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Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Updated: May 26, 12:48 PM ET
Behind the NFL numbers

By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

Uni Watch did not expect to be devoting a column to the NFL in May. But Reggie Bush, among his many other talents, has made that possible.

In case you've been under a rock: Bush wanted to wear uniform No. 5, like he did at USC and in high school. But under the NFL's numbering rules -- which we'll examine more closely in a minute -- running backs aren't allowed to wear Nos. 1 through 19. So Bush petitioned the league for a waiver, but they turned him down earlier this week, so he'll wear No. 25 instead.

Bush wore No. 5 during minicamp, but that doesn't mean anything. As noted in a recent thread on Chris Creamer's SportsLogos.net discussion board, NFL players often wear unofficial numbers during practices. Charles Woodson, for example, wore No. 2 at Michigan and has subsequently worn it during minicamps and practices, first with the Raiders (where his actual uni number was 24) and now with the Packers (where he's listed on the roster as No. 21). Same goes for Deion Sanders, who wore No. 2 at Florida State and continued to wear it during practice sessions throughout his career (here with the Ravens, here with the Redskins). Check out this photo -- his jersey has No. 2 while his shorts have No. 37, the latter being his actual Ravens uni number.

Most sports have traditions or customs regarding certain numbers being associated with certain positions. Baseball pitchers, for example, rarely wear single-digit numbers (for more background on this custom, look here), and hockey goalies often wear either 1 or something in the 30s. But football is the only sport that has codified its numerical regimentation into the rulebook. Why? Because the officials need to be able to distinguish between eligible and ineligible receivers (which is also why football jerseys have numbers on the front, instead of team insignia). Basically, 1-49 and 80-89 are eligible, which theoretically means a quarterback could wear 42 and a kicker could wear 80 -- and Reggie Bush could wear 5. But the NFL's system, which is more stringent than the one used by the NCAA and high schools, takes things a few steps further. Here's how the league breaks it down:

Quarterbacks, punters, and kickers: 1-19
Running backs: 20-49
Wide receivers: 10-19 and 80-89
Tight ends: 10-19 and 80-89 (or 40-49 if those ranges are taken)
Centers: 50-59 (or 60-79 if that range is taken)
Offensive linemen: 60-79
Defensive linemen: 60-79 and 90-99
Linebackers: 50-59 and 90-99
Defensive backs: 20-49

This system has been in effect since 1973, with only one change: Prior to 2004, wide receivers and tight ends were restricted to 80-89. There were occasional exceptions, like Keyshawn Johnson (who wore 19 during his first Jets training camp because 80 through 89 were taken, and then kept wearing it when the season started, even though a number in the 80s had opened up) and Kelley Campbell (another case of 80-89 being taken, in part because the Vikings had retired Cris Carter's and Alan Page's numbers).

Beginning in 2004, receivers were allowed to wear 10 through 19 (regardless of number crunches in the 80-89 range), and the first three wideouts chosen in the 2004 draft all took advantage by wearing No. 11: Reggie Williams, Roy Williams, and Larry Fitzgerald. In addition, several veteran receivers have switched to the teens upon changing teams, including Randy Moss (who went from 84 to 18) and Plaxico Burress (80 to 17, which he bought from Jeff Feagles). Even Jerry Rice, who was so attached to No. 80 that he convinced Steve Largent to let the Seahawks unretire his number during Rice's brief stint in Seattle; he tried out a teen number during the 2005 preseason before finally retiring.

This has led many Uni Watch readers to carp about how today's receivers "don't look right," or words to that effect. But there's nothing newfangled about wideouts wearing numbers in the teens; in fact, it's totally old-school and used to be routine prior to 1973. Uni Watch likes that look and sees nothing wrong with going back to it.

