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October 08, 2006

The Low-Numbered Wide Receiver Epidemic

by Nicholas Beaudrot of Electoral Math

One of the more bizarre trends over the past few years in the NFL has been the proliferation of wide receivers sporting numbers traditionally reserved for quarterbacks and placekickers. At first it was Keyshawn Johnson, which you can just attribute to Keyshawn being Keyshawn. Then dragger Kelly Campbell unexpectedly made the Vikings roster in 2002, sporting, I think, the number 18 [he's since switched to #80 with the Dolphins]. But Campbell had that oddball number because the Vikings didn't expect him to make the roster. Somehow, looking like you just barely made the team became fashionable; Michael Jenkins used number 12 starting in '04, Drew Carter in '05, and probably several others. But then things got out of hand. Plaxico Burress, a high-quality receiver who wasn't at all in danger of being cut, switch to #17 when he moved to the Giants. Then Randy Moss—Randy Moss!—and Donte Stallworth caught the bug. The Jacksonville Jaguars now sport an entire receiver corps with under-20 numbers.

But rise in popularity fad defeats the whole point of the low-numbered jerseys. When Plaxico Burress and Randy Moss are wearing #18, no one really believes they're practice squad callups.

October 8, 2006 | Permalink


Too bad they didn't make this exception for Brian Bosworth, his mojo tied up in Bos 44.

No 44 for you, linebacker.

Posted by: spike | Oct 8, 2006 8:57:21 PM

Well, once you lose it... To start with an obvious point, there are only ten numbers from 80 to 89. That worked well when most teams only carried a few receivers but doesn't work with today's rosters. Most teams carry eight to ten players in that range (WR & TE) during the regular season, so in the preseason they obviously need more, plus if you have any retired numbers in that range you're going to be short. Meanwhile, there are 20 (or 21 if you count 0 and 00 separately) numbers from 0 to 19, though I don't think anyone wears 0 or 00 anymore, so say 19, but nobody carries more than at most six QB/K/P during the regular season. So that's where to take numbers from. The NFL could say that everyone has to be reassigned a number in the eighties when the season starts (if possible) but it would be a big hassle that even the NFL couldn't see any gain in.

Posted by: Mac | Oct 8, 2006 10:02:12 PM

Actually, the NFL used to have a rule that receivers had to have a number in the 80s, and the only exceptions were if all the 80s numbers were taken once preseason was over. They did reassign 80s numbers if they were available, but once in a great while they weren't. Hence oddballs like Keyshawn.

A couple of years ago the NFL did away with that rule, that's why you see all the numbers in the teens now. Detroit's Roy Williams said he went for #11 because it made him look faster.

Posted by: BobT | Oct 9, 2006 12:04:05 AM

There's a somewhat parallel trend, though it started a bit earlier, in college ball. Single digit numbers were (and still are?) all the rage.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Oct 9, 2006 12:42:00 AM

Indeed. Although the NFL has seemingly drawn the line at single-digits for non-QBs, Ps and Ks, as evidenced by Bush Jersey-gate.

In other news, SNF made me want to punch through a wall.

Posted by: Fnor | Oct 9, 2006 1:00:09 AM

I, for one, am not a big freak over this number issue. I still do not understand why the NFL carries this structure of numbers anyway. Who cares about the numbers? They are just numbers. Reggie Bush should have been allowed to wear #5.

Posted by: brooklyn | Oct 9, 2006 10:39:05 AM

Was this post even in English? Does anybody have any idea what Nicholas is talking about? Is this about some kind of, um, sport?

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Oct 9, 2006 11:49:56 AM

I think you're missing Eddie Drummond, who was sporting #18 early one. He was mostly a return specialist at the time.

I kind of like the numbering conventions. The recourse for no enough 80s should be 20-49. It's not like a team is going to carry 30 DBs and RBs.

I would have let Bush wear 5, though, because it's just not worth worrying about.

Maybe I'll renumber Roy in Madden, if I ever buy this year's model.

Posted by: witless chum | Oct 9, 2006 12:01:10 PM

Oh, and, my beloved Lions had Roy #11, Eddie Drummond #18, Corey Bradford #17, Shawn Bodiford #19.

They've since jettisoned Bradford for not learning the Martzfense. (and letting Kitna's passes bounce off his chest and be intercepted)

Posted by: witless chum | Oct 9, 2006 12:05:10 PM

Yes, Tom, this is about American Rules Football (which has three main subspecies ... Canadian Football League rules, NCAA rules, and National Football League rules). American Rules Football is a descendent of Britain's Rugby Union Football, and shows what happens to Rugby Union when it escapes from private school sportsmasters. Rugby League football also escaped, but not as early, so it is a lot closer to Rugby Union football.

