National Football League
The National Football League (NFL) is the largest professional American football league. It is an unincorporated 501(c)(6) association controlled by its members. It was formed by eleven teams in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association (the league changed the name to American Professional Football League in 1921 and then settled on its current name in 1922). The league currently consists of thirty-two teams from American cities and regions, divided evenly into two conferences — the American Football Conference (AFC) and National Football Conference (NFC) — of four four-team divisions.
The regular season is a seventeen-week schedule during which each team has one bye week and plays sixteen games. This schedule includes six games against a team's divisional rivals, as well as several inter-division and inter-conference games. The season currently starts on the Thursday night in the first full week of September (the Thursday after Labor Day) and runs weekly to late December or early January.
At the end of each regular season, six teams from each conference 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 following week, selected all-star players from both the AFC and NFC meet in the Pro Bowl, held in Honolulu, Hawaii.
While baseball is known as "America's national pastime", football is the most popular sport in the United States. According to the Harris Poll, professional football moved ahead of baseball as the fans' favorite in 1965 and has remained America's favorite sport ever since. In a Harris Poll conducted in 2008, the NFL was the favorite sport of nearly as many people (30%) as the combined total of the next four professional sports--baseball (15%), auto racing (10%), hockey (5%), and men’s pro basketball (4%).  Additionally, football's American TV viewership ratings now surpass those of other sports. Furthermore, college football is actually the third-most popular sport in the US, with 12% of survey respondents listing it as their favorite. Therefore, fully 42% of Americans consider some level of football their favorite sport.
The NFL has the highest per-game attendance of any domestic professional sports league in the world, drawing over 67,000 spectators per game for each of its two most recently completed seasons, 2006 and 2007. However, the NFL's overall attendance is only approximately 20% of that of Major League Baseball, due to MLB's much longer schedule (162-game scheduled regular season).
- Further information: History of American football
What is now known as the National Football League began as the "Ohio League," a loose coalition of technically independent football teams from across the state of Ohio that had existed in some form since the 1890s. An unofficial "championship" was contested since 1903. "League" powerhouses included the Canton Bulldogs, Ironton Tanks and the Massillon Tigers. Other independent clusters of teams were playing at about the same time across Upstate New York, Illinois and Indiana.
It was not until August 1920, at a Hupmobile dealership in Canton, Ohio, that the league was formalized, originally as the American Professional Football Conference, initially consisting only of the Ohio League teams (though some of the teams declined participation). One month later, the league was renamed the American Professional Football Association, adding seven teams from the other three nearby circuits. The eleven founding teams initially struck an agreement over player poaching and the declaration of an end-of-season champion. Legendary athlete Jim Thorpe of the Canton Bulldogs was elected president. Only four of the founding teams finished the 1920 schedule and the undefeated Akron Pros claimed the first championship. Membership of the league increased to 22 teams in 1921, but throughout the 1920s the membership was unstable and the league was not a major national sport.
Two charter members, the Chicago Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals) and the Decatur Staleys (now the Chicago Bears), are still in existence. The Green Bay Packers franchise (founded in 1919) is the oldest team not to change locations, but did not begin league play until 1921. The Indianapolis Colts franchise traces its history through several predecessors, including one of the league's founding teams (the Dayton Triangles), but is considered a separate franchise from those teams and was founded as the Baltimore Colts in 1953. Though the original NFL teams representing Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit no longer exist, replacement franchises have since been established for those cities.
Early championships were awarded to the team with the best won-lost record, initially rather haphazardly, as some teams played more or fewer games than others, or scheduled games against non-league, amateur or collegiate teams; this led to the title being decided on a tiebreaker in 1921, a disputed title in 1925, and the scheduling of an impromptu indoor playoff game in 1932. It was not until 1933 that an annual championship game was instituted. By 1934, all of the small-town teams, with the exception of the Green Bay Packers, had moved to or been replaced by teams in big cities, and even Green Bay established a relationship with much larger Milwaukee for support. An annual draft of college players was first held in 1936. It was during this era, however, that the NFL became segregated: there were no Black players in American professional football between 1933 and 1945. One prominent franchise, George Preston Marshall's Washington Redskins, remained all-white until forced to integrate by the Kennedy administration in 1962.
College football was the bigger attraction, but by the end of World War II, pro football began to rival the college game for fans' attention. Rule changes and innovations such as the T formation led to a faster-paced, higher-scoring game. The league also expanded out of its eastern and midwestern cradle; in 1945, the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles, becoming the first big-league sports franchise on the West Coast (not counting the various teams in ice hockey's PCHA, which was a rival to the NHL in the 1910s and 1920s). In 1950, the NFL accepted three teams from the defunct All-America Football Conference, expanding to thirteen clubs. In the 1950s, with the league broadcast on national television, pro football finally earned its place as a major sport.
