Friday, August 24, 2007

The best and worst NFL uniform redesigns

The NFL preseason is in full swing, and we're all well aware of what the biggest story of the year is going to be. Oh, sure, there has been some talk about this spot of trouble that Michael Vick has gotten himself into, and about the contract dispute that kept Larry Johnson out of camp for a couple weeks, and about JaMarcus Russell watching his career go down the tubes. There are quarterback competitions here and there, and there have been a few unfortunate injuries. All the usual preseason stuff.

But the biggest buzz of all is about, of course, the San Diego Chargers and their new uniforms.

Let me say that I do like these things. If the Chargers weren't going to bring back their powder-blue uniforms full-time, these make a pretty good compromise. The white helmet evokes the team's AFL glory days -- plus it means the equipment manager won't have to repaint any helmets before and after throwback games. I also like the way the lightning bolts on the shoulders are inset in white, echoing the treatment on the helmet. The team has gone through at least a dozen uniform styles in the past 40 years -- some great, some awful -- but these are a nice fit. We'll see how long they last, and how much fans will appreciate them.

Why do teams redesign their uniforms? For several reasons. To try to goose the fortunes of a flagging franchise. To get rid of an outdated look. To just seek a fresh start with a new coach, or under new ownership, or even in a new stadium. Or they do it for marketing reasons, to cash in by getting fans to buy brand new versions of their favorite players' jerseys to replace their now "obsolete" ones. We can be pretty sure that the Chargers' redesign, after a 14-2 season, falls into the latter category, as do most uniform changes in pro sports.

In the recent history of NFL redesigns, the Chargers' latest update falls in the middle. It's an improvement -- as any redesign should be -- and it certainly earns points for respecting the team's tradition. San Diego could have done much, much worse than these, but I suspect that they could have also done much, much better. For that reason, while I approve of the uniforms, I don't think the redesign itself was that big of a deal.

This leads us to the question of the day: What are the best, and worst, NFL uniform redesigns? To answer that, we need to decide what our time frame is, and describe what makes a successful uniform. First, the time frame. I'm going to limit the discussion to the past decade or so. Above all, uniforms are clothing, and judgments on clothing are always dependent on the prevailing styles of the day. The Atlanta Falcons' redesign of 1970, for example, replaced a "dated" uniform with one that today would be considered even more so. Was it a good redesign? For the times, yes. Today, no. That's why we're only going back to about the mid-1990s.

What makes a successful uniform? First, consistency. The thing just has to "hold together." The colors have to be a good match. The jersey numbers and the "TV numbers" (those on the sleeve) have to be easily readable and well-scaled. Stripes, trim and piping have to properly accent and emphasize various features, as well as complement one another. Next is identifiability. At a glance, you should be able to identify which team you're looking at -- without seeing the helmet. Further, unless there are extreme circumstances (see Tampa Bay), you should be able to trace the lineage from the old uniform to the new one. Finally, there's versatility. No uniform will go very long without any changes. The team might want to add a commemorative patch on the shoulder, or a secondary logo on the sleeve, or maybe change the stripe detail. The uniform should be able to accept these minor alterations without being thrown out of balance.

A good example of a successful uniform is that worn by the Green Bay Packers. Its colors and design are consistent. When you look at it, you know immediately which team it is. And although it has undergone a number of changes -- including different striping patterns, a "G" logo on the sleeves, and uniform numbers on the hips -- it has remained the same basic uniform since 1959. It's not the league's best uniform, but it has stood the test of time better than any.

What follows, then, is Down and Distance's exclusive rankings of the five best and five worst NFL uniform redesigns of recent years.



Left: Doug Williams, before. Right: Cadillac Williams, after.

The ne plus ultra of NFL uniform redesign. Looking to slam the door on twenty years of thoroughly ugly play -- in more ways than one -- the Buccaneers' new ownership threw out every single element of the team's, uh, idiosynchratic appearance: color scheme, styling, logo, typeface. The Creamsicle orange that had been the Bucs' signature color was all but eliminated (it remains only in the piping around the numbers and down the leg). Red was promoted from accent color to dominant color, and the new helmet and pants were ... "pewter."

Those of us who grew up watching our favorite teams pound the pathetic Bucs year after year (except for 1979) have a soft spot for the old unis. We learned at an early age that the color of futility is not dour and drab; it's bright and cheery! But Tampa Bay's sad, sorry record is exactly why the redesign was such a good idea. One of the reasons that some uniform "innovations" offend so many fans is that they totally disrespect a team's traditions. (Think about the bright orange "alternate" jerseys occasionally worn by the Bears. Why didn't they just dig up Papa Bear Halas, crack open his skull, and crap in it?) The Buccaneers, however, had absolutely no traditions worth respecting, so a complete, top-to-bottom redesign was not only warranted, it was demanded.

From the stands or on television, the new color scheme is the most noticeable aspect of the new design. But the change that speaks the loudest is seen in the logo. The team's original insignia, "Bucco Bruce," with his feather, earring, disturbing wink and dandy little dagger, was replaced with a leering human skull and three cutlasses. In a way, you could say the theme was still Pirates of the Caribbean, but the emphasis had shifted. The old Bucs uniforms were Johhny Depp's androgynous, over-the-top Jack Sparrow -- more swash than buckle. The new Bucs uniforms are the Pirates ride at Disneyland: kind of cartoonish, but not absolutely ridiculous. The uniforms are what you make of them, which is all you can ask for. Your play, not your clothes, should do the talking.

