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The uniform numbers in American football are unusual compared to those in any other sport. They are displayed in more locations on the uniform than in those of other sports (on both the front and back of the jersey, on both shoulders, and often on the helmet), and they are very large, taking up almost the entire front of the jersey. More importantly, certain numbers may only be worn by players playing particular positions; thus the jersey numbers assist the officials in determining possible rules infractions by players.
Unlike most other sports, in which teams have smaller rosters, American football players routinely have uniform numbers that cover the full range of numbers from 1 to 99. In other sports, where not as many numbers are needed, lower numbers are more traditional and are usually desired by players. But in American football, with the number of players on a roster sometimes exceeding 100, there is a need for many more numbers.
Most football leagues have a system in place that requires or otherwise encourages players in certain positions to be issued numbers within a certain range.
A system of assignment of jersey numbers was initiated in American football's NFL in 1952; it was updated and made more rigid in 1973. Numbers are always worn on the front and back of a player's jersey, and so-called "TV numbers" are worn on the sleeve or shoulder. The Cincinnati Bengals were the last NFL team to wear jerseys without "TV numbers" on a regular basis in 1980, though since then several NFL teams have worn throwback uniforms from a time without "TV numbers", since as of 2008 they are not mandated by NFL rules. (The same can not be said for players' last names on the backs of jerseys, which are required to be on all uniforms, even throwbacks that predated the last name rule.) For instance, in the 2007 NFL season, the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles, and Pittsburgh Steelers wore throwbacks without "TV numbers".
Many uniforms also feature numbers either on the front, back, or sides of the helmet (in pro football, these were most famously worn on the San Diego Chargers "powder-blue" uniforms).
Since the numbering system was implemented in 1973, only two major changes have been made. In 1984, the NFL allowed defensive lineman and 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 this change, 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 his rookie training camp with the Giants in 1981 before switching to his more familiar 56 before the start of the season.) The other 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.
Below is the numbering system established by the NFL and in place since 1973:
Numbers 0 and 00 are no longer used, though they were issued in the NFL before the number standardization in 1973. George Plimpton famously wore 0 during a brief preseason stint at quarterback for the Detroit Lions. Jim Otto wore number "00" ("aught-oh") during most of his career with the Oakland Raiders. Wide receiver Ken Burrough of the Houston Oilers also wore "00" during his NFL career in the 1970s.
When the more rigid system went into effect in 1973, players who played in the league before then were given a grandfather clause to continue wearing newly prohibited numbers (i.e. 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 center Steve Vallos in 2010.
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 does not usually have to change his number unless he changes from an eligible receiver to ineligible or vice versa (Jason Peters is a notable example, having moved between tight end, where he wore number 86, to offensive tackle, where he currently wears 71). Any player wearing any number may play at any position on the field at any time (though 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"). 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.
The earliest numbering systems were significantly different from the modern variation. Until the 1920s, it was rare to see player numbers much higher than 25, and numbers had little correlation with positions (in 1929, the Orange Tornadoes subverted the system even further, experimenting with using letters instead of numbers.) 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; under the original somewhat informal system, the backs were numbered 1–4 and the line 5–8. Tailbacks, left halfbacks or flankers (1-back) were given 10s, blocking backs or quarterbacks (2-backs) were given numbers in the 20s, 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 original numbering system was based on the single wing offense and went as follows. Tailback or left halfback (e.g. Frank Gifford) had a number in the 10s. The blocking 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). The fullback had a number in the 30s and the right halfback had a number in the 40s. One the line the center was in the 50s, the guards were in the 60s, the tackles were in the 70s, and the ends were in the 80s.
The CFL had a very 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). 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.
Players have often asked (or, in some cases, challenged) the NFL for an exception to the numbering system rule. In 2006, New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush requested to keep the number 5 he wore in college. His request was declined, and he was assigned number 25 by the team. Former Seattle Seahawks linebacker Brian Bosworth wore number 44 in college for the University of Oklahoma and wore that number during the 1987 preseason with the Seahawks. He took the NFL to court for the right to wear #44, but he lost and had to switch to #55.
