National Football League uniform numbers

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Players in the National Football League wear uniform numbers between 1 and 99, and no two players on a team may wear the same number on the field at the same time. Rules exist which tie a player's number to a specific range of numbers for their primary position. Additionally, rules exist which limit who may handle the ball on offense, generally players who are designated as offensive lineman, who wear numbers 50-79, are not allowed to handle the ball during a play from scrimmage, though they are allowed to do so if they report to the referee as playing out of position.

History[edit]

Prior to 1973[edit]

The earliest numbering systems were significantly different from the modern variation, until the 1920s, when the NFL limited its rosters to 22 players, it was rare to see player numbers much higher than 25 (Red Grange was a notable exception, wearing 77 with the Chicago Bears while playing halfback, which would not be allowed under current NFL rules), and numbers had little correlation with positions (in 1929, the Orange Tornadoes subverted the system even further, experimenting with using letters instead of numbers.[1])

The numbering system used today originated in football's past when all teams employed some variation of the single wing formation on offense. When teams switched to the T-formation in the 1930s and 1940s, the numbers were taken with them to whatever position evolved from the old single wing position, this numbering system originated in college football and was used only informally in the NFL until 1952; the backs were numbered 1–4 and the line 5–8. Tailbacks, left halfbacks or flankers (1-back), like Frank Gifford, were given 10s, the blocking back (2-back), which evolved into the quarterback in the T formation, had a number in the 20s (e.g. Bobby Layne and John Hadl, and Doug Flutie during his college career). Fullbacks (or 3-backs) were given numbers in the 30s, and right halfbacks, what would become simply the halfback or running back (4-backs) in the 40s, centers in the 50s, guards in the 60s, tackles in the 70s, and ends in the 80s. Earlier, defensive players wore numbers that reflected their offensive position, as many players played both offense and defense, for example, quarterbacks and halfbacks usually played in the defensive back field and so had numbers in the 10s, 20s, and 40s. Fullbacks were linebackers and had numbers in the 30s; centers and guards were linebackers as well and has numbers in the 50s and 60s respectively. Guards and tackles played the defensive guard and tackle positions and had numbers in the 60s and 70s respectively. Ends had numbers in the 80s. Split ends (e.g. Emlen Tunnell) would be cornerbacks and tight ends (e.g. Fred Dryer, Buck Buchanan) would be defensive ends but all would have numbers in the 80s. The league allowed Johnny Olszewski to wear the number zero (0) during his career.

The CFL had a different numbering system with the ends in the 70s, making wide receivers up until recent times having 70s numbers (CFL Receivers may still wear numbers in the 70s, but as most receivers are from the U.S., they will usually wear 80s if they choose to wear a higher number; CFL receivers may also wear numbers from 1–19). Likewise, centers were usually assigned numbers in the 40s; in modern times, the CFL has required offensive linemen to wear numbers between 50 and 69.

The AAFC had a different numbering system with quarterback in the 60s (Otto Graham), fullbacks in the 70s (Marion Motley), halfbacks in the 80s, ends in the 50s (Mac Speedie), tackles in the 40s (Lou Groza), guards in the 30s, and centers in the 20s. When the AAFC merged with the NFL in 1950, the AAFC players kept their old uniform numbers which caused confusion and resulted in the NFL going to a standard numbering system in 1952, this resulted in many star players having to change their numbers in mid-career. Examples are Otto Graham going from 60 to 14, Norm Van Brocklin going from 25 to 11, and Tom Fears going from 55 to 80.[citation needed]

The American Football League of the 1960s mostly used the same numbering system as the NFL did, with some exceptions, mostly pertaining to wide receivers, who were allowed to wear numbers in the teens and 20s (as the AFL had a greater priority toward offense, the league often made use of flankers, receivers positioned in the backfield), the AFL's numbering system also allowed for the use of a double-zero as a number, which was used by future Hall of Famer Jim Otto, center for the Oakland Raiders; after wearing the number 50 in his rookie season, switched to 00 which he wore for the remainder of his career.

1973 standardisation[edit]

The NFL imposed a more rigid numbering system in 1973. When it went into effect, players who played in the league before then were given a grandfather clause to continue wearing newly prohibited numbers (i.e. Otto and Burrough were allowed to keep their 00 jerseys, many wide receivers wore jersey numbers in the teens and 20s before the rule changes required receivers to wear numbers in the 80s, and many defensive linemen and linebackers wore numbers in the 80s). New England Patriots defensive end Julius Adams was the last player to be covered by the clause, wearing number 85 through the 1985 season, but he had to wear number 69 when he briefly came out of retirement in 1987 during the 1987 strike. This was in stark contrast to when the league required linemen to wear jersey numbers in the 50–79 range in 1952 (for ineligible receiver purposes), since Cleveland Browns quarterback Otto Graham wore number 60 prior to this change. Graham switched to number 14, which was retired by the Browns while his more familiar number 60 remains in circulation today, most recently worn by guard Ryan Miller in 2012.

