The Numbers Game

Two months ago yesterday, the NFL ratified a new rule expanding jersey number allowances for different position groups. The rule has opened up plenty of new options for players to choose from, most notably single-digit integers, a verified stamp of greatness in college football.

But does this custom of sporting excellence through numerical choice translate to the next level? As many of you may know, this is the sort of hot button issue that I consider myself the voice of authority on. And I won’t lie; at first glance, this all made me a bit nauseous. But the more I mulled things over, the less egregious it seemed. To decipher where I stand on the issue, to ensure that I find myself on the right side of history, I’ve spent the past five minutes running through rigorous statistical analyses as to which positions stood to gain from this and which are now completely fucked.

We must now establish the quantification strategy used in this study. Much of the forthcoming data will be based on adapted versions of Wins Above Replacement (now jWAR), a barometer of any given jersey number’s impact on a player’s vibe. I’ll give you an example: running backs that rep numbers in the 80s are to be looked at as possessing tremendously bad vibes, hence a lower jWAR. Eat shit, Ty Montgomery.

The next step is to go one by one and empirically determine where every position group falls on the spectrum. Change in allowance and the subsequent jWAR delta will be explicitly outlined for each. It is to be noted that quarterbacks, offensive linemen, defensive linemen, and specialists saw no change.

Running Backs

New options: 1-19, 80-89

Notable changes: Mark Ingram (2), Cam Akers (3), Leonard Fournette (7)

Pre-Rule*Post-Rule**Delta
jWAR9.148.93-0.21

* Pre-Rule jWAR is defined as cumulative vibes generated by the top 32 players at each position during the 2020 NFL season

** Post-Rule jWAR is defined as a projection of cumulative vibes generated by the top 32 players at each position during the 2021 NFL season

I generally believe that running backs should only wear numbers in the 20s, but can appreciate a great donning the 30s. When you grow up idolizing Shaun Alexander, it’s not something you just forget. With that in mind, I have no problem with backs in single-digit numbers, as long as they’re good enough to deserve it. The addition of 10-19 is meh, as I prefer those be reserved for wide receivers.

While there is yet to be any running back who’s traveled to the 80s since Montgomery, I have no doubt one soon cometh. And when they do, we are all culpable for a travesty of this magnitude. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to classify this as a disgrace to the game of football. The slogan “running backs don’t matter” has been prevalent in football circles for a while now but is nothing more than propaganda. I move that the tagline be rebranded as “running backs in the 80s don’t matter.”

Wide Receivers

New options: 1-9, 20-49

Notable changes: Emmanuel Sanders (1), Robert Woods (2), Marquise Brown (5)

Pre-RulePost-RuleDelta
jWAR13.2712.99-0.28

Wide receivers rocking single-digit numbers is going to be awesome. I still believe 10-19 is their best aesthetic, but I will not argue the merits of providing skill players with options as clean as these.

Where this position suffers is on the flip side. Giving them the option to choose 20-49 is honestly despicable. Imagine a fucking wide receiver in the 40s. I’m legitimately appalled at the mere thought. Spots available to wideouts on depth charts across the league are plentiful. I expect these heathens to begin popping up on practice squads until the custom is normalized and they are allowed to be rostered.

Tight Ends

New options: 1-39

Notable changes: n/a

Pre-RulePost-RuleDelta
jWAR6.325.95-0.37

I think it’s fair to say that tight ends own the superlative for most milquetoast aesthetic among these position groups. The 80s can look great on the right player. The 40s cannot. Hence, a lower Pre-Rule jWAR.

As has been established, skill players in lone digits look great. I don’t think that changes for tight ends. Kyle Pitts, as the most hyped prospect at the position in years, will be wearing 8, an effective prototype on multiple fronts.

Even if the 40s are still the worst option for tight ends, what holds back their Post-Rule jWAR is the potential to be duped into choosing values in the 20s and 30s. In no universe should the league allow h-backs to wear running back garb.

The fact that tight ends can now wear 10-19 is a relative W, though, further blurring the lines between themselves and wideouts and preventing their Post-Rule jWAR from plummeting.

