The Official Uni Watch 2021 NFL Season Preview
The skinny on new uniforms, funky helmets and a major rule change around player numbers
Football, as they say, is a numbers game. Actually, they say that about every sport, right? But it will really be true this season in the NFL, because the league has changed its longstanding rules regarding uniform numbers. That’s going to create some unusual looks on the field this year, which is the first order of business in our annual Uni Watch NFL Season Preview.
The new numbering rules don’t eliminate all of the NFL’s pre-existing uni-numerical restrictions (offensive linemen can’t suddenly wear numbers typically worn by eligible receivers, for example), but they loosen up those restrictions considerably. The biggest change is that running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, cornerbacks and safeties are now allowed to wear single-digit numbers. That’s been standard for years in college football, but not in the NFL.
Some fans have said they think the new rules will make the NFL look too much like the NCAA. Some players don’t like the new policy either, including league mainstay Tom Brady, who thinks defensive players wearing unfamiliar numbers will screw up offensive blocking schemes. But none of that has stopped dozens of players from jumping at the chance to switch numbers (including several who are now suddenly able to wear the same number they wore in college), which will make for some incongruous-looking scenarios on the gridiron this season.
The new numbering rules are one of many uniform changes taking place this year. As for the rest of the changes, they’re contained in the following team-by-team rundown:
The Bills have been wearing gray facemasks since introducing their current uni set in 2011, but that’s changing this year. Gray is out and white is in:
Also, the Bills will wear their popular “standing buffalo” throwbacks on Dec. 6 (that’s a Monday-night game), when they host the Patriots.
No announced uni changes for the Dolphins, but they do have a new training complex, photos of which you can see here.
New England Patriots
No announced changes or uni news.
New York Jets
The Jets have added a “GK” memorial decal for assistant coach Greg Knapp, who was recently killed after being struck by a car while bicycling.
No announced changes or uni news.
The good news is that the Bengals have new uniforms this season. The bad news is that the new look isn’t all that different, or much better, than the old one (there’s a detailed Uni Watch assessment here):
On the plus side, the Bengals deserve credit for always posting their game-by-game jersey schedule every year — a simple, fan-friendly move that every team should do. Here’s their rundown for this season.
The Browns are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year and are marking the occasion on multiple fronts. First, there’s a very nice-looking anniversary logo, although it’s being used solely for promotional purposes, not as part of the uniform. Second, there’s a gorgeous 1946 throwback uniform (additional photos and info here):
The plan is for this uniform to be worn three times this season, although the team hasn’t yet announced the specific dates.
In addition, the Browns are going with old-school end zone graphics:
Meanwhile: The team’s training and administrative complex has a new name, thanks to a new naming rights deal.
It’s an annual rite of August: Each year the Steelers don’t wear their front helmet numbers for their preseason games, which always leads to a bit of confusion among fans who mistakenly think it’s a new uni change instead of a longstanding preseason quirk. Sure enough, the helmet numbers were missing for this year’s preseason slate, but they’ll be added now that the regular season is starting.
Indy has a new 1956 throwback, which they’ll wear for their Nov. 28 home game against the Bucs. It’s not all that different from the team’s standard uniform, although having the logos on the back of the helmet instead of the sides is a tad unusual (additional info and photos here):
Meanwhile: Earlier this year the Colts acquired quarterback Carson Wentz, who wore No. 11 with the Eagles and at North Dakota State. That number was worn last season by Colts wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., so there was some speculation about Wentz possibly trying to buy the number from him. But Pittman put an end to that talk by announcing that his number was not for sale at any price, so Wentz is wearing No. 2.
Although the Texans haven’t yet shared their game-by-game uniform schedule, they’ve announced their “gameday themes,” which we can use to extrapolate some of their uni choices. For example, the season opener against the Jags on Sept. 12 is the annual “Liberty White Out” game, so the Texans will presumably be wearing white at home on that date. “Battle Red Day” is Dec. 5, so the team will wear their red alternate jerseys against the Colts. And Dec. 26 is “Deep Steel Sunday,” which means they’ll dust off their solid-navy Color Rush uniforms for their game against the Chargers.
Meanwhile, the Texans have added a new steer-themed mascot, named El Bravo, to the tunnel that the players run through at the start of each game:
For the past several years, the Jags’ primary colored jersey has been black, with teal relegated to alternate status. This year they’re flipping the script — teal is primary, black is alternate.
Also: Center Brandon Lindor is poised to become the first player in Jags history to wear a gold captaincy patch, awarded to players who’ve been captain for more than four seasons:
As you can see in that tweeted photo, the Jags have also added “Own It” to their inner jersey collars. That slogan is a favorite of new head coach Urban Meyer.
