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Ranking the Most Impactful Moments in NFL History

How did the NFL become the league it is today? Pro Football Network is counting down the most impactful moments in NFL history.

Professional football is America’s most popular sport, but how did it get there? Pro Football Network is counting down the moments that made the NFL what it is today.

Which players, coaches, and moments have truly shaped the history of the NFL? Here are the top nine, beginning with one of the most shocking upsets of all time.

NFL’s Most Impactful Moments

9) New York Jets Upset Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl 3 (1969)

While the NFL and AFL had merged in 1966, the NFL was still viewed as the superior league in 1969. The NFL’s Green Bay Packers had won the first two championship titles, while the Baltimore Colts were 19.5-point favorites over the AFL’s New York Jets in Super Bowl 3.

However, Jets quarterback Joe Namath made good on his Super Bowl guarantee, guiding Gang Green to an unexpected 16-7 victory. Namath became the first player named Super Bowl MVP without scoring or passing for a touchdown.

The NFL and AFL played separate schedules for one more season before officially merging for the 1970 campaign. The Jets and Colts both subsequently played in the AFC East until a 2002 realignment.

8) Bill Belichick Joins the New England Patriots (2000)

“I resign as HC of the NYJ.”

That’s what Bill Belichick had written on a piece of paper as he walked to the podium to announce that he would not succeed his friend and mentor Bill Parcells as the New York Jets’ head coach in Jan. 2000.

The New England Patriots soon hired Belichick, leading Parcells to demand and extract compensation in return. New England traded a 2000 first-round pick to New York for the right to hire Belichick, who just happened to become the NFL’s greatest all-time head coach upon joining the Patriots.

It was a devastating misstep for Gang Green, who was forced to watch Belichick dominate the AFC East and the NFL for the next two decades.

There was no love lost between Belichick and his former employers. He finished 38-12 against the Jets. In the 2023 NFL Draft, Belichick accepted a discounted return in a trade-back with the Pittsburgh Steelers that prevented New York from landing offensive tackle prospect Broderick Jones.

After losing Belichick, the Jets hired Al Groh, who went 9-7 in his lone season in charge. None of New York’s six subsequent head coaching hires posted a cumulative winning record.

7) Tom Brady Enters Lineup After Drew Bledsoe Injury (2001)

Could the NFL’s all-time greatest quarterback have spent much of his early career on the bench? Tom Brady’s emergence with the Patriots might’ve taken much longer — or perhaps never happened at all — had Jets linebacker Mo Lewis not delivered a hard hit to New England QB Drew Bledsoe in the second game of the 2001 season.

Bledsoe, who’d inked a 10-year extension worth $103 million that March, was hospitalized with internal organ damage. Brady entered the game, guided the Pats to the playoffs, won Super Bowl 36 over the St. Louis Rams, and never ceded New England’s starting job.

How different would the present-day NFL look if Bledsoe hadn’t gotten injured and, eventually, traded to the Buffalo Bills?

Bledsoe wasn’t a world-beater, but he made four Pro Bowls, including during his first season with Buffalo in 2002. There’s a chance he could’ve won a Super Bowl in New England, especially with Belichick pulling the strings. Bledsoe’s best chances would’ve been in 2003 and 2004 when the Patriots’ defense ranked in the top two in points allowed.

Meanwhile, would Belichick have traded Brady to the division-rival Buffalo Bills instead? Or would another team have acquired the future GOAT? It seems almost unfathomable to imagine that Brady’s talents wouldn’t have shined through at some point; it’s difficult to imagine him spending his career as an unrecognized backup.

Belichick had already seen glimpses of Brady’s acumen in 2001 and reportedly wanted to name the second-year QB New England’s starter over Bledsoe. Maybe Brady would have forced his way onto the field for the Pats even if Bledsoe hadn’t gone down.

Seven Super Bowl rings and three MVP awards later, it’s still worth wondering what would’ve happened to Brady, Bledsoe, Belichick, the Patriots, and the NFL at large had Week 2 of the 2001 campaign gone just a bit differently.

6) NFL Launches International Series (2007)

The NFL wants to become globally dominant. After NFL Europe’s July 2007 closure, the NFL introduced its International Series later that year to reinvigorate its worldwide presence.

As of 2023, 36 regular-season games have been played in London. Contests have taken place at Wembley Stadium, Twickenham Stadium, and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

Three more London games are on the 2024 schedule: New York Jets vs. Minnesota Vikings (Week 5), Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Chicago Bears (Week 6), and New England Patriots vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (Week 7).

Since 2016, the NFL has played five games in Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca. Germany has hosted three games over the past two years and will host another in 2024.

