Uni Watch's Friday Flashback: The NFL's shell game

If you want to see Pat Patriot on a helmet, you're going to need to go to the pro shop and buy yourself one. Al Pereira/New York Jets/Getty Images

The New Orleans Saints wore 1960s throwback uniforms last Sunday -- part of their year-long celebration of the team's 50th season. They were the eighth NFL team to wear throwbacks this season, following the Bears, Dolphins, Bills, Rams, Steelers, Packers and Washington (plus the Falcons wore a hybrid design that included throwback elements).

This year's throwbacks -- like all NFL throwbacks that have been worn since 2013 -- have had one thing in common: The teams used their existing helmet shells and either swapped out or removed their usual helmet logos, striping tape and face masks. That's due to the NFL's "one-shell rule," which aims to decrease the risk of concussions by preventing teams from switching to new sets of helmets in the middle of the season. So teams can still wear throwbacks if they use their existing shells, but throwbacks that would require a different-colored helmet -- like New England's "Pat Patriot" design or Tampa Bay's "Creamsicle" set -- are now off-limits. (For more information on the thinking behind the one-shell rule, and answers to many questions about it, look here.)

The one-shell rule now has been with us for four seasons, and it's become a truism among many fans that the rule has ruined the NFL's throwback scene. But is that really accurate? It's true that a few beloved fan favorites like Pat Patriot and the Creamsicles have essentially been kicked to the curb. But some of the other throwbacks that are now verboten were never that great to begin with. In many cases, mothballing them has been a case of addition by subtraction.

To further that point, let's look at all the past NFL throwbacks that have been affected by the one-shell rule -- by your friendly uniform columnist's count, there are 16 such designs -- and see if we're really worse off without them. We won't be looking at every conceivable throwback that could be worn -- only the ones that already have been worn as throwbacks but are now off-limits due to the rule. For example, let's consider the Jets: The rule prevents them from wearing their old 1980s and '90s uniforms because they'd need a new set of green helmets, but we won't include that on our list because they've never worn that design as a throwback. But we will include their Titans of New York throwback on our list, because they've worn it as a throwback in the past but can't do so now.

Got all that? Here we go, one off-limits throwback at a time, listed alphabetically by team name:

1. Broncos: Early '60s design

Originally worn: 1960-61

Worn as a throwback: 2009

Great loss for humankind? Uh, no. Although there's something amusing about grown football players wearing vertically striped socks, it's safe to say that nobody's mourning the loss of this throwback, least of all Broncos fans. Good riddance.

2. Broncos: Mid-'60s design

Originally worn: 1965-66

Worn as a throwback: 1994

Great loss for humankind? Yup. Although the bucking bronco helmet logo is a bit cheesy, this is an underrated uniform that deserves to be revived. Too bad the one-shell rule prevents that.

3. Broncos: 'Orange Crush' design

Originally worn: 1968-1996

Worn as a throwback: 2001

Great loss for humankind? Definitely. For many fans, this is still the uniform they think of when they think of the Broncos, and it would be great to see it on the field again. Although the helmet is a lighter shade of blue than Denver's current navy shell, the team wore a reasonable facsimile of the old look for this season's Color Rush game by using the throwback logo and striping on the current shell. Would that be close enough for a throwback uniform, or would fans complain that the helmet color wasn't right? Only one way to find out: Try it.

4. Buccaneers: 'Creamsicle' design

Originally worn: 1976-96

Worn as a throwback: 2009-12

Great loss for humankind? Yes. Ridiculed for years before emerging as a nostalgia-driven favorite, the Bucs' original uniform set, complete with "Bucco Bruce" on the helmet, has become the poster child for the one-shell rule's collateral damage on the throwback scene. It's a big part of the team's heritage -- and, arguably, the NFL's heritage -- and it's a shame it can't be worn anymore. Free Bucco Bruce!

5. Colts: Mid-'50s design

Originally worn: 1954-55

Worn as a throwback: 2010

Great loss for humankind? Nah. Putting the horseshoes on the back of the helmet, instead of the sides, is interesting (the idea being that's what you see when a colt -- or a Colt -- is galloping away from you), but it's more of a novelty than a good design. And if the Colts really want to wear something like this, they could do a throwback to 1956, when they wore the same helmet concept on a white shell.

6. Cowboys: Early '60s design

Originally worn: 1960-63

Worn as a throwback: 2004-12

Great loss for humankind? Maybe not a great loss, but still a loss. The Cowboys' white-helmeted throwbacks had become a Thanksgiving tradition that's now been shelved. Too bad.

7. Eagles: Kelly Green design

Originally worn: 1954-64, 1985-95

Worn as a throwback: 2010

Great loss for humankind? For sure. The only thing that would be better than reviving this design as a throwback would be reviving it as the team's primary look.