In 1960, after being refused entry to the NFL as an owner, Lamar Hunt led seven other men (including another snubbed by the NFL, Bud Adams) to establish a rival major Professional Football league, the American Football League. Although other rival leagues had come and gone in the early years of Professional Football, the new AFL was able to capitalize on the ever-rising popularity of the sport. Hunt's initial goal was to bring major-league Professional Football to Texas, which was home to two of the new teams. The AFL secured a television contract with ABC and filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL in 1960, but this was dismissed in 1962. While the NFL had no league-wide television profit-sharing, and home teams kept all gate receipts, the American Football League led the way in sharing of television and gate revenues across its franchises, thus securing itself financially.
A number of innovations distinguished the AFL and helped it maintain its legitimate rivalry to the NFL. A stadium game clock for the spectators (the NFL relied only on time announcements from the officials on the field), players' names on their jerseys, and a playing style geared to the attractive and flashy passing game. The AFL was inclusive of black players and actively recruited from colleges with black players historically shunned by the NFL. AFL teams further installed blacks at positions from which they were tacitly excluded in the NFL, such as quarterback and middle linebacker. In January 1965 there was a player boycott of the 1964 AFL All-Star Game in New Orleans, over discrimination of black players by some of the hotels and businesses in the city. This was a seminal civil-rights action and is commemorated at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The AFL also forced the NFL to expand: The Dallas Cowboys were created to counter Hunt's AFL Dallas Texans franchise. The Texans moved the franchise to Kansas City as the Chiefs in 1963; the Minnesota Vikings were the NFL franchise given to Max Winter for abandoning the AFL; and the Atlanta Falcons franchise went to Rankin Smith to dissuade him from purchasing the AFL's Miami Dolphins.
By the middle of the 1960s, competition for players, including separate college drafts, was driving up player salaries. In 1965, in the most high profile such contest and a major boost to the AFL, University of Alabama quarterback Joe Namath signed with the New York Jets in preference to the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals for a then-record $427,000. In 1966, the AFL Commissioner Al Davis embarked on a campaign to sign players away from the NFL, especially quarterbacks, but behind the scenes a number of team owners began action to end the detrimental rivalry.
In an agreement brokered by AFL founder Lamar Hunt and Dallas Cowboys General Manager Tex Schramm, the two leagues announced their merger deal on 8 June 1966. The leagues would henceforth hold a combined draft and an end-of-season title game between the two league champions (later known as the Super Bowl). Still another city received an NFL franchise thanks to the AFL, as New Orleans was awarded an NFL team after Louisiana's federal Congressmen pushed for the passage of Public Law 89-800, which permitted the merger and exempted the action from Anti-Trust restrictions. The monopoly that would be created needed to be legitimized by an act of Congress. In 1970, the leagues fully merged under the name National Football League and divided into two conferences of an equal number of teams. There was also a financial settlement, with the AFL paying $18 million over 20 years.
The old NFL logo, officially used between 1970 and April 2008.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the NFL solidified its dominance as America's top spectator sport and its important role in American culture. The Super Bowl became an unofficial national holiday and the top-rated TV program most years. Monday Night Football, which first aired in 1970, brought in high ratings by mixing sports and entertainment. Rule changes in the late 1970s ensured a fast-paced game with lots of passing to attract the casual fan.
The World Football League was the first post-merger challenge to the NFL's dominance, and in 1974, successfully lured some top NFL talent to its league and prompted a few rules changes in the NFL. However, financial problems led the league to fold halfway through its 1975 season. Two teams, the Birmingham Vulcans and Memphis Southmen, made unsuccessful efforts to move from the WFL to the NFL.
The founding of the United States Football League in the early 1980s was the biggest challenge to the NFL in the post-merger era. The USFL was a well-financed competitor with big-name players and a national television contract. However, the USFL failed to make money and folded after three years. The USFL filed a successful anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL, but the remedies were minimal, and mismanagement (most notably, a planned move of its niche spring football season to a head-to-head competition in the fall) led to the league's collapse. However, like the AFL before it, the success of the USFL led directly to new NFL teams in Baltimore, Carolina (though the USFL never had a franchise there) and Jacksonville, as well as the relocation of the St. Louis Cardinals to Arizona and the return of the Los Angeles Raiders to their original home city of Oakland; in addition, the USFL also brought to attention the two-point conversion, which was later adopted by the league in 1994.
