How 1994's Pass-Friendly Rule Changes Saved a Moribund League and Created the Modern NFL

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Sept. 3 2014 4:37 PM

Hail Mary

How 1994's pass-friendly rule changes saved a moribund league and created the modern NFL.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young (R) and teammate Jerry Rice (L)
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young (R) and teammate Jerry Rice (L) celebrate as they lift the Vince Lombardi Super Bowl Trophy on Jan. 29, 1995 in Miami.*

Photo by Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

“Falling Flat: The NFL has lost a lot of its fizz.”

That was the headline of a December 1993 Cincinnati Post article, one that noted that the current NFL season had been “widely ridiculed for so many dull games.” Read from a contemporary vantage point, one in which professional football is not only America’s most popular sport but its last bastion of mass culture, the idea that NFL games were perceived as “dull” seems like blasphemy. Yet, just more than 20 years ago, the NFL found itself at a crossroads. The league had implemented a salary cap and signed an unprecedented television deal with the upstart Fox network. But the on-field product seemed stale. Scoring was down. Offenses were sputtering. The game had lost its mojo. In response to this growing problem, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the NFL Competition Committee set out to rejuvenate the sport, and the changes they made created the modern NFL.

From 1983 through 1993, the number of touchdowns scored in NFL games decreased by 22 percent, while the number of field goals attempted rose 14 percent. During the 1993 season, half of the league’s teams averaged less than two touchdowns per game. Average yardage was also on the declinepro football had become a game of inches. Critics derisively referred to it as the National Field Goal League. Longtime NFL writer Len Pasquarelli, then with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said pro football had become “moribund” and “stale and predictable.”

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Compared with professional basketball, the NFL seemed antiquated, ill-equipped to entertain fans in need of constant flash and action. “The game suffers from a lack of identity and visibility,” Steve Miller, the head of sports marketing at Nike, told Newsweek. Though television ratings remained strong, and Fox had purchased the rights to NFC games for an unprecedented $1.58 billion in December 1993, Tagliabue and the league’s other powers that be felt the on-field status quo was no longer acceptable. The solution they hit upon to make football cool again: Cultivate offense and incentivize teams to go for the end zone rather than settle for field goals.

At the annual owners meeting in March 1994, the NFL’s competition committee passed a bundle of new rules. The committee, chaired by legendary Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula and New York Giants general manager George Young, endeavored to make life easier for offensive players, to discourage the kicking game, and to guide the league into a new technological realm. The changes they pushed through included a renewed emphasis on prohibiting “downfield chucking,” to ensure that defensive backs could not jam receivers more than five yards down the field; giving offensive lineman the option of lining up with one foot behind the line of scrimmage; adding two point conversions; emphasizing the roughing the passer rule, to deter defenders from hitting the quarterback after he released the ball; changing the spot of the ball after missed field goals from the line of scrimmage to the point of the kick; and adding radio transmitters to quarterbacks’ helmets so coaches could talk directly to their field generals.

The NFL had never before approved such a comprehensive package of rules with an eye toward achieving one particular goal. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Tagliabue said the new rules would “have a significant effect in boosting [offensive] production.” Taken as a whole, they painted a clear picture of how Tagliabue and his cohorts wanted the game to evolve. They wanted more offense, specifically more passing, and so they prohibited certain kinds of physical contact on receivers and quarterbacks, thus curtailing defensive players’ ability to disrupt offensive timing. They gave offensive lineman more flexibility to counteract the talents of outside pass rushers such as Bruce Smith and Derrick Thomas, who were wreaking havoc with their unfathomable combinations of size and speed. The implementation of radio transmitters allowed coaches to communicate with quarterbacks in real time. And the addition of the two-point conversion, as well as the field position penalty after missed field goals, made the league’s preference for touchdowns rather than field goals quite clear.

The significance of these changes was not lost upon the cadre of reporters covering the league. The attention they generated, in fact, deflected scrutiny from the other major issue of the 1994 offseason: the newly implemented salary cap of $34.6 million. (In 2014, the salary cap is $133 million.) Fans today may find it difficult to imagine professional football without a salary cap—understanding the cap implications of free agent signings has become a secondary source of entertainment for diehard NFL enthusiasts. But in 1994, the salary cap was a strange new invention, one that led several teams to hire dedicated “capologists” to crunch the necessary numbers. Even so, the transition to the salary cap era was a source of much anxiety. To clear cap space, the New York Giants dumped quarterback Phil Simms just four seasons after he’d led them to a Super Bowl victory, and the Houston Oilers traded Warren Moon after one of the team’s best seasons. As the season approached, Sports Illustrated wrote that it was “time for Tagliabue and the players’ union to admit that the cap can cripple teams.”

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