The National Football League (NFL) is the highest level of professional American football in the United States, and is considered the top professional American football league in the world. It was formed by eleven teams in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association, with the league changing its name to the National Football League in 1922. The league currently consists of thirty-two teams from the United States. The league is divided evenly into two conferences the American Football Conference (AFC) and National Football Conference (NFC), and each conference has four divisions that have four teams each, for a total of 16 teams in each conference. The NFL is an unincorporated 501(c)(6) association, a federal nonprofit designation, comprising its 32 teams.
The regular season is a seventeen-week schedule during which each team plays sixteen games and has one bye week. The season currently starts on the Thursday night in the first full week of September and runs weekly to late December or early January. At the end of each regular season, six teams from each conference (at least one from each division) play in the NFL playoffs, a twelve-team single-elimination tournament that culminates with the championship game, known as the Super Bowl. This game is held at a pre-selected site which is usually a city that hosts an NFL team.
The NFL is the most attended domestic sports league in the world by average attendance per game (16 a season), with 67,394 fans per game in 2011 12.
In 1920, representatives of several professional American football leagues and independent teams met in Canton, Ohio, and founded the American Professional Football Conference, soon renamed the National Football League. The first official championship game was held in 1933; before then, there was no playoff system, and instead the team that finished with the best regular season record was awarded the league title. By 1958, when that season's NFL championship game became known as "The Greatest Game Ever Played", the NFL was on its way to becoming one of the most popular sports leagues in the United States. In 1965, football supplanted baseball as the most popular televised sport in America. The merger with the American Football League, agreed to in 1966 and completed in 1970, greatly expanded the league and created the Super Bowl, which has become one of the most watched sporting events in the world, and is second to association football (soccer)'s UEFA Champions League final as the most watched annual sporting event worldwide.
Official rules and notable rule distinctions
Although rules for NFL, college, and high school American football games are generally consistent, there are several differences. In addition, the NFL frequently makes rule changes because of exploits on the field by a single coach, owner, player, or referee.
Some of the major rules differences include:
- A pass is ruled complete if both of the receiver's feet are inbounds at the time of the catch. In college and high school football, only one foot is required to be inbounds.
- In the NFL, a player is considered down when he is tackled or forced down by a member of the opposing team (also known as "down by contact"). In college football, a player is automatically ruled down when any part of his body other than the feet or hands touches the ground or when the ball carrier is tackled or otherwise falls and loses possession of the ball as he contacts the ground with any part of his body.
- NFL players in certain positions are normally ineligible to catch passes. As an aid for game officials to enforce this rule, players wear uniform numbers based on the position they play. (see below)
- In the NFL, overtime is decided by a 15-minute sudden-death quarter during regular season games, and can still end in a tie if neither team scores during this extra period; if the score remains tied during a playoff game, however, additional overtime periods are played. Starting with the 2012 season, each team gets one possession to score unless one of them scores a touchdown on its first possession. Sudden death rules apply if both teams have had their initial possession and the game remains tied. During college football's overtime, each team is given one possession from its opponent's twenty-five yard line with no game clock. The team leading after both possessions is declared the winner. If the two college teams remain tied, additional overtime periods are played; a college football game cannot end in a tie.
- Unlike college and high school, the NFL has a two-minute warning, an automatic time-out that occurs when two minutes of game time remain on the game clock in each half, and overtime during the regular season (the timing rules of overtime during the regular season is similar to the fourth quarter, while overtime periods in the playoffs are timed like regulation).
- Also unique to the NFL, the game clock never stops after the offense completes a first down in order to reset the first down chains.
Two-point conversion tries are attempted from the two-yard line, whereas in college football they are attempted from the three-yard line.
- In college football, the defensive team may score two points on a point-after touchdown attempt by returning a blocked kick, fumble, or interception into the opposition's end zone. The NFL does not allow this, and instead a conversion attempt is automatically ruled as "no good" when the defending team gains possession of the football.
- There are several differences in enforcing penalties. For example, defensive pass interference results in the ball being placed at the spot of the foul. In college football, the same penalty is capped at a maximum of 15 yards.
- For instant replay, NFL teams are given two replay challenges per game, and can be awarded a third one if the other two are successful. Replays of scoring plays, the final 2:00 of each half and all overtime periods are instead initiated by the official in the replay booth. Also, as of the 2012 season, all turnovers will be reviewed by the replay official. In college football, teams are only originally allocated one replay challenge (and can get a second one if successful), and the replay official can initiate reviews of all plays.
Since 2002, the NFL season features the following schedule:
- a 4-game exhibition season (or preseason) running from early August to early September;
- a 16-game, 17-week regular season running from September to December or early January; and
- a 12-team single-elimination playoff beginning in January, culminating in the Super Bowl in early February.
Traditionally, American high school football games are played on Friday nights, American college football games are played on Thursday nights and Saturdays, and most NFL games are played on Sunday. Because the NFL season is longer than the college football season, the NFL schedules Saturday games and Saturday playoff games outside the college football season. The ABC Television network added Monday Night Football in 1970, and Thursday night NFL games were added in the 1980s.
