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Why is a Football Quarterback Called a Quarterback?

The reason behind naming quarterbacks “quarterbacks” isn’t exactly what we’d call a profound mystery. As one might guess, the name did, in fact, have more than a little to do with the player’s starting position relative to the line of scrimmage. In the early iterations of the game, with the standard offensive formation, the quarterback was halfway between the holder of the ball (center) and halfback. The halfback was halfway between the center and the fullback.

Rugby Roots of the Quarterback

In this case, however, there’s a lot more to the story, and that’s where the fun facts lie. The quarterback’s position (and naming) was closely intertwined with the development of American Football. Notice I didn’t say “invention” of football. The sport we know today is an evolutionary offshoot of the rough-and-tumble game of rugby from across the pond.

Central to the story is one Walter Camp, naturally gifted athlete and Yale student. Learning a new game (to him) called rugby, Camp became involved in negotiations and rule discussions between the athlete powers-to-be at a number of Ivy League schools, including Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Princeton and the like.

During the 1870s, rugby matches were decided by the number of successful “goals” following “touchdowns.” To make a long story short, many felt touchdowns should carry much more weight in the score outcome (seeing the future here?), and Harvard, Princeton and Columbia formed the Intercollegiate Football Association. Others soon joined.

Football Plays Origins

Re-enter Mr. Camp. Fed up with the chaotic start of play from a classic rugby scrum, Camp advocated for a more orderly strategy by each team to better prepare and execute planned tactics. Sound like today’s plays?

Camp wrote the following proposed rule, “A scrimmage takes place when the holder of the ball puts it on the ground before him and puts it in play while on-side either by kicking the ball or by snapping it back with his foot.” Yes, you read that right. The early centers “snapped” the ball into play using only their foot to… the quarterback. Clever centers learned to tap the ball with a foot to start play, then pick it up to hand off to the quarterback. One thing led to another, and before long, quarterbacks took snaps directly from the center.

Not Very Quarterback-Like

Things were a little bit different in the early days of quarterbacks…

Quarterbacks were frequently lead blockers for halfbacks and fullbacks. Apparently, in the days before nine-figure contracts, quarterbacks were considered expendable.

Initially, the quarterback could not advance the ball beyond the line of scrimmage. In fact, it was a big no-no. Per Walter Camp, “The man who first receives the ball from the snap-back shall be called the quarter-back and shall not rush forward with the ball under penalty of foul.” As a side note, the hyphen in “quarterback” was lost over the years, saving valuable ink and now electrons.

The quarterback was also prohibited from throwing the ball downfield?!? It was downright “illegal” until 1906.

Although quarterbacks assumed the role of captains and play-callers, football remained a strongly “running against the defense” type of game, with half or fewer of all plays involving a forward pass (a 3:2 run-to-pass ratio in 1977, for example), until 1978, when a significant rule change (no contact with receivers past five yards from the line of scrimmage) changed everything. Now the big bucks go to the guys with big arms who can toss laser beams downfield with abandon.

Oh, and you won’t see them blocking very often.

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