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Uni Watch's Friday Flashback: How Pro Bowl uniforms went from simple to dreadful

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Uni Watch Friday Flashback: Pro Bowl uniforms (2:37)

Paul Lukas of Uni Watch discusses how the Pro Bowl doesn't always feature all-star uniform design. (2:37)

This weekend is the weekend everyone dreads, because there's no football -- well, unless you count the Pro Bowl.

The NFL's much-maligned all-star showcase has taken a lot of abuse over the years thanks to its not-very-competitive level of play, all the players who are selected but then skip the game, and so on.

And then there are the uniforms.

Pro Bowl uniforms have become such a joke -- or maybe the punchline to a joke -- that it almost feels like the NFL must have some sort of rule requiring that the game be played in something akin to clown costumes.

Why are Pro Bowl uniforms so bad? For one thing, the Pro Bowl is a one-and-done event, and that doesn't lend itself to a design filled with subtlety, nuance or grace. The thinking has probably been, "People are only going to be seeing this uniform for a few hours and then that's it, so we need to make a strong impression!" Also, it's often been hard to get fans to pay attention to the Pro Bowl, so eye-catching uniforms are one way to get people's attention, even if the designs are often regrettable.

But hey, this year's designs aren't that bad. With the league approaching the conclusion of its season-long gold-themed celebration of Super Bowl 50, this year's Pro Bowl unis are gold-accented, and they actually look like something that football players wouldn't be embarrassed to wear:

And while it's true that the Pro Bowl now has a well-established tradition of truly dreadful uniform design, that tradition is only about 20 years old. Before that, Pro Bowl uniforms were sometimes boring, occasionally classy, but never awful. With the latest installment of the game slated for Sunday, here's a timeline of the game's uniform history, beginning with its inception in 1951:

1951-52: The two teams go color versus color -- red for the National Conference and blue for the American Conference. The uniforms are simple and the helmets are blank, reflecting the style of the day. The players simply have their regular helmets repainted red or blue for the game:

1953-58: No more color versus color, as the game adopts the more traditional protocol of having one team wear white. In 1954, the conferences are renamed as the East (whose primary color is red) and West (which wears blue). These conference names and color associations will endure until the NFL/AFL merger leads to the league's conference realignment. For one game during this period, 1958, uniform numbers are added to the helmets.

1959-65: The East always wears red (with shoulder stripes now added to the jersey) and the West always wears white with blue trim. Helmets continue to be blank:

1966-70: The uniforms stay the same, but the helmets are painted gold and, for the first time, carry a logo: the NFL shield. In 1970, the shield is replaced by the league's 50th anniversary logo, which all teams had been wearing as a jersey patch during the season:

1971-78: Following the NFL/AFL merger and the realignment of the conferences into the AFC and NFC, the Pro Bowl gets a new uniform template. The AFC wears white jerseys and red pants, while the NFC goes with blue jerseys and white pants. The helmets are painted red (AFC) and white (NFC), with "A" and "N" logos:

1979-94: The players stop repainting their helmets for the game and stick with their regular team helmet designs, resulting in a strange patchwork of headwear and some odd color combinations. Aside from a few minor tweaks, the rest of the uniform stays largely unchanged, making this the most visually stable period in Pro Bowl history:

1995-97: Someone at the league office apparently decides that the Pro Bowl needs more "creative" uniforms. The result is one of the most unusual (OK, worst) uniforms in pro football history. The design somehow lasts three years before being retired:

1998-2000: In what might be an overcompensatory move, the eccentric uniforms of the three previous seasons are replaced with an exceedingly generic-looking set:

2001-02: So much for normalcy, as fadeaway gradation patterns come to the Pro Bowl. In a Pro Bowl first, the jerseys have "All-Star" printed on the chest, apparently to distinguish between All-Pros (players voted to be the best at their positions by Associated Press writers, who do not necessarily play in the Pro Bowl) and All-Stars (players voted to play in the Pro Bowl, who are not necessarily All-Pros). Confused yet? Then forget all of that and just look at the fadeaway gradations:

2003-04: In another Pro Bowl first, the NFC goes mono-blue. Also: In the "what were they thinking?" category, both squads wear big, honking stretch panels on their pants:

2005-06: The lightbulb goes on over someone's head: "Hey, if we're gonna put 'All-Star' on the jerseys, why not have a bunch of stars up the sides of the uniforms?" And so another design template is born. In another first, the jersey fabric is watermarked with little NFL logos. Thankfully, these are impossible to detect except at extremely close range:

2007-08: "Hey, those stars on the sides of the uniform looked great!" "They sure did -- what if we put stars all over the front of the jersey this time around?" "OK, but remember how nobody could see the NFL logos on the jersey fabric? Make sure they can see the stars." Done and done:

2009-10: A weird Jekyll-and-Hyde design template makes its debut. From the front, it looks fairly normal; from the back, it looks a bit like the players are wearing safety vests or pinned-on fabric panels:

2011-12: In one of those "only in the Pro Bowl" moves, players are offered the option of wearing long pants. A few players experiment with the look, which is then quietly retired and never spoken of again. Meanwhile, "All-Star" is removed from the jerseys:

2013: With Nike having taken over as the league's uniform outfitter, people are figuring the Pro Bowl uniforms will be wackier than ever. But the company confounds expectations by coming up with a surprisingly sedate design:

2014-15: The 2013 design turns out to have been the calm before the storm, as Nike honors the Pro Bowl's heritage of visual shenanigans by -- well, see for yourself:

That brings us up to date. If you'd like to see the uniforms worn in the NFL's pre-Pro Bowl all-star games and the all-star uniforms from the AFL, the AAFC and more, the mighty Gridiron Uniform Database has you covered.


Would you like to nominate a uniform to be showcased in a future Friday Flashback installment? Send your suggestions here.

Paul Lukas remembers when the Pro Bowlers Tour and the Pro Bowl were both televised by ABC -- on the same weekend! 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.