2001 saw the establishment of the XFL, an attempt by Vince McMahon and NBC, which had lost the NFL broadcast rights for that year, to compete with the league; the XFL folded after just one season. Unlike the WFL and USFL, the XFL had no impact on the NFL's rules or franchise locations (its attempts at innovations were often ridiculed), but a few NFL players used the XFL to relaunch their careers.
In recent years, the NFL has expanded into new markets and ventures. In 1986, the league began holding a series of pre-season exhibition games, called American Bowls, held at international sites outside the United States; these games continued until 2005. Then in 1991, the league formed the World League of American Football, later known as NFL Europe and still later as NFL Europa, a developmental league that had teams in Germany and the Netherlands when the NFL shut it down in June 2007. In 2003, the NFL launched its own cable-television channel, NFL Network.
The league played a regular-season NFL game in Mexico City in 2005. On October 28, 2007, a regular season game between the Miami Dolphins and the New York Giants was held outside of North America in Wembley Stadium, a 90,000-seat stadium in London. It was a financial success with nearly 40,000 tickets sold within 90 minutes of the start of sales, and a game-day attendance of over 80,000. On October 26, 2008 the New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers will mark the NFL's return to Wembley Stadium. Starting from the 2008-09 season, the Buffalo Bills will play an annual home game in Toronto's Rogers Centre.
On August 31, 2007, a story in USA Today unveiled the first changes to the league's shield logo since 1970, which took effect with the 2008 season. The redesign reduced the number of stars in the logo from 25 (which were found not to have a meaning beyond decorative) to eight (for each of the league's divisions), the logo's football repositioned in the manner of the Vince Lombardi Trophy, and the NFL letters in a straight serifed font (which resembles the current typeface used in other NFL logos). The redesign was created with television and digital media, along with clothing, in mind. The shield logo dates to the 1940s.
Franchise relocations and mergers
- Further information: National Football League franchise moves and mergers
In the early years, the league was not stable and teams moved frequently. Franchise mergers were popular during World War II in response to the scarcity of players. An example of this was the Steagles, temporarily formed as a merger between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles.
Franchise moves became far more controversial in the late 20th century when a vastly more popular NFL, free from financial instability, allowed many franchises to abandon long-held strongholds for perceived financially greener pastures. While owners invariably cited financial difficulties as the primary factor in such moves, many fans bitterly disputed these contentions, especially in Cleveland (the Rams and the Browns), Baltimore (the Colts), Houston (the Oilers) and St. Louis (the Cardinals), each of which eventually received teams some years after their original franchises left (the Browns, Ravens, Texans and the Rams respectively). However, Los Angeles, the second-largest media market in the United States, has not had an NFL team since 1994 after both the Raiders and the Rams relocated elsewhere.
Additionally, with the increasing suburbanization of the U.S., the building of new stadiums and other team facilities in the suburbs instead of the central city became popular from the 1970s on, though at the turn of the millennium a reverse shift back to the central city became somewhat evident, as with the move by the Detroit Lions from the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan to Ford Field in downtown Detroit and, similarly, the Chicago Bears decision to remain in a rebuilt Soldier Field.
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 playoff tournament beginning in January, culminating in the Super Bowl in early February.
Traditionally, American High school football games are played on Friday, American College football games are played on Saturday, 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 Saturdays. The ABC Television network added Monday Night Football in 1970. 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 (referred to by the NFL as "pre-season games;" the league discourages the use of the term "exhibition game") from early August through early September. Each team hosts two games of the four. The Pro Football Hall of Fame Game and American Bowl are held at neutral sites, so the four teams in those games play five exhibition games each.
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.
A sample scheduling grid, with a single team's (the Browns) schedule highlighted. Under this hypothetical schedule, the Browns would play the teams in blue twice and the teams in yellow once, for a total of 16 games.
Following the preseason, each of the 32 teams embark on a 17 week, 16 game schedule, with the extra week consisting of a bye to allow teams a rest sometime in the middle of the season. Each of the 32 teams' schedules are organized in the following way:
- Each team plays the other three teams in its 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).
The NFL Playoffs. Each of the 4 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 5th and 6th (with the better of the two having seed 5) regardless of their records compared to the 4 division winners.
The season concludes with a 12-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 1 through 4 based on their regular season won-lost-tied record.
- 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 5 and 6.
