ESPN- For decades, some NFL wide receivers have said they look better when they wear low numbers compared to the traditional range of 80 to 89. Now there is scientific research to back up that seemingly superficial sentiment.
A peer-reviewed study by UCLA researchers found that perception can be influenced by the associations made between numbers and size through the brain's cognitive process. The study, which will be published this week in the journal PLOS One, exposed subjects to images of different football jersey numbers to measure their perception of the person wearing it. The smaller the number, the more likely the subject was to perceive a slimmer player.
"We were surprised that there is a connection and then even more so surprised that the connection is so robust," said Ladan Shams, a cognitive neuroscientist who is a professor of psychology, neuroscience and bioengineering at UCLA. "It's not just when we contrasted large numbers with small ones. When we looked at the relationship between the ratings of size and slenderness and the numbers, [and] we did a very small range, like from 17 to 19, we see a very robust correlation."
Receivers interviewed by ESPN at the time offered various explanations for their preference for lower numbers, but many described the image they believed a number between 10-19 would communicate.
Former NFL wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said numbers in the 80s were for "big guys" who are "like 6-2, 6-3" and that it would "just look weird" for smaller receivers to wear them.
ESPN reached out to Shams to understand if there was a psychological reason why lower numbers would influence the perceptions of the players who wore them. Shams hypothesized that human brains could make the connection between a small number and a slender body type but said there was no accepted research to back up the assertion.
Well there you have it folks! After I have spent years of breaking down how wearing smaller numbers scientifically made you faster and bigger numbers made you slower yet stronger, a bunch of nerds in a lab confirmed it. I know they said that a smaller number made players appear faster. But as the old saying goes "Look fast, feel fast, play fast". Who is the fastest wide receiver duo in the NFL? The two players pictured at the top of this blog. What numbers do they wear? 10 and 17. Coincidence? I think not.
The only question I have now is how teams will use this data to take advantage of PENs (performance enhancing numbers) and if the NFL will do anything to stop it because they deem it unfair. Back in the day, you didn't have to worry about players potentially breaking the game based on the number they wore because there were limits on which number they could choose. But now that the NFL has allowed the chaos of pretty much any jersey number being up for grabs for all positions, Pandora's Box is wide open.
I mean it's all fun and games when super fast running backs and receivers go up 5 Speed points thanks to being able to wear the number 1. But what happens when Bill Belichick figures out how to use every single digit to his advantage and is able to harness the power of a player wearing 0?
I'll tell you what happens. More carnage and Super Bowls than the Tom Brady Era. At least until Goodell figures out some way to penalize the HC of NEP for illegally distributing numbers, which will end with the Patriots forfeiting their first round pick, a billion blogs on this site about #NumbersGate, and Portnoy being arrested again for defending The Wall. But until then, every Sports Science department of every NFL franchise should be looking to maximize their jersey speed before The Man cracks down on everything and we go back to the old days of missionary position jersey numbers.