This week, we’re celebrating some of our favorite random plays and obscure moments in NFL history — those that WE will never forget, even if others have. Welcome to “Who Remembers?” Week at SB Nation NFL.
Like most young NFL fans in the 1990s, football cards were a major piece of my gridiron obsession. I was merely a conduit between allowance money and companies like Topps, Bowman, and Pro Set in a quest to find pristine J.J. Stokes and Errict Rhett holograms. Few highs matched carefully tearing the foil wrap protecting a new set of 12 and seeing who I’d soon be adding to mylar sleeves in sticky three-ring binders.
There were two caveats to this excitement, however; the hidden mines sabotaging your quest to fill out the ‘95 Browns starting lineup before they took flight for Baltimore:
a) the index, which was just a checklist of all the cards in the set and the equivalent of a spreadsheet at the playground, and
b) the Pro Bowl cards, which didn’t really count as player cards.
Those all-star cards were only redeemed by the mounting insanity of whomever was tasked with designing the game’s uniforms each year. The stretch from the mid-1990s and into the new millennium was a descent into madness, with shoulder panels, gradients, and some bonkers neon inserts — anything to distract from the half-speed football being foisted upon Hawaii (and later, Orlando).
And since I didn’t really watch the Pro Bowl (even as a football-obsessed pre-teen I had better things to do), these were my window into the sartorial choices of a madman.
But which were truly the worst? Oh, my friends, let’s take a look.
1995-97: The Star-Spangled Shoulder era
Take, for example, the mid-90s kit that made NFC players look as though they’d desecrated the American flag and then wore it as one-third of a poncho. These asymmetrical wedges stuck the league’s best players in designs where a plain white t-shirt was being devoured by its more interesting and patriotic cousin.
To offset for a slightly smaller (and off-center) chest number, designers also plied each shoulder with jersey numbers that weren’t much smaller — so you might not have known what the hell he was wearing, but you definitely knew it was Barry Sanders trying to hide his embarrassment under those pads.
The pants were fine, mostly because the AFC just stole the Chiefs’ design and took the logo off.
2000: The league finds out about Microsoft WordArt
The league upgraded from Microsoft Paint to Microsoft Word after the Y2K scare, giving us what appear to be Comic Sans numbers. The shoulder numbers remain, but everything else here goes back to basics in a hilariously stark adjustment from the shoulder bib era.
2001-02: The gradient days
The NFL made the jump from Word to Photoshop in ‘01, hammering the gradient button on otherwise boring jerseys and putting the league’s best players in a tribute to toner loss. “All-Star” was added to the front of the jersey, making it look exactly like a shirt you’d buy for a toddler at T.J. Maxx.
2003-13: Throw a bunch of stars and stripes and panels and piping on things, we’ll figure it out
Nothing has ever summed up the 2000s trend of ruining uniforms on a regular basis more than the Pro Bowl.
2014-15: F*** it, just rip off whatever Oregon’s doing
Goodbye, red and blue. Helllooooo, neon green and orange:
2019: Lemme see those gradients again
That brings us to today, when there still isn’t a ton of thought going into these jerseys, but at least they’re clean. And as a bonus we got to see Ezekiel Elliott operate as a pass rusher in them.
If history is any indication, 2020 will just be these jerseys with a few extra panels and stars glued on to them.
No one will notice but the good people at Topps. And if you’re lucky, you could even get a tiny swatch of gradient, or star decals, or superfluous piping the next time you buy a pack.