The Buccaneers of old had the gayest uniforms in the league, and I mean that in the original sense of the word. Even when they were briefly good, they were a joke: Look at the playoff team dressed up like boiled carrots! Perhaps that's why the Bucs have never worn them since, even for NFL-sanctioned "throwback" occasions like Thanksgiving. In the 10 seasons since the team switched uniforms, Tampa Bay has been to the playoffs six times, compared with three times in the previous 21 years, and, of course, they won the Super Bowl five years ago.

So if the redesign was so radical, so appropriate, and so seemingly successful, why is it only the fifth-best of the past decade? Because viewed by themselves, rather in comparison to the Bucco Bruce era, the new uniforms aren't very special. The pewter-red-pewter combination seen above is just too dark; replacing the red jersey with white on the road (or at home in hot weather) leaves the uniform weirdly unbalanced. Ten years later, the look is already quite dated -- like granite countertops and maple cabinets will be a decade from now. It's no uglier than, say, the Carolina Panthers' uniforms, but to live at the top, it should be much better.


Left: Mark Gastineau, before. Right, Chad Pennington, after.

Sometimes the best redesign is the one that never occurs. Such was the thinking at the Meadowlands a decade ago. In the space of a few years, both of New York's teams ditched the uniforms they had worn for two decades and brought back classic styles that they had once abandoned.

It started with the Jets, whose well-meaning attempt to "modernize" their look in 1978 had done away with the uniform that held the spotlight in the most famous moment in Jets history: Broadway Joe Namath trotting off the field after Super Bowl III, his finger raised in triumph and his white helmet joggling loosely on his head. The Jets' disco-era redesign left the team trapped in generic uniforms topped by green helmets with cheap-looking script and a stylized jet plane. If you didn't know better, you'd have sworn you were looking at a USFL team.

In 1998, Jets coach Bill Parcells urged management to bring back the uniforms and logo of the Namath years -- a time when, as a young coach, he looked up to the Jets as a class organization rather than a running joke. Because whatever Parcells wants, Parcells gets, the team complied with his wishes. (Then he up and quit a year later.) The Jets' current uniforms are a darker green than the version of the 1960s and '70s, and the logo on the helmet is more round and less football-shaped, but the lines are mostly the same. What the Jets are wearing is essentially a throwback uniform, and it's beautiful. It just says "football."

Left: Lawrence Taylor, before. Right: Eli Manning, after.

Two years later, in 2000, the Giants decided it was time to update their look. They, too, found their future in the past.

The Giants had been wearing the same design since 1976. Unlike a lot of the "old" uniforms on this list, there really wasn't anything wrong with it. It was a plain, no-nonsense design: dark-blue jerseys with white numbers piped in red; helmets that were the same blue, with "GIANTS" written in block script. Also, there were some definite good vibes associated with the uniforms: The Giants, coached by Parcells, won two Super Bowls in them.

By 2000, though, the Giants hadn't done much of anything for nearly a decade, going 70-73-1 since the last championship. For a team wanting to look forward, the uniforms that had been worn by Phil Simms and bloodied by Lawrence Taylor (above) were uncomfortable reminders of the past. Plus, they just looked ... corporate. Rather than try to come up with an entirely new scheme, the Giants borrowed major elements from past uniforms. First among them was the lowercase "NY" logo that had graced the Giants' helmets throughout the 1960s and early '70s. The team also put uniform numbers on the front of the helmet, where they'd been from the 1940s to the 1976 redesign. Though the helmet styling was classic, the color was new: a metallic, royal blue. Historically, the Giants had worn solid-color blue or red jerseys and gray or white pants. The 2000 redesign incorporated these elements, too. The standard home jersey was blue, but a red alternate was introduced. Neither jersey had stripes. The new pants were gray, a fairly controversial decision at the time because they didn't look very crisp on television.

The new Giants uniform took some getting used to, but in the end, its appeal was the same as that of the new Jets uniform. The look was classic, old-school. It spoke of cool autumn afternoons in the outdoors. Eventually fans embraced both of the teams' new looks. It helped, of course, that in the Jets' first season in their permanent throwbacks, they went to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since 1982, and that in the Giants' first season in theirs, they returned to the Super Bowl. We'll see that this is something of a theme. But not for everyone.


Left: John Elway, before. Right: Jake Plummer, after.

It's hard to believe now, with teams across the league outfitting their players in all sorts of ridiculous clown suits, but the Broncos created quite a stir when they came out with their new uniforms in 1997. Up to that point, nearly every team in the league based their uniform on the same template -- a template you can sum up in one word: stripes. Stripes running over the top of the helmet. Stripes around the shirt sleeves. Stripes running down the pant legs. And stripes around the socks.

