- Pass Receiving in Early Pro Football: A History to the 1960s by Jerry Roberts
It has been said numerous times throughout the history of professional football: the National Football League (NFL) is a passing league. This was not always true, as the league’s early years saw teams focusing on running the ball, with the only “passes” being laterals or pitch backs. Among the works that do focus on the evolution and development of the passing game, most tend to focus on those who threw the passes, not those who caught them. In Pass Receiving in Early Pro Football, Jerry Roberts seeks to deviate from this trend, and he succeeds.
As Roberts poignantly proves, passing in professional football began as a novelty only deployed in times of great desperation or when leading heavily, before becoming perhaps the most popular method of advancing the football. When recounting the birth of the forward pass in professional football, Roberts employs several key primary sources, including the works of Walter Camp, a titan of early football, and contemporary newspaper sources, showcasing the overall impressions regarding this new facet of the game.
In the introduction to this work, Roberts indicates that his intention is “to provide a description of pro pass receiving and its influences on the overall game of professional football before TV” (1). This is a goal he accomplishes, as Pass Receiving in Early Pro Football successfully presents the evolution of pass receiving in the NFL. While a majority of the work focuses on those players traditionally viewed as ends who were pass receivers or wide receivers, Roberts also discusses the rise of the tight end to a prominent position and the use of running backs as receivers up to and through the 1960s.
Roberts examines the growth of passing in football through the lens of two important ideas. First, passing is analyzed as a product resulting from revolutions within the game of [End Page 122] football, including shifting defensive schemes and more adept passers. Second, it is seen as a catalyst of further changes in the sport, such as the development of the wide receiver position, the use of multiple receivers, and higher-scoring contests.
The work itself provides little social commentary and even less discussion of the changing world outside football that may have facilitated these changes. While mentions of racial tensions in the game are briefly made, they do not derail the author’s discussion.
While a discussion on changing social attitudes in the post–World War II era may have added to Roberts’s overarching points, it does not necessarily hurt the book’s overall purpose or hinder its ability to make salient points. In the end, it was never the author’s intention to tie discussions of social or political history into the growth of pass receiving in professional football. Instead, the purpose was to present a history of pass receiving within the game and not the external factors that may have hindered or facilitated its progress. In terms of a work that draws light on the transformation of professional football in the first sixty years of the twentieth century, particularly as it relates to the role of pass receiving, it would be a challenge to do better than this work.