Paul Lukas is a man I greatly admire. His fixation on sports uniforms and pretty much all of life’s other ephemera is something I very much identify with. The issues he covers for ESPN, and his own websites, Uni-Watch, and Permanent Record, are slyly relevant to all of society, and this is what makes his work so appealing. His devotion to aesthetics in places where it isn’t often discussed is both commendable and sort of inspiring. I didn’t think about topics like this until I discovered Paul’s work. Then after a long time, I realized I must always have had a deep interest, and decided I should try something similar.
Recently, I and another giga-man were invited to a party at our friend’s new house. Our friend and his lovely wife gave us a tour of the place, and it was all very tasteful. But once we got into the basement, one of his possessions got all of my attention straight away: a complete collection of NFL gumball helmets mounted and glued into place, all in mint or near-mint condition. I stood there looking at it a good 20 minutes and both my girlfriend and other friends laughed about my obsession with them. I didn’t give a toss, because I was having a cracking time poring over the helmets, studying their delicate beauty. Just one piece of hard plastic for the shell, a softer piece for the facemask, and then a sticker on either side of the lid. I was reminded of my boyhood, when I sat down and drew every NFL helmet in crayon or colored pencil, with all requisite fuss and bother to get them just right. Resplendent.
What I will do now is rank the current NFL helmets worst to first. As with anything else I’ve contributed, you might read my work and feel I have made some poor choices. You’ll also accuse me of all manner of personal biases. I welcome your criticisms. I would love them in fact, because it will get more people talking about sports uniforms, and that will give me pleasure. Let us talk about this.
32. New England Patriots: (SHUFT) Let me first issue an important qualifier: any team sporting a helmet that is wildly inferior to one they previously used full time will be singled out, and the above scarlet acronym will be affixed to their name. (Shittier Helmet Used Full-Time). The Pats are the worst mainly for their SHUFT-y decision to shun Pat Patriot for what many refer to as the “Flying Elvis” motif. What is supposed to depict a tri-corner hat looks more like the most voluminous pompadour on your weirdest uncle. The team’s now 13 years of on-field greatness cannot save it. Beastly.
31. Denver Broncos: (SHUFT) When I was a kid, the Broncos were my least favorite team. Their dominance of the Browns gave me night shivers, and watching them get smoked in Super Bowls didn’t do anything to comfort me. But as much as I despised them, at least I could give the organization mad props for their luxuriant helmet design. But now look at that thing. Ugly shade of blue. Modernized middle stripe that fades before reaching the neck. And there is just something very Devry about that foolish horse decal.
30. Carolina Panthers: In the mid-90s, people were very into metallics. The Panthers were an on-field contender almost from the jump, even though they were an archetypal 90s fashion victim. Silver is a nice color. Its niceness however, becomes less gleaming when you graft a cartoon-y snarling panther on the side of it. This is one of those choices I’m sure will be argued about, but it violates another of my personal rules: making a logo fearsome doesn’t make it better, and it certainly doesn’t intimidate your opponent. (Nothing but great play intimidates your opponent.)
29. Jacksonville Jaguars: Even though the cat logo was nicely updated for the 2013 season, the helmet still stands out as very expansion-feeling, even though the Jags have now been around for 18 seasons. I never thought I’d say this, but a black shell with the word “Jaguars” written in script would put the Jags higher on this list. Alas.
28. Baltimore Ravens: This team shouldn’t even exist, but that’s another matter. The helmet’s conception is so modern that it started looking dated minutes after its debut. Kind of like a boy band. Random personal qualifier #3: If your reason for being is that some evil billionaire wasn’t satisfied with the billions he already had, so he stole you and moved you to another city, your ranking suffers. Why does this team have to be in the league? And win?
27. Houston Texans: It may be too low on the list, because this isn’t an overtly ugly helmet. But when re-designs or expansions occur, its as if ownership makes it their business to go with the lamest possible primary logo suggested. What if instead of the cow skull with the Texas star, there was just an actual cow skull? But what the hell, I know nothing.
26. Tennessee Titans: And we continue with another team that should never have been. Owner Bud Adams decided the rip the Oilers out of Houston and re-brand his “possession” in Nashville. After the move, and a new stadium gifted by mere voters, Adams re-christened his team the Titans, and decided to go with a uniform featuring about 17 different shades of blue. I semi-like the T in the middle of the crest, but had the helmet been Oiler powder blue with just that white blade-lookin’ thing, it would move way up the list.
25. Philadelphia Eagles: (SHUFT) The Eagles are one of those teams who just cannot resist trends. They figured that their fantastic color scheme in the 80s and early 90s wasn’t good enough, so they have gone in recent years to “midnight green”. This made up color is sort of a hunter green accented with black, and it adds nothing to what had been a very awesome helmet both in the 80s and way back in Bednarik times with the colors reversed. The wings are now more compact, and naturally, because the slightest hint of black exists, the Eagles can wear a black jersey now and again. Merchandising!