Brazil will get in on the action in 2024, with a Week 1 Friday game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers headed to São Paulo’s Arena Corinthians in September.

The league is planning a 2025 regular-season game in Madrid, Spain. Earlier this year, the NFL confirmed it is considering Australia for an international tilt.

5) Instant Replay Established (1986)

While instant replay may cause a slight delay here and there, the ability to get calls (mostly) correct has undoubtedly changed the NFL over the past 40 years.

The league first adopted a replay system for the 1986 season. Coaches’ challenges weren’t instituted for over a decade until the NFL approved a measure permitting coach-requested reviews for the 1997 campaign.

In 2014, the NFL began centrally coordinating its instant replay reviews from its New York headquarters. In 2021, the league introduced “expedited” reviews, allowing an on-site replay official or staff at NFL headquarters to assist with on-field rulings.

According to the NFL, replay delays have decreased by roughly 30 seconds per game over the past two decades. Enhanced technology has allowed officials to overturn on-field rulings and get calls right. From 1999 to 2022, the rate of reversed calls doubled from 29% to 58%.

4) First ‘Monday Night Football’ Game (1970)

The NFL will play games on almost every day of the week in 2024. A Wednesday Christmas slate and a Friday Week 1 game will join the usual Sunday, Monday, Thursday, and (late-season) Saturday action — none of which would’ve been on the table without NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle’s ingenuity.

The league had experimented with prime-time games in the 1960s and even televised Monday-night contests. CBS broadcast two Monday games during the 1966 and 1967 campaigns, while NBC showed two Monday tilts in 1968 and 1969.

But the “Monday Night Football” television product we’ve all come to know and love — including the historic theme song — didn’t come to fruition until 1970, when struggling ABC decided to upend its prime-time programs with early-week football.

The innovation worked, and Monday, Thursday, and Sunday night games have become part of the NFL lexicon.

3) First NFL Draft Broadcast (1980)

The NFL had been importing college players via the draft for more than 40 years before it made its way to television.

In 1980, ESPN president Chet Simmons asked Rozelle if the network could broadcast the league’s draft on live TV. Rozelle didn’t believe the broadcast would generate interest but allowed it nonetheless, inadvertently creating one of the NFL’s signature events.

The NFL moved the draft from weekdays to the weekend in 1988. In 2010, it shifted to a new format with Round 1 on Thursday, Rounds 2 and 3 on Friday, and Rounds 4 through 7 on Saturday.

More than 12 million people watched the first round of the 2024 NFL Draft.

2) Free Agency and the Salary Cap Introduced (1993)

The NFL salary cap came into effect with the beginning of free agency. In 1992, it was determined that the NFL had violated antitrust rules by refusing to grant players the opportunity to become free agents.

The NFL and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) eventually agreed to implement free agency in 1993. The salary cap took effect in the 1994 season.

That year, the salary cap was supposed to be $32 million per team. However, after the league sold expensive television rights to networks, the inaugural cap was set at $34.608 million. In 2024, the NFL salary cap is $255.4 million.

Free agency allows teams to bolster their rosters with new talent and find bargains on the open market, but mistakes are made every offseason. Trades, signings, and other transactions have become just as eye-catching as NFL games, especially after fantasy football’s advent.

1) Racial Integration (1946)

The NFL only had nine Black players suit up between 1920 and 1926, most notably Fritz Pollard, who eventually became the league’s first Black head coach. Several more Black players had brief stints until the start of World War II but were typically the first players to be cut when white players from dissolved teams became available.

The NFL had no Black players from 1934 until the end of the war. Washington owner George Preston Marshall, who refused to sign a Black player to his roster, was the face of the quiet boycott, but racism was pervasive throughout the NFL.

The Los Angeles Rams signed former UCLA star Kenny Washington in 1946, but even that addition came with strings attached. The Los Angeles Coliseum Commission had approved the Rams’ request to move to L.A. but stipulated that the club could not play in a publicly funded stadium as a segregated team.

After the LACC suggested the Rams give Washington a tryout, L.A.’s newest team signed him in March 1946. The Rams added another Black player, Woody Strode, two months later.

Racial re-integration moved slowly even after the Rams signed Washington and Strode. No other teams signed Black players until 1948, and no Black player was selected in the NFL Draft until 1949.

Black players faced further discrimination once joining the NFL. Black players reportedly earned less than white players. Teams routinely placed quotas limiting the number of Black players on a roster, and those who made squads were typically “stacked” at the same positions.

By 2023, Black players made up roughly 55% of the NFL.