Many exceptions to the rules have been granted. The most notable case may be former wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who was allowed to wear number 19 despite available numbers in the 80s (though he had to pay "fines" for the privilege). This, combined with the fact that more NFL teams were retiring 80s numbers, led to the league to allow wide receivers to wear numbers 10–19 in addition to 80s numbers in 2004.
Former New York Giants linebacker Brad Van Pelt was allowed to wear number 10 with the team despite not being covered in the grandfather clause, as the team drafted him in 1973, the year the newer jersey number system went into effect. This was because Van Pelt served as the team's backup kicker his rookie season. Van Pelt did wear number 91 at the end of his career for the Los Angeles Raiders and Cleveland Browns.
Another Giants player, defensive linemen Phil Tabor, also skirted the numbering requirements by wearing number 80 during his four-year stint (1979–82) with the club.
Another former wide receiver, Dwight Stone, was allowed to wear number 20 when he played for the Pittsburgh Steelers, with whom he spent the majority of his career. Stone did wear 80s numbers after he left the Steelers. Another former Steeler, tight end Matt Cushing, wore number 48, but he was listed as a "tight end/fullback", since he was also the team's backup fullback. Current Steeler, David Johnson wears number 85 as a fullback because he is listed as a tight end.
A number of current players wear numbers outside the range for their primary position. Chicago Bears wide receiver/return specialist Devin Hester wears number 23, which represented the position the team originally drafted him for, cornerback. Hester was allowed to keep 23 after the team converted him to wide receiver. Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Aaron Kampman wears number 74, which represented the position for which he was drafted, defensive end (or defensive tackle). Kampman moved to linebacker since his former team, the Green Bay Packers switched from 4–3 defense to a 3–4 defense under the new defensive coordinator before the 2009 season (see Packers switch to from 4–3 to 3–4 defense).
Kampan's predicament was similar to that of A. J. Duhe of the Miami Dolphins, who wore number 77 when he entered the league in 1977 as a defensive end. Duhe did not change numbers when he moved to inside linebacker in 1979 when Dolphins defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger made the permanent switch to the 3–4 (the Dolphins used the 3–4 as its "53" package from 1971–78).
Former defensive end Chris Doleman was permitted to keep his number 56 after being moved from linebacker to defensive end, while former linebacker Simon Fletcher made the opposite move, defensive end to linebacker, and was permitted to keep his number 73. Fletcher's teammate with the Denver Broncos, Karl Mecklenburg, wore number 77 despite playing inside linebacker throughout his career.
Former Cleveland Browns wide receiver Mike Furrey, wearing number 87, and San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Randy Moss, wearing number 84, played safety and/or cornerback in some defensive packages. Baltimore Ravens tight end Edgar Jones wears number 84, but sometimes plays defensive end or outside linebacker, his original position when he signed with Baltimore in 2007.
According to NCAA rule book Section 4 Article 1 recommends numbering as follows for offensive players;
Otherwise all player must be numbered 1–99, the NCAA makes no stipulation on defensive players. Two players may also share the same number though they may not play during the same down.
The lowest numbers are often considered the most prestigious, and they are frequently worn not just by specialists and quarterbacks but also by running backs, defensive backs, and linebackers. Kickers and punters are frequently numbered in the 40s or 90s, which are the least in-demand numbers on a college roster. The increased flexibility in numbering of NCAA rosters is needed since NCAA rules allow larger rosters than the NFL; thus teams would frequently exhaust the available numbers for a position under the NFL rules. It is not uncommon for NCAA teams to have duplicate numbers, with an offensive player having the same number as a defensive one—this is allowed as long as both players are not on the field at the same time. Usually, one of the players will be a reserve who rarely plays, but this is not always the case: for example, the 2005 Texas Longhorns team had two key players who both wore #4: wide receiver Limas Sweed and linebacker Drew Kelson. The 2007 USC Trojans team had two key players who both wore #10: quarterback John David Booty and linebacker Brian Cushing. The 2008 Missouri Tigers both had key players wearing #1: safety William Moore and running back Jimmy Jackson. In the same season, the Alabama Crimson Tide had four numbers shared by two players each. In the 2009 season, the Ohio State Buckeyes roster also had numerous duplicate numbers: quarterback Terrelle Pryor and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins both wore #2, and running back Daniel Herron and linebacker Marcus Freeman both wore #1, while USC had both running back C. J. Gable and safety Taylor Mays wearing #2. At Texas, both safety Earl Thomas and quarterback Colt McCoy both wore #12. In 2010 at the University of Illinois, both quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and linebacker Martez Wilson wore #2.
