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NFL – Highlights – 1978 Season In Review – Part 1


The 1978 NFL season was the 59th regular season of the National Football League….and a year in which the league expanded the regular season from a 14-game schedule to 16 games….and the playoff format was expanded from 8 teams to 10 teams by adding another wild card from each conference. The wild card teams played each other, with the winner advancing to the playoff round of eight teams.  The season ended with Super Bowl XIII when the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Dallas Cowboys at the Orange Bowl in Miami.

The average salary for a player in 1978 was under $62,600….which was up 13.2 % over the previous year….as Minnesota Fran Tarkenton was the highest-paid quarterback at $360,000 and running back O. J. Simpson was the highest paid player, at just under $733,400.

The league passed major rule changes to encourage offensive scoring….for in the previous year of 1977….the last year of the so-called “Dead Ball Era”….teams scored an average of 17.2 points per game….which was the lowest total since 1942….so the new  rules were as follows:

  • To open up the passing game….defenders are permitted to make contact with receivers only to a point of five yards beyond the line of scrimmage….which applied only to the time before the ball is thrown….after which point any contact was pass interference….where previously, contact was allowed anywhere on the field….as this new rule is usually referred to as the “Mel Blount Rule”

  • The offensive team may only make one forward pass during a play from scrimmage….but only if the ball does not cross the line and return behind the line prior to the pass.

  • Double touching of a forward pass became legal….but batting a pass towards the opponent’s end zone is illegal….where previously, a second offensive player could not legally catch a deflected pass unless a defensive player had touched it. This is usually referred to as the “Mel Renfro Rule”….cuz during a play in Super Bowl V….Baltimore Colts receiver Eddie Hinton tipped a pass intended for him….when Cowboy DB Mel Renfro made a stab at the ball and it was ruled that he tipped it ever so slightly (which he denied) into the arms of Colts tight end John Mackey….who ran for a touchdown. Later, this rule was also the one in question during the Immaculate Reception in the 1972 game between the Steelers vs Raiders….but despite these two incidents….the rule change did not occur until the 1978 season.

  • The pass blocking rules were extended to permit extended arms and open hands.

  • The penalty for intentional grounding was reduced from a loss of down and 15 yards to a loss of down and 10 yards from the previous spot (or at the spot of the foul if the spot is 10 yards or more behind the line of scrimmage). If the passer commits the foul in his own end zone, the defense scores a safety.

  • Hurdling was no longer a foul.

  • A seventh official, the Side Judge, was added to the officiating crew to help rule on legalities downfield. The addition of 15 officials (one per crew) forced three-digit numbers to be used for the first time.

With the start of a 16-game season also marked the start of a new scheduling format that saw a division in one conference play a division in another conference….which rotated every season and repeated the process every three years. Previously, teams played random opponents in the other conference. The format remains in effect today, though it was slightly modified over the years….most recently with the addition of two more divisions in 2002.

The interconference matchups for 1978 were as follows:

  • AFC East vs. NFC East

  • AFC Central vs. NFC West

  • AFC West vs. NFC Central

Starting in 1978, and continuing through 1989 (except 1982), ten teams qualified for the playoffs: the winners of each of the divisions, and two wild-card teams in each conference. The two wild cards would meet for the right to face whichever of the three division winners had the best overall record (or, if the winner of the wild-card playoff was from the same division as that team, the division winner with the second best overall record). The tiebreaker rules were based on head-to-head competition, followed by division records, common opponents’ records, and conference play.

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