The NFL is the only league -- at least, the only one since soccer stopped forcing players to wear a number assigned to their position in the early 1990s -- to assign numbers to positions. Why? As this ESPN.com article explains, it's because the officials need to know who is an eligible receiver, and who is not. (Except college and even high school officials don't seem to have that problem. You would think pro officials would be even better.)
Players who had worn numbers not fitting that rule before it was put in place in 1973 were "grandfathered in," but that numerical scheme has remained in place, unaltered, with one exception: In 2004, it was decided that receivers could wear 10 through 19 as well as 80 through 89.
00 Jim Otto. It was a play on his name, which is pronounced AUGHT-oh, or zero-zero. Ken Burrough is the only other player to wear 00 in the NFL. Writer George Plimpton famously wore 0 in training camp, and even in an exhibition game, with the 1963 Lions (as told in his book Paper Lion, and in the film based on it, starring a pre-M*A*S*H Alan Alda), but, as far as I can tell, no player has ever worn 0 in a regular-season game. And, unless the rules change, no player will ever again wear zero or double-zero.
1 Frederick Douglass "Fritz" Pollard. As you might guess from his full name, he was black, and was the 1st great black player in the NFL, before the color barrier fell in 1933. He was a back on both sides of the ball, and was player-coach of the 1st NFL Champions, the 1920 Akron Pros -- making him the 1st black head coach in North American major league sports, 46 years before Bill Russell, and 69 years before Art Shell was the next black head coach in the NFL. He gets this number, ahead of Warren Moon. Jim Thorpe also wore Number 1, and 2, and 31, but didn't wear any long enough to be considered the greatest at that number. Honestly, as great as he was -- clearly the greatest football and track performer of the 1910s, also a very good baseball player, and perhaps still the greatest all-around athlete this nation has ever produced -- by the time the NFL was founded in 1920, he was past his prime
2 Charley Trippi
3 Bronislau "Bronko" Nagurski
4 Brett Favre. Ahead of Twenties Cardinal great Ernie Nevers.
5 Paul Hornung. He's the greatest player who ever lived. Just ask him. Okay, he wasn't, but he was a college quarterback and a pro running back and kicker, for decades holding the NFL's single-season points-scoring record. He was one of the mainstays of the 1960s Packer dynasty. I love Donovan McNabb, but Hornung never threw up during an NFL Championship Game. (Yes, Bill Russell threw up before many an NBA game, but he won 11 more titles than McNabb. Hornung won 4 more.)
6 Benny Friedman. The Giants quarterback of the late Twenties and early Thirties didn't quite invent the position of quarterback as we understand it today -- that would be Number 33 below -- but he was the NFL's 1st great passer.
7 John Elway
8 Steve Young
9 Drew Brees. Ahead of Sonny Jurgensen.
10 Fran Tarkenton
11 Norm Van Brocklin. It's been over 50 years, but he's still the last man to quarterback the Eagles to an NFL Championship, and the only man to quarterback 2 different teams to titles. It's been over 60 years, but he still holds the record for passing yards in a game: 554, for the Rams, on the way to the '51 title.
12 Terry Bradshaw. Sorry, Joe Namath, but 4 rings beats 1, no matter how important that 1 was. Sorry, Randall Cunningham, I know it was much more Buddy Ryan's fault than yours that you didn't win one. Not sorry, Tom Brady, but the next Super Bowl you win without your team cheating will be your first.
13 Guy Chamberlin. Not the greatest Chamberl(a)in to wear Number 13 on a sports team in Philadelphia, but a genuine NFL star of the Twenties who won 5 NFL Championships, including as a player-coach with the 1st Philadelphia-based team to win it, the 1926 Frankford Yellow Jackets. Yes, he's in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the College Football Hall of Fame, too, despite playing for Nebraska Wesleyan before transferring to Nebraska. This puts him ahead of the most overrated football player who ever lived, Dan Marino.
14 Don Hutson. A tough call ahead of Otto Graham, who got the Browns to their league's championship game all 10 years he played (1946-49 AAFC, 1950-55 NFL, winning in '46, '47, '48, '49, '50, '54 & '55). But Hutson practically invented the position of wide receiver. He lived long enough to say that Jerry Rice was better than he was, but that's what it took to surpass him as the greatest receiver ever.
15 Steve Van Buren. This was a close one: Bart Starr is the only quarterback to win 5 NFL Championships, but he was never the best quarterback in the game, due to Number 19. In contrast, Van Buren was, for several years, the NFL's all-time leading rusher.