Then, out of nowhere, here came the Denver Broncos. Cavalierly casting aside the heavily striped uniforms they had worn in reaching (and losing) four Super Bowls, they took the field with an entirely new look: White pants and blue jerseys with no stripes at all, just bold orange swipes running from each knee to the upper chest. If the purists weren't already recoiling, the classic, blocky number font was replaced with a high-visibility sans serif typeface. And, of course, there was the helmet. The Broncos' signature look had long been orange jerseys and bright blue helmets adorned with a snorting white horse rearing up inside an orange D. But now the snorting horse was gone, the D was gone, the bright blue was gone. The team had a new insignia: a pissed-off horse charging forward across a field of navy blue. Oh, how some people hated it.

Today, however, we look at the old and new uniforms side by side and chuckle and wonder what the fuss was about. The "Orange Crush" look had been a relic of the 1970s since before the 1970s even got started, as the Broncos first wore it in 1968. Both the jerseys and the helmets were too bright, and there was complete dissonance between the two: The shade of blue used on the helmet didn't appear anywhere else on the uniform; the various stripes were dark blue. You can't mix colors from the same family like that. Imagine putting a midnight-green Eagles helmet atop a forest-green Packers uniform. Yech, right? Well, that was the look the purists just loved in Denver.

Two things helped the once-reviled Broncos uniforms become much-beloved. First, John Elway -- the quarterback who "just couldn't win the big one" back when Peyton Manning was in grade school -- and his teammates went out and won two consecutive Super Bowls in the new duds. And second, other teams started copying the Broncos template -- and inevitably began "improving" on it. As bastardized versions cropped up in the NFL and filtered down to the college ranks, it became clear that what made Denver's uniforms so truly radical was their pared-down simplicity. They were uniforms that made pro football players look like professional football players.


Left: Drew Bledsoe, before. Right: Adam Vinatieri, after.

Start talking about the New England Patriots and uniform redesigns, and most everyone will think you're talking about 1993, when the team abandoned the scheme it had been wearing since 1961. That was indeed a major change -- almost as radical as the Buccaneers' redesign, although the Patriots didn't toss out their entire color palette -- but it was most certainly not a change for the better. The team just switched from one shade of ugly to another. Seven years later, just in time for the Pats' ascension to dynasty status, the design was updated and refined to produce one of the most handsome uniforms in the NFL.

First, let's go back to the uniform, seen on Andre Tippett at left, that the Patriots had worn since the Kennedy administration: Red jerseys and white pants at home; white jerseys and red pants on the road. The white helmet featured longtime mascot Pat Patriot, bent over to snap the ball (and hoping Bucco Bruce wasn't back there). These uniforms served the Pats for three decades, including their first Super Bowl appearance, in which they offered token opposition to the Bears and joined Walter Payton as supporting players in the Refrigerator Perry Freak Show.

By '93, those uniforms were hopelessly outdated, and with Bill Parcells coming on board as coach, a redesign was in order. From the neck up, it was a success: Pat Patriot was replaced with the now-iconic "Flying Elvis" logo. Unfortunately, the pants and jerseys that were cooked up at short-term owner James Orthwein's behest were monstrosities. Start with the uniform numbers, which were not only italicized, but also shaded -- straight out of MacWrite, circa 1986. The royal-blue home jerseys had white numbers shaded in red; the white road jerseys had red numbers shaded in blue. The jerseys themselves had, I kid you not, vertical stripes (more clearly visible here). Topping off the jerseys, quite literally, were enormous Flying Elvises draped over each shoulder. Finally, running down each pant leg were fat stripes of red and blue.

The post-'93 uniforms were a complete mess, and in 1996 they resulted in the greatest Super Bowl uniform blowout ever, when the Packers, in their timeless, Lombardian green and gold, shredded the togs from Uncle Sam's Special Ed Depot.

Fast-forward a few years, and former Parcells assistant Bill Belichick returns to Foxboro as the new head coach of the Patriots -- determined, Anakin-Sywalker-like, to do everything better than his former mentor. Upon his arrival, the Patriots tore up the uniforms again. But rather than start from scratch like last time, they kept the few good elements and discarded the rest. The vertical stripes were, mercifully, gone. The new dominant color was navy blue, rather than "royal" blue, which had been a totally incongruous choice for a team named in honor of the Minutemen who rose up against King George (the British one). The macrocephalic Elvises on the shoulders were shrunk considerably and moved down the sleeves. The use of red was minimized; it now appears only as piping, particularly along the wide navy stripe that runs from the armpit to the bottom of the pants.

The new uniforms are elegant, understated and dignified. They were designed to be modern, making use of a modified Broncos template, without letting the color wheel spin out of control, as would happen later in Buffalo and Atlanta. Tampa got one Lombardi Trophy out of its new uniforms. Denver got two. New England got three and counting. These are the uniforms of a true champion.

1. ST. LOUIS RAMS, 2000

Left, Jim Everett, before. Right, Marc Bulger, after.

Well, now here's a twist. The Buccaneers, Giants, Broncos and Patriots switched uniforms on the way to the Super Bowl. The Rams, however, redesigned theirs the year after they won it all. Sure, they made it to another Super Bowl in the new duds, but they lost that game to the Patriots. Really, then, wouldn't it have been better for them just to have kept the old uniforms? Maybe ... if winning is all you care about. But sometimes you have to answer a higher call, and that call is aesthetics. I think it was Donald Rumsfeld who said that sometimes the right thing to do isn't the popular thing to do. Or maybe that was Fawn Hall. Regardless, immediately after winning Super Bowl XXXIV, the Rams stripped off those tired, dated blue uniforms with the banana-yellow accents and tossed them into the dustbin of history. When they next took the field, they did so in a striking navy-and-gold ensemble that will set the standard for uniform redesigns for years to come.

