The death of Nos. 80 and 81 for star receivers

The death of Nos. 80 and 81 for star receivers

Some numbers in sports need no context for their significance to be understood: No. 99. No. 42. No. 23.

In football, it’s harder for one guy to truly have a number forever, just because there are so many players on the rosters and certain numbers are restricted to certain positions. Yet for years, the numbers 80 and 81 held a generic significance: Those guys were the star receivers. 

For decades, No. 80 was long worn by top receivers: guys such as Steve Largent, Cris Carter, Irving Fryar, James Lofton, Isaac Bruce and, of course, Jerry Rice. Its older brother, No. 81, found itself on a number of greats as well: Tim Brown, Torry Holt, Art Monk and, in the best season of his career, Randy Moss. 

Only four teams have retired No. 80 -- the Vikings (Carter), the Rams (Bruce), the 49ers (Rice) and the Seahawks (Largent) -- while the Saints retired No. 81 for Doug Atkins, a defensive end. 

So some receivers in the league don’t have the option to wear No. 80 or 81 these days. Strangely enough though, they probably wouldn’t take it if they could. 

Right now, it’s slim pickings for star power with 80 and 81. Only one No. 80 leads his team in receiving yards (Washington's Jamison Crowder), only one No. 81 holds that distinction (Philadelphia's Jordan Matthews). Compare that to 2003, when a combined seven 80s and 81s topped their team’s stats page. 

As the kids would say, No. 80 been over. No. 81, too. 

What exactly happened? The first assumption is to blame 2004, and where there’s smoke, there’s fire. 

The 2004 season was the first in which the league opened up Nos. 10-19 to be worn by receivers in addition to numbers in the 80s. Previously, a player could only wear a number between 10 and 19 under special circumstances. Keyshawn Johnson, for example, used a crowded training camp roster to wear No. 19, with the Jets then receiving permission from the league for him to continue wearing it. 

Yet 2004 was the year that opened the floodgates. If players wanted to go lower, they could, and that they did. 

In the 2004 draft, seven receivers were drafted in the first round. The first three taken -- Larry Fitzgerald, Roy Williams and (wow, come to think of it) Reggie Williams (wasn’t as bad as I’d remembered) -- took No. 11. Twenty-ninth overall pick Michael Jenkins took No. 12. 

Jump back a year to the 2003 draft, before the lower numbers were in play. The first two receivers taken -- Charles Rogers and Andre Johnson -- took No. 80. Although Michael Clayton would choose the number upon being drafted in 2004, none of the 21 receivers drafted in the first round since him have elected to wear No. 80.

It’s essentially the same with 81. Rashaun Woods picked No. 81 after being a late first-rounder in 2004, but only one the 19 first-round receivers since him -- the great Calvin Johnson -- took No. 81. And that’s not because of availability. 

Right now, six receivers wear No. 80, a number that is now predominantly worn by tight ends (nine). No. 81 is still fighting the good fight, with 10 receivers wearing it, although their numbers took a hit this week with the retirement of Andre Johnson, who after years of wearing No. 80 in Houston had worn No. 81 the past two seasons for the Colts and then Titans. In total, 17 players wear No. 81. 

So, these numbers are up for grabs when flashy players enter the league, yet they choose not to take them. And, as time goes on, they’re shying away from the 80s altogether. 

Expanding the parameters an extra round, 45 of 61 receivers drafted in the first two rounds since 2009 have taken a number between 10 and 19. Brian Robiskie is the only one to take No. 80. Golden Tate and Jordan Matthews took 81. 

Undrafted players, more than any one round, most represent the numbers 80 (six of 15) and 81 (six of 17). Two very good ones come to mind in Victor Cruz (No. 80 for the Giants) and Danny Amendola (No. 80 for the Patriots), but Amendola previously wore No. 16 for the Rams. 

But really, Cruz, Matthews, Amendola and the aging Anquan Boldin are the biggest names wearing these numbers, and none of them are the level of star that for years was synonymous with Nos. 80 and 81. Guys come in the league and they’re not thinking about being Jerry Rice; they’re thinking about being Larry Fitzgerald. 

Patriots Talk Podcast: Youth - that means draft success - will have to fuel Pats' reboot

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Patriots Talk Podcast: Youth - that means draft success - will have to fuel Pats' reboot

It's simple, really. If the Patriots are going to avoid staying home again after the Wild Card Round of the playoffs next season and seasons to come, they've got to get younger.

