The 1978 NFL season was the 59th regular season of the National Football League. The league expanded the regular season from a 14-game schedule to 16 games, which it remained in place until 2021 when it was increased to 17 games. Furthermore, 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 average salary for a player in 1978 was under $62,600, up 13.2 percent over the previous year. 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.
Future referees Tom Dooley, Dale Hamer and Dick Hantak were among those entering the league. Bernie Ulman, the head linesman for Super Bowl I and referee for Super Bowl IX, retired prior to the season, which left the NFL with only 14 crews for the 1978 season. Dooley (103), Hamer (104) and Hantak (105) were among the first officials to wear triple-digit numbers, joined by Bob Boylston (101), Gene Carrabine (102), Al Jury (106), Jim Kearney (107), Bob McLaughlin (108), Sid Semon (109), and Jim Osborne (110).
The league passed major rule changes to encourage offensive scoring. In 1977 – the last year of the so-called "Dead Ball Era" – teams scored an average of 17.2 points per game, the lowest total since 1942.
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. This applies only to the time before the ball is thrown, at which point any contact is pass interference. Previously, contact was allowed anywhere on the field. This 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 is legal, but batting a pass towards the opponent's end zone is illegal. 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". During a play in Super Bowl V, Baltimore Colts receiver Eddie Hinton tipped a pass intended for him. Renfro, the Cowboys defensive back, 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 1972. But despite these two incidents, the rule change did not occur until this season.
The pass blocking rules were extended to permit extended arms and open hands.
The penalty for intentional grounding is 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.
A five-yard penalty and ten-second runoff is to be applied if a team intentionally commits a penalty or foul to stop the clock.
Hurdling is no longer a foul.
A seventh official, the Side Judge, is added to the officiating crew to help rule on legalities downfield and serve as a second umpire on field goals and extra points. The addition of fifteen officials (one per crew) forced three-digit numbers to be used for the first time. (The sixth official (line judge) was added thirteen years earlier.)
All stadiums must have arrows by the numeric yard markers indicating the closer goal line.
The change to 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, rotating every season and repeating the process every three years. A change was also made to non-divisional opponents in a team's own conference, which became based on divisional positions from the previous season. Previously, teams played rotating groups of opponents in the other conference and in other divisions of their own conference, although some opponents were cut in 1976 and 1977 to allow for games against the Seahawks and Buccaneers. This format remains in effect, though it has been slightly modified over the years, most recently with the addition of two more divisions in 2002.
The interconference matchups for 1978 were as follows:
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.
Note: The Pittsburgh Steelers (the AFC 1 seed) did not play the Houston Oilers (the 5 seed), nor did the Los Angeles Rams (the NFC 1 seed) play the Atlanta Falcons (the 4 seed), in the Divisional playoff round because those teams were in the same division.
Los Angeles Rams: Chuck Knox left to join the Bills. George Allen, who previously coached the Rams from 1966 to 1970, was hired as Knox's replacement, but was fired after two exhibition games. Defensive coordinator Ray Malavasi was then promoted to head coach.
The Atlanta Falcons switched from white to gray pants. TV numbers were moved from the sleeves to the shoulders, and the Falcon logo on the helmet was repeated on each sleeve. Numbers on white jerseys changed from black to red.
The Denver Broncos wore orange pants with their white jerseys for the first time since 1971.
The New York Jets introduced new uniforms, switching from white helmets and gray face masks to green helmets and white face masks. They also unveiled a new logo featuring a stylized "JETS" with a silhouette of a modern jet airplane extending to the right from the "J".
ABC, CBS, and NBC each signed four-year contracts to renew their rights to broadcast Monday Night Football, the NFC package, and the AFC package, respectively. The new contracts are adjusted for the expanded season, with CBS awarded the rights to the new NFC wild card game, and NBC the rights to the new AFC wild card game. The teams of Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen and Curt Gowdy and John Brodie began the season as NBC's co-head crews, while Jim Simpson was demoted from #2 play-by-play. This would be Gowdy's last season on NBC as network executives wanted to promote Enberg to #1, but let Gowdy call the Super Bowl. Mike Adamle joined NBC's pregame show NFL '78 as an analyst. Meanwhile, former Miss Ohio USA Jayne Kennedy replaced Phyllis George as reporter on The NFL Today.