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. 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.
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. The addition of 15 officials (one per crew) forced three-digit numbers to be used for the first time.
All stadiums must have arrows by the numeric yard markers indicating the closer goal line.
Future referees Tom Dooley, Dale Hamer and Dick Hantak were among those entering the league. Bernie Ulman 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 Demon (109), and Jim Osborne (110).
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.