What’s your favorite number? 41? 87? 93? Of course not. Those are dumb, ugly numbers that nobody could possibly love. But some of the NFL’s best players wear them, because of the long-standing and complex restrictions designating which numbers football players are allowed to wear on their jerseys.
In any other sport, star players get their pick of whatever number they want—and most of the time, they pick small numbers. (You know, like normal people.) But in the NFL, players have long been assigned numbers based on their position groups, eliminating much of the choice they have in the matter. Most NFL stars haven’t been allowed to wear small numbers—until now.
Historically, the overarching logic behind football numbering is that the smallest numbers go to the physically smallest players. Kickers, punters, and quarterbacks have long been assigned nos. 1 through 19, while beefy defensive linemen get 90 through 99. But the logic isn’t perfect—wide receivers historically wore numbers in the 80s, despite being skinny speedsters. And it ensures that the most desirable numbers—those crisp, simple, single-digit uniforms—are restricted to a handful of players. It’s nice that some of those players are quarterbacks, the most famous players in the sport. But logically, most of the guys wearing those single digits are special teamers who rarely get on the field and whose jerseys rarely sell.
But times are changing. The NFL completely overhauled its strict numbering rules for the 2021 season, allowing most players to wear jersey numbers between 1 and 19. (Offensive linemen are still restricted to numbers between 50 and 79; defensive linemen must wear numbers higher than 50, but no number in the 80s.) For the first time in the modern history of the league, star players at positions besides quarterback are able to wear numbers that make them look good. Legendary wide receiver Julio Jones switched to no. 2 upon getting traded to the Titans; All-Pro safety Budda Baker now wears no. 3; All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey now wears no. 5.
Everybody wants to wear smaller numbers. We’ve already seen this trend happen with wide receivers, who started eschewing numbers in the 80s as far back as two decades ago. In the 1990s, Keyshawn Johnson took advantage of a loophole that allowed him to play in no. 19. Soon, the NFL allowed all wide receivers to wear numbers in the teens—and wide receivers almost completely abandoned those bulky 80s en masse, to the point that it’s now harder to find a wideout wearing a traditional receiver number than a sleeker, smaller number. (In 2020, none of the top 15 WRs in receiving yardage wore numbers in the 80s; the top receiver wearing a number in the 80s was the Titans’ second-best receiver, Corey Davis.)
Eventually, NFL fans will get used to it, but the decision allowing for these unusual number choices has alarmed some traditionalists. Tom Brady has spent much of summer railing against this seemingly anodyne tweak, which he calls “very pointless.” He got existential about it: “Why have numbers?” he asked in April, before saying the change would lead to “a lot of bad football.” Last week, he went on his podcast to ask, “Why does anyone wear a jersey? Why does anyone have a jersey number? Just put them out there in white shirts, and we’ll be in blue.” Brady seems to be suggesting that safeties wearing single-digit numbers is a slippery slope to the eventual downfall of society—human sacrifice, cats and dogs living together, quarterbacks having difficulty picking up the Mike linebacker.
But giving small jersey numbers to top players has long been the norm in college football. (Maybe that’s why Brady was a sixth-round draft pick back in the day—perhaps he was mediocre at Michigan because the numbers were too complicated for him.) The NCAA has much looser uniform restrictions—there are no rules on which numbers defensive players can wear. You’ll sometimes see quarterbacks wearing no. 99, and kickers and punters rarely wear numbers in the single digits. (College players are also allowed to wear no. 0—I urge the NFL to get on board with college football’s beautiful embrace of nothingness.)
Some of the most iconic players in college football history have worn numbers they wouldn’t have been allowed to wear in the NFL until now: Florida State retired Deion Sanders’s no. 2; Reggie Bush tried but failed to keep his no. 5 when he moved from USC to the NFL; Devin Hester was a return god at Miami in no. 4; Larry Fitzgerald nearly won the Heisman as a wide receiver wearing no. 1 at Pitt; Jadeveon Clowney decapitated that poor Michigan running back while wearing no. 7 for South Carolina; Tyrann Mathieu became the ball-seeking Honey Badger in no. 7 for LSU. The more incongruous the pairing, the better: I will forever remember the late Louis Nix III, a 330-pound nose tackle for Notre Dame, clogging up the middle with the skinny no. 1 on his jersey.
The New York Times profiled this trend in 2016, noting that Temple coach Matt Rhule—now head coach of the Carolina Panthers—had specifically reserved single-digit numbers for his team’s hardest workers, as voted by their peers. “I want everything to be earned,” Rhule said. In 2019, The Washington Post wrote about how top defensive-line recruits were sealing promises from top schools for small numbers before committing.
