get the ball back even quicker.

Great read regarding the history of both versions of the game :thup:

I am fully aware of these pages. Requires a lot of work to get the stats like that.

I did as well.

Not sure when end zones were created but it likely dates back to the 1800s. The single point is one reason. Another is that we used to play with the rugby rule which required the ball to be touched down for a try to be scored (a player could also shout out "held").

CRU reduced the number of players from 15 to 14 in 1903. Manitoba followed suit in 1904.

ORFU reduced the number of players to 12 in 1905 but it was raised back to 14 at some point. Alberta lowered the number of players to 12 in 1920 (to reduce travel expenses). The remainder of the CRU teams reduced to 12 players in 1921.

The forward pass was introduced to Canadian football in 1929 and yes there were silly restrictions (modified over the next 20-25 years). The IRFU (Big Four) did not institute the forward pass until 1931.
Original 1929 passing rules
1934 - Forward pass rules modified

Why is the American field only 160 feet wide and why do they only use 11 players?

Harvard introduced rugby football to other Colleges (Yale / Princeton). One of these schools had a field that was only 160 feet wide and they only had eleven players available. The field size and number of players was adopted by each school for uniformity.

Welcome back Ro1313 and thanks for the explanations all.

Moi aussi, welcome back!

Thanks for the very excellent article, this is a keeper! I have to confess I was unaware that the Yanks ever had the right amount of downs.

Slightly related, I have/had a old book written about CFL/Argos that went in to some depth about all of the CFL/NFL un sanctioned games. A couple of games took place between the Washington Red Skins and the Argos, and some other teams as well. There was at least 6 games played, with various teams, most of them may have been between Argos and Redskins, unsure at the moment would have to find the book, probably in a box in the attic.

I brought this up before and was challenged, seemed like nobody else ever heard of it, I do remember there was a even number of games overall (I believe 6) may have all been un sanctioned by both leagues, but I do remember they played US rules in half the games, and the proper Canuck rules in the other half, and the results were 50/50, there may have even been rules changed at the half?

This would be in the category for most that they did not know, much like the Yanks playing 3 down football for a short period.

I also have a old encyclopedia that states that the first forward pass took place at McGill University between a Canadian Team and a US team, this is also not something you read about every day.

Was it this game stamps?

A football innovator, Shaughnessy introduced the forward pass to Canadian university football when McGill played Syracuse University in 1921 and lobbied for 10 years before the Canadian Rugby Football Union revised the rules and adopted the forward pass in 1931


Actually wiki has a section on the forward pass:
Early illegal and experimental passes
The forward pass had been attempted at least 30 years before the play was actually made legal. Passes "had been carried out successfully but illegally several times, including the 1876 Yale–Princeton game in which Yale’s Walter Camp threw forward to teammate Oliver Thompson as he was being tackled. Princeton's protest, one account said, went for naught when the referee 'tossed a coin to make his decision and allowed the touchdown to stand' ".[1]
The University of North Carolina used the forward pass in an 1895 game against the University of Georgia. However, the play was still illegal at the time. Bob Quincy stakes Carolina's claim in his 1973 book They Made the Bell Tower Chime:
John Heisman, namesake of the Heisman Trophy, wrote 30 years later that, indeed, the Tar Heels had given birth to the forward pass against the Bulldogs (UGA). It was conceived to break a scoreless deadlock and give UNC a 6–0 win. The Carolinians were in a punting situation and a Georgia rush seemed destined to block the ball. The punter, with an impromptu dash to his right, tossed the ball and it was caught by George Stephens, who ran 70 yards for a touchdown.
In a 1905 experimental game, Washburn and what would become Wichita State used the pass before new rules allowing the play were approved in early 1906.[2]
[edit]Rules changed in 1906 to allow the forward pass
1905 had been a bloody year on the gridiron; the Chicago Tribune reported 18 players had been killed and 159 seriously injured that season.[3] There were moves to abolish the game. But President Theodore Roosevelt personally intervened and demanded that the rules of the game be reformed. In a meeting of more than 60 schools in late 1905, the commitment was made to make the game safer. This meeting was the first step toward the establishment of what would become the NCAA and was followed by several sessions to work out "the new rules."[4]
The final meeting of the Rules Committee tasked with reshaping the game was held on April 6, 1906, at which time the forward pass officially became a legal play.[2] The New York Times reported in September 1906 on the rationale for the changes: "The main efforts of the football reformers have been to 'open up the game'—that is to provide for the natural elimination of the so-called mass plays and bring about a game in which speed and real skill shall supersede so far as possible mere brute strength and force of weight."[5] However the Times also reflected widespread skepticism as to whether the forward pass could be effectively integrated into the game: "There has been no team that has proved that the forward pass is anything but a doubtful, dangerous play to be used only in the last extremity."[6] The forward pass was not allowed in Canadian football until 1929.[7]

First legal pass

Eddie Cochems, "Father of the Forward Pass", 1907

1906 St. Louis Post-Dispatch photograph of Brad Robinson, who threw the first legal forward pass
Most sources credit St. Louis University's Bradbury Robinson from Bellevue, Ohio with throwing the first legal forward pass. [/i]


There is a detailed break down of NFL/CFL games at CFLapedia.