On the eve of his fifth season in Carolina, Brian Burns heard that, in a league with decades of history, the largest rulebook in sports and a commissioner who governed from an iron throne, change was afoot. Again. This particular change thrilled many of his NFL brethren, such as the 21 others who learned the league would allow players to wear No. 0 for the first time.
Burns, a defensive end who racked up 12.5 sacks last season, was already switching to a different position, edge rusher, in the Panthers’ scheme. With one change, he reasoned, why not another? Despite his status as a first-round draft pick (2019), Burns had not chosen his previous number, 53. He wasn’t especially attached to those digits—beyond how well he played while wearing them—after netting 39.5 sacks in his first four seasons. To switch, evolve and improve, while wearing a number no other Panther had ever worn? “[The history] was the main reason I wanted it,” he told me Monday over the phone from Charlotte.
Did he check that history out in the mirror before he ran out onto the field? Burns won’t even lie. Of course, he did! But he also sometimes forgot that he had switched. A few times, he looked up on the Jumbotron and saw a No. 0, in a Panthers jersey, and had to remind himself … that was him.
Burns won’t forget Week 1 of the 2023 season any time soon. Despite a lingering contract dispute, he wanted to play, needed to play, and he suited up, answering any lingering questions over whether he might sit out. Burns admitted that he considered the prospect, that there was a chance he wouldn’t play.
Instead, he showed up and starred, while shining a spotlight on a jersey number shaped like the moon, collecting seven tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble, as a lone bright spot in the Falcons’ defeat of the Panthers. The day was so memorable, in fact—for what he did and what he wore and what both signified—that the celebrations he planned out beforehand vanished from his mind. He didn’t need them. “Pretty emotional,” he says. “And pretty dope.”
The new combo—part zero, all hero—marked an odd NFL first. It began in earnest deep into the first quarter of Jaguars-Colts. The Jags were on the road, tied 0–0 and driving toward the end zone when quarterback Trevor Lawrence dropped back on third down. History began forming at that moment.
The pocket formed by the offensive line in front of him wasn’t really much of a pocket at all. It looked more like a wall—and Lawrence stood a full four yards behind it. Still, the Indianapolis rushers forced his scramble, the pivot, away from traffic, and a full spin to his right in order to gallop left. He scampered, scanning downfield, then floated a pass while still running; the angle, awkward; his feet, not set. The pass, thrown on a low trajectory, hard but not too hard, floated between defenders, toward the end zone.
There, Lawrence’s new, All Pro–caliber teammate was sprinting past the goal post, moving from the right side of the end zone toward the left. That teammate, wideout Calvin Ridley, stopped, at just the right time, in just the right place.
Lawrence saw him and hit him; Ridley hauled the floater in and managed to maintain just enough balance to not fall out of the end zone right away. The touchdown marked both the first points of this Jaguars’ season that projects great promise and the first points scored by any player wearing the number 0 in the history of the NFL.
The sequence was neither seismic nor seminal. But still, it generated debate, hate, ideas, even a few fans willing to embrace this particular change. All while presenting a weird slice of pro football lore. In a league that formed before things such as television existed, it is no small feat to become an answer to a future trivia question. (Ridley declined an interview request, politely, through team PR.)
He wasn’t alone in the history making, anyway. At its core, the NFL is a numbers game. And, in Week 1, No. 0 had seized its moment.
Roquan Smith, Ravens linebacker extraordinaire, apparently expected this. He told reporters this offseason that he chose the most circular of digits for far more than a simple changeup, because he could. In fact, he sounded downright stoic, while on the verge of his second season in Baltimore, after joining the Ravens from Chicago in the middle of last fall.
“I look at the No. 0 as a new beginning—continuing to build a foundation of greatness with the start of a new season,” Smith said. “A strong and solid foundation is what you must have before anything else, and you must be willing to work for what comes next. This is my first start of a season with the Ravens, and I see no better number that represents that journey to greatness.”
Who knew that zero, of all the numbers, with its negative connotations; its signifying of less than, well, anything; and its banishment from NFL jerseys, would one day be considered a path to greatness. That might qualify as the number zero’s paramount accomplishment.