Perhaps the most interesting use of duplicate numbers was at South Carolina. Both cornerback Stephon Gilmore and quarterback Stephen Garcia wore #5. However, Gilmore also has played quarterback for the Gamecocks, usually in the "Wild Cock" formation. In 2009 against archrival Clemson, Head Coach Steve Spurrier effectively rotated Garcia and Gilmore at the quarterback position, confusing the Clemson defense (and many fans). Because Garcia and Gilmore were never on the field at the same time, it was perfectly legal.
Individual schools often have superstitions or traditions involving certain numbers. It may be a great honor to be given the number 1 uniform, for example, such as at the University of Michigan. The top performing walk-on at Texas A&M University will often be issued number 12, in reference to their 12th Man tradition. Syracuse University historically reserved number 44 for its best running backs, including Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, and Floyd Little, finally retiring the number permanently in 2005. The number 12 is also prestigious at the University of Alabama. It is usually reserved for top quarterbacks, although it was worn by 1930s lineman Bear Bryant, who became a coaching legend at Alabama. Since Bryant's era, it has been worn by Kenny Stabler, Joe Namath, Brodie Croyle, and Greg McElroy. At Ole Miss, the #38 worn by defensive back Chucky Mullins, who suffered a paralyzing injury in a 1989 game that ultimately led to his death in 1991, was given each season as an award to a defensive player who was seen as epitomizing Mullins' spirit. The number was eventually retired in Mullins' memory in 2006.
On high school and other lower youth teams, jerseys with different number ranges are different sizes, and since many of these teams do not reorder jerseys every year, players are often assigned numbers based more on jerseys that fit them rather than specific position (though the rules on numbering the offensive line still apply).
According to NCAA rule book Section 4 Article 1 recommended numbering is as follows:
Most 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. However, exceptions have been made when a player with a retired number allows an active player to wear his number. However, very rarely does the new player accept the offer. When the Kansas City Chiefs acquired Joe Montana in 1993, Hall of Famer Len Dawson gave Montana permission to wear his old #16, Montana's number in San Francisco, but Montana declined it and wore 19 instead, which was the sum of his numbers at Notre Dame (3) and the 49ers (16).
One exception offer that was accepted was made in 2004, when Steve Largent, whose #80 was retired by the Seattle Seahawks, allowed Jerry Rice to wear #80 when he briefly played for the team. Rice, a star who mostly played with the 49ers and Raiders, had also worn #80 throughout his career. Rice made the same gesture when the 49ers signed longtime St. Louis Rams wide receiver Isaac Bruce in 2008. Rice offered Bruce the number, since Bruce had worn 80 during his 14-year stay with the Rams. (Though the number was not officially retired until 2010, the 49ers had not issued #80 since Rice left the team in 2001.) However, both Bruce and the 49ers agreed on not wearing 80 as a 49er, and wore number 88 during his two-year stint with the 49ers before retiring.
Another accepted offer was made in 2012, when Peyton Manning, whose #18 had been retired by the Denver Broncos was given to Manning, only after Frank Tripucka offered the jersey to the four-time MVP. Manning had worn #18 with the Indianapolis Colts for 13 seasons, and his number was retired by the Colts after he was released.
