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Print

No numbers are nothing new

Posted Jun 4, 2014

During Chuck Noll's 23 seasons, Steelers players never had numbers on their practice jerseys

Paranoid? Maybe. Secretive? Probably. But cutting edge? Hardly.

One of the items coming from Foxborough, Massachusetts, during this time of NFL teams going through their OTAs was a piece written by Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com. In it Reiss wrote about how the New England Patriots are the only team in the league to have their players outfitted in practice jerseys that have neither names nor numbers on them.

Reiss actually made the effort to research each team’s wardrobe preferences and detail them by division at the end of his story – for example, the Saints wear numbered jerseys with names on their helmets, while the Texans wear numbered jerseys, but only rookies have names taped on their helmets. What that specific bit of knowledge might mean when it comes time to predict the participants in Super Bowl XLIX is best left to the experts, but hey, info is info.

Anyway, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels took a stab at explaining why number-less.

“We’re learning a lot of different names and faces right now,” said McDaniels to Reiss. “We want our teammates to learn who the other people in the huddle are. I think it’s great for the quarterbacks to do that, but also for the skill players, the different groups of linemen, the different centers. There are a lot of different people working with one another during the course of practice that really lends itself to us becoming a team. That’s what we’re really focused on.”

That whole “learning the players” thing comes right out of the Chuck Noll Handbook.

Noll coached the Steelers through 23 seasons, from 1969-91, and his players never wore numbers on their jerseys for any occasion except games. The Steelers were the dominant team of the 1970s with four Lombardi trophies over a six-season span – a record unmatched by any other franchise in the Super Bowl era – and their rivalry with Al Davis’ Oakland Raiders for AFC supremacy in those days always was rife with charges and countercharges of espionage.

The Steelers were a 1-13 team in 1969, and the original idea behind the number-less practice jerseys could have been a nod to the revolving-door nature of those first few seasons of rebuilding, or it could’ve been simply a more economic way for a franchise to approach its 37th consecutive NFL season without having won even so much as a division championship.

Whatever the initial reason, the Steelers soon started winning championships, and so the number-less jerseys remained, because Noll was above all a coach who was creature of habit, a.k.a, stubborn.

Asked about number-less jerseys once, Noll’s explanation was a version of the one McDaniels offered, with more of an emphasis on the benefits to be derived from assistant coaches learning their players through their on-field movements without using jersey numbers as a crutch while watching film each day.

Anyway, toward the latter stages of Noll’s coaching career – it was sometime in the late 1980s – the Steelers and Washington Redskins began a series of combined practices during training camp, with the teams gathering at Saint Vincent College one summer and Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the next.

The first of these joint practices was held in Carlisle, and the Redskins’ plan included a scrimmage at night that they intended to televise back to the Washington, D.C., market. As the Steelers’ buses parked outside the stadium, the players and coaches saw the stands filled to capacity while the Redskins Band was marching around on the field providing the pregame entertainment.

By the time the Steelers players got off the buses, the band had yielded the field for pregame warmups. The Redskins took the field in their game uniforms, complete with polished helmets and jerseys adorned with numbers and names on the back. The Steelers took the field in their practice uniforms, which included scarred helmets, tattered jerseys with no numbers and mis-matched football pants no longer used in actual games.

On that Steelers team was a veteran receiver named Weegie Thompson, who took in the scene and quickly put it into perspective.

“Wow,” said Thompson, “it’s the Washington Redskins vs. Joe’s Bar & Grill.”

Just a historical note to remind Bill Belichick and those who cover his football team that there really is nothing new under the NFL sun. My guess is that with Belichick in this case, it breaks down to 60 percent secretive and 40 percent paranoid.

 

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