24. Atlanta Falcons: (SHUFT) Black has always been part of the team color scheme, dating back to the 60s, so points aren’t deducted for incorporating it just to sell more gear. If you were to view this helmet as a pencil drawing, it looks sharp as hell; there is a lot going on that is easy to like. (The update on the original bird is fairly sleek.) But today, when they come out wearing the throwback, everybody asks the Pat Patriot question again. Bring back the red, Atlanta.
23. Seattle Seahawks: (SHUFT) We’re now into the part of the rankings where nothing is truly repulsive anymore. Other than the SHUFT factor, the Seahawks current helmet is decent-looking enough. Its just that the updated color palette has taken their overall uniform design to strange places in recent years, and I just hope they are done messing with a design that has the potential to grow on you.
22. St. Louis Rams: (SHUFT-iness) After their Kurt Warner Super Bowl run in 1999, Rams ownership did what any sensible, right-thinking corporate committee would do: they messed with a color scheme that was drenched in very recent success. In the 2000 season, the old royal blue and daytona yellow was replaced by drednaught and old gold. The Rams look is a great example of futzing with things that need not be futzed with, especially the year after a Super Bowl win.
21. Arizona Cardinals: It was difficult to rank this one properly, because I look at it, and feel nothing. Look for yourself, and you’ll experience the same thing. Its so “Eh”, it requires almost no description. And this current version is actually an update. Flavorless.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: (SHUFT) Hear me out, ok? I am one of those people who actually prefer Bucco Bruce to the new design. The reason this helmet isn’t further toward the bottom, is because I actually do kind of like the pewter helmet used today. I understand that the 70s helmet was associated with decades of losing, but no one can ever deny the appeal of the creamsicle winking pirate.
19. Washington Redskins: Its hard to talk about the Redskins, because their polarizing nickname colors the whole subject of their logo. Amazingly enough though, the Native American-themed sports team with the most offensive name features one of the more respectful insignias. The Indian looks dignified, and the maroon and gold work beautifully together. The dignity afforded of course, is undone by that racial slur of a name. But here, we’re talking about helmets, and this one works. (Minus all the other shit.)
18. Cincinnati Bengals: This helmet is justly lauded as one of the more original in the league. I remember it was also very hard to draw when I was a kid. After finding out at age 10 that the original helmet from the 60s was just orange with the word BENGALS in block letters on it, I was greatly relieved that I was growing up in tackier times.
17. Minnesota Vikings: I don’t know why the team decides against using their primary logo on the side of the helmets, because the horn on the purple shell wouldn’t necessarily scream “Vikings” if a person that didn’t follow football was seeing it for the first time. That said, this is a reasonably tasteful lid, and the team gets a bonus for not adjusting it when they updated their overall uniforms a few years ago.
16. Detroit Lions: The Lions are the rare team whose modern update hasn’t put it in SHUFT-mode. While I dislike the black facemask and accents, (allowing the team to sell a black jersey in the team shop), the actual logo was amended rather chastely from the old model.
15. Kansas City Chiefs: Forgive me. Even though I fancy myself an expert on this subject, I am grossly unfamiliar with proper nomenclature when it comes to color shades, so I don’t know what to call this particular red. Is it cherry? Ejector-seat button? All I know is that I like it. And that arrowhead design with the interlocking KC should never be updated. It was ahead of its time in the early 60s and continues to satisfy today.
14. Indianapolis Colts: The highest “team that shouldn’t exist” on this list is given something of a pass, not only for the relative beauty of its arrangement, but that ownership, while still being total dicks for ripping the team away from Baltimore, didn’t change a thing when they arrived in their new home. I don’t always enjoy simplicity, but this one is rather pleasant.
13. Buffalo Bills: (SHUFT-iness) OK. The Bills are sort of frustrating. In the early 2000s, they unveiled uniforms even fuglier than the Titans. Amazingly, ownership wised up and ditched them for good after only about 8 years. Then they came out wearing their exquisite 60s royal blues capped with a sparkling helmet that defines simple beauty. But of course, you can’t have the buffalo just chillin’, because that’s not fearsome enough for fans who think intimidation comes from such things. So the 60s uniforms stayed but their 80s-2000s helmet was just made white. The Bills had a shot at #1 if not for this action.
12. Chicago Bears: It feels like a perfect lid for their uniform. Basic dark blue, with the dark orange Reds-like C, and nothing else. Their throwback just drops the C, and this shows a commitment to tradition that I respond to. Though I cant rank it higher because there are other more attractive options, I have to give it up to the Bears for having the rare inclination to respect their history.
11. San Diego Chargers: (SHUFT) Yes, SHUFT. The Chargers, like the Bills, are infuriating. When they debuted their throwbacks, almost everyone agreed that these were maybe one of the greatest uniforms in all of American sports. Their dark blues looked like garbage in comparison. (All that said, truthfully I personally prefer the Air Coryell unis. Many would disagree.) So instead of doing the logical thing, and switching to the powder blues, they copped out, simply integrating components from the throwbacks into their newer dark tops. Then they switched the helmet to the white, but left off the the jersey numbers. Blasphemy.