Following mini-camps in the spring and officially recognized training camp in July August, NFL teams typically play four exhibition games from early August through early September. Each team hosts two games of the four. The exhibition season begins with the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, so those two teams play five exhibition games each. Historically, the American Bowl(s) were played prior to the NFL scheduling regular season games abroad and those teams faced this similar predicament.
The games are useful for new players who are not used to playing in front of very large crowds. Management often uses the games to evaluate newly signed players. Veteran starters will generally play only for about a quarter of each game to minimize the risk of injury. Several lawsuits have been brought by fans, against the policy of including exhibition games in season-ticket packages at regular season prices, but none have so far been very successful.
the Browns in 2009]] had to play all the other AFC North teams (in blue) twice; all the AFC West teams (another division within its own conference) once; all the NFC North teams (a division in the other conference) once; and the Bills and the Jaguars, who also finished in fourth place in their respective AFC divisions during that previous season. Following the preseason, each of the thirty-two teams embark on a seventeen-week, sixteen-game schedule, with the extra week consisting of a bye to allow teams a rest sometime in the middle of the season (and also to increase television coverage). The regular season currently begins the Thursday evening after Labor Day with a primetime "Kickoff Game" (NBC currently holds broadcast rights for that game). According to the current scheduling structure, the earliest the season could begin is September 4 (as it was in the 2008 season), while the latest would be September 10 (as it was in the 2009 season, due to September 1 falling on a Tuesday). The regular season ends no later than January 3, in any given year.
The league uses a scheduling formula to pre-determine which teams plays whom during a given season. Under the current formula since 2002, each of the thirty-two teams' respective 16-game schedule consists for the following:
- Each team plays the other three teams in their division twice: once at home, and once on the road (six games).
- Each team plays the four teams from another division within its own conference once on a rotating three-year cycle: two at home, and two on the road (four games).
- Each team plays the four teams from a division in the other conference once on a rotating four-year cycle: two at home, and two on the road (four games).
- Each team plays once against the other teams in its conference that finished in the same place in their own divisions as themselves the previous season, not counting the division they were already scheduled to play: one at home, one on the road (two games).
Although this scheduling formula determines each of the thirty-two teams' respective opponents, the league usually does not release the final regular schedule with specific dates and times until the spring; the NFL needs several months to coordinate the entire season schedule so that, among other reasons, games are worked around various scheduling conflicts, and that it helps maximize TV ratings.
The NFL Playoffs. Each of the four division winners is seeded 1 4 based on their W-L-T records. The two Wild Card teams (labeled Wild Card 1 and 2) are seeded fifth and sixth (with the better of the two having seed 5) regardless of their records compared to the four division winners. The season concludes with a twelve-team tournament used to determine the teams to play in the Super Bowl. The tournament brackets are made up of six teams from each of the league's two conferences, the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC), following the end of the 16-game regular season:
- The four division champions from each conference (the team in each division with the best regular season won-lost-tied record), which are seeded one through four based on their regular season won-lost-tied record (tie-breaker rules may apply).
- Two wild card qualifiers from each conference (those non-division champions with the conference's best record, i.e. the best won-lost-tied percentages, with a series of tie-breaking rules in place in the event that there are teams with the same number of wins and losses), which are seeded five and six.
In each conference, the No. 3 and No. 6 seeded teams, and the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds, face each other during the first round of the playoffs, dubbed the Wild Card Playoffs (the league in recent years has also used the term Wild Card Weekend). The No. 1 and No. 2 seeds from each conference receive a bye in the first round, which entitles these teams to automatically advance to the second round, the Divisional Playoff games, to face the winning teams from the first round. In round two, the No. 1 seeded team always plays the lowest surviving seed in their conference. And in any given playoff game, whoever has the higher seed gets the home field advantage (i.e. the game is held at the higher seed's home field).
The two surviving teams from the Divisional Playoff games meet in Conference Championship games, with the winners of those contests going on to face one another in the Super Bowl in a game located at a neutral venue that is usually either indoors or in a warm-weather locale. The designated "home team" alternates year to year between the conferences. In odd-numbered Super Bowls, the NFC team is the designated "home team", with the AFC team serving as the home team for even-numbered games.
The NFL is the only one out of the four major professional sports leagues in the United States to use a single-elimination tournament in its playoffs; Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League all use a "best-of" format instead.
The Pro Bowl, the league's all-star game, has been traditionally held on the weekend after the Super Bowl. The game was played at various venues before being held at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, Hawaii for 30 consecutive seasons from 1980 to 2009.
However, the 2010 Pro Bowl was played at Sun Life Stadium, the home stadium of the Miami Dolphins and host site of Super Bowl XLIV, on January 31, the first time ever that the Pro Bowl was played before the championship game. The game returned to Honolulu in 2011 and 2012, though both games were still played before the Super Bowl.
On April 26, 2012, Chris Mortensen of ESPN reported that the Pro Bowl was likely to be suspended for the 2012 season and beyond. According to league sources, Commissioner Roger Goodell was dissatisfied with the lack of competitive effort by players in that game, although he did not bear any ill will toward the players due to safety issues. Mortenson also reported that if the game is shelved, a Pro Bowl balloting process will continue because many player contracts include incentive clauses that are triggered by Pro Bowl selections. The NFL later decided to keep the Pro Bowl for the time being, announcing that the 2013 game would be held in Honolulu, again one week before the Super Bowl.
