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History of the NFL’s structure and formats, part one

Posted by Jason Lisk on May 5, 2008

This post will trace the history of the NFL's structure, in terms of league size, expansion (particularly as it applies to the currently existing franchises), length of schedule and format, and playoff structure. I am not going to focus on the champions or specific on field results each and every year, though I may discuss a few. If you want to see any particular season, you can go here.

Part one will discuss the league up through the 1959 season. Part two will pick up in 1960, the year that the American Football League started. I would encourage comments from anyone if you think I have omitted something important, or have any personal knowledge or historical info. I am recreating this almost entirely from reviewing the yearly standings, franchise indexes, and specific yearly team pages here at pro-football-reference. Some of the historical references to World War II, as well as date checking were confirmed using this site for the Pacific and European Theatres.

The Early Years: 1920-1926

The American Professional Football Association (APFA) was formed in 1920 with fourteen original playing members. Two franchises still in existence today were among the original fourteen--the Chicago Cardinals and the Decatur Staleys, who would become the Chicago Staleys in 1921, and change their name to the Chicago Bears for the 1922 season. The Green Bay Packers joined in 1921. The Packers, Bears and Cardinals, along with twelve now-defunct franchises who were members of the APFA, and four new additions, were members when the APFA changed its name to the National Football League (NFL) in 1922.

Over the next five seasons, a total of 33 different teams would compete in the NFL for at least one season, with the number of teams in a single season ranging from 18 to 22. The New York Giants were the only other current member to join during this time, first playing in 1925. The league's members did not play an equal number of games, and the schedules were highly uneven. The league did not have any divisions or playoffs, and the champion was determined by overall winning percentage, with ties not included in the calculation.

The imbalances in the strength of teams and schedules compares to the wide variety of college non-conference schedules nowadays. For example, in 1925, five of the teams never played a home game, while many others played the vast majority of their games at home. The 1925 Chicago Cardinals are listed as the champion by virtue of a 11-2-1 record, over the Pottsville Maroons, at 10-2. However, the Cardinals never left the city of Chicago, playing 13 home games and a road game at the Chicago Bears (a tie). Nine of the Cardinals' home games came against the dregs of the league--teams with two or fewer wins--and they did not play five of the top teams at all. The Maroons played a tougher schedule (though still only three road games) and won convincingly at the Cardinals late in the year, yet it is the Cardinals who are listed as champions because of the schedule imbalance.

The Depression: 1927-1932

The Great Depression was still a few years away, but the NFL went through a contraction for the 1927 season, in a move that was probably good for the long term health of the league. Twenty-two teams competed during the 1926 season. The NFL would not reach that number of teams again until the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. Eleven teams folded after the 1926 season, including the Canton Bulldogs. The league continued to fluctuate and decline in membership over this five year period. In 1930, the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans (who would move to Detroit and become the Lions) became the fifth currently existing franchise to join the league.

The league's schedules were still inconsistent, with teams playing differing amounts of games, though it did improve with the drop in teams. The 1929 Packers, who went 12-0-1, actually played five home games versus eight road games. Almost half of the Packers' schedule was against the rival teams from Chicago, the Cardinals and Bears, as they played each three times. They did play five of the remaining nine teams as well, including winning on the road at the two best teams from the East Coast, the New York Giants and Frankford Yellowjackets.

1932 was the league's low mark in terms of membership. Two of the league's better teams from the previous decade folded. The Frankford Yellow Jackets, Philadelphia's representative in the league, were the 1926 champions and were consistently among the leaders in games played each season, but had fallen on hard times the previous two seasons, and did not return in 1932. Providence Steam Roller, the 1928 champs, also folded. One franchise, the Boston Braves, joined the league in 1932, to give the league eight competing teams. A year later, they would change their name to the Boston Redskins.

Divisions and Structure: 1933-1940

1933 was a key year in the NFL's history. The Staten Island franchise folded, but three more would join to bring the membership to ten teams, two of whom would stand the test of time. A new Philadelphia team, the Eagles, joined the league a year after Frankford had folded. The Pittsburgh Pirates (who would become the Steelers) also joined the league, along with the Cincinnati Reds.

