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Joel Bussert on the Evolution of NFL Rules

When Joel Bussert retired from the NFL in 2015, his title was senior VP of player personnel and football operations. He worked at the NFL for 40 years (actually, he still maintains an office at league headquarters and remains involved). Bussert is a football historian, currently working on a book about the history of rules changes in the NFL. He shared some of his institutional knowledge on the subject during this week’s 33rd Team Call.

Joel Bussert“It helps you to understand, first of all, how we got to where we are, why we needed to get to where we are, and why it is that the National Football League has surpassed baseball and college football (in popularity),” said Bussert.

From 1920 to 1931, Bussert explained, the NFL basically used the rules of college football. By 1932, league president Joe Carr believed the NFL needed to start developing its own style of play to make the games more interesting.

Carr started the competition committee. He appointed Chicago Bears owner/head coach George Halas to lead the committee. Halas brought in Shorty Ray, who had been a Big Ten football official for 25 years and, as Bussert noted, was “a rules maven.”

“George Halas was very good at surrounding himself with talented people,” said Bussert. “By the beginning of 1932, he’s relying on Shorty Ray to bride him with input.”

In 1938, Ray became a full-time league employee. “His title was technical advisor but he was also the de facto supervisor of officials,” Bussert said.

“Ray played a major role in the development of the game. It’s hard to tell who was pushinig what rule, but Ray was pivotal to everything that was happening in the ‘30s.”

Not coincidentally, the end of the ‘30s is when the NFL officially became a “passing league.” The first season in which the NFL produced more passing yards than rushing yards was 1939. There have only been three seasons in the 81 years since in which that hasn’t been the case.

Ray was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1966.

During the call, Bussert talked about several key NFL rules changes, from the size of the ball to bump-and-run coverage to instant replay. In the two videos here, Bussert talked about how the NFL evolved into a passing league: