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. 

Wes Welker pushes back on merits of Bill Belichick's Patriots system

Wes Welker pushes back on merits of Bill Belichick's Patriots system

Just because Wes Welker played his best football in New England doesn't mean he enjoyed his Patriots experience more than any other.

The former Patriots wide receiver, now the San Francisco 49ers' wide receivers coach, admitted Wednesday he felt a weight was lifted off his shoulders when he left New England in 2012.

"Maybe a little bit," Welker told WEEI's "The Greg Hill Show." "I was still upset about it. I did want to be there, but there was part of me — I just like enjoying the game. I like having fun, all those things."

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Head coach Bill Belichick has established an unparalleled system of success in New England, but the "Patriot Way" can be demanding on players and isn't for everyone.

Now that Welker is in the coaching world -- he began as an offensive assistant for the Houston Texans in 2017 and joined the 49ers in 2019 -- he believes there's room for players to enjoy themselves while staying committed to winning.

"Coaching now, you learn a lot from the tactics and different things like that, but at the same time putting your own twist on it and understanding — I tell my guys all the time: ‘As long as we’re giving great effort and we’re on top of our assignments we’re going to be good. Once it’s not where we need to be, that is when we have problems,' " Welker said.

"I feel like you’re playing your best ball when you’re having fun and enjoying (yourself)."

Welker put up historic numbers with the Patriots, racking up 672 receptions over six seasons. He didn't always see eye-to-eye with Belichick, though -- remember the fallout from that "foot" press conference? -- and said Wednesday his New England tenure had some bumps along the way.

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“I think there were some times where I didn’t really feel that at times for different reasons — the guys that we had in the locker room, the camaraderie that we had was better some years than others," Welker said. 

" ... When you’re one of the highest-paid players on the team, you’re expected to deliver like a highly-paid player. There’s definitely pressure on that and all these different things is tough and it’s hard. Coach Belichick is hard on guys and tries to get the most out of him that he can."

Welker said in the same interview he wasn't surprised Tom Brady left the Patriots to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency.

Welker believes Brady was motivated by a desire to prove he can succeed outside New England, but it's not a stretch to think Welker sympathized with Brady for wanting a fresh start after 20 years with Belichick.

"The way he goes about it is there are no superstars," Welker added of Belichick. "Everybody has their role on that team. Everybody is going to get called out. There’s no preferential treatment, and a lot of times he calls out the star players just to set the tone with the whole team."

Belichick's system obviously has reaped enormous benefits, but Welker apparently leans more Lane Johnson than Matthew Slater in his opinion of it.

Report: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning to join Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson in charity golf match

Report: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning to join Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson in charity golf match

It sounds like sports fans won't have to wait until Tom Brady makes his Tampa Bay Buccaneers debut to see the legendary quarterback compete in a sporting event.

Brady and his former NFL rival Peyton Manning will take part in a golf match featuring Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, CNBC's Jabari Young reported Tuesday night.

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The match could be played as early as May, per Young:

The person, who requested to not be identified as negotiations are stilling being finalized, said the event would likely happen in May and would benefit charity. Though nothing is official, the event could take place live on Turner Sports’ TNT channel or elsewhere in the WarnerMedia company, but its unlikely to be featured on pay-per-view.

Young also writes the match would pit Mickelson and Brady versus Woods and Manning. Other details include the match being played without fans at an undisclosed location. Social distancing measures also would be followed.

Woods and Mickelson squared off in a 1-on-1 golf match in November of 2018 as part of a pay-per-view event. Mickelson prevailed and took home nearly $10 million in the winner-take-all format. This match with Brady and Manning could be played in a similar fashion, although nothing official has been announced.

This event would provide several hours of quality entertainment for sports fans. The outbreak of the coronavirus has resulted in the cancellation of many sporting events, as well as the suspension or delay of nearly every sports league's season around the world.

It's very difficult to predict when sporting events/seasons could resume, but in the meantime, fans have this pretty exciting golf match to look forward to watching.

Ex-Pats exec Scott Pioli tells great Brady story from Super Bowl LI