The league also adopted a division structure for the first time, as the Giants, Eagles, Redskins, Pirates and Brooklyn Dodgers were in the Eastern Division, and the Packers, Bears, Cardinals, Spartans, and Reds were in the West. The winners of the East and West met for the first time in an official championship game, with the Bears defeating the Giants, 23-21. The league would use this basic playoff format for thirty-four seasons, with the division winners meeting in a championship game, with the game played at the home field of one of the teams, rotating every other year between the Eastern and Western Division champ. In the event of a tie at the top of a division, the teams would meet in a playoff game prior to the NFL championship game.

However, despite the divisional structure, the schedules were not uniform. Teams played between 10 and 14 regular season games, and did not necessarily play the same number of division games. The 1933 Reds, for example, played home and away series with the Portsmouth Spartans and Chicago Cardinals, but did not play the Packers or Bears, instead playing six games against the Eagles, Pirates and Dodgers.

The Portsmouth Spartans moved to Detroit for the 1934 season. The 1934 Cincinnati team, possibly one of the worst ever, folded after an 0-8 start, with the final game being a 64-0 drubbing by Philadelphia. A short lived Saint Louis franchise appears to have filled in for the last three games of 1934, and in 1935 and 1936, the league competed with nine members. 1935 marked the first year that the league members played the same number of regular season games (12), with the exception of the Eagles-Redskins, who played 11 games and only one against each other. The next season, all nine members played 12 games, though the number of division games and non-division games were not equal and uniform. For example, the 1936 Packers played the Cardinals three times, and the Bears and Lions twice in division, and rather than playing every Eastern teams once, did not play the Pirates and met the Redskins twice in the regular season (and they would play again in the 1936 championship game). 1936 also marked the first year that the NFL held a draft for the dispersal of college players.

1937 marked the next step forward for the league. The Redskins moved to Washington, and the Cleveland Rams joined the league, allowing the league to go back to five teams in each division. The league also went to a uniform 11 game schedule, with each team playing its division opponents twice, and playing three games against the other division. These non-division games were set up on a uniform rotation, so that, for example, the 1937 Chicago Bears played Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, and the Giants, and played Philadelphia and Washington (along with Brooklyn again) the following season. The league used this general format for the next several seasons, until outside circumstances forced the NFL to adapt.

The War Years: 1941-1945

The Pittsburgh franchise changed their nickname to the Steelers prior to the 1941 season, reflecting the increased importance of the steel industry in the region. The change was also prescient. The nation was unaware of what was about to happen, but the American industry advantage would play a major role in shaping history of the next five years. The 1941 season played out as the United States stayed out of the war that was waging in Europe and with Japanese Imperialism threatening Asia and the Pacific. That changed on the final sunday of the NFL season. The Eagles-Redskins, Bears-Cardinals, and Dodgers-Giants met in regional rivalry games on Sunday, December 7, 1941. Several thousand miles to the West, Japanese planes were attacking the Pearl Harbor naval base just before 8 a.m. Honolulu time.

By the time the 1942 season started, the Guadalcanal campaign had begun. Despite the increasing loss of young men to the military, the league was still able to function on its previously set schedule in 1942. A year later, however, the loss of manpower and effects on travel forced the league to adapt. The war effort in all theatres was well underway by the fall of 1943. The campaigns in New Guineau and the Solomon Islands were ongoing in the Pacific. American troops landed at Salerno, Italy less than two weeks before the NFL opened its 1943 season. The Cleveland Rams did not compete in 1943, and the Steelers and Eagles combined to play as one team, commonly referred to as the "Steagles". Some retired players of the 1930's, including Hall of Fame members Bronko Nagurski and Bill Hewitt came out of retirement to play again in 1943. The league went to a 10-game schedule for the eight competing teams, and for the only time in the NFL's history, each team played all others at least once in the regular season (6 division games and 4 non-division games).

The Rams returned for the 1944 season, while the Steelers and Cardinals merged together to form Card-Pitt and played in the Western Division. In an indication of the patriotism of the time, a Boston franchise began play and called themselves the Yanks. The 1944 season opened on September 17, with the Packers playing the Brooklyn Tigers, on the same day paratroopers dropped near several cities in Holland, including Arnhem and Eindhoven, to begin the fight to secure bridgeheads over the Rhine. MacArthur and the U.S. Army returned to the Philippines in October 1944. The NFL regular season ended on December 10. The German counterattack known as "Battle of the Bulge" began six days later, one day before the NFL Championship game between the Packers and Giants.

