NFL's greatest players by number
SI.com chooses the greatest NFL players by jersey numbers
Tom Brady gets the nod at number 12 over Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach
Number 78 is one of the NFL's most gilded digits (Bruce Smith, Anthony Munoz)
Some NFL jerseys tell a story. In the case of Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew case, his number 32 tells a tale of revenge.
"All 32 teams passed on me so that's the reason I asked for it," says Jones-Drew, the 60th overall selection in the 2006 draft. "I wanted the number 21 originally, and that number had been in my family, college, high school and Pop Warner. My grandfather had it. My cousins had it. But in Jacksonville, [cornerback] Terry Cousins had it so I took 32. Maybe one day I'll switch back to No. 21, but right now 32 is fine."
Jones-Drew owns one of the NFL's most gilded numbers. Among those who have worn 32: Marcus Allen, Franco Harris, O.J. Simpson, Rickey Watters and our top choice, the immortal Jim Brown. A team of SI.com's finest numerologists crunched the data on jersey numbers to come up with the best performers in professional football at each number from 00 to 99. We based our decision on a combination of impact on the game, statistics and team success during the player's time wearing that number.
For research, we culled through dozens of NFL media guides, as well as archived stories from the Sports Illustrated library and the Pro Football Hall of Fame website. But the greatest resource was the bible of NFL numerology, Uniform Numbers of the NFL.The tome, written in 2005 by Rutgers reference librarian John Maxymuk, is a comprehensive numerical directory of every player to wear an NFL uniform through 2005. Maxymuk chose his all-time team by numbers, though we differ with some of his picks. That's what makes it fun.
SI.com ace photo editor David Kaye painstakingly sorted through hundreds of images and built the gallery of the chosen few. In our photo galleries of the selections, we also listed our runner-up choice, and, in some cases, others who were worthy of consideration for the top spot. No doubt you'll disagree with some of our choices, and we look forward to reading your arguments.
Our easiest choices? John Elway (7), Fran Tarkenton (10), Dan Marino (13), Joe Montana (16), Johnny Unitas (19), Dick Butkus (51) and Lawrence Taylor (56).
Numbers that lacked star quality: 61 (Curley Culp), 65 (Elvin Bethea), 67 (Reggie McKenzie), 69 (Tim Krumrie), 97 (Simeon Rice) and 98 (Julian Peterson)
The toughest calls? Tom Brady over Terry Bradshaw at 12. Brady gets the top spot for winning in a tougher era. He's 111-34 as a starter, including 14-4 in the postseason, and owns the NFL record for the most consecutive wins (10) in the playoffs. We gave Marshall Faulk a small nod over Darrell Green at 28 and four-time Super Bowl champion Ronnie Lott the edge over Bears Hall of Fame passer Sid Luckman.
Numbers with star power: 12 (Bradshaw, Brady, John Brodie, Randall Cunningham, Bob Griese, Jim Kelly, Joe Namath, Ken Stabler, Roger Staubach and Doug Williams). The number 78 also features a bevy of Hall of Fame-quality linemen, including Bruce Armstrong, Bobby Bell, Stan Jones, Mike Kenn, Anthony Munoz, Art Shell, Jackie Slater, Bruce Smith, Bubba Smith, Richmond Webb and Dwight White.
Jets lineman Damien Woody switched to No. 67 when he arrived in New York three seasons ago. "My whole career I had No. 65," Woody says. "Why did I choose 65? When I got drafted to the league, I wanted 78 but it belonged to Bruce Armstrong, a perennial All Pro. So I thought: I'll go with 65 and create my own name with 65. When I came to the Jets the number 65 was already issued to right guard Brendon Moore. I lobbied for it. Did I offer money? Yeah, I did, but it was not ridiculous money. But he felt real comfortable with it and he's a veteran. Also, I'm in my 11th year and a number does not make a player. So now I'll make my mark with 67."
Patriots quarterback Andrew Walter has always worn number 16 as a tribute to Montana. "He was the quarterback I admired the most when I was young," says Walter. "That's why I'm pissed receivers get to be teen numbers now because if I go somewhere else I might not get 16. But that might be a good thing. I think 9 is a good number, too. It's the whole Roy Hobbs thing.
Former Packer fullback William Henderson chose his number (33) for more spiritual reasons. "One, it was my number in high school and college, but it's a Christian thing also," he says. "According to the Bible, 33 was the age Jesus was crucified. I'm a spiritual person and it reminds me of the blessings I've received."
Of course, some guys simply don't care and others become immune to it all, such as SI.com's Ross Tucker, a former lineman who explains here about what an NFL number means to a journeyman player. Patriots tackle Matt Light wears No. 72 because longtime New England equipment manager Don Brocher assigned it when he arrived in New England in 2001. " I'm pretty indifferent about the whole thing," says Light. "Really, I don't have a preference."
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