NFL Runway with Vinny and Dave: AFC South
by Dave Bernreuther and Vincent Verhei
Vince: It all started in Audibles last fall. I found myself with a lot to say about NFL uniforms last season -- largely the new outfits in Jacksonville and Tennessee, and but also some unusual combos in Baltimore, Indianapolis, L.A., and elsewhere. And I was not alone; plenty of other FO writers joined in, most frequently tech guru Dave Bernreuther. And between the two of us, we decided the issue was too big to let die after the season. It was too important -- the world had to know our opinions on the uniforms, helmets, and logos of all 32 NFL franchises.
And so here we are. Over the offseason, we're going to cover the league one division at a time, starting today with the AFC South, home of those fresh new threads the Titans and Jaguars introduced last year. We'll close with the AFC East, where the New York Jets will be introducing new uniforms in April. The other 24 teams will get the once-over, well, somewhere in the middle.
Dave: I could not be happier to have found a friend in my stubborn and curmudgeonly traditionalist ways, and I agree that the world would be better off if everyone simply followed our as-yet undefined style guide. If some NFL teams are determined to subject us to 1970s offensive philosophies; playoff games between Connor Cook and Brock Osweiler, Blake Bortles and, well, anybody; or overbearing officiating in general, the least they could do is be easy on the eyes.
I have long had the opinions but not the time to write articles for this site, but this is too important. Surely this analytics-heavy article is exactly what our audience comes here to read, so I hope I am up to the challenge.
Kidding aside, I am excited to see where this discussion leads us (and our equally opinionated readers in the comments), especially given that our tastes seem pretty closely aligned in general. The one glaring difference would probably be that my favorite team wears threads that are solidly and deliberately rooted in the 1960s, while yours is the Seahawks, the NFL's answer to Phil Knight's Oregon Ducks and quite possibly the cause of macular degeneration in thousands of northwestern US residents.
And so we begin with the South, and my team:
(Click here for an image of all the uniforms the Colts wore in 2018.)
Vince: There's not a ton to say about a set of uniforms that hasn't changed much since the days of Bubba Smith. The Colts' uniforms are simple, clean, and elegant, with a distinctive logo. If anything, they're a little too plain for my taste. I prefer numbers with outlines on NFL jerseys, and as the Cowboys have shown, you can do that just fine with only two colors. I'm particularly bored by the all-white combo -- with their white jerseys, the Colts should wear either blue pants like Jim Harbaugh did in 1995, or go even more radical and wear blue helmets, as last seen in a throwback set sported by Peyton Manning in 2010.
Dave: Not a ton to say? Challenge accepted! You couldn't have teed it up any better for me to both introduce my general philosophy of sports uniforms and make an enemy of a whole bunch of people. I'd call this a law of some sort, but that might be slightly overvaluing the amount of unnecessary thought that I've put into this sort of thing, which actually dates back to the late '80s when I used to carry around a folder full of hand-drawn helmets and uniforms.
That said … in general, I agree with you on the all-white head-to-toe look, and all "unitard" looks in general, to borrow UniWatch and ESPN's Paul Lukas's phrase. In white, it's acceptable but boring, but in any other color it's overkill. This is why I disliked the Nike Color Rush thing on principle even before seeing any of the actual results, which were often even worse than I could have imagined. But for the most part, I base my (unassailable and universally correct in all cases) opinions on several founding principles, the first of which is that a single color from head to toe is at best boring and at worst hideous.
Vince: I don't think I'd go that far. As we get into this, I'm sure there will be some monochrome uniforms I enjoy. But I agree that it can also lead to disaster. My general thoughts on this subject would be "approach with caution."
Dave: Dave's Founding Principle of Uniform Design No. 2: When possible, the helmet should match the pants. There's not really much to say here, and there are still plenty of exceptions to this. I'd say that almost universally, white pants are fine with any color helmet and a dark jersey, and light but non-white pants, such as the Steelers' yellow, work as well. Almost as universally, pants that are darker than the helmets are asking for trouble. Still, exceptions remain, such as New England, about whom I'll have more to say when we get to the AFC East. Even more universally, pants that are darker than a non-white jersey AND the helmet (and even if they're the same color as the helmet) are just asking for trouble.
Vince: That's not a bad rule of thumb, having the helmet match the pants; it almost forces some kind of color balance, but at the same time lends itself to contrast with a second-color jersey. Plus, it evokes memories of Tecmo Super Bowl. As always, though, there are exceptions. There are also exceptions to the no-dark-pants rule. Just for one example, since we won't cover them elsewhere, I always like the white-red-blue color scheme used by the Orlando Rage of the original XFL.