And to get younger, they've got to be more successful in the draft.

In the latest edition of Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast, Curran and Phil Perry focus on the last time New England was sent home this early in the playoffs a decade ago and if there can be lessons learned from that roster reboot in 2010. 

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The biggest issue confronting the Pats this time around is their age, which averages 31.6 years old (a 42-year-old quarterback skews that a little, of course). By comparison, the Super Bowl 54 opponents, the Kansas City Chiefs (26.8) and the San Francisco 49ers (26.6) are considerably younger.

Click here to listen and subscribe to Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast: 

The age factor is why, as Perry pointed out, "the pressure is on for them to hit not only in this 2020 draft, where they do have 12 picks, they have no second-round pick, but 12 shots at the dartboard. Last year, they had 10 [picks] and nine guys are still with the team.

"It's clear they have told themselves, 'We need to get younger. We need to start hitting here if we want to sustain this success.' The draft is the lifeblood of any team."

The 2018 team and its victory in the Super Bowl over the Rams last February worked to hide some of those flaws from recent low-yield draft classes.

"They had a great quarterback when they needed him. They had a Hall of Fame quarterback when they needed him. The defense looked tremendous we know how that story played out," Perry said. 

What kind of draft yield are we talking about to fuel the next generation of Patriots' success?

Curran goes on to rattle off the names from 2008-2012 drafts (Mayo, Slater, Edelman, Vollmer, Butler, Chung, Gronkowski, McCourty) that fueled the second half of the Pats dynasty.

"I have upwards of 30 names from 2008 to 2012 who were contributing players to the Patriots. I'm not even talking a little contributing, but massive contributing...," Curran said.  

There's also a discussion of how the uncertainty surrounding Tom Brady will impact the 2020 draft strategy. Listen and subscribe to Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast on the NBC Sports Boston podcast network.


That 617 Life Podcast: Patriots' ties to a Pats-less Super Bowl

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That 617 Life Podcast: Patriots' ties to a Pats-less Super Bowl

The Patriots may have been missing from the NFL's Championship Sunday, but that didn't stop them from being mentioned and having their former personnel play prominent roles in the AFC and NFC Championship Games.

Whether it was former Pats linebacker Mike Vrabel coaching the Tennessee Titans against the Kansas City Chiefs or former New England quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo helping the San Francisco 49ers beat the Green Bay Packers to reach Super Bowl 54, the Patriots continue to be a talked-about team. 

On the latest edition of the "That 617 Life" podcast, Leroy Irvin, Shanda Foster and Cerrone Battle discussed how the Pats still loomed over the games on Sunday.

"You can not say anything bad about the Patriots because we are always constantly producing talent," Foster said. "I think this is the perfect testament to Bill Belichick."

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Battle said it speaks to the dominance of the Patriots the past two decades that connections to their former players and staff are now all over the league.

"That's what happens when you win," Battle said. "When you win, everybody wants a piece. They want your waterboy. Look at the new head coach of the Giants [Joe Judge, the former Patriots special teams and receivers coach]?... When you're good for 20 years eventually you're going to have your roots all over the league. After years and years of success, I'm not shocked by it."

Irvin and Foster said instead of lamenting a rare NFL Final Four without New England, Pats fans should be grateful.

"I wish Patriot Nation would grow up," Irvin said. "By that I mean I'm tired of seeing on social media people just crying and complaining, 'Oh it's boring without the Patriots.' We've had almost two decades of excellence. We're not there. Get over it."

Said Foster, "I was grateful more than anything. Filled with gratitude. We may never see a run like this again."

In his "Hot Takes and Cold Cuts" segment, Battle says those crowning the Super Bowl 54 opponents as the next dynasties might want to pump the brakes a little. 

"First thing I heard [after the games] is, 'Kansas City they're gonna be around for years and San Francisco they're gonna be around for a long time. They're gonna be contenders forever,' " Battle said. "That was the story all day. 'What is anybody gonna do about these teams next year?' What are they gonna do next year? Not even worry about them. Why? Because this is the Not For Long League. The NFL. Every year, the teams that were hot the year before are never guaranteed to be hot the year after that. Unless you're the Patriots."

The crew also gives their reactions to the new Aaron Hernandez Netflix documentary. It's all in this week's "That 617 Life" podcast on the NBC Sports Boston Podcast network. Click here to listen and subscribe.