NFL Runway with Vinny and Dave: AFC North
by Dave Bernreuther and Vincent Verhei
Dave: For this week's installment, we're sending a Raven to the North, where the winters are long and full of violent battles between centuries-old rivals.
Fear not, though, readers. I meant the AFC North, not Westeros. There will be no need to adjust your monitor's black levels for this battle, nor will the conclusion to this article be so dissatisfying. Also, Vontaze Burfict has left the division, so there should probably be fewer attempted beheadings as well.
Vince: Funny thing about the uniforms in the American Football Conference's North division -- three of them have undergone some fairly radical changes in the past decade or so, while the fourth is going on 50 years now with the same basic design. There's a lot of tradition among these teams, but also a lot of innovation. Let's break down the good, the bad, and the classic.
Dave: Ah, classics. The back nine of this article series is going to start featuring a lot more teams with very long uniform histories, making scrolling through the very excellent Gridiron Uniform Database site much more fun and interesting. Even for well-schooled football history folks there are probably details in there that we didn't know. They do fine work. But before we get to that, let's first dive in to the (sort of) newcomer to the division:
(All graphics appear courtesy of GridironUniforms.com.)
Vince: Man, there's a lot going on here. I think, to talk about the Ravens' uniforms of today, you need to talk about how they have evolved over time. So let's start with the uniforms they wore in 1996, the first year after they relocated from Cleveland to Baltimore. By and large, these were a huge success in establishing a new identity right out of the gate. The new nickname had a local tie-in to Baltimore poet Edgar Allen Poe, and the new color scheme had a perfect tie-in to that nickname -- ravens, in real life, are black with a purple sheen. Add in a touch of yellow/gold for contrast and highlights and you've got a winning look. I especially like the black pants with the very broad white stripe that they wore both home and away, but they only kept that look for one season. They moved to white pants exclusively in 1998 and got a new helmet logo in 1999 (long story), but otherwise little changed for a long time. The Ravens had found a quality, unique look, and they stuck with it.
And then changes started to creep in over time. The black pants returned, but without any kind of contrast stripe, so they looked like yoga pants. They debuted a black jersey, which fit with the theme, but took color away from a uniform that didn't have much color to begin with.
And then all hell broke loose. In 2015 we got this:
And a year later we got this:
Last year, we got purple pants, which worked better with the white jerseys than it did with the black. But none of these are improvements. The Ravens should wear purple or white jerseys with black or white pants and never stray from that look.
Dave: I'm with you 100 percent on them establishing a new identity. That was a really good job by their braintrust in picking a team name and coherent theme that fit the region and blended well together. I even liked their different number font and its little serifs; with Poe being a writer it seemed to work very nicely with that. I want to say I prefer the inaugural season's font and striping (and extra bottom serif) over the drop-shadow look they switched to the following year, but it's not a strong preference. I do know you like that outline style though, but adding the gold to the white jersey number edge was also a good move.
I had completely forgotten about the original helmet logo. It was well designed but as a helmet logo, I do prefer the current bird.
Vince: What's interesting to me about the bird logo is that there are actually two of them -- one for each side of the helmet. It's like they designed the logo and produced the decals and were putting them on the helmets when somebody shouted "Hey! The B's on one side are backwards! Somebody switch the B's on half these decals!"
Dave: Really not much else to say here; you covered the overdone variety, which I'm already on record as hating. Their base uniforms are never going to be super exciting, but they're good and they make sense, and there's no reason to be trotting out eight different variations on it.
Dave: The Bengals' helmets are among my favorites in the sport. Like the Rams, they eschew a logo in favor of attempting to recreate nature, and I love it.
It's all downhill from there, though, and I say that even as a fan of using a lot more orange than they had in the Ickey Woods/Boomer Esiason years. When they announced that they were going to change the uniforms, I was excited. Then they released them … and man, what a nightmare.
The 2004 Bengals were something of a trailblazer; pick a bad idea or combination and they tried it. Orange helmet, orange jersey, black pants? Check. All-black but with an orange helmet and weird white side stripes? Check. (And don't worry, they did that with both orange and black socks … hard to say which was worse.) Bad side panels that were prone to not lining up with the pants, never mind the fact that they were also not even the same color white? Check. Inconsistent shoulder yokes? Check. Overly busy in general? Check.