Though the NFL only plays in the late summer, fall, and early winter, the extended offseason often is an event in itself, with the draft, free agency signings, and the announcement of schedules keeping the NFL in the spotlight even during the spring, when virtually no on-field activity is taking place. A typical calendar of league events is as follows, with the dates listed being those for the 2012 NFL season:
- February 22 Pro Football Hall of Fame Game opponents announced.
- February 24 March 2 NFL Scouting Combine: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, Ind.
- February 25 Deadline for Clubs to designate Franchise and Transition players.
- March 13 Veteran Free Agency signing period begins. Trading period begins.
- March 26 28 NFL Annual Meeting: Dana Point, Calif. Usually accompanied by announcement of scheduling and opponents for first game and opening-weekend night games.
- Early April: Teams begin voluntary workouts.
- April 17: 2012 schedule announced.
- April 26 28 NFL Draft: New York City.
- May 21 23 NFL Spring Meeting: Chicago, Ill.
- June 24 June 27 NFL Rookie Symposium, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
- Mid-July (varies by team, fifteen days before first preseason game)-- Training camps open.
- August 5 Pro Football Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, Canton, Ohio, including Hall of Fame Game.
- August 9 13 First full Preseason weekend.
- August 28 Roster cutdown from 80 to maximum of 75 players.
- September 1 Roster cutdown from 75 to maximum of 53 players.
- September 5 10 Kickoff 2012 Weekend (Week 1 of regular season)
- October 28 International Series game (Wembley Stadium, London).
- November Pro Bowl balloting and flexible scheduling for NBC Sunday Night Football begin.
- November 22 Thanksgiving games.
- December 30, 2012 End of regular season.
- January 5, 2013 Playoffs begin.
- January 20 AFC Championship Game and NFC Championship Game.
- January 27 Pro Bowl.
- February 3 Super Bowl.
Current NFL teams
The NFL consists of thirty-two clubs. Each club is allowed a maximum of fifty-three players on their roster, but may only dress forty-five to play each week during the regular season. Reflecting the population distribution of the United States as a whole, most teams are in the eastern half of the country; seventeen teams are in the Eastern Time Zone and nine others in the Central Time Zone.
Most major metropolitan areas in the United States have an NFL franchise, although Los Angeles, the second-largest metropolitan area in the country, has not hosted an NFL team since 1994. The Rams and the Raiders called the Los Angeles area home from 1946 1994 and 1982 1994 respectively. On August 9, 2011, the LA City Council approved plans to build Farmers Field which could be home to an NFL team. Candidates for relocation are the San Diego Chargers, St. Louis Rams, and the Oakland Raiders, or if any, will move to the venue.
Unlike Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League, the league has no full-time teams in Canada, although the Buffalo Bills play one game per year in Toronto. There has been discussion of possibly bringing the NFL to Toronto, the largest city in Canada. In addition, as of 2012, the St. Louis Rams will begin hosting one of its regular season games in London, England as part of the International Series, making the NFL the first U.S.-based sports league to have one of its teams establish a home stadium outside North America.
The Dallas Cowboys are the highest valued American football franchise, valued at approximately $1.6 billion and one of the most valuable franchises in all of professional sports worldwide, currently third behind the Los Angeles Dodgers of MLB, sold in March 2012 for $2 billion, and English soccer club Manchester United, which has an approximate value of $1.8 billion at current exchange rates. Since the 2002 season, the teams have been aligned as follows:
|American Football Conference
Orchard Park, NY
Ralph Wilson Stadium 1
||Oct 28, 1959
Miami Gardens, FL
||Sun Life Stadium
||Aug 16, 1965
||Stephen M. Ross
|New England Patriots
||Nov 22, 1959
|New York Jets
E. Rutherford, NJ
||Aug 14, 1959
||M&T Bank Stadium
||Feb 9, 1996
||Paul Brown Stadium
||May 23, 1967
||Cleveland Browns Stadium
||June 4, 1944
||July 8, 1933
||Oct 6, 1999
Indianapolis Colts *
||Lucas Oil Stadium
||Jan 23, 1953
||Nov 30, 1993
Tennessee Titans *
||Aug 14, 1959
||Sports Authority Field at Mile High
||Aug 14, 1959
Kansas City Chiefs *
Kansas City, MO
||Aug 14, 1959
Clark Hunt et al.
Oakland Raiders *
||Jan 30, 1960
Mark Davis et al.
San Diego Chargers *
San Diego, CA
||Aug 14, 1959
|National Football Conference
||Jan 28, 1960
|New York Giants
E. Rutherford, NJ
||Aug 1, 1925
J. Mara & S. Tisch
||Lincoln Financial Field
||July 8, 1933
Washington Redskins *
||July 9, 1932
Chicago Bears *
||Sep 17, 1920 3
||V. Halas McCaskey
Detroit Lions *
|Green Bay Packers
Green Bay, WI
||Aug 11, 1919
||Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome
||Jan 28, 1960
||June 30, 1965
||Bank of America Stadium
||Oct 26, 1993
|New Orleans Saints
New Orleans, LA
||Nov 1, 1966
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers
||Raymond James Stadium
||April 24, 1974
Arizona Cardinals *
||University of Phoenix Stadium
St. Louis Rams *
St. Louis, MO
Edward Jones Dome1
|San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco, CA
||June 4, 1944
||June 4, 1974
- Chart notes
- An asterisk (*) denotes a franchise move. See the respective team articles for more information.
