By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

The 2006 NFL season, which kicks off tonight in Pittsburgh, offers something unique for Uni Watchers: Every single game will feature new uniforms.

That's because the officiating crews have new attire this season. At first glance, it looks like they just changed the thickness of the stripes, but there's a lot more to it than that. There's way too much black, from the pocket and the side panel to the underarm and the sleeves (especially on the long-sleeved version). And that's nothing compared to how much black we'll see when the weather turns cold, because current plans call for the standard white knickers to be replaced by (get this) full-length black slacks with a white stripe. Expect lots of bellhop and doorman jokes, but get your licks in fast, because Uni Watch is willing to bet right now that these pants will be quietly abandoned after one season.

And then there's the back of the new jersey. Personally, Uni Watch doesn't much care about officials' uni numbers (quick, can you name a single back judge's number -- or, for that matter, a single back judge?). But those who do are in for a rough time, because the new number format - which looks almost like a sheet of white paper pinned onto the back of the shirt -- is much harder to read than the old one. This assessment is echoed by Uni Watch reader Jerry Wolper, who sent the following note after attending a recent preseason game at Heinz Field: "The numbers (and positions) on the new officials' uniforms are unreadable from where I sit. The old white-on-black made it easy to identify the handful of officials whose numbers I knew. I was surprised at how useless the current unis are for that. And I've been in the same seats since the stadium opened."

The party line is that the new jerseys offer better temperature control and moisture management, but that's just a smokescreen. Allow Uni Watch to clue you wise to the real story: Turns out the league wanted a proprietary design, so now if a company wants to ride on the NFL's coattails by showing a ref in its ad campaign (like those "Make the Call" ads for Miller Lite), they either have to pay to use the league's special design or else use the old uni, which has now been rendered generic, inauthentic, and obsolete. Just another case of the branding tail wagging the uniform dog. No word on whether Foot Locker employees will get new shirts to match.

But the zebras' new stripes are nothing compared to what's going on in Minnesota, where the Vikings are the latest NFL team auditioning for the Arena League. Seriously, can you take this jersey seriously? Or these pants? Or the horrific effect when the two of them are combined? Uni Watch sure can't. And how long until fans get motion sickness from all the extraneous trim? Surprisingly enough, the purple road pants don't look that bad -- until you see the side detailing. The white jersey's garish side panel doesn't exactly help, either.

Smaller changes are on tap in Cleveland, where a host of minor alterations have taken place: The face masks have changed from white to gray; the helmet color has gone from a metallic orange to a slightly lighter matte pumpkin; the white and orange sleeve stripes on the brown jersey, which used to be separated by a thin strip of brown, are now fused into a solid block (just as they were back in the day); the pants piping has changed from brown/orange/brown to the reverse (which, again, recalls the days of yore); and in a move of sublime subtlety, the uni numbers on the back of the helmet, which had appeared in white, separated by the helmet stripe, are now black, to the right of the stripe. No more orange pants, but the team's official specs now include solid brown pants and a throwback-ish design with thinner piping, neither of which has yet made an on-field appearance.

The Vikings and Browns may be moving in opposite aesthetic directions, but they do have one thing in common: They're among the latest teams to switch from white shoes to black (as seen here and here). The other converts are the Bills and Cardinals (who made the switch at the urging of Edgerrin James, as explained in this great video). That brings the black-shod contingent up to 17 teams -- a majority of the 32-team league, which is pretty amazing when you consider there was only one ebony-footweared team back in 1999. This is the biggest NFL uni trend of the past decade.

In other NFL news:

• Several new jersey patches this season, beginning with 60th anniversary commemorations for the Browns (whose patch is a tad large, no?) and the Niners (who have also brought John Brodie's No. 12 out of retirement for Trent Dilfer). There's also a Louisiana-shaped patch for the Saints, similar to the ones they used to wear on their sleeves and hips, both of which now carry the fleur de lis.

But the weirdest patch is in Arizona, where the Cardinals are celebrating the opening of their new stadium. The patch looks nondescript from a distance but downright strange once you see it up close. Like, is that bird being crushed in there? Did he inject too much avian growth hormone? Does Tony La Russa know about this? Uni Watch can't decide whether this design is appealing or appalling but gives the Cards credit for coming up with something unique.

One other patch note: In recent years, the reigning Super Bowl champion has worn a championship patch for its season-opening game. And sure enough, the Steelers are selling a replica jersey with this patch, but at press time Uni Watch had been unable to confirm whether they'd be wearing the patch for tonight's game.