The 3 and the 6 seeded teams, and the 4 and the 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 1 and the 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 any given playoff round, the highest surviving seed always plays the lowest surviving seed. 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 either indoors or in a warm-weather locale. The designated "home team" alternates year to year between the conferences. In Super Bowl XLII the AFC team (New England Patriots) were "home". In Super Bowl XLIII the NFC team will be the home team.
Current NFL teams
There are 32 NFL teams. Each club is allowed a maximum of 53 players on their roster, but they may only dress 45 to play each week during the regular season. 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 largely because of the historical existence of the Canadian Football League, although the Buffalo Bills will begin playing one game per year (outside of the CFL season) in Toronto, Ontario beginning in 2008. Most teams are in the Eastern United States.
Most major metropolitan areas in the United States have an NFL franchise. Los Angeles, the second-largest metropolitan area in the country, has not hosted an NFL team since 1994.
- Further information: list of TV markets and major sports teams
The Rams and the Raiders called Los Angeles home from 1946-1994 and 1982-1994 respectively. In 2005, some Saints games were played in San Antonio because of Hurricane Katrina. Also, there is talk of possibly bringing the NFL to Toronto, Ontario, the largest city of Canada. The most frequently mentioned team for such a move is the Buffalo Bills, who play 80 miles (130 km) south in Buffalo and will begin playing some of their games in Toronto's Rogers Centre in 2008.
The Dallas Cowboys are the highest valued American football franchise in the world, valued at approximately $1.5 billion and one of the most valuable franchises in all of professional sports, currently second only to English Soccer club Manchester United, which has an approximate value of US$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 Stadium2
||Miami Gardens, FL
|New England Patriots
|New York Jets
||East Rutherford, NJ
||M&T Bank Stadium
||Paul Brown Stadium
||Cleveland Browns Stadium
||Lucas Oil Stadium
||Jacksonville Municipal Stadium
||Jack Del Rio
||INVESCO Field at Mile High
|Kansas City Chiefs*
||Kansas City, MO
||Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum
|San Diego Chargers*
||San Diego, CA
|National Football Conference
|New York Giants
||East Rutherford, NJ
||Lincoln Financial Field
|Green Bay Packers
||Green Bay, WI
||Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome6
||Bank of America Stadium
|New Orleans Saints
||New Orleans, LA
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers
||Raymond James Stadium
||University of Phoenix Stadium
|St. Louis Rams*
||St. Louis, MO
||Edward Jones Dome
|San Francisco 49ers
||San Francisco, CA
- An asterisk (*) denotes a franchise move. See the respective team articles for more information.
- 1As 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 1946, suspended operations from 1996-1998, and resumed play in 1999 with new players.
- 2 The Buffalo Bills will play one regular game each year and one preseason game every two years at the Rogers Centre in Toronto beginning in 2008.
- 3 The Jets and Giants will move into the New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford by 2010.
- 4 The Kansas City Chiefs will renovate and expand Arrowhead Stadium by 2010.
- 5 The Dallas Cowboys will move into the New Cowboys Stadium in Arlington by 2009.
- 6 The State of Minnesota is currently reviewing plans for the construction of Vikings Stadium, a retractable roof venue to replace the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
Former NFL teams
- Further information: Defunct National Football League franchises
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 nearly perfect stability. The last NFL team to fold was the Dallas Texans in 1952; its remnants were salvaged to form what is now the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts franchise is officially a separate franchise that began in 1953, but it has a turbulent history tracing through several teams: the Dayton Triangles (1913-1929), Brooklyn Dodgers (1930-1944), Brooklyn Tigers (1945), AAFC New York Yankees (1946-1949), Boston Yanks (1944-1948), New York Bulldogs (1949), New York Yanks (1950-51), AAFC Baltimore Colts (1947-1950), and the Texans (1952).
The last team with no connections to the current Indianapolis Colts franchise to fold was the Cincinnati Reds in 1934; they folded midseason and were replaced by the independent St. Louis Gunners for the rest of the season.
The television rights to the NFL are the most lucrative and expensive rights not only of any American sport, but of any American entertainment property. With the fragmentation of audiences due to the increased specialization of broadcast and cable TV networks, sports remain one of the few entertainment properties that not only can guarantee a large and diversified audience, but an audience that will watch in real time.
Annually, the Super Bowl often ranks among the most watched shows of the year. 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.
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 p.m. ET and 4:00 p.m. or 4:15 p.m. ET. 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, as of 2006, select 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. In Canada, NFL Sunday Ticket is available on a per-provider distribution deal on both cable and satellite.