Looking at the old Rams uniforms, you might not be able to put your finger on what's so wrong. Sure, the colors are too bright, but they're no worse than what you see on several other teams. And yeah, the ram's-horn styling that loops over the shoulders is stupid, but no more so than, say, the Bengals' tiger stripes. No, the big problem is this: While you can put white directly on top of any color, and you can put any color directly on top of white, you cannot put a color on top of another color without piping. Look at Jim Everett's uniform above. He looks flat, two-dimensional, like he's a cardboard cutout of a quarterback. Now look at Marc Bulger in the top photo. Every place on the jersey where blue meets gold, there's white trim. That makes the numbers and other accent elements jump off the jersey. The effect makes him three-dimensional. It also imparts motion: Even though Everett is rolling out while Bulger is standing flat-footed, Bulger just looks more kinetic, and that's because of the uniform.

That change alone made the Rams' uniform redesign highly successful, but several other elements combined to make it the best in the last 25 years, not just the past decade. The most obvious was the color scheme. The bright blue and yellow that had looked so great on crude color TV way back when had become more and more obnoxious as time passed and technology improved. So the team dialed the colors way back to a navy blue and a beautiful soft gold. The next biggest change was the horn-based design scheme. The Rams had been wearing essentially the same uniform since the mid-1960s, though the colors changed from blue and white to blue and yellow in 1973. The signature element, of course, was the looping ram horns on the helmet and shoulders. It was a provocative and futuristic concept forty years ago, but by the end of the 20th cetury, it was just dated. The redesign kept the horn on the helmet -- it was pretty much untouchable, anyway -- but the new colors gave it a more subdued profile. Meanwhile, the big, ugly horns on the jersey were done away with, replaced with gold rings that went over the shoulder and under the armpit, alluding to the horns without actually using them. The TV numbers were moved from the sleeve (where the horn had wrapped around them) to the top of the shoulder. Wrapping up the redesign, the team added its new charging-ram logo to the sleeves and did away with the stripes (seen here) on the pants and socks.

The old Rams uniforms were more than a little bit comical. There's nothing quite like the sight of 300-pound men stampeding around with bright yellow pinwheels on the sides of their heads. The new ones are stately and dignified -- in the football sense. They look great hauling in an 80-yard touchdown pass or hauling down a quarterback. And the new road uniforms, as seen on Bulger in the lower right photo above, are simply the best-looking standard uniforms in the entire National Football League. In the past five years or so, the Rams have slipped back toward mediocrity, but in the one area that counts more than anything else in today's America -- image -- they are without peer. They are true champions.



Left: Shaun Alexander, before. Right: Alexander, after.

If we had to come up with a general rule about what makes a uniform redesign good or bad, it would probably go like this: A good redesign starts with a bad uniform, and a bad redesign starts with a good uniform. Like any such rule, though, there are bound to be exceptions. The Giants, discussed above, are an exception to the first part of this rule. Their previous uniform wasn't ugly so much as it was just generic and characterless -- like something you'd see on a fictional football team in a movie. If the Giants hadn't changed, no one would be complaining today. Their uniform just wouldn't stand out. (On that subject, you may be asking why the Arizona Cardinals didn't make either of these lists. It's because their redesign just swapped 20th-century generic for 21st-century generic. It's a wash. If they'd really wanted a sharp-looking uniform, they should have considered the ones designed by "DRutka" here)

The exception to the second part of our rule is best exemplified by the Seattle Seahawks. As they prepared to open a new stadium and a new era in 2002, it seemed like a good time to revisit their uniforms, which had not undergone a major update since Seattle joined the league alongside Tampa Bay as an expansion team in 1976. The Seahawks' original uniform was a favorite of mine; I thought the combination of blue and green was stunning. But even I could see that by the turn of the century, some elements needed updating, particularly the pants and the helmet. The pants were a dull gray with stripes that were far too thin. The helmet was metallic silver and proved to be a poor match with the blue and green of the team's totem-pole bird logo, which was inspired by Indian art of the Northwest.

If the Seahawks had retained their gorgeous sapphire-blue jerseys, switched to a blue or even white helmet, and gone with white pants with thicker stripes, they'd have been strong candidates for the list of the NFL's best redesigns. Instead, they threw out the color palette and vomited up an entirely new one. Sure, they wound up in the Super Bowl with the revised look, but that has more to do with the collapse of the NFC than the inspirational effect of a new suit of clothes.

The defining characteristic of the Seahawks' new uniforms is the base color, a bizarre concoction that spills out from the intersection of blue, green and gray. It's as if Seahawks management decided that the original colors were too evocative of the open ocean, and they wanted something that reminded fans of Puget Sound on a cold, overcast winter afternoon. (The color is called "Pacific blue," but it's nothing like the Pacific Ocean you see in California.) Even worse, the primary accent color is a fluorescent green, used as piping down the leg and around the sleeves. Why? So you can see the players when the fog rolls in? The neon brightness of the green merely draws attention to the drab dullness of the "blue." According to the team's website, there's supposedly some navy blue in the uniforms, too, but as you can see in the photo above, it turns black in context.