Basically, think of something that could be done wrong, other than the number font and not touching the classic helmet, and the Bengals did it.
And that's to say nothing of the fact that the shoulder yokes and sleeves didn't even match from teammate to teammate!
Again, I liked the idea of adding more orange. I was even sort of curious about how it might look to do tiger striped orange pants (likely hideous but I'd still like to see it to be sure). But man, did they screw it up. Turning the full sleeve orange instead of just a vertical stripe was a good idea, but they bungled it; above the orange fabric, on the black jerseys, they added one single orange stripe that looked like a vinyl sticker. On the white set, the shape of the shoulder yoke varied depending on the size of the player, and the lack of any divider or element between orange and white made it more obvious. On all post-1990s jerseys, no two sleeves are alike, but the Bengals took this to a whole new level, especially among linemen, who had some sort of spacer panel in the armpit that made every jersey unique; sometimes a bit of white would stick out between black and orange; others would have fewer tiger stripes; still others would have black gaps instead of white in the same spot as their teammates … it was just a disaster.
And let's not forget the candy corn look:
It seems very, very wrong to type this sentence, but when Nike came along, they improved the situation slightly … by fixing the armpit, yoke, and striping issues. On the white jerseys, at least. For whatever stupid reason, they left the white side panel on the colored jerseys, and at least in my opinion, their change to the collar made it far worse, almost like it was the collar of a dress shirt. (I recall this being an issue for a few years with other teams too, notably the Saints' black jerseys.) This has since been rectified.
It's still a mess, though. There are so many ways to add orange, keep the tiger striping, and look good, but they did everything wrong. There are too many combinations, too many oddball side stripes, too many poor sock matches, too many of everything. You name it, they screwed it up.
And yet … with the exception of the candy corn look, the whole is almost always greater than the sum of its parts. This is almost entirely due to the helmet and the color combination. No matter how many things they do wrong, it still looks decent when not completely overdone. It's just a horrible missed opportunity. It really wouldn't take much to tweak these duds to be among the best in the league. And now would really be the time, too, given their complete lack of success since the last switch and the move to a new head coach. One might even argue that changing the uniforms again might be the move most likely to generate some interest in the 2019 Bengals too, given the uninspiring coaching hire, quarterback play, and roster in general...
Vince: You know what? These stories are supposed to take a conversational, give-and-take, back-and-forth approach, but I'm really having a hard time finding anything to add here. I still can't get over how somebody, somewhere decided to mess with what had been an all-time classic look. Like, I can't even fathom the arrogance it would take to look at the Boomer Esiason-era unis, either home:
… or away…
… and think "I can do that better." You can't! You can't do better than that! You took something beautiful and wonderful and screwed it up beyond repair. It's been more than a decade now, and I kept waiting to get used to the new look, and it's just not going to happen.
All I can add here is that there should be some way to make an orange alternate jersey work -- after all, tigers are orange with black stripes, not black with orange -- but whatever the Bengals are trying to do with that, they have failed.
Dave: Those photos tell a better story than the illustrations do. Those pant stripes are glorious. I take back what I said about more orange. They should just tweak the sleeves for the new style and go back to that. It's not like they've won anything in the current set; at least they made those Super Bowls back then.
Vince: In some ways, even talking about these current Browns uniforms is a waste of time. They debuted four years ago, they were horrible, everyone knew they were horrible, and the Browns have already announced they will have a new look that will be "nothing fancy" in 2020. So instead of dwelling on the disasters Cleveland will wear for the last time this fall, let's talk about requests for what we would like to see in one year's time.
- Orange numbers are difficult to read on a white jersey and almost impossible to read on a brown jersey. Please stick to brown numbers on white and white numbers on brown.
- You're going to play the Bengals twice a year. Please make it easy to tell which team is which. None of this garbage:
- If you just went back to what Bernie Kosar wore, I don't think anyone would complain.
