|Duration||September 2 –|
December 18, 1978
|Start date||December 24, 1978|
|AFC Champions||Pittsburgh Steelers|
|NFC Champions||Dallas Cowboys|
|Super Bowl XIII|
|Date||January 21, 1979|
|Site||Orange Bowl, Miami|
|Date||January 29, 1979|
|Site||Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum|
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).
Major rule changes
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.
New interconference scheduling
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, 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.
National Football Conference
|1||3 teams||1–0||Chi,GB||1–0||3 teams||1–0|
American Football Conference
- New England finished ahead of Miami in the AFC East based on better division record (6–2 to Dolphins' 5–3).
- Buffalo finished ahead of Baltimore in the AFC East based on head-to-head sweep (2–0).
- Oakland, Seattle, and San Diego finished 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, respectively, in the AFC West based on better record against common opponents (6–2 to Seahawks' 5–3 and Chargers' 4–4).
- Minnesota finished ahead of Green Bay in the NFC Central based on better head-to-head record (1–0–1).
- Los Angeles was top NFC seed over Dallas based on better head-to-head record (1–0).
- Detroit finished ahead of Chicago in the NFC Central based on better division record (4–4 to Bears' 3–5).
- Atlanta was the first NFC Wild Card based on better conference record than Philadelphia (8–4 to Eagles' 6–6).
- St. Louis finished ahead of N.Y. Giants in the NFC East based on better division record (3–5 to Giants' 2–6).
- 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.
|Dec. 31 – Schaefer Stadium|
|Dec. 24 – Miami Orange Bowl||Jan. 7 – Three Rivers Stadium|
|Dec. 30 – Three Rivers Stadium|
|Jan. 21 – Miami Orange Bowl|
|Wild Card playoffs||A1||Pittsburgh||35|
|Dec. 30 – Texas Stadium|
|Super Bowl XIII|
|Dec. 24 – Fulton County Stadium||Jan. 7 – Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum|
|Dec. 31 – Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum|
|Points scored||Dallas Cowboys (384)|
|Total yards gained||New England Patriots (5,965)|
|Yards rushing||New England Patriots (3,165) then NFL record|
|Yards passing||San Diego Chargers (3,375)|
|Fewest points allowed||Pittsburgh Steelers (195)|
|Fewest total yards allowed||Los Angeles Rams (3,893)|
|Fewest rushing yards allowed||Dallas Cowboys (1,721)|
|Fewest passing yards allowed||Buffalo Bills (1,960)|
|Scoring||Frank Corral, Los Angeles Rams (118 points)|
|Touchdowns||David Sims, Seattle Seahawks (15 TDs)|
|Most field goals made||Frank Corral, Los Angeles Rams (29 FGs)|
|Rushing attempts||Walter Payton, Chicago Bears (333)|
|Rushing yards||Earl Campbell, Houston Oilers (1,450 yards)|
|Rushing touchdowns||David Sims, Seattle Seahawks (14 TDs)|
|Passes completed||Fran Tarkenton, Minnesota Vikings (345)|
|Pass attempts||Fran Tarkenton, Minnesota Vikings (572)|
|Passing yards||Fran Tarkenton, Minnesota Vikings (3,468 yards)|
|Passer rating||Roger Staubach, Dallas Cowboys (84.9 rating)|
|Passing touchdowns||Terry Bradshaw, Pittsburgh Steelers (28 TDs)|
|Pass receiving||Rickey Young, Minnesota Vikings (88 catches)|
|Pass receiving yards||Wesley Walker, New York Jets (1,169 yards)|
|Receiving touchdowns||John Jefferson, San Diego Chargers (13 TDs)|
|Punt returns||Rick Upchurch, Denver Broncos (13.7 average yards)|
|Kickoff returns||Steve Odom, Green Bay Packers (27.1 average yards)|
|Interceptions||Thom Darden, Cleveland Browns (10)|
|Punting||Pat McInally, Cincinnati Bengals (43.1 average yards)|
|Most Valuable Player||Terry Bradshaw, Quarterback, Pittsburgh|
|Coach of the Year||Jack Patera, Seattle|
|Offensive Player of the Year||Earl Campbell, Running back, Houston Oilers|
|Defensive Player of the Year||Randy Gradishar, Linebacker, Denver|
|Offensive Rookie of the Year||Earl Campbell, Running back, Houston Oilers|
|Defensive Rookie of the Year||Al Baker, Defensive end, Detroit Lions|
|Man of the Year||Roger Staubach, Quarterback, Dallas|
|Comeback Player of the Year||John Riggins, Running Back, Washington|
- Buffalo Bills: Jim Ringo was fired. Chuck Knox then joined the Bills after leaving the Los Angeles Rams.
- Chicago Bears: Jack Pardee resigned to join the Washington Redskins. Neill Armstrong was named as the Bears' new head coach.
- Cleveland Browns: Sam Rutigliano was hired as the team's new head coach. Forrest Gregg was fired before the last game of the 1977 season. Defensive coordinator Dick Modzelewski served as interim during the team's final game in 1977.
- Detroit Lions: Tommy Hudspeth was fired and replaced by Monte Clark.
- Kansas City Chiefs: Marv Levy was hired as head coach. After an 0–5 start in 1977, Paul Wiggin was fired and defensive backs coach Tom Bettis was named interim.
- 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.
- New Orleans Saints: Hank Stram was fired and replaced by Dick Nolan.
- St. Louis Cardinals: Don Coryell left, and Bud Wilkinson was hired as the new Cardinals head coach.
- San Francisco 49ers: Ken Meyer was fired and replaced by Pete McCulley.
- Washington Redskins: George Allen was replaced by Jack Pardee.
- Cincinnati Bengals: Bill Johnson was replaced by Homer Rice after the Bengals started 0–5.
- New England Patriots: The team suspended Chuck Fairbanks for the last regular season game. Fairbanks had been in talks all season to join the University of Colorado Buffaloes, breaching his contract with the Patriots. Coordinators Hank Bullough and Ron Erhardt took over as co-interim head coaches for the Week 16 game. Fairbanks was reinstated as head coach for the playoffs, but left in the off-season to join Colorado.
- San Diego Chargers: Tommy Prothro was fired after a 1–3 start, including the "Holy Roller" loss to the Oakland Raiders. He was replaced by Don Coryell.
- San Francisco 49ers: Pete McCulley was fired after a 1–8 start. Fred O'Connor served as interim for the last seven games.
- The Atlanta Falcons switched from white to gray pants, and from gray to white face masks.
- 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 green 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".
- The Washington Redskins switched from gray to gold face masks.
- "NFL expands season, increases playoff berths in 1978 changes". Toledo Blade. (Ohio). Associated Press. March 30, 1977. p. 30.
- "Who makes the money". Eugene Register-Guard. Oregon. wire services. February 9, 1979. p. 2C.
- "NFL Moves to Protect Passer, Open Offenses". Toledo Blade. AP. March 15, 1978. p. 37.
- Pro-Football-Reference.com: NFL Season By Season Scoring Summary, teams averaged 16.2 points per game in 1942.
- Urena, Ivan; Pro Football Schedules: A Complete Historical Guide from 1933 to the Present, pp. 11-13 ISBN 0786473517
- Urena; Pro Football Schedules, p. 10
- "Past NFL standings" (PDF). NFL. Retrieved December 28, 2012.
Oakland finished ahead of Seattle and San Diego based on common opponents