On August 20, 1920, seven men – including All-American hero Jim Thorpe – met inside an auto showroom in Canton, Ohio, to discuss the formation of the American Professional Football Association, the forerunner to the National Football League.
That meeting is perhaps the most important moment in pro-football history, creating a league that would survive shifting fortunes and steady competition to forever change the American sports landscape. But it is certainly not the last time football would be transformed. The AFL-NFL merger. Joe Namath and the New York Jets’ win over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. The first Monday Night Football telecast in 1970. Those were the big shakeups – but the real change has come from the aftershocks, the tiny shifts and schemes that altered everything, whether we knew it at the time or not.
So as the NFL prepares to honor its past at Super Bowl 50, we’re taking a look back at 10 of those micro moments that would ultimately change football forever – and transform the league into the billion-dollar behemoth it is today.
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 1974 Draft
It’s difficult to imagine now, but the first four decades of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ existence were fairly grim. Then coach Chuck Noll arrived in 1969, and five years later the Steelers had the greatest draft not just in league history, but perhaps in sports history.
Coming off consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in franchise history, Pittsburgh was picking 21st overall in 1974; they took wide receiver Lynn Swann, the only Hall of Famer in the first round.
In the second round, they picked linebacker Jack Lambert, also a Hall of Famer. They didn’t have a pick in the third round, but in the fourth, they selected another Hall of Famer in wide receiver John Stallworth. They followed that up by taking Hall of Fame center Mike Webster in the fifth round.
With one draft, Pittsburgh had solidified a team that would go on to win four of the next six Super Bowls and cement its legacy as one of the NFL’s all-time dynasties. Most teams wonder “Why not us?” Because you didn’t pick four Hall of Famers in one year.
The ‘Air Coryell’ Offense
When Don Coryell took his first NFL coaching gig with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1973 – after leading San Diego State to a 104-19-2 record during his tenure there – the league didn’t even remotely resemble what we see today. The pro set offense, emphasizing the running game and play action passing, was the norm.
But while at SDSU, Coryell had been forced to compete with powerhouse programs like USC and UCLA on the recruiting trail, and had learned to target quarterbacks and wide receivers over running backs and offensive linemen. And he’d take the pass-happy offense he created with those players to the pros.
Cardinals’ QB Jim Hart went to four straight Pro Bowls under Coryell. Then in 1978, he took over the San Diego Chargers and transformed quarterback Dan Fouts – a player that had done nothing in his first five seasons in the NFL – into a phenomenon, a big-armed talent who went to six Pro Bowls, led the NFL in passing yards for four consecutive years and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993. Teammates Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow would also make the Hall.
The “Air Coryell” offense is now a basic part of pretty much every offense in the NFL. His coaching tree descends to John Madden and Joe Gibbs, and coordinators like Ernie Zampese, who would tutor future coaches Norv Turner and Mike Martz. In short, the league would look a lot different if it wasn’t for Coryell and his insatiable desire to air it out.
The 49ers Hire Bill Walsh
When he was brought on as coach in 1979, Walsh inherited a team coming off a 2-14 season, but within three years, the Niners had drafted quarterback Joe Montana and would win their first Super Bowl title, then claim two more championships in the 1984 and 1988 seasons. He’d turned the reigns over to George Seifert in 1989 and the team would win two more titles in the next six years.
Without Walsh and his West Coast Offense (itself an offshoot of the Air Coryell) it’s probable that the careers of Montana, Steve Young and Jerry Rice wouldn’t be revered in the same way they are today. The landscape of the NFC may never have shifted, and the face of football in the 1980s would have looked remarkably different. To say nothing of the game today: Coaches in Walsh’s tree include Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Mike McCarthy, Mike Shanahan, Brian Billick, Jon Gruden and Mike Tomlin. That’s nine Super Bowl championships between them in the last 25 years.
John Elway Refuses the Colts
The Colts, then in Baltimore, were coming off of an 0-8-1 record under first year head coach Frank Kush when they selected Elway, one of the greatest football prospects of all time, with the first overall pick of the 1983 Draft.
That move should have immediately improved the team, but Elway had made it abundantly clear that he had no desire to play for the Colts – his dad, a college coach, was wary of Kush, and Elway hoped to remain closer to the West Coast, where he had grown up and was already a sports hero. Elway’s agent also made it abundantly clear that his client, who had also been drafted by the Yankees, would consider MLB if the Colts dared select him. They did anyway.
Elway remained resolute that he wouldn’t play for Baltimore, a move that many pros called selfish at the time. Realizing they would never see him in a Colts uniform, the team finally gave in to his demands and traded Elway to the Denver Broncos for tackle Chris Hinton, quarterback Mark Herrmann, and a 1984 first round pick. The Broncos went to five Super Bowls with Elway, winning two. The Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984 and didn’t win a playoff game there until the 1995 season.
If only Baltimore had gone with Jim Kelly (taken 14th overall that year) or Dan Marino (27th overall).
‘The Great Trade Robbery’
The Dallas Cowboys were already a storied franchise when Jerry Jones bought the team for $140 million in 1989, but it took someone as crazy as Jones to fire longtime coach Tom Landry, hire University of Miami iconoclast Jimmy Johnson and then trade their best player right out the gate.
A month into the ’89 season, Johnson suggested moving Herschel Walker and a league-wide bidding war began. Finally, at the last minute Vikings’ GM Mike Lynn said he’d give the Cowboys what they wanted. Which was a lot. In exchange for Walker and four mid-to-late draft picks, Dallas received five players and a number of conditional draft picks based on whether or not they kept those players. But Johnson never intended to keep any of the players because if he cut them, he’d receive draft pick compensation; the Cowboys ended up with three firsts, three seconds, a third and a sixth.