Dave: Principle No. 3 is a more vague rule: try not to overdo it, and try to use contrast when possible. This one is a lot more of a sliding scale, and we'll revisit this several times through the course of this purely analytics-based exercise.
Vince: That's vague enough I can't really argue, though I'm sure we'll disagree with the definition of "overdone" throughout this process.
Dave: Actually your "approach with caution" phrasing is probably a simpler and smarter way of saying what I just said.
Principle No. 4 is simple, and in many cases can override all others: When you've got a rich history, stay true to it.
Vince: I'm torn on this one. On the one hand I'm pro innovation in general, and not a fan of sticking to tradition for tradition's sake. On the other hand, sometimes teams use the same uniforms for a long time because they have always been good uniforms, and there's no need to mess with a good thing.
Dave: Agree completely. Which leads us to the Colts: Their road whites are a violation of that first rule, but it's hard to get too upset, because your link to the Harbaugh years and the blue pants (which I want to say were limited to only three games, but my memory is slipping -- Uniform Critics seems to confirm that though) makes me shudder. That said, in the '90s, and when they also had a blue facemask, that did at least seem to fit together fairly well.
Vince: Yes! Blue facemasks! I know a lot of people think facemasks should always be white or grey (even if there's no grey anywhere else in the uniform), but I'm a fan of using them to get more color into uniforms.
Dave: I prefer the grey for the Colts because of the history, but more than one uniform set has been massively improved by doing nothing more than adding a facemask color. The Freeman McNeil-era Jets were one, and the Colts going from white to blue were another.
The '80s and '90s were full of overly white uniforms on the whole. As a Giants fan growing up, I remember despising the road whites, but also accepting it as just how things were, sort of like the home white/road greys of Major League Baseball in the era between the powder blues of the '70s/'80s and the "lets wear pajamas on game day" look of more recent years. In the AFC alone, Buffalo, New England, Miami, New York, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Houston, Kansas City, Denver, and San Diego all went full white at least occasionally. In fact, if not for the 1977 Bills' blue road pants, the entire five-team AFC East would have been all-white from head to toe on the road.
The home look -- white helmet, blue jersey, white pants, blue-topped socks -- is classic to me, and should never be disturbed. While it's plain, I find it to be among the best uniforms in sports and always have, even before I grew into Colts fandom. My home town's football uniforms were based on the Colts' (and our record for most of the 1990s seemed to be based on the Venturi-Marchibroda-Infante Colts as well), so I suppose maybe there's a bit of bias there too. But especially since 2004 -- when team COO Pete Ward led the effort to update from royal blue to a darker shade and change the facemask and cleats to more traditional grey and black (an idea for which Peyton Manning was threatened with fines in 2002 when he wanted to pay tribute to the great Johnny Unitas) and endeared himself to me forever -- the Colts' home set has been incredibly simple and yet pretty much perfect. It has history, it has contrast (white, blue, white, blue, white, from head to toe), and it doesn't try to do too much with stripes, fonts, or colors. I can't argue against the logic behind your Dallas number stripe examples at all, but I also wouldn't consider that an upgrade if the Colts were to do it.
For the road whites? By rule, it's a "meh." But it gets a boost for the history.
Which brings us to Color Rush/alternates…
The curmudgeon in me dislikes alternates and third jerseys, while the creative jersey-drawing kid in me loves them. So I'm torn. But I pretty much universally despise Color Rush. Especially because it was dictated by Nike, rather than some team or owner-driven idea. Knowing what I know of the opinions of their front office, I was always encouraged that they'd hold out; they had resisted Black For Black's Sake (BFBS, another UniWatch label) despite popular demand and industry trends, and in 2016 they never took the field in the promoted all-blue look.
Which is why the 2017-18 Color Rush games bothered me so much.
If you're going to play along with Color Rush, you might as well overdo the color. It's the one time that head-to-toe unitard look would be acceptable … and yet they committed one of the worst possible sins; they went with a full unitard and a different color helmet. It was so disappointing.
I really hoped that they'd just sport their usual road whites -- maybe at worst with white socks too -- and declare that the "Color Rush" look to satisfy Nike. I love and respect that front office so much either way, but doing that to skirt the Nike-imposed rules would've made me an even bigger fan. Instead, they succumbed to Nike and went blue from neck to toe with a white helmet that stood out like a sore thumb. It offended me on so many levels...
... yet it still didn't actually look that bad. Maybe it's because they faced the overly orange Broncos on Thursday Night Football. Maybe it's because the white block letters and thicker white pant stripes provided enough contrast and a tie to the white helmet. Maybe it's because I can't be critical of my own team. (Oh wait -- that's not true AT ALL…) But it wasn't too terrible. Which is about as "damning with faint praise" as it gets, I suppose.