- "Owner" refers to primary or majority owner; i.e. the owner that represents the team in league owners' meetings. See List of NFL franchise owners for more details.
- This team plays one of its home games outside the United States. The Buffalo Bills play one regular game each year and one preseason game every two years from 2008 2012 at Rogers Centre in Toronto. The St. Louis Rams play one regular season game each year from 2012 2014 at Wembley Stadium in London.
- As the result of a relocation controversy in 1996, the league officially suspended operations of the Cleveland Browns while its players and personnel moved to Baltimore to become a new franchise called the Baltimore Ravens. As per an agreement with the two cities, the Ravens are officially regarded as a new 1996 team while the league's official history and records views the Browns as one continuous franchise that began in , suspended operations from , and resumed play in with new players.
- Although the club was originally established in 1919 as the company team of the A. E. Staley food starch company, the Chicago Bears official team and league records instead cite George Halas as the founder after he took over control in 1920.
Former NFL teams
In its earliest years, the NFL was a very unstable and somewhat informal organization. Many teams entered and left the league annually. However, since the acquisition of the All-America Football Conference in 1950, the NFL has shown remarkable stability. The last NFL team to fold was the Dallas Texans in 1952; its remnants were salvaged to form the expansion Baltimore Colts.
Annually, the Super Bowl often ranks as the most watched show of the year in the United States and second most watched sporting event worldwide behind the UEFA Champions League final. Four of Nielsen Media Research's top ten programs are Super Bowls. Networks have purchased a share of the broadcasting rights to the NFL as a means of raising the entire network's profile. The Super Bowl is so popular annually that many companies debut elaborate commercials during the game.
The television rights to the NFL are the most lucrative and expensive sports broadcasting commodity in the United States. Under the current television contracts, which began during the 2006 season, regular season games are broadcast on five networks: CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN, and the NFL Network. Regionally shown games are broadcast on Sundays on CBS and Fox, carrying the AFC and NFC teams respectively (the traveling team deciding the broadcast station in the event of inter-Conference games, presumably so that each network can show games from all the stadiums). These games generally air at 1:00 pm ET and 4:05 pm or 4:15 pm ET. (Due to differences between Eastern and local time, games played in the Pacific and Mountain time zones are never played in the 1:00 pm ET time slot.) Nationally televised games include Sunday night games (shown on NBC), Monday night games (shown on ESPN), the Thursday night NFL Kickoff Game (shown on NBC), the annual Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions Thanksgiving Day games (CBS and Fox), and beginning in 2006, all Thursday and Saturday games on the NFL Network, a wholly owned subsidiary of the National Football League.
Additionally, satellite broadcast company DirecTV offers NFL Sunday Ticket, a subscription based package, that allows most Sunday daytime regional games to be watched. This package is exclusive to DirecTV in the USA; for subscribers to Dish Network Verizon FiOS and Comcast, the NFL instead offers "RedZone," a less expensive single channel that launched in 2009 and airs "the touchdowns and most important moments during all the Sunday afternoon games." In Canada, NFL Sunday Ticket is available on a per-provider distribution deal on both cable and satellite.
The NFL also produces programming for various networks, mainly highlight shows like Inside the NFL for Showtime and other historical games through its renowned NFL Films division that generally air on ESPN and NFL Network. Other NFL-produced programs include Hard Knocks, an HBO series detailing training camp for certain teams; plus the animated children's show RushZone: Guardians of the Core airing on Viacom's Nicktoons channel.
Each NFL team has its own radio network and employs its announcers. Nationally, the NFL is heard on the Dial Global Radio Networks (successor to CBS Radio Network and Westwood One), Sports USA Radio Network, the Compass Media Sports Network and in Spanish on Univision Radio. Dial Global carries Sunday and Monday Night Football, all Thursday games, two Sunday afternoon contests each week, the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, and all post-season games, including the Pro Bowl. Sports USA Radio and Compass each broadcast two Sunday afternoon games every Sunday during the regular season, by agreement with individual teams. Univision carries Monday Night games, select games from the New York metro area, and all playoff games.
The NFL also has a contract with Sirius Satellite Radio, which provides news, analysis, commentary and game coverage for all games, as well as comprehensive coverage of the draft and off-season on its own channel, Sirius NFL Radio.
Internet radio broadcasts of all NFL games are managed through FieldPass, a subscription service. Radio stations are, by rule, prohibited from streaming the games for free from their Web sites; however, there are numerous stations that break this rule. All 32 teams, plus Dial Global and Univision, currently broadcast through FieldPass as of 2009; Compass and Sports USA do not.
