NFL owners approved seven proposed rule changes last week.
After you wade through some of the minor changes—including broadening the scope of the booth’s power as it pertains to replay reviews—you get to the real game-changer: Expanding the numbers that players at certain positions can wear.
For example, in addition to 80-89, receivers can now wear any number between 1-49. Defensive backs can also choose any number from 1 to 49. The variety is even greater for linebackers, who can wear numbers 1-59, as well as 90-99.
Personally, this new policy doesn’t bother me that much. True, it may be unfair to the fan who has already purchased the jersey of a player who will now decide to change his number; then again, I’m sure the league had increased merchandising sales in mind when it decided to go ahead with this plan.
With all due respect to the folks who will now have to buy new jerseys to replace the old ones, and with all due respect to Tom Brady who may have finally encountered a force strong enough to stop him (counting), it’s not going to affect how I view and consume the game of football.
If a linebacker wants to wear No. 13, who am I to question that? He could hurt me. If a defensive back wants to wear 2, who cares? Just use proper inside/outside technique in coverage. If a receiver decides he wants to wear 23, 34 or 45, let him. They’re all kind of weird, anyway.
If you’ve watched college football as long as I have, you’re used to this sort of thing; the only rule about college numbers is there are no rules.
However, while I did say earlier that this new number rule doesn’t bother me that much, it does bother me a little.
Let me go over some more of these positions. A tight end is no longer limited to the 80s when choosing a jersey number—he can also wear any digit from 1 to 49. Fine. Tight ends are becoming more and more diva-like, so if they want to be all weird and out there, who am I to judge? Most are too big for me to fight and too fast for me to outrun.
But there is one position that I am extremely worried about as it pertains to this new rule—running back.
If a running back wants to wear 1 or 19, that’s fine. But 80 or 89? To quote the comment section of any article posted on Facebook about any subject ever—including new soda flavors—: “Please, stop.” In addition to now being able to wear any number between 1-49, a running back can freely pick any digit between 80-89.
Just think about that for a second.
Picture Walter Payton trying to run over the entire Chiefs’ defense back in 1977 while wearing No. 84 instead of No. 34. Do you think he even makes it past one defender? Can you imagine Earl Campbell surviving his goal line collision with Jack Tatum in the Astrodome if he is wearing a number that begins with an eight?
OK, forget the toughness stereotypes that often haunt wide-receivers; what about the diva labels?
Payton’s nickname was “Sweetness.” You change his jersey number to 84, and Bears fans may have quickly grown tired of his celebrity status and started referring to him as “Salty.”
Speaking of legendary Bears’ running backs, Gale Sayers once said that all he needed was 18 inches of daylight (to burst through a hole and blow by a defense). That was inspirational coming from a guy wearing the number 40; change his number to 80, on the other hand, and just try getting the image of Sayers dressed in funky sunglasses and a Hulk Hogan-styled feather boa out of your head.
John Riggins went to head coach Joe Gibbs just prior to the 1982 playoffs and said, “I want the ball.” Washington subsequently rode Riggins all the way to a victory in Super Bowl XVII. There’s no way of knowing this for sure, but I’ll bet if Riggins wore No. 84 and not 44, Gibbs would have pulled a Bill O’Brien and immediately traded the legendary running back away for a cold six-pack before the playoffs even began.
Jim Brown has always proudly proclaimed that he is the greatest running back—maybe even the greatest football player—of all time. Few have ever disagreed with this. But I’ll bet if Brown wore 82 instead of 32 during his historic football career, that would have drastically altered the opinions of players, media members and fans. In fact, Brown likely would have gone on to star in the first-ever reality show, titled: Jim Brown’s Gonna Git You Sucka.
Picture Jerome Bettis on the sidelines talking about how they needed to keep feeding him the ball. Great memories, right? Now, imagine him saying that while wearing No. 85; could be a sign of an increased diva quotient, no?
And don’t even get me started on the head shake The Bus used to do after a tough run—or the fact that he even had a nickname.
Franco's Italian Army was one of the coolest things about Franco Harris's great career. But what if Harris wore No. 81? You got it, he would have been furthering his brand.
Look, all I’m saying is running backs have it tough enough: They take an enormous beating; their careers are extremely short on average; teams don’t want to draft them in the first round; and nobody wants to pay them.
They don’t need the extra burden and baggage of wearing a number that begins with an eight.