Tom Brady’s Last War With the NFL: Jersey Numbers

New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson leaned into the film ahead of his first NFL game last Sunday, but when he finally took the field, the Carolina Panthers got a surprise for him. Two of the players he had spent hours studying wore different shirt numbers.

That wasn’t the only confusing part. The numbers they picked were off-limits to defensive players in the NFL.

The start of this 2021 season included unknown venues. Urban Meyer roamed an NFL sideline. Matthew Stafford was a Ram from Los Angeles. And more guys were wearing oddly low numbers on their uniforms.

The reason goes back to an amendment to the league’s playing rules made in the offseason that upended decades of NFL orthodoxy. The revamped Rule 5, Section 1, Article 2 greatly expands the number choices available to players at their respective positions.

For the most part, the change was a fun chance to see players in new numbers. For others, it was a potential competitive advantage. For Tom Brady, it was a new opportunity to trash the NFL.

“I think it’s a stupid rule,” Brady said before the first week of the season.

Uniform numbers have been strictly codified under the idea that they help players and officials identify players and their positions. Quarterbacks are stuck – and stay stuck – wearing numbers 1-19, while offensive linemen must use 50-79.

Some job groups now have a much wider range. Running backs, previously limited to 20-49, can now also use 1-19 and 80-89. Wide receivers, who previously had to choose between 10-19 or 80-89, can now choose anywhere between 1-49 and 80-89.

Suddenly, single-digit numbers previously only available to quarterbacks, kickers and punters were fair game for the game’s most exciting backs and receivers. Tennessee Titans star receiver Julio Jones, a off-season acquisition from the Atlanta Falcons, adopted the No. 2 with his new team. Brady’s teammate, running back Leonard Fournette, moved up to No. 7.

Jalen Ramsey of the Los Angeles Rams changed his number to No. 5 this year.


Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

In some cases, this gave players the option to wear a number they had in college. Fifteen years ago, running back Reggie Bush tried — and failed — to convince the NFL to allow him to wear the No. 5 he used at USC. Now players have more freedom and fans can see something new. There didn’t seem to be much of a problem.

But the main source of consternation comes from players on the other side of football, where defensive backs previously had to be numbered 20-49 while linebackers had to wear 40-59 or 90-99. Now defensive backs can pick anywhere between 1-49. Linebackers have 1-59 and 90-99 at their disposal. (Poor defensive linemen in the trenches weren’t so lucky. They still have to use 50-79 or 90-99, like before.)

Those newly unlocked low numbers for defensive backs and linebackers — and the wide range of overlap between the positions — led some like Brady to say it could be confusing. The diagrams require offensive players to correctly identify defensive players and their positions. The radical change makes this task more difficult.

The Wall Street Journal looked at every roster from the first week of the season and found 54 defensive players who wore numbers 1 through 19. That’s less than two per team, but not all teams are alike. Seven teams had no such players. The Dallas Cowboys led the way with six.

It may also begin to explain why Brady, who lambasted the rule on social media in April when the rule change was first made, has remained the most high-profile curmudgeon on the subject. The Brady Buccaneers took on the Cowboys in the first week of the season.

While some players traded numbers in the spring and summer, several Cowboys defensive players executed the switch just days before the season opener. This meant that there were no movies available from them, even exhibition games, in their new issues.

Despite his complaints, Brady didn’t seem flustered when he entered the field. He threw for four touchdowns and 379 yards while leading the Buccaneers to a last-minute win over Dallas.

A prominent former quarterback disagreed with Brady. Peyton Manning has spent his entire career dissecting defenses, and while working as a commentator on Monday night’s Baltimore Ravens-Las Vegas Raiders game, he explained how offensive players are used to counting defensive players and identifying them by number. Manning nonetheless pooped at his longtime rival’s grip. He had a simple piece of advice: just study what number the defenders wear now.

“I think it’s awesome,” Manning said on ESPN2. “Let them have fun.”

The Cowboys’ spirit of play, however, was nothing compared to the Panthers’ gamble before their season opener. The Jets only learned that a few Carolina linebackers turned things around just before kickoff.

“There’s no rule on when you say that, so I didn’t see any reason to go and announce it ahead of time,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said after his team’s win. team.

New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson is fired by Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson.


Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

It only became clear that linebackers Shaq Thompson and Jermaine Carter had traded 54-for-7 and 56-for-4, respectively, in the hours before the game started. Rhule noted afterwards that it wasn’t a big conspiracy to keep it a secret for weeks, but after the changes were only approved in the last few days, they chose not to reveal them until there. be obliged. There are a number of logistical hurdles, including league approval and a potential payment to redeem their current stock of jerseys with their old number, before a player can make the switch.

Wilson, the Jets rookie quarterback, said the switcheroo was not a problem. “You always see them there,” Wilson said after the game. “They are great guys.”

Thompson, however, was a big deal for Wilson. Wearing his number 7, he finished the game with his first sack in two years and his first interception since 2016.

Write to Andrew Beaton at [email protected]

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