Pro Football in 1971

            The game of American professional football has changed since I began watching it 40 years ago. The players are bigger, stronger and faster. The rules have changed. There are more teams. They play more games. And the games popularity has soared exponentially.

            Back in 1971 players were much smaller. A 300 pound lineman was rare. Players above 275 were thought to be overweight. Most offensive and defensive lineman ran around 230 to 275. Linebackers were usually in the 220 to 250 range. Offensive and defensive backs usually were anywhere from 175 pounds to 230. Receivers were as small as 165. Quarterbacks usually ranged from 180 to 220 pounds.

            Today it seems as though everyone weighs at least 200 pounds. Players above 300 are common placed. There are even quarterbacks who weigh 250 or as much as linebackers weighed in 1971. Much of this has to do with advancements in weight training and performance enhancing drugs. Though there were pro football players who were as strong as today’s, the number of musclemen was less than it is today.

            When it comes to speed, the game today is much faster than it was in 1971. Back then the only positions where scouts and coaches looked for speed was at running back, receiver and defensive back. Now, they want speed at every position. And they get it. Even offensive linemen are expected to run the 40 yard dash below five seconds.

The size and speed of today’s players have made the collisions more intense. Rules have been changed to protect the players. In 1971 a player could tackle an opponent by any means necessary as long as they did not grab the facemask of the helmet. They could clothesline them around the head and neck. They could hit them with the crown of the helmet as long as they were not on the ground. They could grab the back of the shirt and pull them down. A quarterback’s knees were fair game. Today, all of those techniques are illegal and draw a 15 yard penalty.

Players are no longer allowed to play with concussions or blood on their uniforms today. In 1971, if you could walk you played.

These are not the only rules that have changed since then. In 1971, the playing field was different. Astroturf was just starting to replace grass on many fields. The hash marks where the ball was spotted for play were closer to the sideline. They were outside the goalposts just like they are in college and high school today. Speaking of the goalposts they were on the goal line not the end line. It was nothing to see a player run smack into the goalpost. Many receivers used to use it as a pick to shake the defensive backs covering them.

Offensive holding was a 15 yard penalty back then. It was not changed to 10 until 1973. If a team got called for holding it was pretty much a drive killer. And offensive linemen were not allowed to use open hands to block. They had to keep them tucked into their chest while the defensive player was able to club them upside the head which is no longer allowed. No wonder the games were so low scoring.

Kickoffs were from the forty yard line then. And field goals that were missed did not come back to the line of scrimmage. They were essentially punts if they missed. So a team would get the ball at the spot where it landed. Many teams would put a return man back at the goal line to run back missed field goals. Sort of like what the Chicago Bears Devin Hester does from time to time.

There was no overtime back then. Games that ended after 60 minutes with the score even were ties. 

1971 was the second season after the merger between the American and National Football Leagues. All of the AFL teams joined the NFL. There were 26 teams at that time. No Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Seattle Seahawks, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Carolina Panthers or Baltimore Ravens. The Arizona Cardinals were the St. Louis Cardinals. The St. Louis Rams were the Los Angeles Rams. The Tennessee Titans were the Houston Oilers. The Ravens were the Cleveland Browns. The Boston Patriots became the New England Patriots. The Indianapolis Colts were the Baltimore Colts and defending champions of the world.

In 1971 the NFL played a 14 game schedule. It always started after Labor Day. Today they play 16. The schedule was set up so the Super Bowl would be played on the second Sunday in January. There were three divisions in each conference instead of four as it is today. Instead of six playoff teams there were only four. The three teams that won their division and one wildcard advanced.

The game of football was popular, but nothing like it is today. There was only one domed stadium the Houston Astrodome. Monday Night Football on ABC was only in its second season on television. There were no Sunday night games. Thanksgiving Day was the only time that teams played on a Thursday. Even then it was the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys. Speaking of the Cowboys they were not the so called “America’s Team” of today. In 1971 they had yet to win a championship and were labeled “next year’s champions.”

Baseball was still the number one sport with pro football closing. The World Series was still played during the day and the Sunday afternoon game took precedent over football.

There were no fantasy leagues. Fans rooted for their favorite teams and players only. There was no NFL Sunday Ticket to allow one to watch every game. In fact, if the local team was playing at home the game was blacked out to everyone within a 30 mile radius of the stadium. It did not matter if the game was a sellout or not. So the local team was only allowed to be on television seven times a season. The television networks could not broadcast another game while the home team was playing as well. There were many Sundays when a fan might get only one or two games compared to the 16 they can get today.

If you wanted to see highlights of every game ‘Pro Football Weekly’ was the only place to do it. The show came on in syndication and showed highlights of all the games played the previous Sunday, but not Monday night. It was an NFL Films production. The networks would give scores after their games with a few highlights of the game you watched and a couple others.  

As for going to the game ticket prices were much cheaper. Most teams played in stadiums that they shared with a baseball team. There were no luxury boxes. Everyone sat out in the weather except for in Houston and the new Texas Stadium. Games lasted between two and a half and three hours. There were no pre game pyrotechnics or loud music pumped through speakers every two minutes. Fans got football, a halftime show, a post game show and not much else.    

Super Bowl Sunday wasn’t what it is today. For one the game was played during the afternoon not at night. Second, the pre game show was only half an hour long. Third, the halftime show was nothing like it is today. And fourth, no one cared about the commercials. Super Bowl parties were unheard of.