Nobody knew that Dallas had robbed Minnesota at the time, but when the dust settled they were able to get Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson and Russell Maryland, all of whom helped them win three Super Bowls. Walker never made the Pro Bowl again.
Brett Favre Traded to Packers
When the Atlanta Falcons drafted Brett Favre in the second round of the 1991 NFL Draft, head coach Jerry Glanville was so opposed to it that he said there would have to be a “plane crash” for Favre to play. Things got so bad that Favre did everything in his power to push his way out, including “drink up Atlanta” as he put it, and it wouldn’t take long for him to get his way.
The Packers had a new GM that was absolutely obsessed with Favre.
Ron Wolf had only been on the job for 75 days when he sent a first round pick to Atlanta for Favre. It had come a year after he, as an assistant with the New York Jets, had missed out on drafting Favre by only one pick. Wolf says that he had Favre as the best player in the entire 1991 draft and history would agree with him.
Favre won three straight MVP trophies in the Nineties, won Super Bowl XXXI with the Packers and would rewrite the NFL record book. Without him – and the current team structure started by Wolf – Green Bay probably never turns around and becomes a perennial contender. At the very least, Aaron Rodgers wouldn’t have been able to learn the game as Favre’s understudy
Alex Gibbs’ Zone Blocking Scheme
Shortly after winning a Super Bowl as offensive coordinator with the 49ers, Mike Shanahan got a second chance to be an NFL head coach, this time with the Broncos. His first, a 20-game stint with the Raiders in 1988-89, was doomed from the start, but his next would go much smoother. And a lot of the credit belongs to assistant head coach Alex Gibbs.
During a coaching career that included stings in Denver, Los Angeles, San Diego, Indianapolis and Kansas City, Gibbs had become a proponent of a “zone blocking scheme” for offensive lineman. It relied on quick, athletic players, as opposed to the behemoths that normally clogged the O-line. After trying unsuccessfully to implement the scheme with the Colts and Chiefs, Gibbs finally found a champion in Shanahan, who gave him carte blanche when he was hired to coach the Broncos in 1995.
In their first year, Denver improved from 23rd in rushing to fifth. They had a top five rushing attack in nine of the next 11 seasons and won two Super Bowls. Now, Gibbs’ ZBS is used all across the NFL – including in Seattle, Green Bay, Denver, Dallas, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and New Orleans – and the increased pace of offenses everywhere wouldn’t be possible without his ideas.
Drew Bledsoe’s Injury
In March of 2001, the New England Patriots signed signed Bledsoe to the richest contract in NFL history: $103 million over ten years. He was only 29 and supposed to be in his prime, so there was no backup plan for him, outside of a sixth-round nobody from the University of Michigan.
But in a Week 2 game against the Jets, Bledsoe was hit hard by linebacker Mo Lewis and suffered a sheared blood vessel in his chest. In his stead, the sixth-round nobody named Tom Brady went 5-of-10 for 46 yards and the Pats lost, falling to 0-2. New England fans were apoplectic, but a week later, Brady would beat Peyton Manning and the Colts for the first time, 44-13. They kept winning and haven’t slowed down over the last 15 years.
Arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, Brady may have been buried on the depth chart for years were it not for one play made by the Jets.
The Moment That Wasn’t: Drew Brees and the Dolphins
In 2006, Brees did something that’s almost as rare as the Saints winning the Super Bowl – he became a franchise quarterback who was also an unrestricted free agent. However, he was only available because of a number of extenuating circumstances.
The biggest of those being that the San Diego Chargers had recently completed a draft-day trade for Philip Rivers (sending Eli Manning to the Giants), and were on the verge of giving up on Brees, who had also torn his labrum in the 2005 season finale. Despite being a top-10 quarterback in the previous two years, the Chargers would only offer him an incentive-laden deal, and other teams were wary of the too-short QB with the bum shoulder.
The Miami Dolphins, however, were going into their second year under coach Nick Saban and in desperate need of a quarterback. They met with Brees and seemed to be the frontrunner to land him, but team doctors (supposedly) advised against signing him to a long-term deal. They should have gotten a second opinion.
Miami backed off and the Saints, desperate for any chance of success after one playoff win in franchise history, didn’t blink at signing him to a six-year, $60 million deal. Brees has since led the league in passing five times (including this year), touchdowns four times and is a lock for the Hall of Fame. Saban left for the University of Alabama one year later, where he has become an icon at an institution where that word actually means something. The Dolphins have basically sucked ever since.
The 2011 NFL Draft
It may have only been five years ago, but the 2011 NFL Draft already stands as one of the greatest of all time, changing the course of direction for at least half of the league. The first seven players drafted, as well as 12 of the first 16, have made at least one Pro Bowl already. Seven of those players have made at least one All-Pro team, including Von Miller, Patrick Peterson, Tyron Smith and J.J. Watt.
And of course they all went after Cam Newton, the soon-to-be MVP who is one win away from his first Super Bowl championship, if only he can beat Miller.
Other first rounders include A.J. Green, Aldon Smith, Julio Jones, Marcell Dareus, Robert Quinn and Mike Pouncey. Players chosen later in the draft include Richard Sherman, Justin Houston, DeMarco Murray, Colin Kaepernick, Andy Dalton, Randall Cobb, Jurrell Casey and Cameron Jordan.
Even with only five years passing since this class entering the league, it’s easily apparent how much they’ve already changed the NFL.