Post-1973 changes[edit]

Since 1973, only five major changes have been made; in 1979, the NFL allowed defensive linemen to wear numbers 90 to 99 and centers 60-79. In 1984 [2], the NFL allowed linebackers to wear jersey numbers in the 90–99 range, since more teams were making use of the 3–4 defense and thus were quickly exhausting numbers for linebackers, who previously were only allowed to wear numbers in the 50–59 range. (Before these changes, the NFL had outlawed the 90–99 range for regular season use, since it was rarely issued before 1973, but did permit it for the preseason; Lawrence Taylor wore his college number 98 during his rookie training camp with the Giants in 1981 before switching to his more familiar 56 before the start of the season.) Another change occurred in 2004, when the NFL allowed wide receivers to wear numbers 10–19 in addition to the 80–89 range; this was due to several NFL teams retiring 80-range numbers, as well as teams employing more receivers and tight ends in their offense. Since 2010, defensive linemen are allowed to wear numbers 50-59; this is in part because of the interchangeability of linebackers and defensive ends (a defensive end in a 4-3 defense would be an outside linebacker in a 3-4). In 2015, the NFL Competition Committee approved linebackers using numbers from 40 to 49.[3]

Current system[edit]

The NFL's current numbering system is as follows:[4]

Number Range QB RB WR TE / H OL DL LB DB K P
1-9 Yes Preseason[a][5] Preseason[b] No No No No Preseason[c] Yes Yes
10–19 Yes No Yes No No No No No Yes Yes
20–29 No Yes No No No No No Yes No No
30–39 No Yes No No No No No Yes No No
40–49 No Yes No Yes No No Yes Yes No No
50–59 No No No No Yes[d] Yes Yes No No No
60–69 No No No No Yes Yes Preseason No No No
70–79 No No No No Yes Yes Preseason No No No
80–89 No No Yes Yes No No No No No No
90–99 No No No No No Yes Yes No No No

It should be noted that this NFL numbering system is based on a player's primary position. Also, if a player changes primary positions during his career, he is not required to change his number unless he changes from an eligible receiver to ineligible or vice versa (Jason Peters is a notable example, having moved from tight end, where he wore number 86, to offensive tackle, where he currently wears 71). Any player wearing any number may play at almost any position on the field at any time, if the player reports to the official; players wearing numbers 50–79 must let the referee know that they are playing out of position by reporting as an "ineligible number in an eligible position," and likewise, those wearing any other number can report as an "eligible number in an ineligible position" (there are restrictions on the latter case as of the 2015 season, and eligible numbered players may never in any case line up in a formation position that is ineligible but appears to be eligible, such as a split tackle in a slot position). It is not uncommon for running backs to line up at wide receiver on certain plays, or to have a large lineman play at fullback or tight end in short yardage situations, or to have wide receivers fill in as extra defensive backs. Also, in preseason games, when teams have expanded rosters, players may wear numbers that are outside of the above rules. When the final 53-player roster is established, they are reissued numbers within the above guidelines.

Long snappers, not listed in the league's numbering system, most often wear a number in the 40s but can wear any number from 40-99. (The position of "long snapper" was not considered a primary position until recently, and long snappers were typically listed as backup linemen or tight ends.)

Exceptions[edit]

Many exceptions to the rules have been granted. Usually, this was done for a few reasons. First, players who had a legal number under a prior set of rules were allowed to keep the number (this happened to many players after the 1973 numbering conventions were established). Second, players may have played one position early in their career, but switched to a new position and retained their old number. Third, a team may exhaust the available numbers for one position, and thus have no choice but to assign a different number to a player, this was more frequent prior to the 21st century when numbering rules were more strict; for example until 2004 both wide receivers and tight ends were required to be between 80-89 and under modern offenses, it is likely that teams would have more than 10 such players. The addition of the 10-19 range for wide receivers and the 40-49 range for tight ends has reduced these problems. There are some positions, such as long snapper and gunner which are not covered at all by the official numbering conventions, players in those positions are given a wide range of numbers, and may even be "officially" listed as a position such as "wide receiver" or "tight end", even if they rarely if ever play those positions in game situations.

Retired numbers[edit]

Many NFL teams have retired some numbers in honor of the team's best players. Generally when a number is retired, future players for the team may not wear it, the NFL officially discourages (but does not prevent) teams from retiring numbers, as the limited number of uniform numbers available for each position can be depleted. Some teams will hold official "number retirement" ceremonies, others have "informally" retired numbers by simply not issuing them, for teams that do not retire uniform numbers, they often honor players in other ways, such as team halls of fame or the like.

Numbers 0 and 00[edit]

Numbers 0 and 00 are no longer used, though they were issued in the NFL before the number standardization in 1973. Quarterback Johnny Clement, running back Johnny Olszewski and safety Obert Logan all wore a single-0 jersey in the NFL. Author George Plimpton famously wore 0 during a brief preseason stint at quarterback for the Detroit Lions. Jim Otto wore number "00" during most of his career with the Oakland Raiders as a play on his name, "aught-oh." Wide receiver Ken Burrough of the Houston Oilers also wore "00" during his NFL career in the 1970s. More recently, linebacker Bryan Cox wore 0 in the 2001 preseason with the New England Patriots; for the regular season, he switched to 51. Numbers from 01 to 09, with a leading "0" digit, would theoretically be allowed (and be considered the same as numbers 1 to 9 for record-keeping purposes), but such a number has never been issued in professional football.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Running backs are permitted to wear these numbers during the preseason play only. For example, Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans wore number 2 in the preseason but changed to number 22 before the start of the regular season.
  2. ^ Receivers are permitted to wear these numbers during the preseason when there are no numbers in the 10s or 80s available. For example, Victor Cruz of the New York Giants wore number 3 in the 2010 preseason but changed to 80 before the start of the regular season.
  3. ^ Defensive backs are permitted to wear these numbers during the preseason when there are no numbers from 20-49 available. For example, Tarell Brown of the New England Patriots wore number 9 in the 2015 preseason before switching to 31 after Justin Green's retirement. (He would wear 25 for the regular season.)
  4. ^ Only centers are permitted to wear these numbers, but there have been exceptions. For instance, guard Brian Waters wore No. 54 for all but one season of his career.

References[edit]