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Offseason Notebook: What’s in a number?

Posted May 17, 2012

Debating “unofficially retired” numbers, plus rookie Devon Wylie switches out of No. 83

What’s in a number anyway?

Apparently a lot when it comes to the Kansas City Chiefs.

In Kansas City, some numbers are officially off-limits. Other jerseys are “unofficially retired.” Then there is a third group of numbers that many people believe should be retired.

An annual groan came earlier this month when seventh-round draft pick Junior Hemingway was issued jersey No. 88. The same thing happened last year when TE Anthony Becht was issued Tony Gonzalez’s old number and in 2010 when rookie TE Charlie Gantt received double eights.

Gonzalez’s old number falls into the third group listed above and it will eventually join the first.

Personally, I don’t understand the small but steady uproar. We’ll get into the reasoning later.

Yes, jersey numbers can be a hot-button issue. Not only among players who often cut locker room deals for their digits, but with fans as well.

Let’s start with what the NFL allows. Pulled directly out of the NFL rulebook, eligible numbers by position are sorted below.

Position(s) Primary Alternate
QB, P, K 1-19
RB, DB 20-49
C 50-59 60-79
G, T 60-79
WR 80-89 10-19
TE 80-89
DL 60-79 90-99
LB 50-59 90-99

Of course, exceptions always exist. Chicago’s Devin Hester, originally a cornerback, wears No. 23 even though his primary position has been wide receiver since 2007.

We’ve seen similar situations in Kansas City with Dexter McCluster wearing No. 22 while listed as a running back, but playing wide receiver in 2010. Things ultimately worked themselves out last season when McCluster shifted to the backfield in a full-time role.

The Chiefs also saw Dante Hall wear No. 20 from 2000-01 before he was officially classified as a wide receiver, and ultimately switched to No. 82.

Anyway, back to the present.

The fact of the matter is that there are just too many players on the roster this time of year and a limited amount of jersey numbers to hand out. It’s the reason Kansas City currently has 18 players wearing duplicate numbers.

In addition to rules required by the NFL, the Chiefs have retired 10 numbers in honor of franchise legends, Pro Football Hall of Famers and deceased players – 3 (K Jan Stenerud), 16 (QB Len Dawson), 18 (CB Emmitt Thomas), 28 (RB Abner Haynes), 33 (RB Stone Johnson), 36 (RB Mack Lee Hill), 58 (LB Derrick Thomas), 63 (LB Willie Lanier), 78 (LB Bobby Bell) and 86 (DT Buck Buchanan).

Prior to 2009, Derrick Thomas’ No. 58 was “unofficially retired.” The franchise waited until Thomas’ Hall of Fame induction before officially retiring his No. 58 in front of Chiefs fans at midfield.

“Unofficially retired” is where the topic begins to heat up. Which jerseys should or shouldn’t be “unofficially retired?”

I think everyone agrees that Thomas’ No. 58 needed to remain unissued following his tragic passing in 2000. There’s no room for debate there.

But what about Joe Montana’s No. 19, Marcus Allen’s No. 32, Tony Gonzalez’s No. 88 or Otis Taylor’s No. 89? This is where lines begin to blur.

For years the Chiefs declined to issue Nos. 19 and No. 32 in honor of Montana and Allen. Both players are Hall of Famers, though much of that reasoning is from production with other organizations.

Quietly, the protection of Nos. 19 and 32 began to lift. The numbers were issued during the preseason, but players moved out of those numbers once the regular season rolled around.

WR Steve Breaston actually wore No. 19 last preseason before switching to No. 15 for the regular season.

RB Shaun Draughn became the first Chiefs player since Allen to appear in a game wearing No. 32 when he was promoted from the practice squad and made active for the 2011 season finale at Denver.

No Chiefs player has worn No. 19 in a regular season game since Montana last played in 1994, but that is likely to change soon with fourth-round draft pick Devon Wylie switching from No. 83 to No. 19 this week.

So Montana and Allen are now fair game, even though they’re in the Hall of Fame. Most fans seem to be fine with this.

Remind me again why Gonzalez’s No. 88 should be protected?

Gonzalez is the greatest tight end in the history of football and did the majority of his damage as an esteemed member of the Chiefs and the Kansas City community. This town loves Tony Gonzalez to this day even though he’s active on another team.

When Gonzo returns to Arrowhead September 9th, for the first time since being traded in 2009, he’ll no doubt receive a standing ovation. Gonzalez is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and his No. 88 will be retired in front of Chiefs fans shortly after his bust lands in Canton.

But why should Gonzalez receive different treatment than many of the Hall of Famers who came before him?

Emmitt Thomas’ No. 18 was issued three times following his retirement, including once to QB Elvis Grbac (1997-00) and most recently WR Samie Parker (2004-07).

Willie Lanier’s No. 63 was worn for nine seasons by NT/DE Bill Maas (1984-92) even though Lanier was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986.

The Chiefs issued Bobby Bell’s No. 78 to DT Willie Lee from 1976-77 and assigned Buck Buchanan’s No. 86 to five different players after he retired in 1975.

Gonzalez will get his proper recognition in time. Hopefully Otis Taylor will too.

Until then, let’s hope the players wearing Nos. 88 and 89 can channel just a sliver of the history surrounding those numbers.

Speaking of Numbers…

While we’re on the topic, the Chiefs assigned several more jersey numbers this week.

#19 – WR Devon Wylie

Wylie originally requested a number in the teens. After wearing No. 83 for rookie minicamp it looks like Wylie got his wish.

As noted above, Wylie is on track to become the first Chiefs player since Joe Montana to wear No. 19 in a regular season game.

#45 – DB Dominique Ellis

Number 45 worked well for Ellis last weekend as a tryout player. He’ll keep the same number going forward, sharing it this preseason with RB Nate Eachus.

#66 – LB Leon Williams

Williams wore No. 66 during his tryout at minicamp last weekend and will share the number with OL Darryl Harris this preseason.

#67 – OL Rich Ranglin

Ranglin takes over No. 67 for the Chiefs following Barry Richardson’s free agency departure.

#83 – TE Martin Rucker

Rucker wore No. 44 during his tryout, but took over No. 83 from Wylie this week. He previously wore No. 83 with the Cowboys from 2010-11.

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