Rams fans in 2011 seeing a blur coming off left end and plowing through the quarterback, wearing #91, might think they were watching a flashback to the glory days of Leonard Little. Or a photo negative. Nope. It's the new-look Chris Long, wearing a throwback to his college glory days.
Players change numbers all the time and it isn't usually newsworthy. For example, Laurent Robinson wore 11 when he first arrived with the Rams, but took over 19 after Derek Stanley was cut in that season's training camp. The change made the tiniest of ripples, but confirmed that Stanley wasn't coming back.
It's a different story when the player is one of the top-five jersey sellers for a team. Fans begin to attach a real significance to the digits, once they're worn on the backs of fellow fans. (I couldn't get an exact quote from an NFL Shop representative, but it's safe to say that Long's number is a distant third behind the fellows wearing #8 and #39.) Perhaps the biggest jersey number change of all time happened when Michael Jordan unretired, but refused to take his iconic #23 jersey down from the rafters, wearing 45 instead. Which Jordan jersey you wore became almost a political statement -- are you pining for the glory days or do you cheer his return?
That said, I kind of liked Long wearing the 72, lining up his legacy next to two of the franchise's all-time greats: Merlin Olsen's 74 and Deacon Jones' 75. Plus, thanks to Little's exploits on and off the field, his 91 still carries a bit of a political stigma among fans. There are many (though I am not one of them) that will refuse to ever forgive Little for his DUI manslaughter, and may have a harder time rooting for a number with this "history." (It's worth noting, though, that Long tweets that he got Little's blessing to take the number over.)
The 72 has no such stigma attached. indeed, it barely registers in the memory, before Long defined it. Its previous wearer, Adam Goldberg, gave it up easily enough when Long arrived. Before him, Milford Brown guarded it briefly. Chidi Ahanotu dressed it in blue and gold for a season. A tackle named Clarence Jones wore it for a couple of seasons spanning the move from LA to STL. Another named Robert Jenkins owned it from '87 to '93. He shows up statistically for one kickoff return for twelve yards in his rookie season. Safe to say that until Long wore it, the 72 was never feared.
However, for Long, the 91 is special. The University of Virginia retired the jersey after his Senior season, one in which he piled up accolades as quickly as tackles for loss. He put on some dominant performances with that jersey, and is clearly hoping to continue his upward surge through the NFL in his fourth season with the Rams.
The only pertinent question for Rams fans is: how quickly can I get a new Long jersey? The answer, frustratingly enough, is the same as every other question about the NFL right now: not until the owners and players untangle their CBA mess. NFL Properties cannot manufacture any new jerseys, any new promotional materials featuring active players, until a deal is done.
Just one more reason to root for something positive from this week's extended talks.