• In Uni Watch's favorite move of the year -- not because it looks good, but just because it's so functionally specific -- the Titans have added a belt buckle logo sleeve, making them the NFL's third team to wear this most pointless accessory (the others being the Broncos and Jets, don'tcha know). But Tennessee is taking things a bit further: They have three different belt sleeves, depending on which pants they wear. (And yes, that's a set of light-blue alternate pants, also new for this year.)

• Major bummer in Indy, where the Colts have reverted to wearing solid-topped socks, a serious downgrade from the striped design they'd worn for the past few years.

• The Bengals still can't get that white side panel right. On some players, it stops at the armpit; on others, it extends up higher. It looks particularly bad when the two styles appear side-by-side, but then the Bengals look pretty bad most of the time anyway.

• Look for more and more warm-weather teams to wear white at home, especially early in the season.

• Also look for a new face-mask design, being marketed by Schutt. LaVar Arrington is one of the players wearing it.

• Speaking of helmet styles, the Riddell Revolution helmet appears to be falling out of favor, at least among a few high-profile players. Ben Roethlisberger was going to wear one after his motorcycle accident (here's a comparison -- that's the Revolution on the left), but he eventually decided not to. And Eli Manning, who wore the Revolution during his first two seasons, has now switched to a conventional model.

• As usual, there'll be plenty of alternate jerseys on display. The schedule for the alts tends to change as the season moves along, but here's how it looks as of now:

Alternate Endings
Team Jersey Dates
49ers Red
11/5, 12/24
Bears Orange 11/5
Bengals Orange 10/22, 12/10
Bills Blue
9/24, 12/3
Browns Brown
Chargers Powder blue
10/8, 11/5
Eagles Black 11/19
Jaguars Black 11/20
Lions Black 11/20
Panthers Blue 11/19
Patriots Silver 12/17
Texans Red 10/22
Titans Blue 10/29, 12/3

Want to immerse yourself in even more uni-related info? Here's Uni Watch's advice: When you sit down on the sofa tonight to watch the Steelers and Dolphins, keep a copy of this baby within easy reach -- it'll tide you over during the commercial breaks.

S(h)aving Face
Facial hair qualifies as a quasi-uni-related category, so Uni Watch was intrigued to see that Jason Giambi shaved off his mustache sometime between the 3rd and 5th innings on Sept. 4. Turns out he did as a way to break out of a slump.

After an account of this incident ran on the Uni Watch blog, Uni Watch learned that Giambi's in-game shave wasn't as unique as you might think. In fact, at least two other players have shaved during a game just this season. The first was Jason Kendall, who normally has a goatee, a full beard, or something in between (even on his bobblehead doll). On April 6 he found himself with a day off and was so bored that he started shaving in increments, just to keep busy. By the top of the 3rd he was down to a mustache, and a few innings after that he was clean-shaven. A few months later, on June 27, Dodgers catcher Russell Martin -- who up until that point had been sporting a full beard -- began the game wearing a mustache. He must be an all-or-nothing kinda guy, because a few innings later his upper lip was whisker-free.

And there are other examples. According to this page, "During a one-sided game against the Blue Jays, [Mariners reliever Bill] Caudill emerged from the dugout between innings with one-half of his beard shaved off." Anecdotal evidence from readers suggests that Lew Ford, Matt Young, and Calvin Schiraldi may have shaved during games as well, but confirmation has so far been elusive.

Baseball's most famous whiskers, of course, belonged to Rollie Fingers, who debuted his signature Snidely Whiplash-esque mustachio with the A's and then took it with him to the Padres and Brewers (and, more recently, to old-timers' games). Turns out Fingers knew what he was doing, too -- if you think he looked odd with the 'stache, check out how dorky he looked without it.

College Gridiron Update
OK, back to football. As expected, there were plenty of gaps in Uni Watch's 2006 college football uniform rundown last week. Here's an addendum, listed alphabetically by school (with big thanks to everyone who contributed updated info):

• Akron, which used to look almost exactly like the St. Louis Rams, has made some welcome tweaks.

Alabama is celebrating the school's 175th anniversary with a chest patch.

Alabama-Birmingham players are wearing "68" on their helmets in memory of UAB alum Kirk Tuck, who died in July.

Arkansas State's helmet and chest logo have changed from this to this.

Colorado has made a slight logo tweak.

Florida State will be wearing an all-black uniform for their night game against Boston College on Oct. 21.

Kentucky has changed from white cleats to black.

Louisiana-Monroe has new uniforms, reflecting the team's name change from the Indians to the Warhawks. Here's a better view of the new helmet.

LSU's nameplate typography looked like this in 2004, then went to a slightly lighter weight in 2005. This year they're back to the heavier type.