It’s wild that zero snuck into the NFL at all. In a league where the rule book has become the new phone book, there’s an annual ritual of sorts, a trotting out of oddities within hundreds of pages of minutia, much of which relates to the actual game of football, in tangential ways, at best. But for most of the NFL’s existence, while changes were made to everything else (field, cleats, pregame, etc.), actual jersey numbers—and which players were allowed to don which digits— remained mostly the same, firmly entrenched.
That was the point, by the way, to know a linebacker by the number stretched in mesh across his chest and back (typically in the 40s or 50s). Same for quarterbacks. Same for every other position. Beginning in 2021, though, any gridiron aficionado especially drawn to the conformity within those parameters would soon be spun off their axis of tidy familiarity.
Before that season, only quarterbacks, kickers and punters could wear single-digit numbers on their uniforms. In 2021, tight ends joined the look-mom-no-second-digit party, as did wideouts, running backs and defensive backs. In ’23, zero also became available to all of them or, at least, to any player in those seven position groups. A tight end playing in a season before ’21, could only choose a jersey number between 40 and 49 or between 80 and 89. Now, tight ends can get wild with their numbers game. Their current range is 0 through 49 and 80 through 89. Only the poor linemen, on both sides of the ball, remain stuck in number-choice purgatory.
By most counts, a full 22 players embraced the NFL’s (ever-so-slightly) open mindset. In becoming zeroes, they hoped to become heroes. Of the 16 games scheduled for Week 1, 15 featured at least one zero—and not the type who blew coverage on a touchdown pass. Green Bay–Chicago marked the outlier.
Marvin Jones was the first player to wear No. 0 onto a field in NFL history, donning the numeral Thursday night in the NFL’s opening game between the Lions and Chiefs. You might say that he played down to his digits, registering only two catches for eight yards, while fumbling once—and in the red zone. Fortunately, the number of zeroes left in play resembled one of those checks Floyd Mayweather Jr. used to flash around. There were still nine linebackers, five cornerbacks, four receivers, two safeties and one running back to ensure—or, at least attempt—they would kick this NFL oddity off right.
By the end of the first 15 games, 17 players had trotted onto fields across the country wearing the donut of digits. They took part in statement wins (Braxton Berrios, Dolphins; Samuel Womack III, 49ers) and epic upsets (Greg Newsome, Browns). They were limited in action, for reasons not yet determined (D’Andre Swift, Eagles, who contributed one carry for three yards and one catch for no yards in a victory over New England). They debuted on the wrong end of blowouts (Parris Campbell, Giants).
Five zeroes stood out above the rest. No, that is not a misprint.
In the Ravens’ clinical decimation of the Texans, Smith did Smith-like things. Just watching that game induced bruises, and he delivered many real ones, racking up 16 tackles and a sack.
Ridley, after the trade from Atlanta and the end of his gambling suspension, imprinted a franchise that seems poised for a deep playoff run, beyond any reasonable expectation. The Jags went to him early, lined him up all over the place and sent him in motion. Lawrence found him while Ridley ran left and while he ran right, found him near the line of scrimmage and deep downfield. Ridley juked a defender into falling on a near-second score. When he said last week he wasn’t rusty, apparently he wasn’t deploying false bravado, finishing with eight catches for 101 yards. It’s likely the defending champions in Kansas City took notice of this development in Jacksonville.
Then there were Sean Murphy-Bunting (six tackles, forced fumble), the Titans’ prized free agent cornerback, and Jakorian Bennett (seven tackles), the Raiders’ fourth-round selection in the 2023 NFL draft. Both provided solid coverage and amplified a number often associated with negativity, all on the same (minorly) magical day.
All proved a new NFL notion: Zeroes really can be heroes. Maybe it’s time to let those beefy dudes up front in a new professional football endeavor. Burns, for one, hopes his former counterparts can get in on the trend. Single digits might be slimming for the big fellas. It’s … fun with numbers—only, for the zeroes—like never before.