Linebackers

New options: 1-39

Notable changes: Patrick Queen (6), Ja’Whaun Bentley (9), Jaylon Smith (9)

Pre-RulePost-RuleDelta
jWAR8.659.13+0.48

While offensive skill players all lowered their jWAR based on the new rule, defensive players saw the opposite shift, with linebackers experiencing the greatest boost in vibes. There are several reasons for this, the foremost of which stems from a previous change that allowed linebackers to wear numbers in the 40s. It was a disastrous decision by the league, pushing countless viewers to the brink of their fandom and nearly destroying the game of football as we know it.

Because of this, any other option is a win. By default, the introduction of 1-39 as potential alternatives makes players significantly less likely to pick from the worst number set in professional sports and ensures the highest gain in jWAR among all the position groups.

Also important: since linebackers have been deemed useless in the modern NFL, safeties are all the rage. Even if a linebacker repping the 20s sounds wrong, what better way to hoodwink analysts into valuing the position again than by allowing them to choose jersey numbers that portend valid contribution?

EDGEs

New options: 1-39

Notable changes: Carlos Dunlap (8), Matt Judon (9)

Pre-RulePost-RuleDelta
jWAR9.069.34+0.28

While interior defensive linemen are still limited to the preexisting options, EDGEs are not, due to number expansion for linebackers. This will shape the landscape of NFL pass rushers for the next decade plus. For instance: Jaelen Phillips, an EDGE in Miami, will keep his college number of 15. To achieve this, he is classified as an outside linebacker on the Dolphins’ roster, clearly in the pursuit of the best vibes imaginable. And yet according to OverTheCap’s projections, defensive ends will earn more in 2021 on the franchise tag than their linebacker counterparts ($17.8M versus $15.7M), an indicator that either these numbers will change over time or these positional designations are and always have been horseshit.

Seattle’s own Carlos Dunlap is a martyr for this cause, having changed his number from a heinous 43 to a more digestible 8. Both numbers are reserved for linebackers rather than nominal linemen, and yet he’s still listed as a defensive end on Seattle’s roster. Is the NFL overlooking this since Dunlap is an established vet and it literally doesn’t matter? Perhaps it’s a conspiracy to shit on the Denver Broncos in the most subversive way imaginable? More importantly, can we trust a group of players disingenuous enough to lie about their position to achieve a better aesthetic while earning more money? The joint answer to all of these questions? A resounding yes. Even if EDGEs show a lower gain in jWAR than linebackers, their absolute Post-Rule jWAR is still higher, a phenomenon verified by the eye test and that authenticates this entire study.

Cornerbacks

New options: 1-19

Notable changes: Darius Slay (2), Jalen Ramsey (5), Patrick Peterson (7)

Pre-RulePost-RuleDelta
jWAR12.5112.95+0.44

Lockdown corners wearing numbers in the 20s have arguably the best aesthetic in football. And while I prefer that to any of the new options available, cornerbacks still experience a significant gain in jWAR as a collective. This is due to the limited, high-quality options introduced. The league didn’t mess around and give defensive backs access to the 70s or something awful like that and for that we must rejoice.

Safeties

New options: 1-19

Notable changes: Budda Baker (3), Eddie Jackson (4), Quandre Diggs (6)

Pre-RulePost-RuleDelta
jWAR13.3913.82+0.43

Much of the previous section’s logic holds true here, with the caveat that safeties can often look great in the 30s, meaning they begin with a slightly higher Pre-Rule jWAR, before experiencing a similar increase due to the change. Simply put, DBs look great and will continue to look great no matter what. I pray Roger Goodell does not read that as a challenge.

Takeaways

Based on the data alone, it’s clear that NFL defenders benefit from reduced jersey guidelines while offensive skill players regress. This is less the fault of any specific position group and more a product of the NFL’s ignorance and inability to make sensible decisions. But this also brings forth an argument that defensive players have been trying to convey for years: NFL offenses simply have bad vibes. It’s a theory that has persevered since the game’s inception. Defensive coordinators dedicate their entire careers to beating down signal callers and their cronies. Why do you think pass rushers came to be?

With this in mind, the rule change seems to be pretty standard. Some good. A lot of bad. We’ll get used to it three weeks into the season and will likely never discuss it again.