Special to Page 2
Here's an NFL statistic you probably won't see anyplace else: With the Bengals, Colts, Eagles, and Saints all switching from white shoes to black this season, the league's black-shod contingent now numbers 12 teams. (Can you name the other eight? See end of column for answer.) That's up from only one just five years ago, which makes the move toward ebony footwear the game's biggest uniform trend -- and the most overlooked, too.
So begins Uni Watch's characteristically detail-oriented survey of the new NFL season, which features some interesting developments. Ah, but before we can fully appreciate where we're going, we need to understand where we've been. So to get your head back in NFL mode, here's a quick timeline of notable moments in pro football's uniform history:
1941: Dick Plasman of the Bears becomes the last man to play without a helmet.
1941-44: NFL officiating crews, after years of wearing white dress shirts, experiment with color-coded jerseys. The referee wears black and white stripes, with red and white for the head linesman, orange and white for the umpire, and green and white for the field judge. All of them switch to the now-standard black and white in 1945.
1945: Commissioner Elmer Layden, apparently with way too much time on his hands, decides that NFL players have unsightly legs and decrees that all players must wear long stockings. This rule, still on the books, is why NFL players wear high socks while so many NCAA teams still play bare-legged. (Note to tennis fans: While Uni Watch generally approves of anything that gets the word "gaiters" into the sports section, Serena Williams still has a long way to go before her impact on athletic leggings can match Layden's.)
1948: Rams halfback Fred Gehrke -- a former art student at the University of Utah -- paints ram horns on his team's leather helmets, creating the NFL's first helmet design (and clearing the way for the avalanche of officially-licensed helmet desk lamps, helmet ice buckets, and helmet dip bowls that have followed).
1960: Many teams in the new American Football League put their players' surnames on the backs of their jerseys. All AFL teams do so the following year, while the NFL doesn't catch up to this innovation until the two leagues merge in 1970.
1962: In front of a cheering crowd of over 8,000 fans, new Broncos head coach Jack Faulkner holds a bonfire in which players ceremoniously burn their infamous vertically-striped socks, a source of considerable ridicule during the team's first two seasons.
1964: Jess Richardson of the Patriots -- the last lineman to play without a facemask -- retires.
1975: Oilers wide receiver Billy Johnson emerges as a star punt returner and becomes known by his uni-inspired nickname, "White Shoes".
1984: Bills coach Kay Stephenson, evidently bored with trivial concerns like offense, defense, and special teams, changes the team's helmet color from white to red, theorizing that this will cut down on interceptions because Buffalo's quarterbacks will have an easier time discerning Bills receivers from their white-helmeted division rivals. Despite this ingenious coaching gambit, team interceptions actually increase in the ensuing season.
1991: The league mandates that the NFL logo appear on jersey collars and pant thighs. Fans across America slap their foreheads and say, "So that's what league we're watching!"
1994: In celebration of the NFL's 75th anniversary, all teams wear throwback uniforms.
2002: In an unfortunate case of mass hysteria, the Bills, Broncos, Seahawks, Patriots, Jets, and Cardinals pair their colored jerseys with colored pants, creating a series of solid-colored eyesores.
OK, now that we're caught up on the NFL's past, here's what to look for on the gridiron this season:
As for our quiz, the eight teams already wearing black shoes prior to this season were the Bucs, Falcons, Panthers, Lions, Jags, Jets, Seahawks and Bears. And if you already knew that, then you're paying too much attention to picky little details -- that's Uni Watch's job.
When not obsessing about the minutiae of sports uniforms, Paul Lukas writes about the minutiae of food, travel, pop culture, and business history for various publications. Archives of his pre-Page 2 "Uni Watch" columns are available here and here. Got a uni-related question or comment for him? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.