Internet and new media
In October 2006 the NFL announced the league would fully operate NFL.com, including the development of the technology, infrastructure and editorial content. Launching its first major redesign since 1999 in August 2007, the site had been previously produced and hosted since 2001 by CBS SportsLine. It is estimated that the contract cost CBS $120 million over a five year period. Prior to CBS, ESPN.com produced and hosted the NFL site.
Brian Rolapp, senior vice president of NFL digital media and media strategy: In a rapidly changing digital landscape, bringing NFL.com in-house provides us greater control of our valuable content and enables us to strategically build the site as a media asset. Fans can look forward to an even more entertaining, interactive and informative site built upon the expertise of the NFL and its other in-house media outlets such as NFL Network and NFL Films.
Univision Online, Inc., the interactive subsidiary of Univision Communications Inc., and the NFL announced in January 2008 that they will jointly manage and operate NFLatino.com powered by Univision.com, the official U.S. Spanish-language website of the NFL. NFLatino.com is the only Spanish-language website in the United States to feature NFL video game highlights. In addition, the website includes live radio broadcasts, up-to-date stats, Hispanic player diaries, Fantasy Football and an insider s view of all 32 teams.
Announced in March 2009, NFL.com received its first-ever Sports Emmy nominations, which earned recognition for its NFL.com LIVE coverage of NFL Network s Thursday and Saturday Night Football (Outstanding new approaches, coverage) and its Anatomy of a Play, a short-form 360-degree analysis of key plays of the week (Outstanding new approaches, general interest).
Beginning September 2008, the NFL announced that it would simulcast all NBC Sunday Night Football games on NFL.com, located at nfl.com/snf. In 2007, they had provided an Emmy-nominated "complementary live broadcast" which included a partial simulcast of the NFL Network's Run to the Playoffs eight game package along with expanded NFL Network analysis. The number of games available on the Internet will expand over the course of the next television contract, as all of the networks except CBS acquired Internet rights to the league; many of these, however, will only be available through select Internet providers (Monday Night Football, for instance, is only available through Verizon FiOS, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks).
The NFL offers a pay service for people outside the United States to watch all regular season and playoff games, except for the Super Bowl, live online. This service is not available for fans within the United States or Mexico. Instead, the service is available after games are played and offers full DVR functionality with the ability to watch up to four previously recorded games at once.
The NFL introduced a hosted fantasy football game prior to the 2010 NFL season. NFL.com Fantasy Football is a free fantasy football site featuring live scoring, custom and public fantasy leagues and prizes such as a trip to that year's Super Bowl. The NFL.com Fantasy game is the first of its kind to feature video highlights. Video highlights appear as soon as 30 seconds after they occur in an NFL game, a feature exclusive to NFL.com. Users can join and create leagues each June at http://nfl.com/fantasy.
Player contracts and compensation
Although not as frequently as the other major professional sports leagues in the United States, the NFL still is not immune to labor disputes, such as the players' strikes of 1982 and 1987, and more recently a lockout in 2011, though the latest did not result in the cancellation of any regular-season games.
The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) has historically served as the labor union for NFL players. Among its duties is negotiating collective bargaining agreements (CBA) with league owners, which governs the negotiation of individual player contracts for all of the league's players. The NFLPA was established in 1956, and has renounced collective bargaining rights at least twice in its history during labor disputes: the 1987 strike and the 2011 lockout.
One CBA was in place since 1993, and was amended in 1998 and again in 2006. But in 2008, the owners exercised their right to opt out of the agreement two years early. This led to a lockout in 2011, the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987, which is longer than Major League Baseball (1994 and beginning of 1995 seasons), the NHL (2004 05 season canceled), or the NBA (2011 12 season).
Among the items covered in the CBA are:
- The league minimum salary
- The salary cap
- The annual collegiate draft
- Rules regarding "free agency"
- Waiver rules
Under the 1993 CBA, players were tiered into three different levels with regards to their rights to negotiate for contracts:
- Players who have been drafted (see below), and have not yet played in their first year, may only negotiate with the team that drafted them. If terms cannot be agreed upon, the players' only recourse is to refuse to play ("hold out") until terms can be reached. Players often use the threat of holding out as a means to force the hands of the teams that drafted them. For example, John Elway was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1983 but refused to play for them. He had a fallback option of baseball, as he had played in the New York Yankees organization for two summers while at Stanford. The Colts traded his rights to the Denver Broncos and Elway agreed to play. Bo Jackson sat out an entire year in 1986, choosing to play baseball in the Kansas City Royals organization rather than play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team that had drafted him. He reentered the draft the following year, and was drafted and subsequently signed with the Los Angeles Raiders.
- Players that have played three full seasons in the league, and whose contract has expired are considered "Restricted Free Agents" (see below). They have limited rights to negotiate with any club.
- Players that have played four or more full seasons in the league, and whose contract has expired, are considered "Unrestricted Free Agents"(see below) and have unlimited rights to negotiate with any club. Teams may name a single player in any given year as a "Franchise Player" (see below), which eliminates much of that player's negotiation rights. This is a limited right of the team, however, and affects only a small handful of players each year.
In the 2010 season, the CBA was not extended, thus changing the rules so that players don't become "Unrestricted Free Agents" until they have played at least six full seasons in the league. They will be "Restricted Free Agents" if they have three five full seasons in the league.