Football codes traditionally have numbers on the backs of players, primarily to allow the referee/officials to identify the player in the case of an infraction. American Rules adopted the system of each player having a number for the whole season, and because there are enough players on an American Rules Football team to settle a small town, they have number ranges for different positions, standardized in the NFL in 1973:
* Numbers 1 to 19 are worn by quarterbacks, kickers, and punters.
* Numbers 20 to 49 are worn by running backs, tight ends (when an 80-89 number is unavailable), cornerbacks and safeties.
* Numbers 50 to 59 are worn by linebackers and offensive linemen.
* Numbers 60 to 79 are worn by members of both the offensive line (the tackles, guards and centers) and defensive line (the defensive ends, defensive tackles and nose guard).
* Numbers 80 to 89 are worn by wide receivers and tight ends.
* Numbers 90 to 99 are worn by linebackers and defensive linemen.

Exceptions were only made when numbers ran out. However, since many teams now have enough wide recievers on the sidelines to enter a futsal tournament, including subs and coach, exceptions started being more common for wide receivers, and since 2004, wide receivers have also been allowed to wear numbers between 10 and 19 if they so choose, even if there's an 80-89 number available.

This is the "squad" numbering system, but its a modified version of the "position numbering" that is common in many other Football Codes.

In Association Football when playing a Brazilian 4-4-2 (called "soccer" in the US because English college students used that as a slang term sometime in the 1800's), that is: 1 for the goalkeeper, 2-5 for the defenders, 6-9 for the midfielders, 10 for the right side striker and 11 for the left side striker, with the number 10 being the most coveted position.

In Rugby League football (what the French call "Rugby-13"), its also from back to front, with 1 for the fullback, 2 & 3 for the wingers, 4 & 5 for the centres, 6 for the 5/8ths, 7 for the halfback (who feeds the scrum), 8 for the lock who is the back of the scrum, 9 & 10 for the second rowers, who are the, uh, second row of the scrume, 11 & 12 for the props, who are the right and left side of the front line of the scrum, and 13 for the hooker, who puts his arms around the necks of the props in the middle of the front line. Players 14-17 are the four subs on the bench. Of course, some commentators will use the normal number to refer to the position, so you can hear, "Jones, wearing 14, has come in at number 6".

Posted by: BruceMcF | Oct 9, 2006 12:23:50 PM

... if you have any retired numbers in that range ...

FTR, only two teams have retired more than one 8x number: the Colts (Berry #82, Marchetti #89) and the Vikings (Carter #80, Page #88).


Posted by: Thlayli | Oct 9, 2006 1:55:56 PM

It also has a lot to do (maybe not exclusively) with a want for players to wear the numbers they wore in college, or to be more college-ish.

Posted by: Cassidy | Oct 9, 2006 3:28:25 PM

They had to go to low numbers because too many of the 80's numbers were retired by teams honoring their great recievers....with only 10 numbers alloted for recievers and 20+ to other positions reciever numbers ran out quicker...

Also FYI...Kelly Campbell sported the #16 Jersey in 2002 not #18

here is pic:


Posted by: lib4 | Oct 9, 2006 5:47:35 PM

They had to go to low numbers because too many of the 80's numbers were retired by teams honoring their great recievers....with only 10 numbers alloted for recievers and 20+ to other positions reciever numbers ran out quicker...

Also FYI...Kelly Campbell sported the #16 Jersey in 2002 not #18

here is pic:


Posted by: lib4 | Oct 9, 2006 5:47:36 PM

Thanks Lib4 ... I couldn't remember what the jersey number was. I just knew it wasn't 19 ...

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Oct 9, 2006 7:01:16 PM

But the reason that Colleges have to have more leeway in how they hand out numbers is because College squads are so much larger than NFL squads. With 85 players, you'd need three digits to put strict position rules in place for college. And even then you'd have players numbered "wrong" because the coach is trying out them out in a new position, either because he sees something in practice or because of what injuries have done to the depth chart.

The only real limit in NCAA numbering is that ineligible receivers have to be between 50 and 79 (inclusive).

Posted by: BruceMcF | Oct 10, 2006 12:17:20 PM

Who is the frigin guy who asked what we were talking about?

Posted by: unknown | Dec 10, 2006 9:25:21 PM

I remember Jim Jensen of the Miami Dolphins, who wore #11 even though he rarely played quarterback. He played in the era when the wide receivers weren't allowed to wear teens numbers...

Most of his career was spent on defense and special teams, but since he was originally a QB and was still considered a back-up QB, he was allowed to keep the number

Posted by: David Lee | Sep 6, 2007 11:40:59 PM

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