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Top Trailblazers in NFL History: From John Madden to Bill Walsh

The NFL has evolved a ton since the league was founded in 1920. Who were the top trailblazers throughout history that helped the NFL grow?

The NFL was founded in 1920 and has undergone numerous changes throughout its history. While the NFL dominates the sports market in North America today, it took years of evolution and innovation to reach this point.

Although the players receive most of the credit for the NFL’s popularity, it’s easy to forget about the coaches, executives, and even broadcasters who have helped pave the way.

Most Notable Trailblazers in NFL History

While the modern NFL fan will never forget watching Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes dominate the league, many helped open the door to make it all possible, starting with Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall in 1920. They are recognized as the first African American players to play in what is now known as the NFL.

Charles Follis is believed to be the first African American professional football player, although he never technically played in what has become the NFL. Many others have helped revolutionize the league over the last century, both on and off the field.

Therefore, it’s worth looking back at the most notable trailblazers in NFL history, who have helped grow the league into what we watch today.

John Madden

While John Madden is primarily known for the iconic video game franchise named after him, he was a revolutionary figure for the NFL for many reasons.

Before becoming the face of football’s most notable video game series, Madden was both an iconic head coach and broadcaster. He was head coach of the Oakland Raiders for 10 seasons, and the team dominated during his tenure. The Raiders had a winning percentage of .750 while Madden was head coach, including a dominant victory in Super Bowl 11 over the Minnesota Vikings.

During Madden’s 10 seasons as head coach, the Raiders finished first in the team’s division a whopping seven times. Following his head coaching career, Madden was a legendary broadcaster for nearly 30 years. The imprint that he left both on and off the football field will never be forgotten.

Mel Blount

Mel Blount was a Hall of Fame cornerback for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1970 to 1983. He was a dominant force thanks to his rugged style of play, which locked down opposing wide receivers. Blount was so physical that he forced the NFL to implement a new rule.

In 1978, the NFL implemented a rule that allowed defenders to only contact receivers within five yards of the line of scrimmage. What is now known as illegal contact downfield was implemented because of Blount’s style of play.

Despite the introduction of the new rule, Blount continued to dominate at cornerback, as he was named an All-Pro and Pro Bowler three more times. Although the rule is nicknamed the “Mel Blount rule,” it ironically didn’t prevent him from becoming a Canton-bound cornerback.

Jennifer Welter

Similar to Amy Trask, Jennifer Welter was a trailblazer for the introduction of women into the NFL. In 2015, Welter joined the Arizona Cardinals as an assistant coaching intern. While her internship ended following the team’s final preseason game, Welter is recognized as the first female coach in league history.

Although Welter is no longer in the NFL, her emergence helped pave the way for several others, including Jennifer King, who became the first Black female coach in NFL history in 2020. King is currently an offensive assistant and running backs coach for the Chicago Bears.

Jim Brown

Before Christian McCaffrey and Jonathan Taylor became workhorse running backs in today’s NFL, Jim Brown changed the perception of the position.

When Brown arrived in 1957, running backs weren’t supposed to be as big and athletic as he was. At 6’2″ and 232 pounds, he was an absolute force on the football field. He dominated from Day 1 and won Most Valuable Player in both of his first two seasons in the NFL.

Brown is widely remembered as one of the best running backs in NFL history — revolutionizing the position only adds to that appeal.

Deacon Jones

Deacon Jones was a little-known defensive tackle out of Mississippi Valley State who NFL scouts stumbled upon while evaluating running backs. The Los Angeles Rams selected him in the 14th round of the 1961 NFL Draft. Little did the Rams know, they had just selected one of the best defensive players in NFL history.

Jones earned a role as the team’s starting defensive end and dominated as a pass rusher. Although the term “sack” didn’t exist during his playing career, Jones helped create the phrase. The sack became an official stat in 1982, several years after he retired.

While Jones enjoyed a dominant career before sacks were officially recorded, he led the way for nearly every high-profile pass rusher of the future. Now, sacks are one of the most coveted stats, and every team searches for the next elite pass rusher.

Randall Cunningham

Randall Cunningham and Steve Young essentially entered the NFL at the same time in 1985. Although both are credited with becoming the first true dual-threat quarterbacks in NFL history, Cunningham was on another level as a runner.

Cunningham also became a consistent, full-time starter earlier in his NFL career, which allowed him to showcase his dual-threat ability first. In six of his first seven seasons in the league, Cunningham rushed for at least 500 yards. That is quite a telling stat, given that Young eclipsed that mark just once in his entire career.

Therefore, it’s clear to me that Cunningham was the first dual-threat QB in NFL history. Cunningham was nicknamed “The Ultimate Weapon” for a reason, given his ability to pass, run, and even punt. If it wasn’t for him, players such as Michael Vick and Lamar Jackson may have never received an opportunity to play quarterback at the highest level.

Art Shell

Pollard was the first African American head coach in NFL history, but in 1989, Art Shell became the first African American HC in the league’s modern era. Following a Hall of Fame career as an offensive tackle for the Raiders, Shell was hired as the team’s offensive line coach.

Shell then received a promotion as the Raiders’ interim head coach HC, before eventually earning the full-time job in 1990. In total, he spent over 25 years within the organization as both a player and coach. Shell helped open the door for minority head coaches as a trailblazer in the coaching ranks.

Joe Namath

Joe Namath is known for being the New York Jets’ charismatic, Hall of Fame quarterback, but what he did off the field was arguably more impactful.

Following his impressive college career at Alabama, Namath spurned the NFL and signed a massive deal with the Jets of the AFL. His monstrous deal — worth $427,000 — was the largest contract in professional football history at the time.

“Broadway Joe” eventually led the Jets to a victory in Super Bowl 3 in 1969. Surely enough, the NFL then viewed the AFL as a legitimate threat, which essentially forced both leagues to merge in 1970. Therefore, Namath’s contract with the Jets helped create the NFL as we know it today.

Bill Walsh

Today’s game is known as a “passing league.” In many ways, Bill Walsh is to blame for that development, as he introduced the West Coast offense to the league. During his time as an assistant coach for the Cincinnati Bengals, Walsh helped introduce his pass-heavy scheme.

Having introduced the basic principles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Walsh’s offensive scheme has continued to grow. His scheme allowed Bengals quarterback Virgil Carter to stretch the field both horizontally and vertically with quick, short throws.

Walsh’s scheme vaulted to another level once he became head coach of the San Francisco 49ers in 1979. Niners quarterback Joe Montana mastered Walsh’s system, and the duo would win three Super Bowls together in San Francisco. Many of the plays and concepts that Walsh introduced years ago are still utilized in the NFL today.

Kenny Washington

Similar to what Shell did as a head coach, Kenny Washington helped knock down the barriers for African American players in the NFL’s modern era — becoming the first to sign a contract with an NFL team following World War II.

After setting the college record with 3,206 total career yards at UCLA, Washington actually couldn’t join the NFL. The league had banned Black players in 1933, so Washington was forced to spend time coaching and joined the Los Angeles Police Department as well.

Yet, in 1946, the Los Angeles Rams were required to sign African American players or lose the team’s lease at the LA Memorial Coliseum. This led to Washington signing a contract with the team and becoming the first African American player to sign with an NFL team during the modern era.

This was a historic move that paved the way for many of the NFL’s greatest players to succeed in the future. Interestingly enough, Washington played baseball at UCLA alongside Jackie Robinson before they both made history in their respective sports.