N.F.L. Loosens Uniform Rules, Setting Up Race for No. 1 (and No. 2)

You sometimes hear that N.F.L. stands for “No Fun League,” and the nickname has hung around because it resonates. Restrictions on celebrations and rules about shirt-tucking can sometimes make the league seem a little like an authoritarian boarding school.

In recent years, the N.F.L. has loosened its school tie a bit. More elaborate touchdown celebrations were authorized a few years back. And now players have at least some more leeway in what numbers they wear since the league approved a rule change on Wednesday.

In the past, players were limited to a fairly small range of numbers, dependent on their position. Regulations remain, but the loosened rules amendment opens up myriad possibilities.

Most notably, single-digit numbers, previously only available to quarterbacks, kickers and punters, will be an option to more players.

Among the changes: Running backs and defensive backs, formerly limited to jersey numbers between 20 and 49, will now gain access to 1 through 19 (and running backs can also now wear numbers in the 80s); linebackers, who were stuck with numbers in the 40s, 50s and 90s, can choose 1 through 39, as well; and wide receivers and tight ends will gain the single digits, 20s, 30s and 40s.

No changes are being made for quarterbacks and kickers, who still must wear numbers under 20, or to linemen, who wear 50 to 79.
The rule change was proposed because, in some cases, teams were running out of suitable numbers. During the pandemic, teams were allowed to have larger practice squads, eating into usable numbers. And some teams have retired enough numbers to significantly cut into their numbering flexibility. The Kansas City Chiefs, who proposed the change, have retired 10 numbers.

“Frankly, the players themselves really like this,” said Troy Vincent, the N.F.L.’s executive vice president for football operations. “They like having that option. Bigs like wearing single-digit numbers. It’s different, it’s not what we’re accustomed to seeing, someone on the D-line wearing a single-digit number, but it’s fun.”

As football developed, players at certain positions began to migrate to certain numbers, and the N.F.L. began to codify its numbering rules in the 1950s. The big change came in 1973, when strict rules were put in place, tying numbers to position.

In other sports, numbers are primarily used so that fans can identify players, and perhaps to allow a coach to bellow, “Stop No. 34!” So restrictions are few. At many levels of basketball, but not in the N.B.A., players are limited to numbers with digits from 0 to 5. That way referees can signal who fouled using just the fingers of one hand.

But nobody is going to mind too much if No. 27 is worn by a slugging center fielder, Mike Trout, on the Angels, and an ace starting pitcher, Aaron Nola, on the Phillies.

In football, though, numbers help officials tell if players are improperly lined up out of position. Do you see No. 66 (reserved for linemen) lined up in the backfield or out wide? There’s probably an illegal formation flag on the way.

At least one star player is not a fan of the new rules. “Good luck trying to block the right people now,” wrote Tom Brady on Instagram. “Why not let the linemen wear whatever they want too? Why have numbers? Just have colored jerseys.”

“Dumb,” he added.

Numbers matter to players. Every season, stories appear about rookies or traded players seeking to grab a desired number from a teammate who already wears it. Sometimes the dispute is resolved with payments that have on occasion reached five figures. The N.F.L.’s new rules may mean some pro players will be able to return to numbers they wore and liked in college, which has more permissive rules.

Still missing from the N.F.L. are 0 and 00, currently worn by more than 30 N.B.A. players, including Carmelo Anthony (0) and Damian Lillard (00). Those numbers have been banned from the N.F.L. since the 1973 reforms, although the Hall of Fame center Jim Otto wore 00 in the ’60s and ’70s.

Also missing from the league are fractions, like the ⅛ worn by the 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel of the St. Louis Browns in 1951, and two-digit numbers beginning with 0, like the 09 Benito Santiago wore with the Padres in the early ’90s. Mexican soccer has even crossed the final frontier and gone to some triple-digit numbers.