And Uni Watch wasn't just being hypothetical when referring to a quarterback wearing 42 or a kicker wearing 80. Pre-1973, those position/number pairings weren't so uncommon -- just ask Charlie Conerly and Jim O'Brien (whose last-second field goal won Super Bowl V). Other players whose numbers look odd to us today including running back Marion Motley, kicker Lou "The Toe" Groza, quarterback Sammy Baugh and defensive lineman Carl Eller, among many others.

As for Bush, Uni Watch doesn't see any reason why he (or, more to the point, any running back) shouldn't be able to wear a single-digit number. Or why a quarterback shouldn't be able to wear 42, like Conerly did. League officials say changing their current system would make things tougher on officials, create chaos on special teams, blah-blah-blah, but Uni Watch doesn't buy it. The NCAA uses the more lenient format, and the world appears to have kept spinning just fine. As long as eligible and ineligible receivers stick to separate number ranges, is it really that hard -- or even necessary -- to distinguish, say, a quarterback from a running back from a tight end? Uni Watch offers the following hint at no extra charge: The quarterback is the one throwing the ball.

A few other notable NFL numerical episodes:

• Brian Bosworth wore No. 44 at Oklahoma and wanted to keep wearing it when he went pro. But 44 is off-limits for NFL linebackers, so when the Seahawks drafted Boz, they claimed they'd occasionally use him as a fullback. They got away with this at first, but the NFL soon put the kibosh on it, and Bosworth had to switch to No. 55.

• Jason Peters of the Bills was drafted as a tight end and initially wore No. 85. But then they converted him to a tackle and gave him No. 71. Uni Watch believes there were times last season when he actually switched back and forth between the two numbers from game to game (but not within the same game), depending on the team's game plan.

• Quarterbacks are allowed to wear No. 1, but you rarely see it (well, except on draft day). The only example who immediately comes to mind is Warren Moon, and Uni Watch always thought it looked a little weird.

• Zero and double-zero are verboten in today's NFL, for any position. But back in the day, 00 was worn by Oilers flanker Ken Burrough and Raiders center Jim Otto. Of course, the genius of Otto's uni number was that it mirrored his name.

All of which brings us back to today's NFL, where Reggie Bush isn't the only player who was hoping for an exemption from the league's numbers game this season. When the Browns signed center LeCharles Bentley a few months ago, he wore a double-zero jersey at his introductory press conference and then announced that he wanted to keep wearing the number this season, as a tribute to Otto. He wasn't specifically mentioned in the news accounts regarding Bush, but presumably the league won't be making an exception for him either. Too bad.

It's also worth noting that another high-profile rookie has bumped up against the NFL's dress code this spring, but not regarding numbers. Vince Young wore "V. Young" on the back of his jersey at Texas and wanted to do the same with the Titans. But league rules prohibit the use of first initials unless a team's roster has multiple players with the same surname, so Young will just wear "Young," at least for now. But don't be surprised if his agent starts pushing the Titans to trade for Brian Young, Bryant Young, Chris Young, James Young or Scott Young.