10. New York Giants: For a time, the Giants sported this crap. At this point in their history the SHUFT-y helmet gave them zero identity, and spat in the eyes of their tradition, which was obviously storied. Though much is made of the team playing in Jersey, the cursive NY on the helmet is emblematic of a franchise that has deep roots. The best helmets on this list tend towards the uncomplicated, and white on royal blue always works.
9. Dallas Cowboys: Everybody’s least favorite team unfortunately sports one of the best helmets and uniforms in the NFL. The star is so iconic that the team’s mascot looks out of place. (Mascots are stupid anyway, but that isn’t relevant here.) The silver shell, the metallic blue star, and the player name label on the back base is perfection. Even when they bring out the throwback for Thanksgiving, the colors are different, but it looks just as classy. I hate the Cowboys, but I love this helmet.
8. New York Jets: Just like this Giants, the Jets went through a SHUFT phase that saw their elegant white shell replaced with green weirdness, which was later accented with black during the Rich Kotite era. When teams switch back to uniform combinations that go with their most successful era, it shows not only a regard for heritage, but that they are paying attention. That the team’s current owner and on-field personnel are a bunch of half-wits is immaterial to this discussion.
7. Green Bay Packers: The NFL’s CBA is a bad deal for its players. Everyone knows this, and we accept it because these guys make more than we do. Even a bad deal is better than ours. But NFL players being well-compensated chattel is a good deal for fans, because it allows a tiny hamlet like Green Bay to become a focus of great interest. And this is doubly good when the team from this area dresses rather well. That this helmet has been plagiarized by college and high school teams is most unfortunate, but it shows its influence. Just beautiful.
6. Oakland Raiders: I don’t hate the Raiders very much. I did hate their late owner, and I hate their most famous coach, because they are preposterous louts. However, I gotta admit, that’s a pretty damned sick helmet, and I can totally understand why Raider fans so enjoy inventive ways of supporting their team.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers: The city of Pittsburgh’s major sports teams all share the same color scheme. This is pretty cool, for no other reason than the colors are nice, and I admire that kind of solidarity. What I dig the most about the Steelers’ lid though, is that the US Steel stamp appears only on one side of the helmet. Brilliant. It seems like no big deal, but its completely original, and that it represents the league’s most accomplished franchise is tremendous.
4. San Francisco 49ers: They tried hard in the 90s to jerk around with the gorgeous cherry red uniforms of the 49ers, adding white pants, a different number font, and a black drop-shadow on the numbers. They have mercifully ditched that nonsense and returned to the Joe Montana unis. But even during their 90s dalliance, they didn’t futz with their magnificent gold SF-crested helmet. Of course, some day, its gonna happen. They better not ever do this.
3. Cleveland Browns: I already mentioned my bias, so don’t bother pointing it out. For my whole life, people who don’t root for the Browns have been calling for the team to update both their uniforms and brilliant orange helmet. (I guess I’m that same asshole for all the other teams on this list.) The Browns took the nickname of Dawgs in the mid 80s, and the north endzone was unofficially named thusly. During this time, the team has incorporated a bulldog thing into some merchandise. Its really stupid. Of course, the Browns also have also always had Brownie as an official logo, and many well-meaning people have suggested the team just graft this onto their lid. The idea is not completely retch-inducing, but it also shows how annoyed we can be when a team we care nothing about has a uniform we hate. For Browns fans, this allegedly ugly uniform has become an honorable crusade, and keeping it pisses off all the right people.
2. Miami Dolphins: The 70s aqua and orange, the awkward M helmet on the leaping mammal, the overall cheesy hotel comfort of the motif, its just an exceedingly lovely combination. I see this helmet and I think of good football, beautiful women, Flight of the Navigator, and Tony Montana. My only gripe is that they passed up their opportunity for an infinite regression on the dolphin helmet. If that creature was wearing the same lid the players wear, it would immediately make this the greatest headgear in all creation. But even in its current state, its a masterpiece, and God willing, it’ll always be there, providing relief and comfort to our descendants. Aww, SHUFT.
1. New Orleans Saints: In one of those NFL-Network Top 10 shows, they talked about the all-time worst individual seasons. One of them featured the expansion Saints, who would continue their futility for 20+ years. Bill Bergey, a former Linebacker for the Eagles, made an unfortunate and self-revealing speech about the Fleur-de-Lis on the side of the Saints lustrous helmet, exclaiming: “I used to wanna just knock that thing off the side of their heads, what is that thing anyway?” Well, Bill, it represents many things dating back to the Middle Ages, but currently, its the official symbol of one of the great cities in America. The franchise made a brilliant choice in using the symbol of French royalty, and its one of those helmets that we will never see change, as the team is so much a part of the city’s identity. When I was a lad, I drew this logo as often as possible, and I wished good fortune for the Saints as long as it didn’t interfere with my beloved Browns. I wish I was still a kid.
So there it is. Because I am such a cynical bastard, I couldn’t even rank helmets without taking shots at people I’ll never meet. What is wrong with me? Anyway, I look forward to doing more of these, because uniforms fascinate me as much as anything else in life.