Dave: I may be in the minority, but I actually don't hate the current Browns uniforms. As new era Nike looks go, the pant striping with the wording built in is not bad. The name on the chest is not necessary, but not bad, even though the numbers have a drop shadow (which actually goes up, which is so much weirder to me now that I'm staring at the image) and the wording does not. In isolation, none of their eight (!) 2018 combinations is that offensive, save for the brown unitard look. The striping works for me, both on the sleeves and on the pants. Brightening the orange works for me. And while I'm always a fan of the old school, the all-white Browns uniforms always seemed like the most boring of the all-whites to me, and the 1970-era orange pants/white jersey look never looked quite right either despite meeting almost all of my criteria for the ideal uniform. Meanwhile, that new full-brown look with orange numbers and no white whatsoever violates just about every single one of my hard "rules" for uniforms … and yet in a way I also still thought it looked kind of good. Maybe it's just that I enjoyed watching Baker Mayfield's debut in that Jets game so much so I have a soft spot for it. Or maybe I need to be checked for a concussion.
That said, I still think they would have been better off just brightening the orange and calling it a day. That uniform came to life in 1952 and did not change substantially for over 60 years, and the only reason they got away with changing it at all was that the new iteration of the team was really only known for being a laughingstock. (It was fitting, then, that their 1-31 run came in the new duds.) I don't think anyone expects much of anything but an Undo on the next uniform set, and that's how it should be. Maybe they can keep their newer pants stripes or wear orange or brown pants more often. But that should really be as exciting as they get. This team should never have a helmet logo and should never go too overboard on color or design. They're called the Browns, after all. There's only so much you can or should do with that.
- Go back to the old jerseys.
- Keep the current orange hue and the brown facemask.
- Leave the Browns wordmark over the numbers, but much smaller than it is now (but I'm OK with it being larger than it was from 2003-14, which is not something I even remembered existing until just now).
- Make the sleeve stripes work, even though NFL jerseys don't really have sleeves anymore. That '92-'94 sleeve look is not acceptable. (Another hat tip to GUD for that detail, which I wouldn't otherwise have noticed.)
- You can wear orange pants sometimes, but never against the Bengals.
- I won't oppose orange drop shadows or outlines on the numbers, but they need to be subtle and face the right direction (down).
- Don't you dare wear orange jerseys with brown socks like in 2003-04.
- In fact, don't ever wear any socks that aren't the old school ones with the striping inside them that matches the sleeves.
Dave: In 2017, the Steelers ditched the bumblebee throwbacks and the world rejoiced. In 2018 they wore a throwback to the '70s where the only change was the number font. They should go back to that.
I miss the yellow helmet of the throwbacks they used, and my default rule of matching helmet to pants makes me really wish we could see that occasionally with the standard uniforms, but the black has so much history and tradition that I would never suggest going to that full-time even if it looks great. The one-side logo, the black and yellow, the shoulder stripes that make less and less sense as actual sleeves disappear … it's all good, and they're wise not to mess with it.
Vince: We're on the same wavelength here. The Steelers' uniforms violate a lot of my own rules -- the numbers lack borders, the nameplates don't match the numbers on the home or road jerseys -- but I don't care. There's not a thing I would change about Pittsburgh's uniforms. I love that they have had matte-finish helmets for decades, way before the rest of the league realized that was a good look. I love that they only have a logo on one side of the helmet, just because. I love that the logo includes blue and red, even though there is no blue or red anywhere else on the uniform. I love that the logo and nickname are a product of the team's history and community -- you would never see this team relocate and play as the Omaha Steelers. I love the italic, rounded number font they use. I love the striking simplicity of the pants, just a base color with a wide contrast stripe down the side. (Between the Ravens' inaugural look and the Steelers, it occurs to me that more teams need to use single-color broad stripes.) The Steelers' uniforms are classic, distinctive, and immediately identifiable. These are perfect, and there's nothing I can think of that would improve them.
The only question, then, is what to do about alternate uniforms. I'm with you that the yellow-helmet look (last seen in 2011) is pretty snazzy and vastly superior to the bumblebees, but then everyone hates the bumblebees. I also don't hate the Color Rush uniforms -- black unitards with yellow numbers? That works for something different once or twice a year.
Dave: Agree there. As Color Rush goes, head to toe black with the contrast of yellow is easily the least worst.
I feel like this division is likely to produce the most unanimous response among everyone, not just us. But I'm curious though... do any of our readers have other ideas about these four teams? I'd love to hear them.