Compounding these sins is the fact that the jerseys and pants are the same damn color. There has been a lot of this going around in the past several years, but for the most part the monochromatic look has been done only as a novelty -- the Bengals wearing all black a couple times a year, for example, or the Titans wearing all blue. Seattle had to go and make this gimmick their standard look. Who were they trying to look like? The Buffalo Bills? We'll soon see how good of an idea that is.

Were Seattle's old uniforms total garbage? No, but they definitely needed work. Are Seattle's new uniforms total garbage? No, but they aren't an improvement. They're just a different -- and weird -- shade of blah. When you have the ability to start from scratch, and have all the money in the world to play with, you have simply got to do better.


Left: Randy Moss, before. Right, Brad Johnson, after.

For more than 40 years, the Vikings' uniforms had been models of versatility. Their simple canvas of purple jerseys and white pants proved able to accommodate nearly every uniform innovation that came along. Three-quarter-length sleeves? No problem. Over-the-shoulder stripes? Absolutely. Plain white numbers? Color-piped numbers? Done and done. TV numbers looked good both on top of the shoulder and on the sleeve. Even the marketing trends of placing alternate logos on the sleeve and commemorative patches on the shoulder fit seamlessly into the Vikes' design.

So naturally someone had to come along, dick around with the design, and muck it all up. When Zygi Wilf took possession of the team in 2005, the Vikings were coming unglued. Fred Smoot's Enchanted Blowjob Cruise would soon make the team a focus of local outrage and nationwide ridicule. Wide receiver Randy Moss was giving Joe Buck and the local constabulary conniptions and bruises, respectively. Onterrio Smith had been arrested in an airport with a plastic penis and a jar of powdered pee (and I'm sorry, but there's just no euphemism for that). The team was a mess, and Wilf was determined to turn over a new leaf. And what a sorry-looking, purple-and-white mishmosh of a leaf it was.

Down and Distance has covered this ground before, both cheekily and with the mock seriousness it deserves, so we'll just recap the highlights here. The Vikings' new threads provide a textbook example of a uniform redesign that was carried out for its own sake. The old uniforms were neither dated nor stuffy. They embodied a proud tradition of both success and struggle. The logos were widely known and respected. The colors were not silly. And the old uniforms had an appealing harmony of design, a well-balanced treatment of a classic, royal color scheme.

The new uniforms are just a jumbled mess: Panels of white and purple fabric assembled seemingly at random. Shoulders that look like the flag of Macedonia. A half-hearted attempt to follow the Broncos template with a side stripe that changes colors halfway up the thigh. Norseman logos on the hips and upper back(!). Player names in a new serif font that, while attractive, is totally at odds with the ultramodern look the rest of the uniform is shooting for. The one thing they got right in the redesign was the helmet. Shading was added to the Viking horn to give it more depth, a nice change from the old version.

So the new uniforms are butt-ugly, but that's not the only reason this was a bad idea. As we've said, a primary reason to redesign a uniform is just to sell more merchandise. But even with that fact in mind -- or rather, especially with that fact in mind -- this redesign is a flat failure. See, by the time Wilf got around to redesigning the uniform, the team had been purged of nearly all of its stars -- and it had not developed any new ones. When you do a redesign, you want fans to run out and buy the new version of their favorite player's jersey. However, at the start of the 2006 season, the first in the new duds, many Vikings fans didn't have a favorite player because the team had cleaned house and was rebuilding. If you went to a Vikings game in 2004, something like half the jerseys in the crowd would have been Moss's or Daunte Culpepper's. Had the uniforms been redone back then, you could have sold a warehouse full of No. 84 and No. 11 shirts in the new designs, then, after those players were gone, sold their replacements' jerseys.

The Vikings will have no such "double-back" sales. Adrian Peterson may turn into a star (of course he will). So might Chad Greenway (also a good chance) and Tarvaris Jackson (har-dee har har). But the team will only get to sell their jerseys once to each customer. What a missed opportunity! Fans, or at least those who don't remember what Ann Landers said about being taken advantage of, may not like being manipulated and treated like cash machines. But if a team is going to try to suck money out of your pocket, you'd like to think they're competent about doing so. If they can't get one over on an idiot like you, how are they going to do it to the opposition?


Left: Boomer Esiason, before. Right: Carson Palmer, after.

Let's start with a history lesson: The Cincinnati Bengals came into existence in 1968 as the bastard child of a political deal and a personal grudge. The deal was the AFL-NFL merger. In order to win the approval of Congress, the NFL had to agree (on the sly, of course) to put an expansion franchise in New Orleans, as a reward for the Louisiana lawmakers who provided the antitrust relief necessary for the merger to move forward. To ensure that there would be an even number of teams when the merger became final, the AFL added an expansion team of its own, in Cincinnati. The coach and part-owner of the new franchise was Paul Brown, the living legend who a generation earlier had all but invented the modern game of pro football as coach of the Cleveland Browns, after whom the team had been named.

