In American football, why do QBs wear low numbers, while linemen wear higher ones?

William from Chico asks: “In American football, what is the origin of the general number groupings assigned to the different positions on the team, i.e. QBs wearing numbers 1-19?”

For most of its life, the NFL was the Wild West as far as numbers were concerned. A 300 lb. tackle could wear number 3. Quarterbacks could sport 60. Then came Rule 5, Section 3, Article 3c. Enacted in the spring of 1973, it established a jersey-numbering system that dictated which players can wear certain numbers. The list of who can wear what is here. The system helped referees identify players by position, an important detail in deciding who is eligible to receive the ball. Active players not in compliance with the new numbering regime were allowed to continue wearing their preferred digit.

Jersey numbers in football are no small matter. There is a 440-page book devoted to the subject. If a player winds up on a team and “his number” has already been assigned, deals are inevitably hatched. After landing with the 49ers in 1989, defensive lineman Jim Burt reportedly bought nose tackle Rollin Putzier three cases of beer to wear number 64. Today these deals require legal consultation.

Some players become their numbers—Walter Payton was number 34, Reggie White owned 92, and the mention of Larry Csonka brings images of the number 39. In such cases, teams retire numbers as if others might somehow sully the player’s legacy by wearing his number. Chicago can’t seem to part with a player without considering a numeric tribute. (They’ve wished adieu to 13 numbers.)

In contrast, Oakland has retired no numbers despite an impressive list of Hall of Famers including Marcus Allen, Howie Long, and Jim Otto. If owner Al Davis is worried about running out of numbers, Otto seems the perfect candidate to be the first Raiders honoree. He wore the double aught, “00” jersey. Under Rule 5, Section 3, Article 3c, the NFL banned players from picking either zero or double zero. So no one can use Otto’s number anyway.

This wrinkle means the Lions might consider honoring George Plimpton. As chronicled in his book “paper Lion,” Plimpton favored a goose egg during his hapless season quarterbacking in Detroit.

Thanks for the question, and keep them coming.


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