The Intercollegiate Football Association defined football using a set of sixty-one rules in 1876 and all but five were essentially the same rules prescribed for play by the Rugby Union. The game evolved to its present form by thousands of rule changes and a comparable number of innovations in technique, some of which took longer to find their current form than others. One technique that took a circuitous route was the center snap.
Two of the original rules (shown in italics below) had to change before the center position and technique could evolve. Even then, the progression was surprisingly slow.
Rule 11: A scrummage takes place when the holder of the ball, being in the field of play, puts it on the ground in front of him, and all who have closed around on the respective sides endeavor to push their opponents back, and by kicking the ball, to drive it in the direction of the opposite goal-line.
Since early football was a form of rugby, its play mirrored rugby. After a runner was downed, the two teams formed a rugby-like scrummage or scrum with the ball put in play by tossing it between the two teams. Both teams attempted to kick the ball behind their scrum line to a teammate who picked it up, ran, backward passed to another teammate, or kicked the ball to advance it.
Walter Camp and others considered the scrummage bad form since it gave both teams equal opportunity to gain possession of the ball. He pushed for the ‘scientific’ approach to the game that reduced the role of chance in favor of effective planning and team play. He succeeded in getting the scrimmage rule passed in 1880 which, more than any other rule change, led to football’s distinctiveness as a sport.
Starting play from a controlled scrimmage with one team maintaining possession of the ball allowed for the development of structured alignments and plays different in kind from the free-flowing plays of soccer and rugby.
Rule 14: In a scrummage it is not lawful for the man who has the ball to pick it up with the hand under any circumstance whatsoever.
Using the concept of the scrimmage, the team with the ball retained possession and aligned on the line of scrimmage. One player snapped the ball backward with his feet to a teammate who then passed it backward to another teammate to run or kick the ball. Initially, any of the men on the line might snap the ball back, and any of the backs might be the first to pick up the ball, but teams quickly formalized the position of each player in the scrimmage.
The “snapper-back”or “snap-back”, later known as the center, became the designated snapper. He had teammates on either side protecting him during the snap and they became known as guards. Early formations often had the guards turned at 45-degree angles facing the center to help protect him.
The players outside the guards were often the targets of the mass plays of the era and, as a result, they frequently made tackles while on defense, so they became known as tackles. And, of course, those at the outermost positions on the line were called ends. In the backfield, the player farthest back from the center became known as the fullback. In addition to being a solid runner able to buck the line (take the handoff and run straight ahead into the line), the fullback typically handled the team’s punting duties. Other players set half as deep as the fullback were called halfbacks. Finally, the player who received the snap from center was aligned midway between the halfbacks and the center, so he became known as the quarterback. Since football had fifteen players to a side from 1876 to 1880, teams often had two halfbacks and two fullbacks with another back positioned between the halfbacks and fullbacks. He, of course, was the three-quarterback or the third-in-hand.
As noted above, the snapperback initially rolled the ball back to the quarterback using his feet. The early rules also did not specify a neutral zone, so the players on defense sometimes kicked or swatted the ball as the snapperback prepared to roll the ball back. To combat this, the snapperbacks learned to hold the ball in their hands prior to snapping it back with their feet and this technique soon led to snapping with the hands, which was formally legalized in 1892. However, since Rule 14 prohibited the center from picking up the ball, they did not lift it from the ground; they simply pushed the ball backwards, either rolling it on its side or end over end. Some snapperbacks were able to bound it end over end so it bounced into the quarterback’s arms, but most rolled it on its side to the quarterback. While coaching at Buchtel College in 1893, John Heisman had a tall quarterback so he instructed his center to simply toss the ball to the quarterback and the direct snap was born. Though technically illegal, no one stopped them and the technique became common.
Oddly enough, a common method for quarterbacks to signal to the center that they were ready for the snap was to place their hand on the center’s leg. Removing the hand indicated the center should snap the ball. Despite that, no one thought to use the direct snap under center, in which the quarterback places his hands placed between the center’s legs, until 1940. Like other elements of the game, the technique seems obvious today, but the game was played for more than fifty years before it became obvious to anyone else.
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