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Kelley: The Patriots Need to Get Retired Numbers Right



New England Patriots honor Tom Brady, shown with Patriots owner Robert Kraft, at halftime of their Week 1 game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

The New England Patriots have played in more Super Bowls than any other NFL franchise. No team has more Super Bowl titles than their six. But things weren’t always so parade-worthy for the Patriots. They did not win an AFL or AFC Championship until their twenty-sixth season. They did not take home a Lombardi Trophy until their forty-second year. But despite their limited success, the Patriots celebrated many former players by retiring their numbers. It might be time to rethink those decisions.

Retiring numbers can be a fairly short-sighted exercise. It appears the Patriots did realize this at some point, but not before retiring seven numbers. Despite the team’s success, none of the honorees ever won an AFL or NFL title with the Patriots. Only three played in a Super Bowl, going a combined 0-3 in those games. All of the players were retired before the Patriots first Super Bowl victory.

If 40 years without a title resulted in seven players never having their numbers worn again, what does that mean for the following two decades of excellence?

The Boston Patriots

Three of the retired numbers belong to original members of the Boston Patriots. Gino Cappelletti (No. 20), Jim Lee Hunt (No. 79), and Bob Dee (No. 89) were all members of the 1960 squad. Dee retired after the 1967 season and had his number retired the next year. Cappelletti and Hunt played in the New England Patriots first year (1970) before retiring. Both players had their numbers retired in 1971.

Read More: New England Patriots All-Time Staff and Roster of the Bill Belichick Era

Even at this early stage, the criteria for having one’s number retired was incredibly unclear. The AFL existed from 1960-to-1969. Only two members of the Patriots were named to the first-team All-Time AFL Team, named in 1970. Neither of them (Houston Antwine, Nick Buoniconti) had their numbers retired. Although Buoniconti spent part of his AFL career in Miami, Antwine played exclusively for Boston.

Pre-Kraft Honorees

Before Robert Kraft bought the New England Patriots in 1993, the team had added two other jersey numbers to their retired list. Linebacker Steve Nelson retired in 1987, following a 14-year NFL career spent exclusively in New England. The Patriots retired his number 57 the following season.

John Hannah, widely considered the greatest guard in NFL history and the greatest Patriots player of the pre-Kraft years, retired two years before Nelson in 1985. New England retired No. 73 to honor Hannah in 1990. It is unclear why Nelson’s jersey retirement came two years before Hannah’s, despite retiring two years after him.

Honored Under Kraft’s Ownership

The most recent retired numbers for the New England Patriots happened after Robert Kraft purchased the franchise in 1994. Cornerback Mike Haynes split his 14-year Hall of Fame career evenly between the Patriots and Raiders. He spent his first seven seasons in New England (1976-1982). In 1996, Haynes had his No. 40 retired by the team in 1996.

Bruce Armstrong had his No. 78 retired by the team in 2001. It was one year after his 14-year career, spent entirely with the Patriots, came to an end. No numbers have been retired since the 2001 New England Patriots team won Super Bowl 36.

Obvious Omissions Pre-2001

Only two players played their entire NFL careers for the New England Patriots and were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. One is John Hannah. The other is Andre Tippett, who is not among the team’s seven honorees. Tippett retired in 1993, yet No. 56 remains left off the team’s list of retired numbers. Tippett remains employed by the Patriots in 2024, so it is not a case of bad blood with the franchise or ownership. Perhaps he has asked not to have his number retired? Is there any other reasonable explanation for Armstrong to have cut him on the waiting list? Nobody has worn No. 56 in a regular season game since Tippett’s retirement, thus it serves as an eighth retired number, though unofficially.

The other Patriots great ignored here is Stanley Morgan. Morgan played 13 seasons for the Patriots (1977-1989). Despite last playing for New England 35 years ago, he remains the franchise’s only player with over 10,000 yards receiving. Morgan is closer to being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame than his longtime teammate Steve Nelson. But a season after Morgan last played in New England, his No. 86 was worn by Greg McMurtry.

Houston Antwine  (No. 65) and Nick Buoniconti (No. 85) present strong arguments, based on the team honoring their teammates, as mentioned above.

The Belichick-Brady Era

During the team’s incredible run of success during “The Dynasty” years, many players made a strong case for having numbers retired. Tom Brady’s No. 12 is first and foremost among them. The Patriots may make that one official on Tom Brady Night, which takes place on June 12, 2024.

Two of Brady’s teammates in New England played the bulk of their careers with the Patriots before being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Richard Seymour (No. 93) played eight seasons for the Patriots. He won three Super Bowls, was named first-team All-Pro three times, and was named to five Pro Bowl teams. Ty Law (No. 24) played 10 seasons for the Patriots. He also won three Super Bowls, was named first-team All-Pro twice, and was named to four Pro Bowl teams. Neither of them has numbers retired by New England.

Among the other Patriots from this incredible run who will likely end up in Canton are Adam Vinatieri (No. 4), Rob Gronkowski (No. 87), Vince Wilfork (No. 75), and Matthew Slater (No. 18). This does not even include the likes of Julian Edelman (No. 11), Devin McCourty (No. 32), Tedy Bruschi (No. 54), Willie McGinest (No. 55), and others who would have strong cases based on the standard set by previous honorees.

Patriots Hall of Fame

The Patriots Hall of Fame opened in 2008. This has been a great way to honor many who meant a lot to the organization without taking numbers out of circulation. All players with retired numbers have been inducted. So have all of the eligible players listed above and many more. Last year linebacker Mike Vrabel and longtime assistant coach Dante Scarneechia became members of the Patriots Hall of Fame.

The addition of the Patriots Hall of Fame has removed the need to honor players with retired numbers. It would be nice for fans if the Hall of Fame honorees could be seen during the games. The Dallas Cowboys (who do not retire numbers) have the Ring of Honor at their home stadium. The Patriots could honor their Hall of Fame members similarly.

Moving Forward in Foxboro

Of the 32 NFL franchises, only two have more than 50% of their retired numbers belonging to players not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

One is the Arizona Cardinals, with only one of their five honorees in Canton. However, three of those numbers honor players who passed away during their NFL careers. The only other non-Hall of Famer for Arizona had their number unretired (with the family’s blessing) so J.J. Watt could wear No. 99.

The other is the New England Patriots, with only two of seven honorees donning gold jackets.

New England could set a specific number of years a number remains retired. That time can begin either as soon as the player retires, or passes away, or the number gets retires. The players will remain permanent members of the Patriots Hall of Fame and the Patriots Ring of Honor (if they add one). After that period ends, the team can put the number back into circulation if they choose to.

It would also be helpful for the Patriots to have some clear criteria for whom they opt to honor. Should the player need to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Play a certain number of years with the Patriots?

Seeing anyone other than Tom Brady wear No. 12 for the New England Patriots would be odd. It makes sense to honor the greatest player in not only the history of the team but the entire sport. It will not be surprising if the Patriots declare No. 12 off-limits for good on June 12, 2024. But do they need to continue honoring others until players start wearing triple digits? It’s a situation the franchise would be wise to reevaluate.

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