16 Joe Montana
17 Richie Petitbon. A close call over Harold Carmichael.
18 Peyton Manning
19 Johnny Unitas
20 Barry Sanders
21 LaDainian Tomlinson. Ahead of Deion Sanders.
22 Emmitt Smith. Ahead of Bobby Layne.
23 Troy Vincent
24 Johnny McNally, a.k.a. Johnny Blood. A star with the early Packers, helped them win 4 titles between 1929 and 1936. Willie Wood, Willie Brown and Champ Bailey are the best 24s since. Darrelle Revis is not.
25 Tommy McDonald. The shortest player in the Hall of Fame, and the last man to play without a facemask (1966). And he didn't need stickum, unlike Fred Biletnikoff. Don Shula wore it as a player, and was a good defensive back. If I were including coaching achievements, I'd put him ahead of McDonald. But it doesn't work that way.
26 Rod Woodson. Ahead of Herb Adderley.
27 Ken Houston. Wore it in Washington, having worn 29 in Houston. Ahead of Steve Atwater.
28 Marshall Faulk. Those Rams won just 1 Super Bowl, so it's easy to forget just how great an all-around player Faulk was. Ahead of Darrell Green and Curtis Martin.
29 Eric Dickerson. It's been over 30 years, but he still holds the NFL record for rushing yards in a single season.
30 Terrell Davis. Ahead of Clarke Hinkle, the NFL's all-time leading rusher until surpassed by Van Buren.
31 Jim Taylor. Aside from John Riggins, no white man has rushed for more yards. And he's the only man who took a rushing title away from...
32 Jim Brown. A lot of great running backs have worn it, but in 1999, The Sporting News published its 100 Greatest Football Players, and Brown came out Number 1 among all players. You can make a case that Jerry Rice eventually put up career stats to surpass him, but, among running backs, Brown is still the greatest.
33 Sammy Baugh. The greatest all-around player ever might not be Brown: In 1943, Slingin' Sammy led the NFL in passing yards, interceptions (of other quarterbacks), and punting yardage. In his time, he was Peyton Manning, Richard Sherman and Marquette King, all at the same time. He's also the only rookie quarterback to lead his team to the NFL Championship, the '37 Redskins, and won another title in '42. He probably would've won them in '40 and '43, too, if the Bears hadn't been so dominant in that time. You can debate whether he was the 1st great quarterback (he preceded Sid Luckman, if not Benny Friedman), but his place in history is gigantic. He's also the only player whose number has been officially retired by the Redskins. (They've kept a few others out of circulation.)
34 Walter Payton
35 John Henry Johnson. A tough call, slightly ahead of Pete Pihos, Paul "Tank" Younger and Aeneas Williams.
36 Jerome Bettis. Marion Motley wore it late in his career, after the Browns did a major number shift.
37 Doak Walker. Ahead of Shaun Alexander. Rodney Harrison is ineligble, and you know why. You don't? Okay, here's why: He played for Bill Belichick's Patriots.
38 Arnie Herber
39 Larry Csonka. Ahead of Hugh McElhenny and Stephen Jackson.
40 Gale Sayers. Vince Lombardi wore it as a guard at Fordham, but I doubt he would have been a great NFL lineman if he hadn't gone straight into coaching. And even if he had, he wouldn't be ahead of Sayers. If you only know him from having seen Brian's Song, know this: Gale Sayers was Barry Sanders before Sanders was even born.
41 Eugene Robinson. Forget his pre-Super Bowl indiscretion: The man was a great player. Ahead of Keith Byars.
42 Sid Luckman. The 1st man to quarterback 4 NFL Championships gets in a bit ahead of Ronnie Lott, arguably the greatest defensive back ever; and Charley Taylor, the former all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards, who toiled for an inconsistent Redskins team in the Sixties and Seventies and never won anything.
43 Troy Polamalu. He has surpassed Larry Brown, who starred alongside Charley Taylor on those Redskin teams despite being mostly deaf.
44 John Riggins
45 Emlen Tunnell. The former all-time leader in interceptions was the 1st black man elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
46 Todd Christensen
47 Mel Blount. Until Number 55 on this list came along, he had the best name of any defensive player ever: He could have been nicknamed "The Blount Instrument."
48 Stephen Davis? President Gerald Ford was an All-America center at Michigan -- playing both sides -- but he only wore it in college, so that doesn't count.
49 Bobby Mitchell. Paul Brown's distraction for Jim Brown on the late Fifties Browns, he then became the 1st black player on the Redskins, and helped lift them from league doormat status in the Sixties. A close 2nd is Tom Landry, and that's got nothing to do with his coaching. While still playing for the Giants, he became the 1st true defensive coordinator in the NFL, helping to invent 2-platoon football, and became the 1st great defensive back who wasn't also playing offensive back (either quarterback or running back). He could have been elected to the Hall of Fame as a player, if what he had done as a coach wasn't forefront in people's minds.