The aforementioned grudge was the one Brown held against Cleveland's owner, the man to whom he had sold a controlling stake in the team in 1961 and who had fired him a year later. Because Brown couldn't name his new team the Cincinnati Fuck You Art Modells, he instead called it the Bengals. Not content merely to have a team in the same state and with the same initials as Modell's, Brown also designed the Bengals' uniforms to be nearly identical to the Browns'. Clevland's home jerseys were dark brown; Cincinnati's were black. Both teams had helmets painted the identical shade of orange, the only difference being that Cincy's helmets said "BENGALS" in black block letters. (I'm sure I wasn't the only kid in the 1970s who had no idea what a "Bengal" was, getting no clue from those uniforms.)

The Bengals dressed like the Browns for the first 13 years of their existence. Then, in 1981, they took the field in what was at the time the most radical uniform the NFL had ever seen. The most mind-blowing thing was the helmet. Whereas every other team in the league (except Cleveland, of course) had a logo decal on the side of the helmet, the Bengals had a series of painted tiger stripes arching over the crown of the head and down the sides. To this day, the Bengals are the only team with a fully painted helmet. There were also tiger stripes over the shoulders and running down the side of each leg. It was a bold look, and the Bengals went to the Super Bowl in their first year in stripes, and again seven years later. Then Paul Brown died, and the team slid into the toilet. In 1997, the uniform was tweaked slightly: The team's leaping-tiger mascot was added to the sleeves, and the TV numbers were bumped up to the tops of the shoulders.

Up through the early 2000s, the team was playing such ugly football that the uniforms had become tainted by association. But they really weren't bad at all. They might have even looked fantastic if they'd been filled with good players rather than the stiffs, draft busts and basket cases that populated the Bengals rosters of the day. Unfortunately, by the time the franchise had hired Marvin Lewis as its coach and assembled a talented team capable of contending, the front office had decided to redesign the uniforms. And the ones they came up with really were ugly.

For franchise savior Carson Palmer's first season as a starter, the Bengals' design department went all-out, adding to the uniform every conceivable bell, whistle and/or adornment. First, the tiger-striped strip on the shoulders expanded to take over nearly the entire sleeve. I say "nearly" because for some unexplained reason, the underarm and side panel were white. Meanwhile, the stripes that ran down the side of the leg had been turned sort of sideways, so that players' legs now appear to bear horizontal stripes. (Slimming!) The uniform numbers, formerly white piped with orange, are now shaded -- much like the Patriots uniforms that had proved so disastrous a decade earlier. The shading depends on the color of the jersey. See if you can follow this: The black jersey has white numbers shaded in orange; the white jersey has black numbers shaded in orange; and the orange jersey has white numbers shaded in black. There are also black pants and white pants, and black socks and orange socks. These various elements (see them all here) can be used to create, I believe, 12 different uniform combinations. Above, Palmer is wearing the all-too-predictable all-black version.

The Bengals' new uniforms are a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Convinced that they were dressed like losers, the team took a seam ripper to what was in fact a quite handsome look. Now, some of the league's most talented players -- Palmer, Chad Johnson, Rudi Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh -- are forced to go on national television looking like fools. Like losers. On the other hand, considering the well-publicized extracurricular activities of Bengals' players, the color orange and striped clothing have probably never been more appropriate for a team.


Left: Jamal Anderson, before. Right: Michael Vick, after.

Look at this thing. Look at it. We've thrown around the term "clown suit" rather cavalierly during this discussion, but there's just no arguing with it in this case. Considering how Michael Vick was required to dress for work for the past few years, it is any wonder he's been acting out in a sadistic manner? They say that Falcons owner Arthur Blank is a business genius, having built Home Depot into a Dow-30 retail colossus based on volume sales, labyrinthine stores and a thankfully lenient return poilicy. But if his employees had been issued full uniforms rather than just orange aprons, you might not be able to pay people to set foot in the place.

The Falcons' uniform is so epochally stupid that it's hard to know where to begin, so let's start at the shoulders. They're striped. Vertically striped. I can't even hazard a guess as to what look they were going for, but I know the one they got: baby doll shirt. You'll also notice that the panel underneath the arm is a different color from the rest of the shirt. That's fairly common, but the Falcons' uniforms take the concept to new lows: The panel tapers to a thin black line that then continues onto the pants, where it changes color, and then -- I'm crying here -- flares out again before running out at the knee. It looks like something off a Tampax box.

As you'd expect, there's also a black version of the jersey, though the red one has been the official home jersey since 2004. The road jersey is white; there are also black pants and black socks available, giving the Falcons as many different ways to look like fools as the Bengals have. Of course, the logical next step would be for Atlanta to add a pair of red pants to the wardrobe so the team could go out there in an all-red ensemble. Talk about looking like Tampax.

What the team has done to the pants and shirt, however, pales in comparison to the indignity wrought on the Falcons' logo. Over the decades, the insignia had developed into a fierce, intimidating bird of prey. It brought to mind a Stealth bomber, looked like something out of the Galactic Empire. That awesome logo had its feathers plucked in the redesign and was replaced with some sort of Aztec hieroglyph depicting a homemade war bonnet or an uncombed toupee. Disgraceful.

