The NFL's Uniform Numbering System

What the Numbers on Players' Uniforms Mean

Runningback Jim Brown
Runningback Jim Brown #32 of the Cleveland Browns runs with the ball during the NFL Championship Game on January 2, 1966 against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Tony Tomsic/Getty Images

Every NFL football player's uniform bears a number. It's unique for his particular team — no one else can use or wear it. This makes it easier for fans, coaches, announcers and officials to differentiate between the players on the field.

A jersey-numbering system was initially launched by the National Football League on April 5, 1973. The system assigned certain ranges of numbers to each player position from which a player could choose.

Here are the original numbers from 1973. They've changed a little, but not much. 

  • 1 - 19: Quarterbacks, punters and kickers
  • 20 - 49: Running backs and defensive backs 
  • 50 - 59: Centers (or 60-79 if this range is taken) 
  • 60 - 79: Defensive linemen and offensive linemen
  • 80 - 89: Receivers and tight ends (or 40-49 if this range is taken)
  • 90 - 99: Defensive Linemen and Linebackers

Changes Over the Years 

The original system stood until 2004, although not without objections from some players. Then the NFL changed it up to allow wide receivers and tight ends a bit more versatility — they, too, could claim numbers between 10 and 19 beginning in 2004.

The first three receivers taken in the draft that year grabbed number 11: Larry Fitzgerald, Roy Williams and Reggie Williams. Randy Moss promptly changed his number to 18, and Plaxico Burress switched to number 17.

Then, in 2010, a rule was passed to allow defensive lineman to wear numbers 50 through 59.

The NFL Competition Committee made another change in 2015, allowing linebackers to use numbers 40 through 49 for the first time. 

Famous Jersey Numbers 

Of course, some numbers mean more than others in the NFL. Jersey numbers become part of a player's identity after long, storied careers. Here are two of the most famous jersey numbers in NFL history.

Number 32: A lot of great players have worn number 32 over the years, including Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson, Franco Harris and Marcus Allen.

Brown is considered to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, running back to ever play in the NFL. Simpson achieved notoriety after his career ended, but people should not forget that he was also one of the greatest running backs in the history of the league. Harris helped the Pittsburgh Steelers win four Super Bowl championships, and he earned Most Valuable honors in one of them. Allen also helped his team, the Oakland Raiders, get to the Super Bowl, and he earned Super Bowl MVP honors. He was a six-time Pro Bowler.

Number 12: This is the most famous and revered number in NFL history for quarterbacks. Several Hall of Famers have worn it through the generations, including Joe Namath, Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach.

Namath, nicknamed "Broadway Joe" for his nightlife escapades off the field, is famous for his cocky prediction that his New York Jets would beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. He backed up his boast by leading New York to a 16-7 win. Bradshaw was the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback in those great years of the 1970s, leading them to four Super Bowl titles in six years.

Staubach is one of the Dallas Cowboys' all-time greats. He played on five Super Bowl teams and was the starting quarterback in four of them. He also earned Super Bowl MVP honors, becoming the first NFL player ever to win both a Super Bowl MVP award and the Heisman Trophy.

Other past greats to wear the number 12 include Ken Stabler, Jim Kelly and John Brodie. Stabler, a lefty, was one of the greatest Oakland Raiders quarterbacks ever. Kelly led the Buffalo Bills to four Super Bowls, although they lost them all, and Brodie threw for over 31,000 yards in his illustrious career.

Quarterbacks wearing number 12 in 2016 include Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. Rodgers has already earned a Super Bowl MVP award and Brady, nicknamed "Tom Terrific," is a four-time Super Bowl MVP award recipient as of the end of the 2015 season.