8. Eagles: City flag design

Originally worn: 1934

Worn as a throwback: 2007

Great loss for humankind? Nope. This uniform was good as a history lesson (its colors are based on the design of the Philadelphia city flag, which in turn was based on the Swedish national flag, because of the original Swedish colonization of the Philly region) but not as an Eagles uniform. Fans hated it, and there's no chance it'll be worn again, rule or no rule.

9. Falcons: Original design

Originally worn: 1966-1969

Worn as a throwback: 2009-11

Great loss for humankind? A little bit, yeah. Atlanta's original helmet design had a red shell, to honor the University of Georgia, and gold striping, to honor Georgia Tech -- a nice dual shout-out to Atlanta's two college football teams. Symbolism aside, it's also a very solid look -- one that would be nice to see again.

10. Jets: Titans of New York design

Originally worn: 1960-62

Worn as a throwback: 2007-09, 2011

Great loss for humankind? Nope. True, the Jets franchise was known as the Titans for the first three years of its existence, but that's more of a historical footnote, or maybe the answer to a trivia question, than a key chapter in the team's history. Fans never warmed up to this throwback design, and the team is better off without it.

11. Packers: 'Acme Packers' design with brown helmet

Originally worn: 1929-30

Worn as a throwback: 2010-11

Great loss for humankind? Nope. The Packers' original "Acme Packers" uniform, worn back during the Great Depression, featured brown leather helmets, so the team opted for brown shells when reviving that design as a throwback in 2010. But the brown lids never looked right, so it was actually an improvement when the one-shell rule forced the team to switch to its regular yellow shells with the decals removed in 2013. There's a lesson there: Sometimes being less historically accurate can be more aesthetically pleasing.

12. Patriots: Pat Patriot design

Originally worn: 1961-92

Worn as a throwback: 1994, 2002, 2009-12

Great loss for humankind? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Fans can debate whether the Pats' original Minuteman mascot character, Pat Patriot, is better than the team's current "Flying Elvis" logo (some prefer Pat and wish he'd never gone away, while others prefer Elvis because he symbolizes the success of the Brady/Bellichick era), but just about everyone agrees that Pat should get to come out and play at least once a year. This is probably the single biggest casualty of the one-shell rule.

13. Steelers: 1962 design

Originally worn: 1962

Worn as a throwback: 2009-10

Great loss for humankind? Maybe not a great loss, but a loss all the same. It's a nice change of pace to see that familiar Steelers logo against the yellow helmet, and the rest of the uniform is very solid.

14. Titans: Oilers design

Originally worn: 1960-65

Worn as a throwback: 1994, 2009

Great loss for humankind? Yes, but with an asterisk. It's been great when the Titans have honored their franchise's Oilers root, but they can still do that by throwing back to the Oilers' white-helmeted era -- which was actually the team's strongest look. Luv ya, blue!

15. Washington: Lombardi-era design

Originally worn: 1970-71

Worn as a throwback: 2007

Great loss for humankind? It's complicated. Anything involving Washington's branding is a loaded proposition due to the team's use of Native American iconography. But with that caveat in mind, this design, which they wore when coach Vince Lombardi moved from Green Bay to Washington and gave the team a somwehat Packers-esque makeover, is one of the better looks from the team's visual history.

16. Washington: Leatherhead helmet

Originally worn: 1937

Worn as a throwback: 2012

A great loss for humankind? From a helmet perspective, yes. Washington's modern interpretation of the old leatherhead helmet had the illusion of a textured surface -- a really neat effect, and much better than the plain brown shell that the Packers used for their own leatherhead simulation (see above). Once the one-shell rule went into effect, Washington kept wearing this throwback uniform with their current helmet shells -- not bad, but it's a shame that they can't go with the leatherhead treatment (and that nobody else can go that route either).

If you tally up the assessments, you get 11 cases of "Too bad we can't see that again!" versus five of "Eh, no biggie." So yes, the one-shell rule does appear to have been a net negative from an aesthetic standpoint. Moreover, there are potentially great throwbacks that have never been worn and currently can't be worn due to the rule, such as the Seahawks' original design, the Chargers' Air Coryell design and the Jets' New York Sack Exchange design. The rule also prevents the Thursday-night Color Rush uniforms from reaching their full potential, because the helmets often don't match the rest of the uniforms. (You can decide for yourself if inhibiting the scope of the Color Rush program is a good or bad thing.)

Will the one-shell rule stay in place forever? Probably not. It seems likely that some sort of workaround, such as full-shell vinyl wraps, will eventually be developed. And with college teams continuing to routinely wear multiple shells each season with no apparent ill effects, maybe the NFL will simply drop or modify the rule. Until then, though, we'll have to live without Pat Patriot and Bucco Bruce -- which will just make their eventual return, if and when it happens, that much sweeter.

Paul Lukas wishes the NFL had gone with Throwback Thursdays, instead of the Color Rush program, for Thursday-night games. If you like 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.