Vince: I don't remember that Broncos game (I rarely watch Thursday games, at least not live), but I do remember hearing the Colts were going all-blue against the Dolphins last year. I expected to hate the look, but actually kind of liked it. It helped they were playing Miami, and between the two teams you had a nice navy/teal/white complementary combo going on.
Dave: I'll give their Homes an A, their Roads a B+, and their Alternates a C+, which we'll probably learn is about as generous as I'll get with alternates.
That said, I hope they never do it again. Moving on...
(Click here for an image of all the uniforms the Texans wore in 2018.)
Dave: There are several teams in the league that have never done anything wrong with their uniforms. The Moo Cows are one of them. Their helmets are simple and classy. The logo makes sense. It is clever and logical without being overly complicated or futuristic. It gets bonus points for incorporating the flag into another element (the shape of the head/skull) and it suits the region. They match their pants to their helmet, and with the exception of the one Battle Red or Steel Blue game per year, they don't overdo the color. Their stripes are inoffensive, the match between red white and blue is of course both harmonious and Patriotic, and there is nothing bad to say about their fonts or anything else. I am at a complete loss for suggestions on how to improve their uniforms.
And yet … it still feels like something is missing. I don't even know what. They do nothing wrong, they don't overdo anything, and they check all the boxes. But nothing stands out. I can't logically give them anything below an A, even though an A seems absurd. So I'll give them a B+. The world's most boring B+.
Hey, it still beats most college uniforms.
Vince: I agree, Houston's uniforms are somehow less than the sum of their parts. I think the biggest issue is just the choice of color scheme. Ignore the red trim, and you're left with blue jerseys and light-colored pants -- just like the Colts, Titans, Patriots, Bills, Chargers, Bears, Lions, and Giants. There are just too many blue teams in the NFL. That's why I love Houston's red jersey-white pants combo so much. It would be better with a brighter shade of blue, but it's still a unique look that nobody else in the league uses.
Now let me stress that I like the red jerseys with the WHITE pants. The all-red ketchup bottle uniforms they've used in years past were atrocious. Thank goodness they switched to all-blues for Color Rush last year.
And I love the Texans logo, which is aggressive, sharp, and simple enough you can clearly make it out while looking at 11 of them at a time on a TV screen.
(Click here for an image of all the uniforms the Jaguars wore in 2018.)
Vince: Thank god the two-toned helmets are gone. The matte black-and-gold combo -- which was allegedly supposed to represent a big cat jumping out of the shadows, even though the logo on the helmet was actually entering darkness -- were some of the ugliest things ever seen on an NFL field, right up there with Denver's brown-and-gold socks. We can nitpick over the 2018 redesign, and we will, but there's no question that they're a huge improvement over the most recent edition.
Dave: Huge improvement is an understatement. But anything would've been a huge improvement over those monstrosities. It was a nice change from the three-team Florida trend of actively making their uniform sets much worse for no reason whatsoever.
Vince: I think that's especially true for Jacksonville. When they debuted in 1995, they had perfectly fine uniforms. Over the ensuing two decades, they kept making subtle changes -- none of which were terrible on their own, but none of which were improvements either.
Dave: For a while this was a franchise that couldn't seem to make up its mind about what to wear, like a sitcom montage of the nervous teen trying on everything in the closet before a date. Those original uniforms -- from their glory days of nearly reaching the Super Bowl in Year 2, the ones we associate with Mark Brunell and Keenan McCardell (or is that latter association just me, because I loved that guy) -- were excellent, but I don't disagree that they were a little bit dated. In 2002, they decided to branch out some. And while adding black jerseys is often a pointless and terrible idea, it made a lot of sense for them, given their helmets. The problem is that they overdid it, going from two uniform sets to five. And what bothers me the most is that they still managed to avoid using a sixth that would have made a ton of sense without violating my rules: black jerseys with white pants -- or, pretty much the standard Ravens set. Instead, they went with every other conceivable combination, including the one that meets my rules but still annoys me to no end: black helmet/teal jersey/black pants. I'm sorry, but even though that makes sense, it just bothers me.
It took another decade before they totally self-destructed, but it gradually went downhill from there. The David Garrard years saw them get rid of the gold sleeve stripes and accents, which were part of what made them seem dated, but also made sense with the logo itself, only to replace them with helmet sparkles (yes, really) and an incredibly stupid vertical curving stripe that made no sense whatsoever and an over-reliance on the all-black unitard look, which is especially stupid when you remember that they play in Florida and still chose to wear those at home, even in September.
