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Today's Tidbit... First and Five, Eight, Ten, or Fifteen
During the game's early years, football's rules were virtually identical to those of rugby which did not allow teams to maintain possession from one scrimmage or scrummage to another. When football went down the possession path in 1880, the rule makers assumed that teams possessing the ball would play honorably, punting when they could not advance the ball after a few scrimmages. However, Princeton had other ideas and kept the ball play and after play versus Yale in 1880 and 1881, leading to new rules requiring teams to gain five yards in three downs or turn the ball over to the opponent.
Under the 1882 rule, teams could also retain possession by losing ten yards in three downs. That changed to losing twenty yards in three downs in 1888, and the lost-yardage approach disappeared in 1904. As odd as a rule providing a new first down for losing yardage seems to us today, they viewed substantial losses of yardage as resulting from a fluke or mistake by one player, and the logic was that teams should have an opportunity to recover from the error by playing scientific, team football.
Of course, awarding first downs for gaining or losing yardage and then doubling the lost yardage requirement demonstrates the arbitrariness of the rules. Americans living in 2023 think of ten yards in four downs as cast in stone, but those living back then realized it would have made as much sense to base the rule on some other number of yards gained or lost on any number of downs, so they were willing to offer alternative suggestions.
The decision about the number of yards and downs ultimately came down to the preferred style of play and beliefs about how rule changes might affect play. For instance, heading into the 1905 season, Walter Camp advocated requiring ten yards in three downs to encourage more open play. His thinking was that teams would no longer be able to run the ball up the middle to consistently gain ten yards, forcing them to run the ball around the end or find imaginative ways to move the ball. Others wanted to retain the smashmouth game, while Fielding Yost of Michigan argued for gaining ten yards between the 20-yard lines and five yards inside the 20-yard lines. Some even suggested handicapping heavier teams by requiring them to gain more yards than their lighter opponent in a set number of downs.
Of course, the first down rule did not change in 1905, but it was among the many rule changes of 1906 when teams had to gain ten yards in three downs, like the Canadian Burnside rules. Despite the new rule, the addition of the forward pass, and the onside kick from scrimmage, most teams relied on the same old offensive schemes for the next few years. As a result, teams struggled to earn first downs, turning games into punting duels, the opposite of the desired team-oriented, scientific game.
By 1909, those who did not want to change the nature of play argued for returning to the five yards on three downs standard, while those favoring open play, such as Amos Alonzo Stagg, wanted to force teams to gain fifteen yards in three downs. Surely that would make teams abandon the old-style game.
Despite the arguments, no changes occurred in 1909, but the rule makers temporarily changed the rule in 1910 to require teams to gain eight yards in three downs. After further consideration, they returned to the ten yards in three down standard before the 1910 season.
Finally, as more teams found used the forward pass and some restrictions on its use were eliminated, the rule makers of 1912 were able to satisfy proponents of both smashmouth and open play. They did so by adopting the ten yards in four downs rule, making smashmouth teams more likely to earn first downs. At the same time, they loosened up the forward pass by allowing the ball to be thrown more than twenty yards downfield and across the goal line.
The combination of rules pleased both groups and allowed the battle of styles to be determined on the field rather than in a rules committee meeting room. Since then, there were occasional calls to increase or decrease the number of yards to be gained, but none received serious attention, and the need to gain ten yards in four downs has become an untouchable element of the American version of the gridiron game.
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