Uni Watch News Ticker
Jeff Kent is the latest player to come out against the CoolFlo helmet. Kent initially wore the CoolFlo this season but then got beaned in the head and decided the new design didn't offer quite as much protection, so now he's gone back to an old-school lid. … More CoolFlo problems: Matt Anderson has noticed that several of the Braves' helmets seem prone to chipped paint on the brim.… Remember last month, when Brandon Claussen was ordered to remove his accursed dot-patterned Nike undersleeves and ended up having the training staff snip them off with a pair of scissors? Same thing happened to Scott Williamson on May 12 (thanks to David Schmitt and Tom O'Grady). … Nick Burczyk points out that the jersey-as-hanky phenomenon isn't limited to baseball -- check out Kobe Bryant. … Uni Watch has noticed that undershirts also make good hankies. … Sleeves, too. … And Kevin Bresnahan adds, "It has become popular for catchers to use the right shoulder pad of the chest protector as another POW (point of wiping) during mound conferences. The flexibility of the cloth 'hinge' seems to work nicely. John Buck of the Royals is a major offender." No photo of this yet, but Uni Watch is looking. … If you were spending time with your mom on Mother's Day, you might have missed that MLB players showed their annual support for breast cancer research by wearing pink wristbands and pink ribbons, and for the first time some players also used pink bats. … Meanwhile, several minor league teams wore pink jerseys in recent weeks, including the Binghamton Mets, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, and the Modesto Nuts, whose manager, Chad Kreuter, told his players that they'd wear pink again the next day if they won. Thanks to this brilliant display of managerial motivation, the Nuts went out and lost 5-2. … Nice article here about Cubs and White Sox uni numbers. … The Giants will have new caps next season, as modeled here by Omar Vizquel. … Last column's photo of Jeff Weaver eating his glove apparently made a big impression on Nomar. … Scott Spiezio's beard is dyed Cardinal red. Joseph Spak reports that this recently led Mets radio announcer Tom McCarthy to quip, "Good thing Spiezio doesn't play for the Mets, he'd have to change it every day." … Y'know, on second thought, maybe Nike's dot-patterned sleeves aren't so bad. … Italy will be wearing Puma uniforms on the field during the World Cup, but they'll be wearing Dolce and Gabbana attire off the field. No truth to the rumor that the USA's off-field clothing will be from Old Navy. … Uni Watch reported last time around that former MLB outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo recently got in trouble with Japanese baseball authorities by wearing a collared shirt under his Nippon Ham Fighters jersey. Uni Watch Far East bureau chief Jeremy Brahm now reports that Shinjo's been up to further high jinks: "On May 18, the Fighters played the Hanshin Tigers in the Tigers' home stadium. Now, Shinjo played for the Tigers for 10 years, from 1991-2000. So he wore a Tigers jersey before the Fighters/Tigers game [apparently as a salute to the Hanshin fans]. Reminds me of Magic and Bird at Bird's retirement." Shinjo was reprimanded for the stunt. … The Yankees' jersey is beautiful in its simplicity, right? And that simplicity has an interesting side effect: Yankees jerseys cost less at the clubhouse shop. … How low is Nike willing to sink? Check out this Logo Creep Alert from Chad Peiken, who writes: "My sister-in-law was looking for a Cubs outfit for her little niece, and she found this one." … The Devil Rays have until the end of the month to decide whether they'll change their team name, team colors and uniforms for next season. There's a good overview here. … Think a uniform should be, y'know, uniform? Check out the major hosiery variations in this 1926 photo from a Connecticut mercantile league. And dig the hoop-striped sleeves on that guy in the front row! (With thanks to Rob Golden.) … Correction to last column's description of Pat LaFontaine's odd headwear as an "anti-concussion thingie." As many readers pointed out, LaFontaine actually wore that device after breaking his jaw. "Bret Hedican wore something similar after getting his jaw broken," adds Blake Ratcliff. … NFL refs wear white hats while the other on-field officials wear black, but the always-observant Doug Brei points out that it used to be the other way around. Anyone know exactly when this changeover took place, or why? … Remember that garish chest protector that Ramon Castro was wearing in spring training? Thankfully, he soon switched to this and this. And what happened to the spring training model? It's for sale (with thanks to Josh Becker).

Follow-Up Roundup
Last column's dissertation on necklaces brought lots of good responses, many of them chastising Uni Watch for failing to mention Randall Simon, arguably history's most bling-heavy player. In addition, Lee Leslie notes that Zack Greinke once blamed a loss on not having worn his lucky necklace, and Dave Doernemann points out that Jaromir Jagr's been known to don neckwear on the ice.

Then there's the issue of MLBers wearing bracelets. As you may recall, Uni Watch could only name two such players (Jae Seo and Victor Martinez), but readers came up with several more:

• From Dennis Moy: "Huston Street wears a green WWJD bracelet on his glove hand. Mike Scioscia always asks for the bracelet to be removed, leaving an unsightly tan line."

