What is the best jersey number in Atlanta sports history?
That simple question led me on a journey through time to find the answer. Icons can come packaged in every feasible way. Whether it be in a crisp clean single digit like No. 7 (Michael Vick), a classic like No. 21 (Deion Sanders, Dominique Wilkins) or a relatively unassuming numeral like 31 (Greg Maddux), each of these numbers means something in Atlanta sports lore.
Jersey History series: Nos. 1-5 | Nos. 6-10 | Nos. 11-15 | Nos. 16-20 | Nos. 21-25 | Nos. 26-30 | Nos. 31-35 | Nos. 36-40 | Nos. 41-45 | Nos. 46-50 | Nos. 51-55 | Nos. 56-60 | Nos. 61-65 | Nos. 66-70 | Nos. 71-75 | Nos. 76-80
Over the coming weeks, I’ll be unveiling my findings five jersey numbers at a time. I looked at each of the major sports franchises in the city’s history, from the Falcons, Braves, Hawks, Dream, United, Thrashers and Flames, all in order to catalog the definitive list of jersey numbers and whose worn them.
Before we get to the list, a few rules: A player had to play multiple seasons in Atlanta to be considered. I did not include any player who played for a franchise while it was located in another city; they had to have played in Atlanta.
To determine value and talent, I used a value-related stat for each sport such as Wins Above Replacement (baseball) or Point Share (hockey). Sometimes, I will make a subjective call. You may disagree, but that’s the fun of all of this, right? So, feel free to debate in the comments and let’s have a fun walk down memory lane. Let’s go!
Jersey No. 81
Best player: Falcons WR Terance Mathis (1994-2001)
Honorable mentions: Falcons WR Michael Haynes (1988-93, 1997), Falcons TE Austin Hooper (2016-19), Falcons WR Billy Johnson (1982-87)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 81: 18
Summary: One of the best numbers around, No. 81 is also an excellent number in Falcons history. Terance Mathis is undoubtedly one of the best free-agent signings the Falcons ever made. He set a new franchise record with 111 receptions in his first year with the club and gained 1,342 yards with 11 touchdowns. Those numbers helped Mathis make the only Pro Bowl of his career. Mathis topped 1,000 yards in four of his first six seasons, and he finished his eight-year run in Atlanta with 7,349 yards and 57 touchdowns. Mathis remains one of the top receivers to have played for the Falcons, especially considering when he played.
The list of honorable mentions is among the best we’ve had so far. Michael Haynes and Billy “White Shoes” Johnson are also on the shortlist of all-time Falcons receivers, and Austin Hooper really developed into an impact player during his four years with the team. Haynes played seven seasons in Atlanta and gained 4,220 while scoring 34 touchdowns. Although mostly known as a returner, Johnson blossomed into a productive receiver and finished with over 2,000 yards in six years with the Falcons. Hooper became a trusted target for Matt Ryan and peaked in 2019 with 75 receptions for 787 yards and six touchdowns. The Falcons may have their new tight end of the future in Kyle Pitts, but Hooper should not be forgotten.
Jersey No. 82
Best player: Falcons WR Stacey Bailey (1982-90)
Honorable mentions: Falcons WR Ken Burrow (1971-75)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 82: 18
Summary: Stacey Bailey impressively played nine seasons for the Falcons. While he was a full-time starter during a three-year stretch from 1983-85, Bailey spent the majority of his career as a backup player. A recent example of a player who had a somewhat similar career to Bailey would be Brian Finneran. Both were with the franchise for a long time while occupying a lot of different roles within the offense. Bailey started 58 games in his near-decade run and finished with 3,422 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Ken Burrow started 61 games over five years for the Falcons and recorded 2,668 yards and 21 touchdowns. Had he played longer in Atlanta, Burrow would have edged out Bailey.
Jersey No. 83
Best player: Falcons TE Alge Crumpler (2001-07)
Honorable mentions: Falcons WR Harry Douglas (2008-14)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 83: 16
Summary: Tony Gonzalez’s arrival in Atlanta may have been the worst thing possible for Alge Crumpler’s legacy. One of the best tight ends in franchise history is slowly falling into forgotten territory. It’s not an overstatement to say that Crumpler was the most reliable target for Michael Vick during his time in Atlanta. Crumpler made four straight Pro Bowls from 2003-06 and averaged 55 catches for 770 yards and six touchdowns during that stretch. All told, Crumpler gained 4,212 yards and scored 35 touchdowns in his seven seasons with the Falcons.
On a personal note, Crumpler took some time a long time ago to allow a sixth-grade me to interview him for a class project, and I will always love him for that.
Harry Douglas is a worthy No. 2 on this list. While he only had one true breakout season when he caught 85 passes for 1,067 yards and a pair of touchdowns, that is viewed more as a testament to what Douglas could do with opportunities. The truth is, as the No. 3 option on offenses with Roddy White and Julio Jones, Douglas had a limit to his targets. He still fared very well in his role for Atlanta, though.
Jersey No. 84
Best player: Falcons WR Roddy White (2005-15)
Honorable mentions: Falcons WR Alfred Jenkins (1975-83)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 84: 15
Summary: One of the all-time greats to play for Atlanta, Roddy White was inducted into the Falcons Ring of Honor during the 2019 season. Another bridge between the Michael Vick and Matt Ryan eras, White was good with the former and excellent with the latter. It’s not unfair to say that White struggled early on with drops – his catch percentage was in the 40s his first two seasons – but White turned it on in 2007 to catch 83 passes for 1,202 yards and six touchdowns. That began a six-year run for White in which he became one of the best receivers in the league. He was named to four Pro Bowls and was a first-team All-Pro once during those six seasons while averaging 94 catches, 1,296 yards and eight touchdowns per year. There are those who are still salty about the way his time with the franchise came to an end, but White’s career is sterling. When he wrapped it up, White was the all-time leading receiver for the Falcons with 10,863 yards and 63 touchdowns, and he still holds the franchise touchdowns record.
Alfred Jenkins was an excellent receiver in his own right. Jenkins’ best season came in 1981 when he led the league with 1,358 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns; he was named to his second Pro Bowl and earned first-team All-Pro honors as a result. The undrafted free agent and Georgia native spent nine years with the Falcons and finished his career in 1983 with 6,267 yards and 40 touchdowns. Like White, Jenkins held numerous franchise records at the time he retired.
Jersey No. 85
Best player: Falcons WR Alfred Jackson (1978-84)
Honorable mentions: None
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 85: 18
Summary: From Alfred Jenkins, we go to Alfred Jackson. A seventh-round pick in 1978, Jackson beat the odds to have a seven-year career. Although he didn’t start a game until the 1982 season, Jackson was a valuable deep threat for Atlanta as a role player. He averaged nearly 18 yards per reception and 458 yards per season in his first four years. Jackson’s final season was also his best. In 1984, Jackson started a career-high 15 games and caught 52 passes for 731 yards and two touchdowns.
Next up: Nos. 86-90
Who is the best player to wear No. 81-85
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