Unfortunately, NFL teams didn’t get the memo about good players getting good numbers. During the debut of tiny numbers, the Thursday night season opener between the Buccaneers and Cowboys, my eye was immediately drawn to a Cowboys wide receiver wearing no. 1. Had CeeDee Lamb finally gotten out of his boxy 88 jersey and into something sleeker? Had four-time Pro Bowler Amari Cooper asserted his role as the team’s top receiver with the jersey to match? No, the player wearing the most prestigious number on the team was Cedrick Wilson Jr., a reserve with 22 catches in his first two seasons.
You shouldn’t get to wear no. 1 if you’re actually the no. 4 receiver on your team. Here are some other no. 1s from around the league:
- Jerick McKinnon, the Chiefs’ third-string running back
- Jaelon Darden, a fourth-round pick in the 2021 draft by the Buccaneers who was inactive for their Week 1 game
- Lonnie Johnson Jr., the Texans’ backup strong safety
I’m totally on board with the NFL’s relaxation of its numbering policies—if anything, this should’ve happened years ago. But I do have a problem with forgettable players snatching up the prestigious jersey numbers that should belong to the stars. Players look cool in the small numbers, but it immediately becomes uncool when the players wearing those numbers aren’t really worth identifying.
I have a simple proposal for the NFL: Only let the baddest dudes on the field wear the best numbers.
Brady’s criticism of the new numbering rules is not purely cosmetic. He elaborated in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times last week that he feels it will become difficult for quarterbacks and blockers to identify which players they need to block. He’s got a point. Football players have long counted on uniform numbers to identify their opponents. It makes life easier when they’re able to identify their opponents’ roles by simply glancing at their jerseys.
But part of that thinking is outdated. Modern players have been lumped into positional groupings that don’t necessarily reflect the way football is played today. The line between a tight end and a wide receiver is perpetually thinning. Defensive ends and outside linebackers have very similar roles—you’ll often see them grouped together as “edge defenders.” What’s the difference between a box safety and a linebacker? It’s less important to know what league-defined positional grouping a player belongs to and more important to know the tendencies and skills of specific players and how they’re used in their specific schemes.
So I’d like to make Brady’s and all of our lives easier. Let’s make it easy to identify the best players on the field by reserving the best numbers for those players—so that when Brady looks up and sees a guy on defense wearing no. 3, he knows that’s the player he has to worry about.
Here’s my proposal. It actually tightens the current restrictions, but makes sure that the best numbers go to the best players.
- All uniform number restrictions will revert to the pre-2021 rules … except the nos. 1 through 9 will be available for top players, regardless of what position they play.
- When a player makes a Pro Bowl or is named to an All-Pro team, they are allowed to wear single digits for the rest of their career. I understand that the Pro Bowl is mainly a popularity contest, and not a great judge of football skill, but as this exercise mainly pertains to “what uniform numbers players are allowed to wear,” I think it’s acceptable.
- Let’s throw in some more exemptions—if you’ve never made the Pro Bowl, but you win Super Bowl MVP or Rookie of the Year, you also unlock single digits.
- But let’s not wait around for players to hit these benchmarks! Let the most talented players wear single digits from the moment they enter the league. All players picked in the first round of the draft will get to wear single digits for as long as they’re with the team that drafted them. If they move on to a new team and haven’t satisfied any of the aforementioned criteria, they go back to being a regular player with a regular number. So Josh Rosen would have to wear 10 or higher with the Atlanta Falcons, even though he was a first-round pick with the Cardinals, but Matt Stafford would be allowed to continue wearing no. 9 with the Rams because he made a Pro Bowl with the Lions.
- This could result in offensive linemen wearing single-digit uniforms, which has never really been allowed at any level of the sport. The rules state that players wearing numbers between 50 and 79 are ineligible to receive passes, which makes it easy for defenses to ignore them. Personally, I think defenses will still realize they don’t need to defend their opponent’s Pro Bowl right guard on pass plays, even if he is wearing the no. 6.
- Surely, this will lead to teams having more single-digit guys than there are digits available. For example, the current Cleveland Browns would have 12—six of their own first-round picks, five former Pro Bowlers, and one All-Pro. I dunno, guys. You can figure it out among yourselves.
Sure, this would limit the amount of players who will have the opportunity to wear the cool uniform numbers—but everyone wearing them would deserve it. I’m not here to slander Cedrick Wilson Jr.! But if he wants that no. 1, he’s gonna have to earn it.
This will generate a new mystique around uniform numbers. The number a player wears will no longer be a simple, seemingly random assignment made by an equipment manager—they’ll be marks of prestige. Players will spend their entire careers chasing those good numbers, and when they finally earn the right to drop their double digits, it will be a sign they’ve been acknowledged as one of the game’s best players. When they step on the field, everybody will know without thinking that they’re looking at one of the league’s stars.
And it works out for the NFL, too. Surely, when players earn cooler numbers, their jerseys will fly off the shelves as fans proudly celebrate the fact that their team got a good one. Personally, I don’t care about this at all, but I suspect the NFL only makes changes when it realizes it can monetize them, so if anybody actually has the chance to pitch the NFL on this, please lead with this.