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Guide to NFL Uniform Numbers
Football fans can easily recall the jersey numbers of their favorite NFL players. Bud have you ever wondered why they had those numbers to begin with? In college sports the numbering system isn't very rigid. It's not uncommon to see defensive backs and running backs with single digit numbers. However, the NFL has specific rules when it comes to uniform numbers. Every position on the football field has a set range of numbers they are permitted to wear. Here is a guide to how the uniform system in the NFL works.
History Of Uniform Numbers
The NFL first established a jersey number system in 1952. The range of numbers by position was established in 1973. In addition, guidelines involving where numbers could be placed on jerseys were also established. The uniform policy that year also eliminated the use of 0 and 00 from jerseys. Previously a couple of NFL players had worn those numbers including George Plimpton and Jim Otto. The basic thinking behind the range of numbers was to establish who was eligible to touch the football. For example, offensive linemen are not eligible to receive passes. The numbering system made it easy for officials to keep track of who could touch the football and who couldn't. The uniform system that exists today hasn't changed much since 1973 although there have been exceptions throughout the years.
Quarterbacks, kickers, and punters wear jersey numbers between 1 and 19. There haven't been any exceptions to this rule since the 1973 policy. Wide Receivers wear jersey numbers between 80 and 89 and 10 and 19. In 2004, the NFL added 10 to 19 to the list of eligible numbers for receivers due to teams not having enough numbers available. Prior to that, Keyshawn Johnson was permitted to wear the number 19 in the 1990's but was fined for doing so. Tight ends can wear the same jersey numbers as receivers. They can also wear 40-49 in certain situations when other numbers are not available. Running backs wear numbers in the range of 20 to 49. Offensive linemen wear numbers between 60 and 79. Centers generally wear numbers in the 50's with few exceptions. There are exceptions in these rules. The main exception is that when a player changes positions he does not have to change numbers. A primary example is Chicago wide receiver Devin Hester(notes). He wears number 23 because he was drafted as a cornerback.
Defensive backs wear the same jersey number range as running backs. Exceptions only occur if the player changes positions. Linebackers wear numbers between 50 and 59 or 90 and 99. Defensive linemen can wear between 60 and 79 or 90 and 99. Occasionally defensive linemen can wear numbers in the 50's. The main exceptions on the defensive side of the ball occur when players go to a team that plays a 4-3 defense from a team that plays a 3-4 defense or vice-versa. In this case the player may switch between linebacker and defensive linemen but they will not have to change their numbers.
While it is not banned, the practice of retiring numbers is generally frowned upon by the NFL. The reason behind this is that if many numbers are retired there won't be enough numbers for new players to wear. Several teams do not officially retire numbers. Oakland has no retired numbers while teams like Pittsburgh and Dallas have numbers that are unofficially retired. Still, some teams do retire numbers. If enough numbers are retired the NFL would have to modify the current number policy much like they did in 2004 with the wide receiver position. Unless the issue is unavailable numbers the NFL is rigid in the policy. Saints running back Reggie Bush(notes) famously pushed to wear the number 5 but was denied.
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