The 49ers made another exception for quarterback Trent Dilfer to wear number 12, which had been retired in honor of John Brodie. Dilfer, a close friend of Brodie, wore the number in tribute to him and to garner attention for Brodie's potential election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The New Orleans Saints have retired the numbers 31 and 81 in honor of Jim Taylor and Doug Atkins, who played on the first Saints franchise in 1967. Strangely enough, neither Taylor nor Atkins has had their uniform numbers retired by the teams for which they played the vast majority of their careers before coming to the expansion Saints, Taylor with the Green Bay Packers and Atkins with the Bears. (Current All-Pro cornerback Al Harris, in fact, recently wore number 31 for the Packers.) Taylor played only one year with the Saints before retiring, while Atkins' last three seasons were in the Big Easy.
The numbers 7, 12, 40, and 70 have each been retired by five teams, more than any other numbers.
One of the most notable retired numbers is number 12 for the Seattle Seahawks, who retired the number in 1984 in honor of the "12th man", or the Seahawks fans, as opposed to a particular player. Since then, the team sells number 12 jerseys with the word "Fan" where the player's last name would be.
The Indianapolis Colts have chosen to retain the retired status of numbers retired when the club was in Baltimore, a point which irritated former Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas. Incensed at the way former owner Robert Irsay moved the Colts out of town late at night on March 29, 1984, Unitas severed all ties to the Colts franchise and insisted he only be listed as a member of the "Baltimore Colts". Unitas was soon joined by teammates Lenny Moore, Art Donovan, Raymond Berry, and Gino Marchetti, all of whom also had their numbers retired by the club in Baltimore. (Many of these players would later support the Baltimore Ravens.) The Colts recently retired number 18 for quarterback Peyton Manning although he continues to play in the NFL for the Denver Broncos, the club however has not retired any further numbers of former Baltimore Colts.
The Dallas Cowboys have not retired any numbers despite a long list of HOFs. Instead, the Cowboys do not issue the number, as is the case with number 12 for Roger Staubach and number 8 for Troy Aikman, or the number is used as a sign of legacy. The number 22 was used by HOFs Bob Hayes and Emmitt Smith. The number 88 is used as a lineage for the top WR brought in by the team. It was first made famous by Drew Pearson in the 70s, before Michael Irvin used it in the 90s. The number now belongs to Dez Bryant.
While the NFL does allow teams to retire jersey numbers, the league officially discourages retiring numbers, for fear of teams running out of numbers. As a result, a few NFL teams do not retire jersey numbers.
For many years, the Buffalo Bills never officially retired uniform numbers. This changed when Jim Kelly's number 12 was officially retired by the Bills in the early 2000s (although Joe Ferguson also prominently wore the number, and the team also honors the 12th man). O. J. Simpson (32), Bruce Smith (78), Cookie Gilchrist and Thurman Thomas (both 34) and have not had their numbers issued since those players' retirements. Jack Kemp (15), Elbert Dubenion (44), Billy Shaw (66), and Andre Reed (83) have seen their numbers used only in limited situations; wide receiver Lee Evans (full name Lee Evans III) sought explicit permission to use the 83 number, as it was the only way to preserve the number 3 somewhere in his jersey number (the league had not opened up the 10–19 numbers at the time of his debut). Like Dallas, Buffalo has a "Wall of Fame" honoring some of their great players.
One number that was unofficially retired for most of the team's history was 31, which was reserved as a generic number for promotions and to represent the "spirit of the franchise". This policy was reversed in 1990 when the number was awarded to James "J.D." Williams; it has since been re-released to all players (in part due to the withdrawal of 32) and is currently worn by free safety Jairus Byrd, who moved from his college number of 32 to his current 31.
Number 1 has only been issued sparingly in the team's history (kicker Mike Hollis was the last to wear it), possibly out of deference to Tommy Hughitt, who wore the number with the early-era Buffalo teams in the 1920s. The team does not officially acknowledge any special deference to the number, but acknowledges that other numbers besides the ones mentioned above may be set aside.
