By Paul Lukas
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".

1979: Frustrated by the sartorial tactics of Browns scatback Greg Pruitt, the NFL bans tear-away jerseys, thereby delaying the arrival of grunge fashions by over a decade.

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.

NFL logo
Just in case you thought you were watching the PGA Tour ...

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:

  • You wouldn't think the Bengals could make such an ugly uniform even worse, but somehow they've managed. The flying tiger sleeve patch, which was the best thing about the old uni, has been eliminated; the garish jersey stripings have been expanded from the shoulders to the sleeves; and the home jerseys have this ridiculous white side piping (which looks even sillier when paired with the new black pants). Meanwhile, the league's most embarrassing helmet design remains unchanged. A complete disaster.

  • The Falcons, who've switched back and forth between black and red several times during their uni history, have done it again. Atlanta's red jerseys, which appeared as alternate uniforms last season, will now be the team's primary home jersey.

  • The Colts win this year's subtlety award, thanks to a series of small, traditionalist changes. In addition to aforementioned black shoes, they've gone to a slightly darker shade of blue (supposedly bringing it back to the team's original hue), switched their facemasks from blue to gray, and, in Uni Watch's favorite move of the entire NFL season, restored the horizontal stripes on their socks -- nicely done. Now if they could just extend those truncated shoulder stripes back down to the armpits.

  • Uni Watch likes this year's crop of commemorative chest patches, which will be worn by the Giants (80th season), Jaguars (10th season), Panthers (10th season), and Rams ( 10th season in St. Louis). In addition, during Week 2, all teams will wear a memorial helmet sticker for former Cardinals safety Pat Tillman, who was killed in Afghanistan. Arizona will wear the sticker all season.

  • There's the usual assortment of alternate jerseys that will appear once or twice during the season -- black for the Ravens, Eagles, Jaguars, and Falcons; orange for the Dolphins, Browns, Broncos, and Bengals; red for the Texans, silver for the Patriots, blah-blah-blah. Uni Watch could live without most of these, although the Chargers' powder blue design is always welcome. The best news is that the Cowboys will finally wear a true throwback design for their Thanksgiving game, instead of the bogus alternate jersey they've been wearing on recent Turkey Days.

    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 uniwatch@earthlink.net.




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