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Film Breakdown: 1903 Princeton @ Yale
Using available images and illustrations is helpful when describing football's early days. Since the game has evolved substantially, certain concepts are challenging to get across despite using images, diagrams, and text. Some concepts, such as the early game's rapid pace of play, are easier to recognize when seen on film, and this becomes evident by reviewing the earliest known football film. Taken by Thomas Edison's company at the 1903 Princeton-Yale game played at Yale Field on November 14, 1903, the Library of Congress' YouTube version is four minutes and six seconds long, but the first minute and fifty-two seconds show only shots of the teams running onto the field and a slow pan of the stadium and crowd.
We skip that portion of the video and go directly to the football action. The two-plus minutes of activity are shown below, broken into nine clips with accompanying explanations of the events on the field. Hopefully, the descriptions improve your understanding of what is happening even if you have watched this video before.
Note: I could not embed YouTube clips into Substack. You can watch each sequence by clicking the link in the captions. Each clip runs repeatedly until you close the window.
Drop Kicking Practice
As the camera pans to the end of the field, players are practicing the snap and dropkicking a field goal. The snapper and kicker then move to the right for a second attempt but fall out of view as the camera continues panning to the right.
Newspaper reports indicate that Princeton's All-American guard, John DeWitt, converted three consecutive practice field goals from 45 yards out just before the game started. DeWitt is likely the kicker seen in the film.
Pace of Play
As the dropkicking ends, the film cuts in toward the end of a play as the ball carrier is tackled. Note how quickly the offense lines up for the next play, all without the referee spotting the ball. The QB calls his signals and bends down behind the center, prepared for the snap. The sequence takes 10 seconds.
10-Yard Gain and Movement at Line
The pace-of-play sequence showed how little time teams took between plays. Next, we see them run a play from scrimmage. The quarterback takes the snap, reverses out, and hands off to the bucking or diving back, who gains about ten yards.
Watch the sequence again and note how the right tackle places his hand on the ground shortly before the snap. In addition, the right end has happy feet, moving in place when the snap occurs. Offensive players were not required to stop for a full second before the snap until the 1920s.
The film cuts to the teams lined up again. The QB squats behind the center and takes the snap. He hands it to the diving back, who his backfield mates follow, pushing him from behind for a several-yard gain. Plays like this exemplify the mass plays that were restricted by later rule changes to:
Prohibit pushing or pulling the ball carrier
Require six or seven men on the line of scrimmage
Disallow more than one man in motion
Canadian rugby/football adhered to rugby's ban on blocking until the 1920s, with the result that Canada never developed mass plays or needed to limit the direction or number of players in motion.
Give to the Second Back
The teams climb off the pile from the previous play and quickly start lining up. The camera cuts away for a moment before returning to capture the snap. The quarterback fakes a handoff to the first back and gives it to the second back, who gains a yard or two.
The teams climb off the pile again; the camera cuts away momentarily before showing them lined up for an apparent third and short. Recall that in 1903, offenses had three downs to gain five yards, so as the quarterback bends over for the snap, they snap to a back a few yards behind the center, and he punts it. The film does not show the result of the punt, but this play may have been a “QB kick” since Yale gained 15 yards on one during the game.
The right side of the line moves at the snap.
Long Snap and Punts
The film suddenly switches to a team in punt formation. The ends, today's gunners, split wide, and the backs align as wings or in the middle. They snap to the fullback or halfback, who punts the ball. Players run downfield, but the camera does not pan to pick up the action. There may have been a penalty on the play since another punt immediately follows from the same general spot.
Four Running Plays
The camera remains in the same spot, but the other team has the ball fifteen yards downfield and on the opposite side. Yale likely has the ball since they ran the tackles back formation (only five players on the line of scrimmage) during the game The first play is a run off the left tackle, followed by another up the middle. Two more runs up the middle follow, with the offense getting some push on one to gain about five yards.
Defenses of the era often had one player positioned twenty to thirty yards deep to protect against quick kicks and to act as a safety. The safety is seen running up from his deep position on several plays.
A Run and a Fumble
The scene starts with a run up the middle. The film picks up partway through another play, during which the defense gains possession of the ball in the offensive backfield and runs toward the goal line. This was likely a third-quarter Princeton fumble which Yale advanced for 20 yards.
Run Near Goal Line
For the final clip, the camera moved behind the goal line. We see a run to the offensive left side for a gain of a few yards. This may have been a fourth-quarter situation in which Yale had the ball on Princeton's 10-yard line before being called offside, moving the ball back 20 yards. The film ends after this play.
DeWitt, seen practicing his dropkicking before the game, missed three field goal attempts that day. However, he picked up a Yale fumble in the first half, ran it 73 yards for a touchdown, and converted the kick. With a few minutes left, Yale punted from behind its goal line. Princeton fair caught the ball on the 43-yard line, allowing DeWitt a free kick from the spot. The kick was good, giving Princeton an 11-6 win.
Hopefully, this review of football's earliest film helps paints a picture of the pace of play and the nature of mass plays in the days before the forward pass. Of course, football has evolved substantially since 1903; we are fortunate these moving pictures survived.
Please comment below if you enjoyed this Tidbit and would like to see reviews of other early football films.
Below is the full video, properly embedded.
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