Each NFL team has its own radio network and employs its announcers. Nationally, the NFL is heard on the Westwood One Radio Network, Sports USA Radio Network and in Spanish on Univision Radio and the United Stations Radio Networks. Westwood One 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 broadcasts two Sunday afternoon games every Sunday during the regular season.
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. The NFL on Westwood One and the NFL on Sports USA Radio are not available on FieldPass.
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 2008, 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.
Player contracts and compensation
NFL players are all members of a union called the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA). The NFLPA negotiates the general minimum contract for all players in the league. This contract is called the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), and it is the central document that governs the negotiation of individual player contracts for all of the league's players. The current CBA has been in place since 1993, and was amended in 1998 and again in 2006. The NFL has not had any labor-related work stoppages since the 1987 season, which is much longer than Major League Baseball, the NBA or the NHL. The current CBA expires at the end of the 2012 season.
Players are 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 (and ultimately for the Royals themselves) 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 between 3–5 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 5 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.
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
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.
Player contracts are not guaranteed; teams are only required to pay on the contract as long as the player remains a member of the team. If the player is cut, or quits, for any reason, the balance of the contract is voided and the player receives no further compensation.
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. As of the 2005 NFL season, the highest paid player was Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, whose "cap value" was slightly under $8 million. The overall value of his contract is 10 years at $130 million, averaging $13 million a year, including signing bonuses and annual salary. The NFLPA maintains a searchable record of base compensation for active players here
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 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, a minimum 6% increase raised this number to at least $123 million.
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 5 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 4-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.
For more details on this topic, see NFL Draft.
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. Rounds 1–2 are run on Saturday of draft weekend, rounds 3–7 are run on Sunday. Teams are given a limited amount of time to make their picks. 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 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.
- Further information: List of NFL first overall draft choices
As defined by the Collective Barganing 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, which is the system which remains in the NFL today.
Restricted free agent
A player who has 3-5 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.
Unrestricted free agent
A player who has 5 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. 
In comparison to the policies of Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League, the NFL has long been the most strict. 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 2007–2008 season, the new rule would prohibit any player testing positive for banned substances from being able to play in the Pro Bowl that year.
There have been several 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 latter series is named after former coach and current football commentator John Madden, who commentates the game along with Al Michaels (Pat Summerall prior to 2003). 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 such as the "Washington Redhawks", and make references to NFL players such as the Washington Redhawks left-handed QB "Ron Mexico", alluding to Michael Vick of the Atlanta Falcons, who allegedly used the alias at a walk-in clinic. In February 2008, EA Sports renewed their exclusivity agreement with the league through Super Bowl XLVII in 2013.
Commissioners and presidents
- President Jim Thorpe (1920–1921)
- President Joseph Carr (1921–1939)
- President Carl Storck (1939–1941)
- Commissioner Elmer Layden (1941–1946)
- Commissioner Bert Bell (1946–1959)
- Interim President Austin Gunsel (1959–1960, following death of Bell)
- Commissioner Alvin "Pete" Rozelle (1960–1989)
- Commissioner Paul Tagliabue (1989–2006)
- Commissioner Roger Goodell (2006–present)
Main league offices
Unlike many professional leagues, the NFL forbids corporate owners. Ownership groups must contain 24 or fewer individuals, and at least one partner must hold a 30 percent or greater share of the team. The exception to this policy is the Green Bay Packers, owned by a non-profit corporation for more than eighty years; the Packers' situation was grandfathered into the current policy.
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:
- Quarterbacks, placekickers and punters: 1–19
- Wide Receivers: 10–19 and 80–89
- Running backs and defensive backs: 20–49
- Offensive linemen: 50–79
- Linebackers: 50–59 and 90–99, or 40–49 if all are taken
- Defensive linemen: 60–79 and 90–99
- Tight ends: 80–89, or 40–49 if all are taken
Prior to 2004, wide receivers were allowed to only wear 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 50–59 and 90–99 numbers are taken. Prior to that, players were only allowed to wear non-standard numbers 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 specalist 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 1973 with the New York Giants, wore number 10 during his 11 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.
It should be noted that this 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 (though offensive players wearing numbers 50–79 and wishing to play at end or back must let the referee know that they are playing out of position by reporting as an "ineligible number in an eligible position"). Normally, only players on offense with eligible numbers are permitted to touch the ball by taking a snap from center, receiving a hand-off or catching a pass. It is not uncommon for running backs to line up at wide receiver on certain plays, or to have a large 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.
Special regular season games
Related football leagues
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