Meanwhile, here’s an interesting side note: When running back James Robinson was a rookie last season, he wanted to wear No. 25 — the same number he wore at Illinois State — but that number was taken by defensive back D.J. Hayden, so Robinson wore No. 30. Hayden is no longer with the team this year, so Robinson has switched to No. 25. That’s a drag for fans who purchased his now-obsolete jersey last season, so Robinson is trying to make it up to them by offering to autograph the old jerseys.
The Titans added a memorial rear-helmet decal for former GM Floyd Reese for their final preseason game on Aug. 28. Despite multiple inquiries from your friendly uniform columnist, it’s not yet clear if that was a one-game thing or if it will carry over to the regular season — stay tuned.
Nothing new this season for the Broncos, but here’s their 2021 jersey schedule.
Kansas City Chiefs
Meanwhile, the gameday experience will be a little different for KC fans this season. First, the team has sold the naming rights to its field, which has resulted in some signage changes at Arrowhead Stadium. And second, Warpaint — a horse mascot that’s been a fixture at games since 2009 — has been retired.
Las Vegas Raiders
Nothing new this year for the Raiders, but it’s worth checking out this video showing the package they sent to their season ticket subscribers, which is loaded with cool graphics:
Los Angeles Chargers
No changes for the Chargers, but here’s their 2021 uniform schedule.
No team-wide changes for the Cowboys, but it’s worth noting that quarterback Dak Prescott, who’s worn Adidas shoes for the past five seasons, has switched to Jordan Brand this year, in part because the team’s equipment staff told him that Jordan provides more ankle support.
New York Giants
The Giants have scrapped their gray road pants and replaced them with a new set of white road pants. The new britches have red striping that matches the road jersey’s sleeve stripes (additional photos here):
Meanwhile, here’s the team’s full uniform schedule for this season.
Also, the Giants are retiring two uniform numbers this year. Eli Manning’s No. 10 will be retired during halftime of the team’s Sept. 26 game against the Falcons, and Michael Strahan’s No. 92 will get the honor during the Nov. 28 game against the Eagles.
No announced changes for Philly, but here’s a fun piece about some of their late-breaking uni number changes.
Washington Football Team
Washington is sticking with its placeholder team name for one more season but expects to announce a new identity — and presumably new uniforms and logos — early next year.
Meanwhile: Last season’s games were played in empty stadiums due to the pandemic. But with live fans returning this year, Washington has banned Native American headdresses and face paint.
No announced changes or uni news.
No announced changes or uni news.
Green Bay Packers
No team-wide changes this season for the Vikes, but cornerback Patrick Peterson, who’s previously worn No. 21, is taking advantage of the league’s new uni-numbering rules and switching to No. 7, the number he wore in college and high school.
Nice cross-sport gesture by the Falcons, who are retiring No. 44 for this season in honor of Atlanta Braves star Henry Aaron, who died last winter. Defensive back Tyler Hall wore that number for the Falcons last season but has conveniently moved on to the Rams this year, so the Aaron honor didn’t force any current Falcon to change numbers.
The Falcons have also been nice enough to provide their full 2021 jersey schedule.
The Panthers are very good about publishing their game-by-game jersey schedule each season, and this year is no exception.
On the uni-numerical front, rookie cornerback Jaycee Horn has chosen to wear No. 8 as a tribute to NBA great Kobe Bryant.
New Orleans Saints
No uni changes this year for the Saints, but it’s worth noting that their “home” opener — against the Packers on Sept. 12 — will be played in Jacksonville, as New Orleans continues its recovery from Hurricane Ida.
No word on whether the team will be wearing some sort of “New Orleans Strong”-style decal in the wake of the storm, but there’s plenty of precedent for that type of gesture — something to keep an eye on.
Whenever the Saints are able to play at home again (their next scheduled home date after the Packers game is on Oct. 3 against the Giants), their stadium will have a new moniker, as the Superdome has a new naming rights deal with Caesars Entertainment.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
As the defending Super Bowl champs, the Bucs will presumably be wearing some sort of championship jersey patch for their season opener against the Cowboys on Sept. 9. Nothing’s yet been announced on that front, but new banners at the team’s stadium have been featuring a championship logo, so the patch could have that same design:
In a related item, head coach Bruce Arians is sporting a new championship tattoo (additional info here):
And hey, you say you want the Super Bowl championship logo on your custom Bucs license plate? The Florida DMV has just what you’re looking for.
Finally, here’s the Bucs’ 2021 uniform schedule.