And the absolute worst part of this badly botched redesign is that it makes Jerry Glanville look good in comparison. Remember Glanville? He was the coach who made quite a splash in the 1980s and '90s with his cowboy attire, Napoleonic short-guy swagger, and "renegade" behavior that included leaving tickets for Elvis at the box office (how edgy!). When Glanville was coach of the Houston Oilers, he wore a black shirt on the sidelines so players could find him easily. From there, he began wearing all black. I guess the idea was to make him look like a tough guy, but when you're surrounded by men twice as large as you who are wearing baby blue, the roughneck thing is hard to pull off visually. Anyway, Glanville was fired by the Oilers and brought his act to Atlanta in 1990. The Falcons welcomed him by trading in their red jerseys and helmets for black versions of both. (This was in part a return to the past, as the team had worn black jerseys in its first five years of existence.)

The Glanville-inspired uniforms were striking: White numbers trimmed in red on a black background; silver pants striped with black and red; and that awesome, sinister Falcon logo on the sleeves. Super Bowl XXXIII between the Falcons and Broncos was a Denver rout on the field, but in the uniform competition, the "Dirty Bird" Falcons won going away. Glanville wouldn't last long in Atlanta, going 27-37 in four seasons before shuffling off to the broadcast booth and eventually to college football (where this season he has dressed Portland State's players in, what else, all black). But the uniforms stayed behind, a solid contribution to NFL aesthetics.

Then, in 2003, all that good work was undone, and we've been paying the price since. Vick looked bad enough in these things. I can't even bear to look at Joey Harrington.


Left: Jim Kelly, before. Right: J.P. Losman and Willis McGahee, after.

Gregg Easterbrook may well be a pompous blowhard, an arrogant thinker, and an occasionally careless writer whose intellectual sloppiness nearly destroyed his own career, but that doesn't mean he isn't right about a few things. And one of the things he's right about is the fact that the Buffalo Bills took what was arguably the best uniform in the National Football League and replaced it with what is inarguably the worst uniform in the National Football League.

The Bills' uniform went through many iterations over the franchise's first 40 years. The helmets started out silver with blue numbers, then became white with a red silhouette of a standing bison. In 1974, that decal was replaced with the stylized charging bison still in use today. In 1984, the team switched the base color of their helmets from white to red in one of the rare instances of a uniform being changed for reasons of on-field performance. At the time, the AFC East consisted of the Bills, Colts, Patriots, Dolphins and Jets. All but the Jets had white helmets, meaning that of the seven NFL teams that then wore white helmets, four were in the same division (the others: Oilers, Cardinals, Buccaneers). So Bills management made their helmets red to make it a little easier for Bills quarterbacks to distinguish their receivers from opposing defenders in the six games each year when they played white-helmeted division rivals.

By the late 1980s, the Bills had settled into a uniform of red, white and blue -- what Easterbrook refers to as the "single most successful color scheme in world history." These were the uniforms that Buffalo wore in their unprecedented four straight Super Bowls. (History has rightly been kind to the early-1990s Bills, and they are remembered today not so much for losing four Super Bowls, but for the incredible feat of getting there four years in a row.) These were the uniforms of Hall-of-Famers Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith (when he's eligible) and Marv Levy.

These uniforms are no longer in use, not even as throwbacks.

Come 2002, yet another marketing genius had apparently decided that yet another NFL team's glorious, historic-yet-still-contemporary look was in need of an "update." So the designers worked late into the night with their coloring books and fabric swatches and body parts stolen from graves, and when dawn broke and the mad doctor flipped the switch, a monstrous, unholy creation lurched into the light of day.

Flag blue, the color that had anchored the franchise since O.J. Simpson was slashing mercilessly through defenses, was replaced as the base color by a dull navy. (Easterbrook has given it a dumb, pretentiously "faux"-erudite name that I won't dignify by using here.) The team added a knee-to-armpit stripe because, apparently, every NFL team was now required by law to do so. But in the photo above, you can see that only the red part of the side stripe goes all the way up. The white stripes on the blue pants, and the blue stripes on the white ones, stop abruptly at the waist, giving the impression that the pants and shirts are from different uniforms entirely. Different half-price uniforms, that is. The home uniforms are trendily monochromatic, of course, making Bills players look like they're wearing unitards (and these outfits most certainly do put the tard in unitard).

The all-blue version is pretty bad -- atrocious, really -- but the road uniforms are what really sing a song of wretchedness. Let's go through it verse by verse. First of all, what do you notice about the numbers? Right: They're a different shade of blue. That's because the team didn't want to be accused of completely desecrating their American flag motif. So the flag blue remained, but only in a couple places of any significance. The first was the numbers on the road jersey. The second was in another set of stripes on the already-crowded helmet. (Look closely at the helmet and you'll see it has seven stripes: white, flag blue, red, navy, red, flag blue and white. They should have added black, too, because it's so intimidating, and maybe green in honor of Buffalo native and Weezer drummer Patrick Wilson.) The crowning glory of the road uniform, however, is the yoke. That's the rectangle of red-trimmed blue bizarrely draped over the shoulders from the neckline in front to the nameplate in back. (The only team with anything remotely similar is the Titans, and theirs is really a color bar that runs down the arms.) Easterbrook himself nailed the Bills' road uniforms perfectly: They look like children's pajamas.