Under the current (2011) CBA, several items were altered:
- Free agency guidelines returned to the way they were from 1993 to 2009. This means that a player needs four years of experience to become an unrestricted free agent, and three years of experience for restricted free agency.
- The salary cap is now $120.375 million, with no team salary minimum. For the 2011 season, teams have the option of using a $3 million exemption on a signed player. For the years following the 2011 season, teams have the option of designating three player exemptions at $1.5 million each.
- The salary minimum will return for the 2013 season, at which time each team must spend at least 89% of the cap in cash on player salaries.
- The rookie compensation was altered. There is a limit to the amount of money given to rookies, with the maximum total in 2011 being $874 million. First round picks receive four-year deals, with a fifth year option. In the second through seventh rounds, there are slotted four-year deals.
- The league minimum salary for players increased by 10-12 percent, based on tenure.
- A team's ability to place a franchise or transition tag on top players to retain his rights did not change. Other major concerns included health and safety of players, as well as former player benefits and pensions.
The new 10-year collective bargaining agreement runs through 2021, and has an estimated value of $12 $16 billion per year.
For more information on the players' and owners' takeaways with the 2011 CBA, see the 2011 NFL lockout article.
A player's salary, as defined by the CBA, includes any "compensation in money, property, investments, loans or anything else of value to which an NFL player may be awarded" excluding such benefits as insurance and pension. A salary can include an annual pay and a one-time "signing bonus" which is paid in full when the player signs his contract. For the purposes of the salary cap (see below), the signing bonus is prorated over the life of the contract rather than to the year in which the signing bonus is paid.
Among other things, the CBA establishes a minimum salary for its players, which is stepped-up as a player's years of experience increase. Players and their agents may negotiate with clubs for higher salaries, and frequently do.
Under the new collective bargaining agreement (2011), Paragraph 5 guarantees first year after year of injury 50% of salary up to $1 million; 30% of salary up to $500,000 in second year after year of injury.
The salary cap is defined as the maximum amount that a team may spend on player compensation (see above) in a given season, for all of its players combined. Unlike other leagues, for example the NBA (which permits certain exemptions) or Major League Baseball (which has a "soft cap" enforced by "luxury taxes"), the NFL has a "hard cap": an amount no team under any circumstances may exceed. The NFL also has a so-called "hard floor", a minimum payroll that each team is required to pay regardless of the circumstances, but the current CBA will not enforce this until the 2013 season.
The NFL salary cap is calculated by the current CBA to be 59.5% of the total projected league revenue for the upcoming year. This number, divided by the number of teams, determines an individual team's maximum salary cap. For 2008, this was approximately $116 million per team. For 2009, it increased to $127 million. As a result of the NFL owners opting out of the CBA two years early, the 2010 season had no salary cap or floor. Under the 2011 CBA, players get the following percentages of league revenue from three revenue streams:
- 55% of TV revenues
- 45% from NFL Ventures and NFL Properties
- 40% of net local revenues at the club level
Teams and players often find creative ways to fit salaries under the salary cap. Early in the salary cap era, "signing bonuses" were used to give players a large chunk of money up front, and thus not count in the salary for the bulk of the contract. This led to a rule whereby all signing bonus are pro-rated equally for each year of the contract. Thus if a player receives a $10 million signing bonus for a five-year contract, $2 million per year would count against the salary cap for the life of the contract, even though the full $10 million was paid up front during the first year of the contract.
Player contracts tend to be "back-loaded". This means that the contract is not divided equally among the time period it covers. Instead, the player earns progressively more and more each year. For instance, a player signing a four-year deal worth $10 million may get paid $1 million the first year, $2 million the second year, $3 million the third year, and $4 million the fourth year. If a team cuts this player after the first year, the final three years do not count against the cap. Any signing bonus, however, ceases to be pro-rated, and the entire balance of the bonus counts against the cap in the upcoming season.
Each April, each NFL franchise seeks to add new players to its roster through a collegiate draft known as "the NFL Annual Player Selection Meeting", which is more commonly known as the NFL Draft.
Teams are ranked in inverse order based on the previous season's record, with the team having the worst record picking first, and the second-worst picking second, and so on. Regardless of regular season records, the last two picks of each round go to the two teams in the Super Bowl immediately preceding the draft, with the Super Bowl champion picking last.
The draft proceeds for seven rounds. In the past, Rounds 1 2 were run on Saturday of draft weekend, rounds 3 7 were run on Sunday.
During 2010 the league experimented with a new system. Round 1 was run on Thursday night of the draft weekend. Rounds 2 and 3 were run on the Friday night of the draft weekend. Rounds 4 through 7 were run on Saturday. The impact of this change according to commentators at ESPN and Sports Illustrated was that teams gained more time to make trades for draft picks in the early rounds and that process enhanced the value of the first picks in Rounds 2 and 4. 
Teams are given 10 minutes in the first round of the draft, 7 in the second round and 5 in all other rounds. If the pick is not made in the allotted time, subsequent teams in the draft may draft before them. This happened in 2003 to the Minnesota Vikings.
