Blast from the Past: How Theodore Roosevelt Changed Football

20 Mar

Article (1905)

Concussions weren’t a pressing issue in the early days of football.  Dying was.  So, after 19 players had been killed and 159 critically injured playing the game in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt – no stranger himself to rugged play — gave the ruling powers of football a choice: change the game or see it abolished by Executive Order.

teddy roosevelt (as a player - 2x3)

Teddy as a player.

As much as he loved the toughness that football ingrained in America’s youth, Roosevelt — and much of eastern society — had wearied of its savagery.  It was, by numerous descriptions, no better than brawling and not only because of the numerous fist fights that routinely erupted at games, but mostly because of an offensive strategy called “mass-momentum plays.”

The concept of massing players into tightly woven formations to increase their power at the point of attack began in 1884, during a game between Princeton and Penn.  In an attempt to break a 0-0 deadlock, Princeton quarterback Richard Hodge devised a play in which the “rush-line” – an early version of an offensive line – jumped into a wedge or V-shaped formation at the snap of the ball and plowed forward like a tank through the Penn defense with the ballcarrier safely tucked in behind.  The men from Penn had no answer for the trick formation and were routed 31-0.


The “V-trick”

The “V-trick”, as it would later be called, was the first of many innovative formations to follow that relied on massing players together and slamming them into defenses like some ancient Greek phalanx.  The most lethal of these formations was Harvard’s infamous Flying Wedge.

pic_flying wedge (3)

The “Flying Wedge”

The brainchild of a Boston lawyer and avid chess player who, himself, never played football, the Flying Wedge took advantage of the rule that permitted offenses to mass some distance from the spot of the ball and advance towards it at a run, gaining speed and power just as the ball is snapped which allowed them to plunge headlong into the thin ranks of an opposing defense and bulldoze through them.

When confronted with this form of attack, a defense had two choices: stand their ground or throw themselves into the path of the wedge.  In either case, the effects of Lorin Deland’s creation — first designed on a chessboard — were devastating.  The impacts were horrific, if not deadly.

Football’s popularity suffered for its violence and also because the game’s main attraction — the ballcarrier — was often obscured by the roiling mass of bodies resulting from the constant collisions.

Part of the problem was that mass-momentum formations were in vogue long before anyone thought of using protective equipment like helmets, facemasks, and shoulders pads. In their absence, the number of serious injuries and deaths in the game increased dramatically; so much so that newspapers routinely reported them along with a game’s statistics.

The other part of the problem was the rules that allowed offenses to go in motion prior to the snap.  In response to public pressure, foot-ball effectively outlawed the Flying Wedge and other mass-momen-tum formations like it when they changed the rules and restricted the number of men who could go in motion before the snap to three.

The new rules, however, permitted teams to pull linemen into the backfield which allowed for a running start.  Also, teams could send running backs in motion before the snap.  The effect was not entirely unlike the Flying Wedge as both tactics still allowed an offense to mass against a defense at the point of attack.

The carnage, though, continued. Players were often strewn across the field in broken heaps and slugfests still erupted regularly.  Many players died.  It was then, in 1906, that Roosevelt, more from a desire to save the game than to see it disbanded, intervened and delivered his ultimatum.

football violence1

Early football was little more than fighting.

This time football responded by introducing helmets and knee pads to the game.  It also legalized the forward pass whose true potential as an offensive weapon wasn’t fully realized until 1913.  But the rule that resulted in the creation of an offensive line and reduced the level of violence in the game came in 1910.  It mandated that seven offensive players must be on the line of scrimmage prior to the ball being snapped.  They could not move until the ball was snapped.

With this new rule, football eliminated mass-momentum formations.  And with the advent of the forward pass, it changed how football would be played.  The two players on either side of the line would become eligible receivers, leaving five men to play along the interior.  One had to snap the ball and the other four became “pushers” or blockers.  These five positions, like every other position, became specialized.  They became the offensive line.

The only thing that has changed about the offensive line since 1910 is the size, skill and strength of modern “pushers”.   In almost all cases, they are not eligible to catch a pass.  And they can not go in motion.  They are why most offensive formations — be it a spread or something heavy like an “I” — will look like that pictured below: five guys up front with the quarterback and the running back(s) behind and the receivers to the side. As a direct result of Theodore Roosevelt’s threat to abolish football, we now have protective equipment, the forward pass and an offensive line.

And, believe it or not, much less violence.

pic_i formation (DrewinMSU)


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