No uni changes for the Cardinals, but it’s worth noting that newly acquired defensive lineman J.J. Watt is wearing No. 99. That number had been retired for 1940s star Marshall Goldberg (back when the franchise was known as the Chicago Cardinals), but it’s being revived for Watt, with Goldberg’s family’s blessing.
Speaking of uni numbers, rookie wide receiver Rondale Moore wanted to wear No. 4 — the same number he wore at Purdue — but punter Andy Lee was wearing it, so Moore paid Lee to get him to give up the number. Lee is now wearing No. 14.
Los Angeles Rams
NFL teams routinely have a white jersey in their wardrobes, but the Rams didn’t have one last season. Instead, they had a deservedly mocked shade of light gray called “bone.” This year, thankfully, they’re adding a proper white jersey (additional photos here):
This jersey won’t replace the gray/bone design, at least not for now, but it adds a new option to the Rams’ mix-and-match combos. It will be worn for three games, all at night: Sept. 12 (the Sunday-night season opener at home against the Bears), Nov. 7 (Sunday night at home against the Titans) and Nov. 15 (Monday night on the road against the 49ers).
Here’s the team’s uniform schedule for this season.
San Francisco 49ers
Second, they’ve added a new throwback alternate uniform, which wil be worn for their Sept. 26 home opener against the Packers and for three additional games: Oct. 24 against the Colts, Nov. 15 against the Rams, and Dec. 19 against the Falcons (additional photos and info here).
This design is a shout-out to the uni that the Niners wore during their 1994 Super Bowl-winning season. That uni was itself a throwback to the team’s mid-1950s look, so this year’s version is actually a throwback of a throwback — very meta!
In addition, San Francisco will wear their white throwbacks on Dec. 5 in Seattle and on Dec. 23 in Tennessee. So that’s a total of six throwback games this year for the Niners — a plan that required league approval.
And of course a retro-themed anniversary season wouldn’t be complete without a retro-styled field design:
Meanwhile: The four projected starters in the defensive secondary have changed their uni numbers to 1 through 4.
Quarterback Russell Wilson was named in February as the latest Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year. So like all Payton honorees who are still active in the league, Wilson is now wearing the Payton logo — the one that looks like Darth Vader — as a jersey patch:
• For Week 1 games, all players will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks by wearing a helmet ribbon decal. Sideline personnel will wear lapel pins, and first responder caps will be worn during the Giants’ and Jets’ games (against the Broncos and Panthers, respectively). Full details here.
• If you see a particularly funky-looking helmet on the field this year, chances are it’s the new Vicis 02 Trench, the first football helmet designed specifically for linemen. Here’s 49ers center Alex Mack wearing it during a recent team practice:
As you can see, the helmet shell’s bumps and ridges are a bit challenging, but logos and stripes still look fine. Other players who’ve been trying out this helmet lately include KC guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Packers offensive linemen Lucas Patrick and Yosh Nijman, although it remains to be seen whether they’ll wear it during the regular season.
• Speaking of headgear, you may be seeing more NFL players wearing those weird-looking padded caps over their helmets during midweek practices this year, as seen here on a trio of Dolphins players:
Those items, which are called Guardian Caps, have become increasingly popular for practices at the college, high school and youth levels, and now they’ve been approved for NFL linemen to use as well. There’s some talk that they could eventually even be used during games, although that’s far from certain. Full details here.
• Remember the social justice messaging that appeared last season on rear helmet bumpers and in end zones? Those initiatives are continuing this year. In addition, a new “Say Their Stories” program will debut during the final two weeks of the regular season and continue into the playoffs, featuring helmet decals, on-field logos, banners and so on. No word yet on what those visuals will look like.
• In a new initiative, the NFL allowed foreign-born players to wear a helmet decal showing the national flag of their home country during preseason games. This isn’t carrying over to the regular season, at least for now, but it’s a good way for fans to learn a bit more about the players and also adds some new visual interest to the uniforms. Here’s hoping the league eventually makes this a permanent thing.
• NFL officials have been instructed to strictly enforce the anti-taunting rules this season.
• Looking ahead to next season, in 2022 the league will be scrapping the “one-shell rule” that’s been in effect since 2013, so alternate helmet colors will once again be allowed. The good news is that this will likely lead to the return of several sorely missed throwback designs; the potentially bad news is that it may also open the door to all sorts of “innovative” alternate uniforms. Be careful what you wish for, people.
And there you have it. Did we miss anything? Yeah, probably. If so, you know what to do. Enjoy the season!
Paul Lukas will have his annual NHL and NBA Season Previews next month. If you like this article, you’ll probably like his Uni Watch Blog and his weekly column on Bulletin, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and sign up for his mailing list so you won’t miss any of his future InsideHook columns. Want to learn more about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.
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