When you think of the New England Patriots' uniforms, you probably think of two primary designs: There were the red jerseys paired with the Pat Patriot helmets, and now there are the team's current navy jerseys with the "Flying Elvis" helmets. Loosely speaking, we might call these the Steve Grogan and Tom Brady eras of Patriots uniforms.
But fans often forget -- and some might have tried to forget -- that there was a seven-season transitional phase between those two eras. That middle period featured multiple uniform designs, two of which included some of the most unusual details in recent NFL history, even though most people seem to have purged them from their memory files.
Here's the deal: In 1993 the Pats replaced Pat Patriot with the streamlined Minuteman logo that soon became known as Flying Elvis. The new helmet was identical to the one the team currently uses except for its gray face mask, but the jersey and pants were different. Most interestingly, the colors of the TV numbers (the smaller uniform numbers on the shoulders, which were added to uniforms to help TV broadcasters, who often had trouble identifying players at the line of scrimmage) didn't match the colors of the front and back numbers. Color-mismatched TV numbers are commonly seen on jerseys with contrasting sleeves or shoulder yokes, but the '93 Pats appear to have been the first NFL team ever to have mismatched TV numbers on a solid-colored jersey. And there's a good reason it had never been done before: It made the Pats look like a high school team.
It didn't exactly help that the Patriots had been playing like a high school team. Their cumulative record from 1989 through 1993 was 19-61; they were routinely referred to as the "Patsies," and place-kicker Scott Sisson had such a bad year in 1993 that he was dubbed "Missin' Sisson." Toss in the mothballing of a beloved logo character like Pat Patriot and the odd-looking TV numbers and it's easy to see why New England fans didn't exactly rally around the new uniform.
By 1995, Bill Parcells had begun transforming the team into a winner, and the uniforms had been transformed as well. Flying Elvis was still on the helmets (which by this point had their now-familiar red facemasks), but he was also plastered on the jersey shoulders -- a pair of big, garish patches that looked like oversized bumper stickers.
But the jerseys also had a unique element that had never been featured on an NFL uniform before: The fabric was embedded with light and dark vertical stripes. The stripes weren't always visible, especially on the white road jersey -- it depended on the lighting. But when the light hit them just right, the stripes were almost as obvious as the ones worn by the officials. The cumulative effect of the stripes, the shoulder logos, and a rather cartoonlike number font was unmistakably USFL-ish.
This is the uniform the Patriots wore in Super Bowl XXXI. True, they lost to Desmond Howard and the Packers 35-21, but you'd think an appearance in the big game would be enough to keep this uniform around for a while, right? Wrong. Four seasons later, in 2000, the Pats ditched the stripes, the shoulder patches and the rest of the USFL-like details, changed their shade of blue from royal to navy and unveiled a more classic-looking uni. That was also the year they drafted a lightly regarded prospect out of Michigan named Tom Brady in the sixth round. Both have been staples of the franchise ever since, and it's a safe bet that the uniform, which is now linked to multiple Super Bowl titles, will still be around long after Brady eventually retires.
Meanwhile, the uniforms from the transitional phase have largely faded from public recollection. Maybe it's time to consider bringing them back as throwbacks.
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Paul Lukas still mourns the loss of Pat Patriot but has learned over the years to come to terms with Flying Elvis. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.