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.