So, You Want to Retire a Jersey Number
The season’s over, and players are retiring. Because they’re retiring, we’re talking about their legacy. Green Bay has a storied tradition, and there are more than 150 people in the Packers Hall of Fame. The Pro Football Hall of Fame recognizes more Packers than any other team, save the Chicago Bears. Obviously, there are some people whose numbers deserve to be retired.
It’s the ultimate honor, but the opportunities have been sparse of late. When Donald Driver retired, a number of fans pushed to see his number 80 jersey retired. Justin Perillo inherited the number instead. Charles Woodson recently called it quits too, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix took over his old digits.
There’s really only one player on the Packers roster right now with a shot at having his number retired, and that’s quarterback Aaron Rodgers. If and when it happens, it’ll be a no brainer, but for those intermediate cases like Driver and everyone else, I think there are three criteria by which players should be evaluated.
Criteria 1: An all-time great at their position
First, the player should be considered an all-time great at their position and should be noticeably better than their peers in their era. Think about the numbers the Packers have retired: Tony Canadeo, Don Hutson, Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke, Reggie White, and Brett Favre are all in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and all are in the conversation about the best players of their era.
Canadeo was one of the NFL's first great backs. Don Hutson was the first great receiver. Bart Starr is a five time NFL champ. Ray Nitschke was the anchor of Lombardi's defense. Reggie White is one of the great pass rushers ever. Brett Favre was a legend unto himself.
If you’re going to retire a jersey number, they need to be in the same breath as the other all-time greats. Often, this involves having to wait a number of years to see how history remembers their legacy. It’s a good thing that Darren Sharper finished his career as a gun for hire in various slightly above average secondaries, otherwise his jersey retirement in Green Bay would have been retroactively horrifying.
Criteria 2: Altered the course of the franchise
Second, a player should have altered the course of the franchise such that had he not been a part of the team, the team's history would be significantly different.
The two most recent number retirements, Reggie White and Brett Favre, both altered the course of the Packers forever. Favre saved the team and White brought the Packers a new respectability.
Statistics are important, as we discussed in the first point, but they’ve got to do something that transcends statistics.
Criteria 3: Set a standard for his position
Thirdly, I think a player whose number is up for retirement should set a standard for his position in such a way that subsequent players are measured by his performance.
For example, when you talk about Packers' defensive ends, it's always in light of the impact of Reggie White. Sure, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Clay Matthews both passed him, but White’s impact was truly profound.
When future Packers fans talk about quarterbacks, they'll say "he's the best since Aaron Rodgers." While Bob McGinn may feel like Rodgers is not quite at a Hall of Fame career, one more Super Bowl could push him into the number retirement discussion.
Retiring a player’s number is about establishing a pantheon of all-time greats, and the Packers better be sure before hanging their number from the rafters.