“These low numbers, I got to get used to these,” one fan said.
“What number was Queen? 48? 49?” his friend responded.
“Yeah, now he’s 6,” the first fan said. “Man, Fort’s wearing 3.”
It’s an unfamiliar sight for NFL fans but one that will become commonplace this season following an offseason rule adjustment that allows players other than quarterbacks, kickers or punters to wear single-digit numbers. Players from running backs to pass rushers have adopted the change, bringing with them a look more familiar to high school or college football than the pro game.
The change has been met with excitement by many fans and players and in some ways marks a departure from the NFL’s often restrictive approach to uniforms. But it also has its detractors, from those who say it gives the sport an amateur feel to others — including Tom Brady — who are concerned it will have an impact on the field.
The rule change was enacted in April following the approval of a proposal submitted by the Kansas City Chiefs. The reasoning was that teams were running low on numbers to give players at certain positions, particularly following the NFL’s expansion of teams’ practice squads from 10 to 16 players last season to allow for increased flexibility during the coronavirus pandemic.
Previously only quarterbacks, kickers and punters were allowed to wear single-digit jerseys. Now running backs, fullbacks, H-backs, wide receivers and tight ends can wear Nos. 1-49 and 80-89. Defensive backs can choose 1-49, linebackers 1-59 and 90-99, and defensive linemen 50-79 and 90-99.
Since the proposal passed, 87 players have changed their jerseys to a single-digit number that wouldn’t have been previously allowed. The opportunity led to some jockeying among players for their preferred digits.
On the day the proposal passed, Queen lobbied quarterback Lamar Jackson for No. 8, which Queen wore in college at LSU, before eventually going with No. 6 in a nod to his hometown. On the Los Angeles Rams, wide receiver Robert Woods snapped up No. 2 (his college number at Southern California) ahead of teammate and star cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who settled for No. 5.
Several rookies took advantage of the new allowance, including wide receivers JaMarr Chase of the Bengals (No. 1) and DeVonta Smith of the Eagles (No. 6). For veterans, the changes came with a potential cost: Players were required to buy out the existing allotment of jerseys with their old numbers to make the switch. After this year, the penalty will no longer exist.
Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs said he considered a change, but opted not to because of the fans who already bought his No. 14 jersey over the years.
“After some thought,” Diggs tweeted, “I can’t change my number all the people that spent their hard earned money supporting the 14. I gotta keep it.”
But other veterans didn’t waste any time making the switch. That included third-year Ravens wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, who went back to his college No. 5 because of his favorite player growing up, Reggie Bush.
“I was excited when I heard I had the opportunity to get No. 5,” Brown said this past offseason. “So I was like, ‘You don’t know what could happen next year, so let’s just get it done now.’”
Other notable players sporting a single digit this season include Rams wideout DeSean Jackson (No. 1), Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette (No. 7), Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson (No. 7), Seahawks pass rusher Carlos Dunlap (No. 8) and Bears safety Eddie Jackson (No. 4).
But not everyone is in favor of the new rule. While some fans were making photoshopped jersey swaps on social media, others complained that the NFL was going to look too much like college football.
Within the league, Brady was adamantly opposed to the rule, writing on Instagram back in April: “Good luck trying to block the right people now!! !! Going to make for a lot of bad football.”
Brady’s argument is it will be harder for quarterbacks to identify what positions certain defenders are playing and communicate that properly to their linemen. Former quarterback and ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said he agrees, adding that he believes offenses could have some communication issues to begin the season.
“You’re going to have to go, ‘Hey, offensive lineman, you got 56, 59, 57, 14 and 7,’” Orlovsky said. “It’s going to be very confusing for guys to get on the same page, and I think we’re going to see teams that blitz a lot early have a lot of success.”
Ravens offensive lineman Bradley Bozeman said that while he understands Brady’s perspective, he believes that studying game tape will solve any communication issues that offensive players might have over facing a defensive player with an atypical number.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to study your people,” Bozeman said in June. “You’ve got to know who’s in the box; you’ve got to know who your most dangerous guys are to take care of — and it’s kind of that simple.”
Regardless of the naysayers, many of the players who did switch jerseys are now wearing numbers that have meaning to them and their families. Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard will wear No. 3 in remembrance of his late father, who wore the same number during his playing career at Oklahoma. Jalen Mills, a cornerback for the Patriots, is wearing No. 2 because that was his late uncle’s favorite number. And one of his New England teammates, outside linebacker Matthew Judon, changed his jersey to No. 9 to honor family as well.
“I’m one of 10 children, so I got nine siblings — every time I go out there, I represent them,” Judon said this past offseason. “I like 9; that’s one of the reasons I rock it. And 99 was taken, so I chose to use the new rule.”