Players are revitalizing No. 0 in the digit's return to NFL jerseys
Roquan Smith has played the equivalent of a full season at the heart of the Ravens' defense since arriving by trade at last year's Halloween deadline. The club has gone 11-6 in Smith's outings while allowing a measly 14.9 points per game. That average would lead the NFL in most years.
The move was transformative for Smith, the league's best-paid linebacker. He negotiated his own five-year, $100-million megadeal with Baltimore in the offseason. He also switched jersey numbers, dumping No. 18 to revitalize a dormant digit.
The NFL legalized No. 0 as a jersey option in 2023 for all players except offensive and defensive linemen. Team owners voted to abolish the ban on the nil value that dated back to the 1973 standardization of numbers by position group. Rosters got bigger over time, forcing squads to outfit more players, including some who wanted to be zeroes.
Few past NFLers experienced the privilege. George Plimpton wore No. 0, a measure of his quarterbacking ability, when the "Paper Lion" author tried out for Detroit in 1963 as a journalistic experiment. Records indicate that 14 legitimate players donned the number in games before the '73 ban.
Ending the half-century hiatus opened the floodgates. Zero's a coveted commodity now. Most teams are rostering a No. 0-wearer this season.
These trailblazers, close to two dozen in all, reflect the wider NFL player pool. They range in age from 23 (Jakorian Bennett, Daiyan Henley, Greg Newsome) to 30 (elder statesman Adrian Amos is in his ninth year). Some have All-Pro upside, others start every Sunday, and many are cogs in the machine fighting to get on the field.
The reasons they gravitated to No. 0 vary. Wearers surveyed by ESPN ahead of the season explained that the digit is novel, looks cool, resembles the letter "O" (Calvin Ridley's middle name is Orin), and has symbolic significance. Veteran pass-rusher Marcus Davenport sought a fresh start after his sack total plummeted to 0.5 in 2022. Top of mind for rookie edge rusher Byron Young were the doubters who thought he had zero chance to go pro.
Falcons linebacker Lorenzo Carter sacrificed No. 9 this year to quarterback Desmond Ridder. Carter's sister, a former Portland Trail Blazers employee, pointed out that NBA stars like Damian Lillard made No. 0 iconic.
"Zero in athletics is held high," Carter told ESPN. "You've got to earn that number and earn your right to wear that number."
Mission accomplished for the Ravens' Smith. Exhaustively influential, he ranks in the top 15 among linebackers in pass breakups, sacks, tackles, and stops, defined by PFF as a tackle that seals an offensive failure. Smith's sparkling 4.5% missed-tackle rate is a career best. Following his example, Baltimore's defense smothers all kinds of plays, ranking second in expected points added per dropback and seventh in EPA/rush, per Ben Baldwin's database.
Explosive playmakers sport No. 0. D'Andre Swift has rushed for the NFL's fifth-most yards and first downs behind the Eagles' smashmouth offensive line. Ridley's production runs hot and cold, but the Jaguars receiver shakes defenders downfield (15th in yards before the catch) and has flashed excellence (122 yards against the Bills) in his return from a yearlong betting suspension.
The cohort's other wideouts contribute less. Something of an afterthought in the powerhouse Dolphins offense, Braxton Berrios has 20 catches for 194 yards as Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, and Raheem Mostert dominate touches. The Giants' Parris Campbell (16 catches, 85 yards) ranks second-last among qualified wideouts in yards gained per target with 3.7. Zach Pascal (four catches, 19 yards) is a nonfactor for the lowly Cardinals.
The group's defensive players have produced some nuggets of note:
Panthers edge rusher Brian Burns tuned out trade rumors and leads No. 0-wearers with five sacks, positioning himself to cash in as a pending free agent. Broncos linebacker Jonathon Cooper (4.5 sacks) trails Burns closely.
One-upping Aaron Donald, Young paces the Rams and ranks eighth in the NFL with 13 quarterback hits, per Pro Football Reference. Not bad for the 77th overall pick.
Davenport didn't rebound with the Vikings as hoped. He sacked Bryce Young and Patrick Mahomes in back-to-back weeks in October but promptly landed on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain.
Sean Murphy-Bunting tops the Titans' secondary and ranks 28th among all cornerbacks with a 70.4 PFF grade. He forced and recovered a fumble against the Browns, then intercepted Lamar Jackson in London with a nifty grab along the sideline.
Zero's presence on NFL jerseys dates back a century. Founded in 1925, the Giants assigned No. 0 to a procession of 10 newcomers to the team over the next decade. Wearers ranged from Walt Koppisch, a college star at Columbia who shared a backfield with Lou Gehrig, to Wee Willie Smith, the diminutive reserve tailback who scored two touchdowns for New York's 1934 NFL Championship team.
"Feed Willis Smith a dozen alligator pears, drape him in a double-breasted overcoat, give him the Dionne quintuplets to hold, and he might (weigh) all of 145 pounds," United Press International correspondent Henry McLemore wrote that season, marveling at how Smith was able to dodge literal giants as he ran upfield.
"I duck 'em like you would a train," Wee Willie told McLemore.
The longest-tenured No. 0, fullback Johnny Olszewski, donned the digit for three teams from 1958-62. Obert Logan became the last No. 0 for decades as a Saints safety at the dawn of the Super Bowl era. Two peers who favored No. 00 - Pro Bowl wideout Ken Burrough and Hall of Fame center Jim Otto, or "aught-oh" - were allowed to stick with that alternative beyond 1973, but it disappeared from the gridiron when they retired and remains off-limits.
One No. 0 sighting materialized in the meantime. Linebacker Bryan Cox wore it in training camp with the 2001 Patriots, New England's first Super Bowl team, while waiting for his preferred No. 51 to free up.
"We'll just have to wait until some people get cut because no 50 numbers are available, there's only one 90 number available or something, and I'm not playing no linebacker with No. 95," Cox told reporters at the time. "So give me zero."
Uptake in the NBA was more enthusiastic. Imitating Gilbert Arenas, the microwave scorer who torched defenses as "Agent Zero" throughout the 2000s, a league-high 28 players rocked No. 0 last season, per Basketball Reference. Lillard and Jayson Tatum, like Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook before them, rep it annually in the All-Star Game.
In basketball, No. 0 denotes confidence - "You can't wear a zero and play like a zero," veteran guard Josh Richardson told theScore a few years ago as the number's popularity surged - but also sets a low bar for the wearer to clear.
"When I rocked that zero, I knew I was always going to surpass it, no matter what. Don't ever have anything with a zero. Don't have no zero points, zero rebounds," said retired big man Olden Polynice, an early adopter of the number in the NBA.
"It was like the beginning. That's what the number symbolizes. It was like the start, but there is no end. You can only go up from there."
Wee Willie Smith was the last No. 0 to celebrate an NFL title. Roquan Smith, Berrios, Ridley, and Swift all play for division leaders and potential Super Bowl LVIII finalists. The wait will continue for another season if the Chiefs or Cowboys - contenders with no zero on the roster - clinch the Lombardi Trophy.
Another milestone will be realized eventually. Time will tell which No. 0, be it Smith in Baltimore or some future great elsewhere, has his jersey retired first.
Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.
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