50 Mike Singletary. Like Number 92 on this list, he was an ordained minister, and was the 1st man to have the nickname "The Minister of Defense." Like hockey legend Maurice Richard, he could scare you with his eyes alone.
51 Dick Butkus
52 Ray Lewis. Surpassing Mike Webster.
53 Mick Tinglehoff. Slightly ahead of Jeff Bostic and Harry Carson. Bill Romanowski can kiss my ass.
54 Randy White. Ahead of Brian Urlacher.
55 Junior Seau. What a great name for a defensive player: It's pronounced "Say ow." What a tragic story.
56 Lawrence Taylor
57 Dwight Stephenson
58 Jack Lambert, who lined up for the Seventies Steel Curtain next to...
59 Jack Ham
60 Chuck Bednarik. Had Otto Graham worn a single number throughout his career, I'd put him at that number; but he didn't wear 60 long enough to be ahead of Bednarik, and he didn't wear 14 long enough to be ahead of Hutson.
61 Bill George
62 Jim Langer
63 Willie Lanier. A close call ahead of Gene Upshaw and Dermontti Dawson.
64 Jerry Kramer. Ahead of Randall McDaniel, and 49ers legends Dave Wilcox and Jack "Hacksaw" Reynolds.
65 Elvin Bethea. Chuck Noll wore it, and was a very good guard, but his coaching triumphs don't count for anything here.
66 Ray Nitschke. Ahead of Joe Jacoby: He might have been the best member of the Eighties Redskins' "Hogs," but Nitschke was one of the best linebackers ever. If he'd played for the Giants, people would still be saying he was better than LT.
67 Bob Kuechenberg
68 Russ Grimm. Ahead of L.C. Greenwood.
69 Jared Allen. He has surpassed Tim Krumrie.
70 Sam Huff. He was the 1st truly great linebacker, following the early Fifties switch to 2-platoon football, getting it done for the Giants before LT was even born.
71 Alex Karras
72 Ed "Too Tall" Jones. Don't tell me about how versatile William "the Refrigerator" Perry was.
73 Leo Nomellini. Ahead of John Hannah.
74 Merlin Olsen. Ahead of Bob Lilly.
75 Mean Joe Greene. Ahead of Deacon Jones.
76 Marion Motley
77 Red Grange. Uniform numbers were first developed in football, and the 77 that the Galloping Ghost brought from the University of Illinois to the Bears was the 1st great uniform number in sports. The best 77 since has been Jim Parker.
78 Anthony Munoz. Slightly ahead of Art Shell, and that's got nothing to do with Shell's role as the 1st modern black head coach: He was nearly as good an offensive tackle as Munoz. Also close behind is Bobby Bell.
79 Roosevelt Brown
80 Jerry Rice
81 Dick "Night Train" Lane. Before Lott was considered, by many, the greatest defensive back ever, it was hard to question that it was Lane. I'd love to have seen him cover another great 81, Terrell Owens.
82 Raymond Berry
83 Ted Hendricks. The Baltimore Colts and the Oakland Raiders had very different reputations. Somehow, "the Mad Stork" -- one of the greatest nicknames in any sport -- fit in well with both franchises.
84 Randy Moss. This is a reluctant pick, but, like Ray Lewis and LT, you have to put your opinion of his character aside, and give credit where it is due.
85 Jack Youngblood
86 Buck Buchanan. Ahead of Hines Ward.
87 Willie Davis. Don't even think of putting Rob Gronkowski here until he plays on a team that wins a title without cheating. Davis did it 5 times.
88 Lynn Swann. Ahead of Alan Page: 4 rings beats none. Also ahead of John Mackey, who practically invented the position of tight end, along with...
89 Mike Ditka, and that's got nothing to do with his coaching. He was elected to the Hall of Fame as a player, you know. Ahead of Gino Marchetti.
90 Julius Peppers. Ahead of Neil Smith.
91 Kevin Greene. Ahead of Leslie O'Neal.
92 Reggie White
93 John Randle
94 Charles Haley. DeMarcus Ware has not surpassed him.
95 Richard Dent
96 Cortez Kennedy. A close call over Clyde Simmons.
97 Bryant Young
98 Jessie Armstead
99 Warren Sapp. A close call over Forties Cardinal Marshall "Biggie" Goldberg.
There has never been an NFL player wearing a triple-digit number.