Teams have the option of trading away their picks to other teams for different picks, players, cash, or a combination thereof. While player-for-player trades are rare during the rest of the year (especially in comparison to the other major league sports), trades are far more common on draft day. In 1989, the Dallas Cowboys traded running back Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings for five veteran players and six draft picks over 3 years. The Cowboys would use these picks to leverage trades for additional draft picks and veteran players. As a direct result of this trade, they would draft many of the stars who would help them win three Super Bowls in the 1990s, including Emmitt Smith, Russell Maryland, and Darren Woodson.
The first pick in the draft is often taken to be the best overall player in the rookie class. This may or may not be true, since teams often select players based more on the teams' needs than on the players' overall skills. Plus, comparing players at different positions is difficult to do. Still, it is considered a great honor to be a first-round pick, and a greater honor to be the first overall pick. The last pick in the draft is known as Mr. Irrelevant, and is the subject of a dinner in his (dubious) honor in Newport Beach, California.
Drafted players may only negotiate with the team that drafted them (or to another team if their rights were traded away). The drafting team has one year to sign the player. If they do not do so, the player may reenter the draft and can be drafted by another team. Bo Jackson famously sat out a season in this way.
As of the 2011 NFL season, the college with the most active players in the NFL is the University of Miami, with 42.
As defined by the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), a free agent is any player who is not under contract to any team and thus has fully free rights to negotiate with any other team for new contract terms. Free agents are classified into two categories: restricted and unrestricted. Furthermore, a team may "tag" a player as a franchise or transition, which places additional restrictions on that player's ability to negotiate. However, the ability to "tag" is quite limited, and only affects a handful of players each year.
Free agency in the NFL began with a limited free agency system known as "Plan B Free Agency", which was in effect between the 1989 and 1992 seasons. Beginning with the 1993 season, "Plan A Free Agency" went into effect.
Restricted free agent
A player who has 3 years of experience is eligible for restricted free agency, whereby his current team has the chance to retain rights to this player by matching the highest offer any other NFL franchise might make to that player. The club can either block a signing or, in essence, force a trade by offering a salary over a certain threshold. In 2006, these thresholds were as follows:
- If a club tenders an offer of $685,000 per year for a three year veteran, and $725,000 for a four year veteran, the player's current team has "right of first refusal" over the contract at those terms, and may sign the player at those terms.
- If a club tenders an offer of $712,000 or 110% (whichever is greater) of the previous year's salary, then the current club has both "right of first refusal" and rights to a draft pick from the same round (or better) from the signing club. Essentially, this means that the new club must forfeit the draft pick to the old club if they wish to sign the player under these terms.
- If a club tenders an offer of $1.552 million or 110% (whichever is greater) of the previous year's salary, then the current club has both "right of first refusal"; and rights to the first round draft pick from the signing club.
In 2011, free agency guidelines returned to the way they were from 1993 to 2009. This means that a player needs four years of experience to become an unrestricted free agent, and three years of experience for restricted free agency.
Unrestricted free agent
A player who has four or more years of experience is eligible for unrestricted free agency, whereby his current team has no guaranteed right to match outside offers to that player. This means that players in this category have unlimited rights to negotiate any terms with any team.
The franchise tag is a designation given to a player by a franchise that guarantees that player a contract the average of the five highest-paid players of that same position in the entire league, or 120% of the player's previous year's salary (whichever is greater) in return for retaining rights to that player for one year. An NFL franchise may only designate one player a year as having the franchise tag, and may designate the same player for consecutive years. This has caused some tension between some NFL franchise designees and their respective teams due to the fact that a player designated as a franchise player precludes that player from pursuing large signing bonuses that are common in unrestricted free agency, and also prevents a player from leaving the team, especially when the reasons for leaving are not necessarily financial. A team may, at their discretion, allow the franchise player to negotiate with other clubs, but if he signs with another club, the first club is entitled to two first round draft picks in compensation.
Banned substances policy
The NFL banned substances policy has been acclaimed by some and criticized by others, but the policy is the longest running in American professional sports, beginning in 1987. The current policy of the NFL suspends players without pay who test positive for banned substances as it has since 1989: four games for the first offense (a quarter of the regular season), eight games for a second offense (half of the regular season), and 12 months for a third offense. The suspended games may be either regular season games or playoff games.
While recently MLB and the NHL decided to permanently ban athletes for a third offense, they have long been resistant to such measures, and random testing is in its infancy.
Since the NFL started random, year-round tests and suspending players for banned substances, many more players have been found to be in violation of the policy. By April 2005, 111 NFL players had tested positive for banned substances, and of those 111, the NFL suspended 54.
A new rule is in the works due to Shawne Merriman. Starting the 2007 season, the new rule would prohibit any player testing positive for banned substances from being able to play in the Pro Bowl that year.
In 2009, nearly 1 in 10 retired NFL players polled in a confidential survey said they had used now-banned anabolic steroids while still playing. 16.3 percent of offensive linemen admitted using steroids, as did 14.8 percent of defensive linemen.
