Have you ever wondered why we call an offensive lineman a "tackle" when he is prohibited from tackling? What is the quarterback a quarter of the way between? Many of the modern terms used for American football positions make more sense when you understand the evolutionary history of the game. AntiqueFootball analyzes the etymology of modern football terms in our multi-part series "Football Etymology."
an explanation of where a word came from : the history of a word
The most common method of advancing the football in the 1800's was an outside run by a half-back. The defending outside rushers were thus called upon to make majority of a team's tackles and became known as "tackles." Playing on both sides of the ball, there was no distinction between an offensive and a defensive tackle. Linemen continued to play the tackle position on either side of the ball into the 1960's, when two-platoon football (offensive and defensive squads) became prevalent. In fact, 1964 was the first year that the the Sporting News' College Football All-America Team recognized distinct defensive and offensive positions. The tackle position was divided into the defensive tackle and the offensive tackle...who, ironically, is prohibited from tackling.
The Origins of the Game
American football evolved from rugby in the early 1870's and for the first 30 years of its existence the game was more similar to its British ancestor that the modern game of football. Game play was fluid and continuous; shifting between offense and defense without stoppages of play. Players were required to play on both sides of the ball throughout the game and it was therefore unnecessary to have different names for offensive and defensive positions. Linemen were simply referred to as "rushers" or "forwards" and those players positioned off the line were called "backs."
In the early game, a player being tackled while in possession of the ball would yell, "Down!" and be protected from further attempts to steal the ball. The tackled player would then place the ball on the ground and immediately start a scrum. In the scrum, players massed together and collectively pushed against their opponents moving the ball forward with their feet. The ball could be kicked out of the scrum by either side, in which case a player could pick the ball up and run with it towards the opponents' goal. Teams soon realized that players that excelled at running with the ball often didn't possess the strength and size needed to start a scrummage. By the late 1870's teams began designating one of their strongest players as the center of their scrum. Using a technique called snapping to propel the ball backwards to the quarter-back, this central position became known as the "snapper-back."
In 1880, rugby and football diverged further when the American game abandoned the scrum in favor of the "open scrimmage." A "line of scrimmage" was created perpendicular to the ball, and players couldn't cross the line or contact an opponent until after the snap-back. The snapper-back continued to start each scrimmage by rolling the ball back with his foot to the quarter-back, but was able to do so unmolested. When lined up on defense, the snapper-back was the center of the rush line and was called the center-rush.
By the early 1890's, rules changes permitted the snapper-back to throw the ball back to the quarter-back between his own legs to start the scrimmage. The less accurate practice of snapping the ball back with the foot was gradually abandoned. With the elimination of snapping the ball with the foot, the snapper-back/center-rush position became universally known as the center by the mid-1890's. However, the term "snap" is still used to describe the center's backward throwing motion today.
Originally called the "goal-tend," the "full-back" was positioned nearest the goal line on defense. His position was vital because the full-back also served as the team's last defender, punt returner, punter, and field goal kicker. Contests in the late 1800's were low scoring defensive struggles in which field position was critical. Teams strategically kicked the ball downfield (called a "punt-on") to improve field position. Commonly referred to as a team's "artillery", the full-back took advantage of his position well behind the line to punt the ball downfield. The full-back was also called upon to drop-kick a "goal from field," the field goal's predecessor and one of the primary means of scoring in the early 1800's.
Equivalent to linebackers when on defense, "half-backs" were positioned halfway between the full-back and the goal line. When in possession of the ball, half-backs were the team's cavalry, spending the majority of the game attempting to advance the ball through the opponents' rush-line. The best half-backs were outstanding all-around athletes, excellent tacklers, runners, and kickers.
The terms fullback, halfback, and quarterback define offensive positions in modern American football. However, these names originated as the description of player's defensive positioning. It wasn't until the 1960's with the advent of two-platoon football that the solely defensive positions of linebacker and defensive back were created.
A full-back drop-kicking a goal from field
from "A Day's Football Practice at Yale" by Walter Camp
Diagram of the Field from "The American Game of Foot-Ball," by Alexander Johnston
Illustration from "The American Game of Foot-Ball," by Alexander Johnston