The war had ended by the time the 1945 season began, with "Victory over Japan" day occurring about a month prior. But the league still had to adapt the schedule, as things did not return back to the previous status overnight. The Steelers returned to action as a distinct, stand alone team. Two now-defunct franchises, the Brooklyn Tigers and Boston Yanks, competed as one team, with the league again fielding 10 teams, and playing the same 10 game schedule as the previous two seasons.

Westward Expansion and Competition: 1946-1952

The league returned to an 11-game schedule in 1946. The Brooklyn Tigers folded, and the Boston Yanks competed as a distinct franchise. The biggest change in 1946 was the league's move westward. The defending champion Rams left Cleveland and moved to Los Angeles prior to the 1946 season.

The NFL also faced its first major rival league in 1946. The All-American Football Conference (AAFC) opened play in 1946 with eight teams, including the Cleveland Browns and the San Fransisco 49ers. The league was divided in two divisions, but in actuality, all member teams played each other on a home and away basis for a 14 game schedule. The original version of the Baltimore Colts joined the AAFC the next season, replacing the Miami Seahawks. The league had the same structure for all four seasons, with the Cleveland Browns winning the championship each season.

The NFL went to a 12-game schedule for the 1947 season. Each team played its division opponents twice, and played four of the five teams from the other division. The league kept this same schedule format through the 1949 season. The Boston franchise folded after the 1948 season, replaced by the New York Bulldogs in 1949 (who would become the New York Yanks the following season).

The AAFC folded after the 1949 season, with three of the franchises (Cleveland, San Fransisco, and Baltimore) joining the NFL, increasing the league membership to thirteen teams. With this move, the league also renamed and re-organized its divisions. Prior to 1950, the league's divisions had followed geographical lines. The NFL made its first geographically challenged moves with the assimilation of the former AAFC teams. Most of the teams from the former Eastern Division were assigned to the American Division, and the former Western Division to the National Division. However, the Chicago Cardinals were moved away from their longtime rivals the Packers and Bears and to the American, swapping places with the New York Yanks. The Cleveland Browns were placed in the American Division. The San Fransisco 49ers were placed in the National.

The Baltimore Colts were also purportedly placed in the National division as the seventh team, but their schedule suggests otherwise, and they should more properly be viewed as a team without a division for that season. They played seven games against American division teams versus five against the National, including no games against "division opponent" Chicago. With the exception of the Colts, all the other teams played ten division games (two each versus the other five division rivals) and two non-division games in 1950. The Cardinals and Bears were no longer in the same division, but continued to meet twice as non-division opponents.

Prior to 1951, the original AAFC version of the Baltimore Colts folded, leaving the league with twelve members organized in two divisions of six. However, the league was not playing a uniform divisional schedule, as some teams did not play all division opponents twice. The league also struggled to maintain a twelfth team in the league, as the New York Yanks folded after the 1951 season, replaced by the original Dallas Texans. That Dallas franchise was short-lived, however, lasting only one season, and it holds the distinction of being the last NFL franchise to fold.

The Fabulous Fifties: 1953-1959

The NFL returned to Baltimore for the 1953 season, with the formation of the second version of the Baltimore Colts. The league also went away from its American/National designation for the divisions, returning to Eastern and Western divisions. Baltimore, of course, was placed in the Western Division, so that the NFL Western Division stretched from the Pacific to Atlantic.

Starting in 1953, every division member played the other division opponents on a home and away basis (10 total division games per season) and the remaining two games were played against the other division. Baltimore and Washington played each other once every season as an intra-divisional matchup. The two Chicago teams, the Bears and Cardinals, continued to play each other once every season also. The remaining intra-division matchups appear to have been randomly set; they do not appear to be based on previous year's finish. The winners of each division continued to meet in a championship game, with the Western Division champ hosting in odd-numbered years and the Eastern Division champ hosting in even-numbered years.

The numerous changes caused by the war years and the period afterward, where several franchises came and went, were history. The league had transitioned away from the two-way players and toward a modern game where the forward pass was more common. All the league members in 1953 are still around today. In fact, this seven year period through the 1959 season represents the longest consecutive stretch where the league had the same teams, organized in the same divisions, playing the same schedule format, and with the same playoff structure, in the league's eighty-six year history. This temporary stability was about to receive a shock, though, as events in 1960 would alter the course of the league significantly.