There have been several American football video games based on NFL teams created for various consoles over the years, from 10-Yard Fight and the Tecmo Bowl series for the NES to the more well known Madden series that have been released annually since 1988. The Madden series is named after former coach and American football commentator John Madden. Prior to the 2005 2006 football season, other NFL games were produced by competing video game publishers, such as 2K Games and Midway Games. However, in December 2004, Electronic Arts signed a five-year exclusive agreement with the NFL, meaning only Electronic Arts will be permitted to publish games featuring NFL team and player names. This prompted video game developer Midway Games to release a game in 2005 called Blitz: The League, with fictitious teams and players. In February 2008, EA Sports renewed their exclusivity agreement with the league through Super Bowl XLVII in 2013. Despite this, Gameloft has developed the "NFL" series on handheld consoles since 2008. A free flash based online game called Quick Hit Football was released in 2009 and was granted an official NFL license in 2010.
Commissioners and presidents
- Temporary Secretary Ralph Hay (1920)
- President Jim Thorpe (September 17, 1920 April 30, 1921)
- President Joseph Carr (April 30, 1921 May 20, 1939)
- President Carl Storck (May 25, 1939 April 5, 1941)
- Commissioner Elmer Layden (March 1, 1941 January 11, 1946)
- Commissioner Bert Bell (January 11, 1946 October 11, 1959)
- Interim President Austin Gunsel (October 14, 1959 January 26, 1960, following death of Bell)
- Commissioner Alvin "Pete" Rozelle (January 26, 1960 November 5, 1989)
- Commissioner Paul Tagliabue (November 5, 1989 September 1, 2006)
- Commissioner Roger Goodell (September 1, 2006 present)
Main league offices
Unlike many professional leagues, the NFL forbids corporate owners. Ownership groups must contain twenty-four or fewer individuals, and at least one partner must hold a thirty percent or greater share of the team. The Green Bay Packers are an exemption to the current policy, since they have been a publicly owned stock corporation since before the rule was in place.
In recent years, NFL owners and the NFL itself have become politically active, donating millions of dollars to political candidates.
In the NFL, players wear uniform numbers based on the position they play. The current system was instituted into the league on April 5, 1973, as a means for fans and officials (referees, linesmen) to more easily identify players on the field by their position. Players who were already in the league at that date were grandfathered and did not have to change their uniform numbers if they did not conform. Since that date, players are invariably assigned numbers within the following ranges, based on their primary position:
Prior to 2004, wide receivers were allowed to wear only numbers 80 89. The NFL changed the rule that year to allow wide receivers to wear numbers 10 19 to allow for the increased number of players at wide receiver and tight end coming into the league. Linebackers are allowed to wear numbers between 40 49 when all of the numbers 50 59 and 90 99 are taken. Prior to that, players were allowed to wear non-standard numbers only if their team had run out of numbers within the prescribed number range. Keyshawn Johnson began wearing number 19 in 1996 because the New York Jets had run out of numbers in the 80s. Oakland Raider offensive center Jim Otto wore a 00 jersey during most of his career with the AFL team and kept the number after the leagues merged. Devin Hester is a wide receiver/return specialist for the Chicago Bears but wears number 23 because he was drafted as a cornerback but transferred to wide receiver after his rookie year.
Occasionally, players will petition the NFL to allow them to wear a number that is not in line with the numbering system. Brad Van Pelt, a linebacker who entered the NFL in with the New York Giants, wore number 10 during his eleven seasons with the club, despite not being covered by the grandfather clause. In 2006, New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush petitioned the NFL to let him keep the number 5 which he used at USC. His request was later denied. Former Seattle Seahawks standout Brian Bosworth attempted such a petition in 1987 (to wear his collegiate number of 44 at the linebacker position which he used at the University of Oklahoma), also without success. The Seahawks attempted to get around the rule by listing Bosworth as a safety, but after he wore number 44 for a game against the Kansas City Chiefs, the NFL ruled Bosworth would have to switch back to his original number, 55.
To aid the officials in spotting certain penalties, such as "illegal formation" or "ineligible receiver", usually only offensive players with numbers 1 49 and 80 89 are allowed to play at the end or back positions or handle the ball in normal game situations. However, a player wearing 50 79 or 90 99 may play in an "eligible" position simply by reporting to the referee that he will be doing so. The NFL numbering system is based on a player's primary position. Any player wearing any number may play at any position on the field at any time, subject to the reporting rules described above. It is not uncommon for running backs to line up at wide receiver on certain plays, or even to have a large offensive or defensive lineman play at fullback or tight end in short yardage situations. Also, in preseason games, when teams have expanded rosters, players may wear numbers that are outside of the above rules. When the final 53-player roster is established, they are reissued numbers within the above guidelines.
26 of the 32 NFL teams are supported by their own professional cheerleading squads. These squads attend games and promote the team. The teams without cheerleading squads are the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants, and Detroit Lions.
Concussions and brain safety
There is wide-ranging criticism regarding whether the NFL has been sufficiently proactive regarding issues of brain safety.
As of May 2012, the NFL faces about 70 lawsuits involving approximately 1,800 former players. For example, in April 2012, a group of former Dallas Cowboys including Hall of Fame players Randy White, Bob Lilly, and Rayfield Wright joined with other retired players in filing a lawsuit accusing the NFL of ignoring a link between concussions and permanent brain injury.
Related football leagues
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