Numbered Crunchers


If you watched the NFL highlights on September 21, you saw the replay of Viking wide receiver Kelly Campbell streaking down the field with a game-breaking touchdown reception. Did something seem slightly amiss there, something you couldn’t quite put your finger on before the next batch of highlights came up? If so, it’s because Campbell is a subtle anomaly: He wears uniform No. 16, placing him among the handful of wide receivers whose numbers don’t fall in the 80-through-89 range.

Some quick background: The NFL specifies uni numbers by position—offensive linemen wear 60 through 79, linebackers wear 50 through 59, and so on. But injuries, roster logjams, and retired numbers occasionally conspire to create exceptions to these rules, with wide receivers wearing 10 through 19 if 80 through 89 are unavailable. Such instances, however, are rare: Of the 160 or so wideouts in the league, only five are teen-numbered, and most of those are first- or second-year players who are buried on the depth chart and rarely see game action. So the sight of Campbell hauling in a pass with a big 16 on his back, while technically within league guidelines, nonetheless makes the universe feel ever so slightly out of alignment, much like a baseball pitcher wearing No. 6.

Numbers were more of a freestyle affair in the NFL’s early days, in part because most players played both offense and defense, making numerical regimentation impossible. As offensive and defensive platooning became more common in the early 1950s, the first number guidelines were imposed, primarily to distinguish eligible and ineligible receivers. But it’s been a slow, evolving process. Look at photos or videos from the early 1970s, for example, and you’ll see defensive linemen wearing numbers in the 80s, tight ends in the 30s, kickers and punters in the 30s and 40s—all unthinkable today.

The current regulations, incidentally, don’t allow any player to wear double-zero, once the visual signature of Oiler wideout Ken Burrough and, of course, Hall of Fame center Jim Otto of the Raiders, whose number brilliantly mirrored his surname, creating Uni Watch’s all-time favorite name/number combo. Here’s hoping the NFL provides a special dispensation for any similarly palindromic players in the future, whatever their positions.