Just as the Rams' road uniform is the most handsome ensemble in the NFL, the Bills' road uniform is the ugliest. Toronto shouldn't even want this team.



Left: Neil O'Donnell, before. Right: Kordell Stewart, after

The uniform we see O'Donnell wearing in the 1995 AFC Championship is identical to that worn here by Stewart and also by the 2005 Super Bowl champion Steelers, except for two things. One is the jersey font. In the "before" photo, you can see how the Steelers used to print their numbers in the blocky style long associated with football. In 1997, though, the numbers were changed to Futura Condensed. This one seemingly minor change took a uniform that was on the verge of looking tired and completely reinvigorated it. Those numbers are now a signature of the Steeler look. Further -- and here's the true genius of the move -- the font was already in use on the uniform: Futura player numbers had been seen on Steeler helmets for years. Unlike so many uniform "tweaks," this was a change that added consistency. It made the uniform look more complete, not less so. The second change was the addition of a "Steelmark" logo patch on the left shoulder. Another brilliant move. Pittsburgh is the only team with a decal on only one side of its helmet, the right side. The equally idiosynchratic addition of the patch on the left adds a subtle but perceptible amount of balance. I'm no Steeler fan, but those threads are seriously pretty.


Left: Barry Sanders, before. Right, Arlen Harris, after.

Ah, black. So inspiring. So imposing. So intimidating. So intriguing. Or so teams think. The Baltimore Ravens have an all-black uniform that they wear from time to time. So do the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Bengals and Falcons ccasionally add black pants to their black jerseys. The Eagles, Lions and no doubt others already have or are planning to introduce black alternate jerseys. These special uniforms are driven primarily by marketing concerns, of course. But the teams are also hoping that black will give them a psychological advantage on the field: "The Steelers and Raiders wear black, and they've won eight Super Bowls!" By far, the saddest example of the league's black-is-beautiful mindset is seen in Detroit, which is in fact home to the league's saddest examples of just about everything. The Lions introduced their black alternate jerseys in 2005, but two years earlier, the team had decided to make black a permanent part of the uniform. As seen in the photo above, the jersey numbers and stripes now have black piping, as does the helmet logo. The result was such a psychological boost for Detroit and such a crushing psychological blow to their opponents that the Lions, a meager 22-42 in the four years leading up to the switch, have been a white-hot 19-45 in the four years since. And they owe it all to those little black squiggles. Fear the Lion!


Stevie the K said...

Excellent, comprehensive analysis and treatment! I referenced it in my own, relatively unworthy screed:

NewEnglander said...

Although the analysis was detailed and extensive, this is absolutely obsurd! Staying trapped in the dull uniforms of the past works for only a select few teams. (ex. raiders, giants, cowboys, packers, browns. Excluding the boys' beautiful thanksgiving game white shoulder and helmeted jerseys) Almost all other teams could use change from time to time. a new, sharper look could do wonders to a team. it is true that it worked out well for the chargers and broncos and it could and have worked for others as well. the bills look amazing in those flashy white jerseys and same with the seahawks in that dark teal shade. the falcons probably went a little overboard with thier new look, but its still alot better than thier old boring blacks. also, the falcons logo was indeed a major improvement from the old "stealth bomber", as you stated. the old one wasn't fierce at all. the new one looks way better on a helmet too because of its natural slant. Most of the time in this league, change is for the better.

(Honorable mention to the Arizona Cardinals new logo. they were able to keep the classic look while sharpening it up a bit. it looks phenominal.)

justin peterson said...

I thought I was the only one neurotically obsessed with the nuances of NFL uniforms. Great site!
Growing up in California in the 80s, I decided my favorite team would be the Eagles. I just thought their uniforms were the coolest, and I still do.
And everytime I see a Browns game I ask, why? How could they do that to their fans? How could you root for those colors?
I love the teams with classic uniforms - the Packers, Steelers, Cowboys, Colts - and I can´t stand the ones with ugly ones: Ravens, Jaguars, Titans... these new teams all really blew it, even with a blank slate to work with. What a shame!

Chavez said...

There's nothing wrong with the Falcons modern uniforms. I like them. Their way better than the ones that the Rams wear. Texans, Bengals, Bills and the Seahawks uniforms are just plain hideous.

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Hat Cat said...

Good job. I have obsessed about uniform designs since I was a kid, locked in my bedroom, drawing up new designs for all the teams. It's absolutely appalling what some teams have done to some classic, classy uniforms over the years. I don't get the need (or the reasoning) for teams to all add black to their uniforms… as if that's going to make their crappy players play any better. Hey, try putting a little more effort into your draft choices, you morons!! But then, you have the Chargers' owner, who refuses to go back to the greatest uniform design in history, even though it wins every "best uni design" contest. I think that the lousy teams in the league reflect the lousy uniforms which reflect the lousy ownership and visa versa. It's nice to see teams keep their uniform designs through the years. The Cheifs, the yankees, the tigers, the cardinals (baseball)… great looks that just give the team class even when they aren't doing so well on the field. Then you have the Vikings… what the hell is that mess all about?

Cris Mic said...

I liked your redesign uniforms but I think you should go for Johnson’s and Johnson’s or jet blue which should make a jersey nfl best uniforms.