Miami (Ohio) has switched from this to this, which would be great if not for the lame-o wraparound rear bib.

Mississippi State has added some welcome sock stripeage.

Ohio State is wearing a "24" helmet decal in honor of former punter Tyson Gentry, who was severely injured back in April. (Plus Ted Ginn Jr. appears to have a very open-spaced face mask this season, much like kickers often wear.)

Oklahoma is going without player nameplates.

Oklahoma State's new jerseys, contrary to what Uni Watch reported last week, have nameplates after all.

Rutgers, which had looked like this and this has added some white trim to the collar and sleeves on the red jersey and red trim to the white jersey.

San Diego State has more than just the new helmet that Uni Watch reported on last week -- they've also got new uniforms.

Tennessee has added pants stripes -- a nice improvement over last year's plain whites (and a huge improvement over the design before that). In addition, players who maintain a 3.0 GPA get to wear a special "VOLScholar" patch (similar to Arizona State's "Scholar Baller" patch), which appears to depict a torch. Further details here.

Texas A&M has decided to bring back the nameplates after all.

Texas Tech is now being outfitted by Under Armour, which has changed the design from this to this.

USC and Washington have both switched from shiny pants (Trojans, Huskies) to a paler, matte finish (Trojans, Huskies).

In addition: While it may be unusual for a Division I-A team to put the team name on the back of the jersey instead of the players' names -- as Utah State is doing this year -- several readers pointed out that it's not so unheard of in other divisions. Players at D-III Pacific Lutheran, for example, wear "Lutes" on their jerseys. And even in D-IA, the phenomenon can be found in lower-profile sports, such as on the Alabama volleyball team.

And then there's Western Kentucky, which puts its school logo where the nameplate should be, a protocol that Uni Watch opts not to dignify with further comment.

One thing's for sure: No major college team these days would ever take the field wearing two different name/number styles in the same game -- which is more than Pitt could say during the 1977 Sugar Bowl. For further details, look here.

Catching On -- and Off
Lots of current and former backstops responded to Uni Watch's call for info about Lobster shinguards (turns out that's the actual product name, not just a colloquialism). Almost all of them gave the gear negative reviews. Here's a sampling:

• From Gordon Toggweiler: "In high school, my team had a set of the old lobster-legs shinguards that would occasionally get used as a backup pair. They were awful! After a while, dirt would get caught in between the moving part around the knee and make them joints stiff. If you didn't take care of them like you were a Marine and the shinguards were your rifle, they became useless."

• From Curtis Hettich: "I used to work at a sporting goods store, and the told me that a design flaw was responsible for the discontinuation of the lobsters. It seems that when catchers would lean forward onto their knees, dirt and small rocks were getting in between the sections of 'lobster tail,' causing them to jam up or malfunction. I also used to play ball with a catcher who complained of this same problem."

• From Jesse Grobelny (who generously provided the photos in this section): "I have personal experience with Rawlings' Lobster shinguards. In my opinion, they're the worst design possible. When crouching, the top of the shin guard leaves the upper portion of your knee cap exposed!"

• From Jon Byron: "I coached high school softball in Indiana for a few years, and when I came on board we had a set of those in our equipment closet. They were pretty functional, but a little strange-looking. And as I found out through coaching girls for several years, equipment had better look good, or it won't get used. Our varsity catcher didn't like them, so she passed them down to JV. The JV catcher took one look at them and sent them to the freshman catcher, who didn't want them either. I ended up taking them and using them as roller hockey shinguards."

As for whether the Lobster ever made it to the bigs, several readers said they recalled seeing Jason Kendall wearing them at one time, but no photos yet.

Meanwhile, in additional catching news, it turns out that last week's notice about the University of Kentucky recruiting two left-handed catchers was a false alarm. The two backstops in question bat left-handed, but they throw right-handed.

If You Can't Beat 'Em ...
Just as music critics are frequently told, "Oh yeah? Let's see you write a song!" and movie reviews are often greeted with, "I bet you couldn't make a film!," Uni Watch periodically hears from readers who suggest that it's hypocritical to critique the apparel world without contributing to it.

Fair enough. In response to this call for ethical consistency, Uni Watch T-shirts are now available for your consideration, in a variety of colors and styles. Just the thing for your next red-carpet moment, and the classy choice for discriminating dressers everywhere. Full details here. Can't wait for that bulk order from Nike HQ.

Paul Lukas should be appearing on "Project Runway" any day now. His Uni Watch blog, which is updated daily, is here, his answers to Frequently Asked Questions are here, and archives of his columns are available here, here and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted? Contact him here.