Ask Farmer: Explaining the 'foot' in football

Have a question about the NFL? Ask Times NFL writer Sam Farmer, and he will answer as many as he can online and in the Sunday editions of the newspaper throughout the season. Email questions to:


Why is it called “foot”ball when the feet are rarely used outside of the kickoff, PAT and field goals?

Robert Nydam

Sierra Madre

Farmer: According to Jon Kendle, archivist at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the roots of American football stemmed from soccer and rugby. On Nov. 6, 1869, Rutgers and Princeton played in what was billed as the first college football game. It wasn’t until the 1880s that Walter Camp, a great rugby player from Yale, pioneered rules changes that distinguished rugby from the new game of American football.

In an email, Kendle wrote: “Camp in his 1891 book, ‘American Football,’ explained that, ‘American Football’s popularity is extending, and at some day it will very likely become as well understood in this country as the derived Rugby is today. Its essential characteristics are, that it is played with the feet, in distinction from Rugby, in which the ball may be carried in the hands.’

“This explanation is a bit confusing because in football you can use your hands and in Rugby you can kick the ball. I think it’s important to note that Camp and others were trying to make distinctions between Rugby and American Football. They were taking a sport that existed in a rudimentary form and adding/subtracting rules to make it their own.

“The line of scrimmage, the down system, 11 players on each side of the ball instead of 15 in rugby, those were all rules that Camp implemented. The forward pass wasn’t legalized until 1906 so during the origins of American Football it was a kicking and running game with an emphasis on the kicking.

Hence, football.


Why are the hash marks narrower than in college? What brought about that decision?

Michael O’Gara

La Crescenta

Farmer: The NFL narrowed the hash marks in order to promote offense, and particularly enhance the passing game. With the ball spotted near the middle of the field, defenders need to cover more ground and cannot rely on a sideline to create a narrow and wide side of the field, thereby limiting what an offense can do.

If the previous play ends between the hash marks, the ball is spotted where that play ended. If the play ends outside the hash marks, the ball is spotted about 11/2 yards inside the nearest hash.

“The philosophy is, why give the offense a complete advantage?” former NFL official Mike Carey said. “If the defense is able to force an offense to a side of the field where it feels it has a defensive advantage, they should get the benefit of that ball placement.”

The same hash mark rules apply on field goals, but on extra points the kicker can put the ball anywhere he wants between the hashes.

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