• From Brandon Davis: "Kirk Saarloos used to wear a pink Livestrong-style band last season but was told by umpires to remove it, so now he keeps it in his back pocket."

• From Paul Pereira: "Alex Gonzalez is a 2-for-1 special: He has a necklace and a yellow bracelet."

• And many Cubs fans pointed out that Derrek Lee has been wearing a "Believe" bracelet since last season.

Over in the NFL, Uni Watch wondered aloud two weeks ago why some players in minicamp have the Reebok logo covered over on the chests of their practice jerseys. Brian Rice explains: "In Reebok's first contract with the NFL, in 2002, their logo was under the collar on practice jerseys, but not on the sleeves. When they re-upped two years ago, the new contract called for logos only on the arms, same as on the game jerseys. The problem was that most teams still had literally hundreds of blank practice jerseys. Most of the photos from training camp two years ago showed the patch over the collar logo, and teams had sent out the jerseys to have logos put on the sleeves. By now, seeing the patched jerseys is growing increasingly rare."

On the subject of players who don't wear batting gloves, Brendon Booth reports that Pedro Feliz was gloveless on May 8 (but not since then). And Tim Altork checks in with news of an entire junior college team that goes gloveless: the Southern Union Bison of Wadley, Ala. "I've been covering them for two years and just noticed the across-the-board lack of handwear this past week at the state tournament," writes Altork. "There's not a batting glove to be found on the entire team."

More batting glove news: Last time around Uni Watch made a big fuss over Jeff Bagwell's padded glove. But as several readers have pointed out, Jason LaRue wears essentially the same thing.

And one last batting glove item: Uni Watch had wondered whether Antonio Alfonseca, who has six fingers on each hand, wears batting gloves. Big thanks to the many readers who provided this photo of a gloves-clad Alfonseca batting in the minor leagues. But were they six-fingered gloves? According to a 2003 Q and A column by Chicago Tribune sportswriter Paul Sullivan (kindly forwarded by Paul MacWilliams), "Alfonseca does not have specially designed batting gloves, nor does he cut holes in the gloves for the [extra fingers]. He pulls his gloves on over the [extra fingers] one at a time, just like you or I would do if we had six fingers and were major league players." Uh, right.

And finally, Uni Watch reported two weeks ago that Twins catchers Joe Mauer and Mike Redmond had switched from wearing solid blue helmets to a 1970s pattern (they were essentially copying this) but had then discontinued the practice after just a game or two. Turns out they're wearing navy on the road and the retro helmet at home -- just like you or Uni Watch would do if we were major league catchers and had a completely arbitrary sense of uni protocol.

Big Uni Watch News
Regular readers may have noticed that today's column is a bit shorter than usual. That's because lots of material that would have ended up in this installment has instead been published in the new Uni Watch blog, which is being updated daily. It's only been up for a week and the entries are pretty short, so you can catch up quickly enough just by scrolling through the site. If you do, you'll learn about the weird doohickey on Kenji Johjima's helmet, Trot Nixon going back to wearing a single-earflap batting helmet, and Alex Escobar wearing a "W" cap while the rest of the Nationals were wearing "DC" caps, among other crucial info.

Don't worry, Uni Watch will still be here every two weeks on ESPN.com. But the blog will allow real-time coverage of breaking uni news and help relieve the backlog that was making these columns prohibitively long. (For more details, check out the blog's inaugural entry.) So for those of you who've wanted more frequent doses of Uni Watch, or smaller doses of Uni Watch, or just a new excuse to procrastinate at work, now you've got it. Hope to see you on the blog every day, and back here in two weeks.

Paul Lukas prefers odd numbers over even numbers, and likes prime numbers best of all. His answers to Frequently Asked Questions are here, and archives of his "Uni Watch" columns are available here, here and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted? Contact him here.