In the NFL’s early years, there were no formalized scheduling rules. Some teams played more games than others, and the team considered to have the best overall record was declared champion, sans playoff. Adding confusion was a crazy agreement to disregard ties when determining the NFL champion. The 1932 season brought this mishmash to a pinnacle.
What the heck does all that have to do with hash marks? Well, the 1932 season ended with the Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans tied with 6 wins and 1 loss. Forget that the Bears played to 6 ties and the Spartans 4, including two against each other. Unable to determine a champion on paper, the NFL blazed a trail college football would follow a scant 80 years later, and held a playoff.
REALLY NOW, WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH HASH MARKS?
The championship game was scheduled to be played at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, but brutal weather forced the game indoors, to the NHL’s Blackhawks home, Chicago Stadium. Situated for hockey rather than football, the playing area was only 80 yards long and much narrower than usual, with hockey boards acting as sidelines. At least sod was already installed for the playing surface, the benefit of a recent circus needing it for elephant routines.
Football rules of the day were similar to golf in that plays began at the exact location the previous play ended, rather than placing the ball toward the middle of the field. If you were tackled 5 yards from the sideline, that’s where the ball was snapped. Hockey boards cramped the logistics of ball placement for this game, so the offense was given the choice of starting plays on the hash marks. Choosing the option would cost the offense a down. The Bears beat the Spartans (now the Detroit Lions) 9-0, fueled by a Bronko Nagurski to Red Grange touchdown pass that might have been overturned by today’s instant replay (given conclusive evidence, of course).
The game influenced several rule changes the NFL made in the offseason, including the decision to regularly initiate plays on the hash marks. The 1933 and ’34 seasons would use hash marks 10 yards from the sidelines, stretching to 15 yards in 1935 and 20 yards in 1945.
HOW THE HASH MARK CHANGED THE NFL FOREVER
The Miami Dolphins weren’t the only ones who making history in 1972. Alarmed that 75 fewer touchdowns were scored in 1971 than in 1969, the NFL moved the hash marks closer together, to over 23 yards from the sidelines, less than 20 feet apart. The change ignited a power shift from defense to offense that remains in effect to this day.
The league continued to limit defense with rule changes since, but squeezing the hashes opened up the field, forcing defenders to cover more ground on each play. Before the hash marks closed in, the defense could count on one side of the field being several yards narrower than the other, leading to the classic saying, “Old Man Sideline never misses a tackle.”
It took a few years for the passing game to detonate, but the NFL’s running game exploded. Thirteen teams rushed for over 2,000 yards in 1972, and two others plowed for 1,995+. Comparatively, only 12 teams reached the 2,000 yard plateau over the course of four seasons, 1967-70. Individually, ten rushers gained over 1,000 yards in 1972, compared with only 2 in 1970 and 1 each in ’67-69. O.J. Simpson totaled 1,927 in his three-year career before tighter hash marks, then burst for 1,251 and 2,003 in wake of the new field design.
The change even helped special teams. “In the old days those hash marks were a lot wider. They moved them in to help offenses and inadvertently helped the kickers,” former NFL kicker Chris Bahr told The Game Before the Money. He then pointed out how hash marks now line up directly with the goal posts. Ray Wersching, the San Francisco 49ers kicker throughout their glory years with Joe Montana, would keep his head down and aim between the hashes rather than peer up at the goal posts.
The humble hash mark played a key role in pro football’s development, subtly yet profoundly shaping the modern game. Imagine the Houston Oilers Run-and-Shoot offense or the Rams “Greatest Show on Turf” with the ball placed 10 yards closer to the sideline at the start of a play. Would immortal plays such as the “Hail Mary” and “The Catch” seen different outcomes had players lined up on the short side? Would great open field runners such as O.J. Simpson, Eric Dickerson and Barry Sanders have racked up quite as many yards on unbalanced fields?
Note the hash mark differences in these two videos: The first video contains highlights from the 1943 NFL Championship. It's amazing how close to the sidelines some of the plays start. The second video is of the incredible Eric Dickerson. Picture a few of Dickerson's plays starting from the same spot as the '43 Championship.