A critical period in football history came between 1880 and 1882 when Yale and Walter Camp's ideas redefined football by introducing the concept of possession. Camp and others considered the rugby scrum "unscientific" because both teams had the opportunity to gain possession of the ball. Instead, he preferred a game in which teams retained possession of the ball as they attempted to progress down the field. His thinking won out, and the 1880 rules allowed teams to retain possession of the ball.
That rule worked well as teams continued playing the rugby-like game, punting when in trouble and giving up possession of the ball. The problem was that the rule did not require teams to give up possession of the ball, and Princeton took advantage of that loophole by refusing to give up the ball in their 1880 and 1881 "block" games versus Yale.
An 1882 rule addressed the situation by introducing downs. Teams now had to advance the ball five yards in three downs or give up possession. The rule changed to ten yards in three downs in 1906 and ten yards in four downs in 1912.
Forgotten in the mists of time is that the 1882 rule also gave teams a new set of downs when they lost ten yards in three downs. Here again, the "scientific" rationale was that teams losing yardage typically did so due to misfortune, so teams should not lose both yardage and possession.
By 1888, the rule required teams to lose twenty yards rather than ten to earn a first down. By all appearances, teams followed the spirit of the law rather than the letter until the late 1890s, meaning they did not deliberately lose yardage to gain a first down.
During the 1899 season, however, teams took advantage of the loophole. Rather than punt, they deliberately lost twenty yards to gain a new set of downs and kill more clock. (Teams sometimes lost yardage due to penalties, only to be rewarded with a first down.)
These stalling tactics led to a 1900 rule allowing teams to gain a first down by losing yardage only once per possession. Of course, teams still used the one possession to stall, so the 1904 rule makers eliminated the first down by a loss of yardage exception. The game has seen neither hide nor hair of the rule ever since.
Celebrate the seasons with one of my books. More here.
Subscribe for free and never miss a story. If you are a regular reader, consider a paid subscription to support my work.