Only three players have worn the #14 jersey for the Bengals are, in order, Sam Wyche (QB), Ken Anderson (QB), and Andy Dalton (QB). Wyche played from 1968 to 1970 and later coached the team to its second Super Bowl in 1988. Ken Anderson, for whom the number is known by Bengals fans, wore the number from 1973 until 1986. No player had worn it until Andy Dalton took the number upon being drafted in 2011, Ken Anderson gave his support to Dalton being issued with the number. The only number to be retired by the Bengals is the number 54 worn by Bob Johnson, their first ever draft pick.
Like Oakland, Dallas' official policy is to not retire uniform numbers, although there are a few numbers that have been unofficially retired and have not been used since the retirement of prominent players wearing them. Emmitt Smith and former Olympic athlete Bob Hayes wore number 22 with the Cowboys, but the number has not been reissued since Smith left for Arizona in 2004.
Perhaps most notably, Drew Pearson and Michael Irvin both wore number 88 with the Cowboys, and it is currently worn by Dez Bryant. The Cowboys will be treating number 88 similar to that of number 12 with the Alabama Crimson Tide and, until 2005, number 44 for the Syracuse Orange (who have since retired number 44) by reserving number 88 for only the best receivers.
Instead of retiring numbers, the Cowboys induct prominent players into a Ring of Honor, which originally ringed Texas Stadium and was transferred to the new Cowboys Stadium at its opening in 2009. Since their induction into the Ring of Honor, numbers 8 (Troy Aikman), 12 (Roger Staubach), 20 (Mel Renfro), 22 (Hayes and Smith), 43 (Cliff Harris), 54 (Chuck Howley and Randy White), 55 (Lee Roy Jordan), 70 (Rayfield Wright), 72 (Too Tall Jones), and 74 (Bob Lilly) have not been reissued or are rarely used.
The Oakland Raiders, along with the Houston Texans, are the only teams in the NFL that have not retired any numbers, officially or unofficially. Only Hall of Fame center Jim Otto's number, 00, has not been reissued by the Raiders, as the NFL banned the numbers 0 and 00 in 1973. As a result, the numbers worn by Hall of Fame inductees have been used by other players who followed, including Willie Brown's number 24 (currently worn by Michael Huff), George Blanda and Jim Plunkett's number 16 (worn by Andrew Walter), Kenny Stabler's number 12 (worn by Rich Gannon, Josh McCown, and Jacoby Ford), and Gene Upshaw's number 63 (worn by Mark Wilson).
The Pittsburgh Steelers also do not officially retire uniform numbers (the exception being Ernie Stautner, who played before the dynasty years of the 1970s). However, Terry Bradshaw's number 12, Franco Harris' number 32, Jerome Bettis' number 36, Mike Webster's number 52, Jack Lambert's number 58, Dermontti Dawson's number 63, and Joe Greene's number 75 have not been issued since those respective players retired, while Gary Anderson's number 1, Donnie Shell's number 31, Mel Blount's number 47, and Jack Ham's number 59 have had minimal usage since. Number 35 was worn by two Hall of Famers (Bill Dudley and John Henry Johnson) and was most recently worn by former fullback Dan Kreider in 2007.
John Stallworth's number 82 has been reissued several times as has Lynn Swann's number 88; this is mainly because of the limited number of numbers available for wide receivers and tight ends (until 2004, those positions could only wear numbers in the 80s). However, the NFL has since relaxed the rule and started allowing receivers to wear jersey numbers 10–19 in addition to 80s numbers. Number 82 is currently worn by tight end Weslye Saunders, while Emmanuel Sanders currently wears number 88.
The Washington Redskins have only retired one number, Sammy Baugh's number 33. Numbers 7 (Joe Theismann), 9 (Sonny Jurgensen), 28 (Darrell Green), 42 (Charley Taylor), 43 (Larry Brown), 44 (John Riggins), 49 (Bobby Mitchell), 51 (Monte Coleman), 65 (Dave Butz), 70 (Sam Huff), and 81 (Art Monk) are considered unofficially retired.