Shad and Tony Khan came in soon after, though, and gave FO and all our readers hope by saying all the right things and starting an analytics company. We were thrilled, we were optimistic, we were excited…
And then they gave us this.
They're good people, plus they gave us years of jokes by employing Blake Bortles, so I'll just skip over the next five years, during which they were required by league rule to keep those helmets (though that still does not excuse the black pants, teal jersey, gold/black helmets combination that I'd probably call The Worst Uniform of All Time, except of course for their mustard yellow Color Rush jerseys. Let us never speak of those again.) For 2018 they switched to something perfectly reasonable, attractive, and sane. If anything, it's a little boring. And gold accents that match the logo would make a ton of sense. But after the previous five years, boring is good. B for home, B- for road, and still a C- for being all over the place with the alternates and combinations.
Vince: Look, there are flaws here -- the numbers need borders, they could use more gold, the pants should have some kind of stripe or piping -- but the bottom line is that Those Helmets are gone, and thus what we're left with is an enormous case of addition by subtraction.
(Click here for an image of all the uniforms the Titans wore in 2018.)
Dave: The Titans are a bit like the Texans, in that they have done a few things right. They kept the basic Oilers color scheme, but updated and differentiated it. They overdid the alternates and combinations, but they stuck to the same template for nearly two decades. They were immediately recognizable. And even though I hated the shoulder stripes, I liked that they did something different with them. No other team had ever really tried the '80s Maple Leafs-style neck-to-hand vertical shoulder stripe for a football jersey. This was probably for good reason, but points for trying, at least. The flaming thumbtack logo and pointy helmet stripe were weird, but they both at least made sense when you realized they were ostensibly based on the shape of a sword.
Where they went off the rails was with their combinations. There may not be another team as guilty of overdoing the combinations as the Titans, and almost all of them were bad. There is only one reason for which I am grateful for the "security theater" nonsense of the new-ish NFL rules prohibiting alternate helmets such as the beloved Pat Patriot: absent that pointless rule, the Titans might have had 16 to 24 different ugly uniform combinations per seasons instead of eight.
I think the weird shoulder stripe is what really made it worse, too. No matter how much sense the rest made, it was always this extra blast of color in there to interrupt things.
I actually liked the Oiler-blue pants they introduced in 2006, after far too long wearing the navy pants, white jerseys, light blue shoulders, and white helmets, which just never made any sense. If they had just swapped light blue for dark as their primary color and called it a day, they'd have been a solid but unimpressive C or C+. But right when they did that, they also went completely insane with the combinations. They'd do full powder blue. Full navy blue. Full white. And every combination in between, including the absolute worst non-Florida uniform I've ever seen: navy pants, powder blue jerseys, white helmet. The socks and shoulder stripes just made it even worse. It was awful. It was so bad that I think it blinded Nashville fans into accepting an extra decade of Jeff Fisher. (Or perhaps it was his dashing moustache. Also, to be fair, they may have all been blinded by the Predators' home yellows by then too.)
I don't have anything positive to say about the new 2018 uniform set; they still have entirely too many stupid combinations; the striping and font are bad; and at white, light grey, darker grey, light blue, darker blue, and red, they have entirely too many colors. But still, it's an improvement. Even if it's incredibly boring. C across the board. I'd give them a B- if they'd just pick two colors and stick with them. They could even get away with grey pants without bothering me.
Vince: I was a huge fan of the original, Steve McNair-era Titans uniforms -- they had a nod to their Oilers past, but turned that history on its ear with the navy blue jerseys and the shoulder yoke. But yes, the combinations became way too much. So a reboot was needed, but the results left a lot to be desired. The switch to the navy helmet was a bad one (now the thumbtack logo is camouflaged!) but the bigger issue is just that there are too many colors. The Titans now have three different jerseys, and each one has six colors: white, red, two shades of blue, and two shades of grey (!). They're too noisy, with stripes and splotches everywhere. Yes, we get it, it's all supposed to represent SWORDS, but it's too much. (This would be a good definition of overdoing it, I think.) The Titans used eight different uniform combinations last year, and none of them looked good, because each jersey clashed with itself, not to mention the other uniform elements. They're just a mess, easily the worst uniforms in the division, and among the worst in the league.
Dave: Yes, absolutely a good example of overdoing it, which surely is not at all something anyone will ever accuse us of when it comes to uniform analysis. But I'd still say that the Titans have a long way to go to compete with a team in the NFL's other South division, which we'll cover next time. For now, though, I'm curious about what our readers have to say.
UPDATE: A few hours after this was published, the Titans announced that they would be making the numbers slightly bigger on their light blue jerseys, and will probably wear them more often in 2019.