For Dallas Cowboys fans, the number 88 isn't just digits on a jersey; it's a symbol of greatness passed down through generations of elite wide receivers, from Drew Pearson to Michael Irvin to Dez Bryant, and now, CeeDee Lamb
This year has been a tremendous one for Dallas Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb. Lamb finished the regular season with 135 receptions, 1,749 yards, and 12 touchdowns. He set the franchise single season record for both receptions and yards, and is now 7th all time in receptions, 8th all time in yards, and 11th all time in touchdowns in Cowboys history. Lamb, a first round pick from 2020, has cemented himself as an elite receiver in the NFL by ranking in the top 3 in receptions, yards, and touchdowns.
It can be argued that Lamb accepted the challenge to be great based on the jersey number that he selected. In an NFL landscape that has seen most elite wide receivers opt for lower numbers like 10 (Tyreek Hill), 14 (Stefon Diggs), and 17 (Davante Adams), Lamb selected 88. Beyond simply selecting a number that has long been associated with wide receivers, Lamb chose to wear 88 in Dallas. It is a number that comes with a lot of history and expectations. The pageantry of the number 88 in Dallas is not something that we see often in professional sports. It is a tradition of excellence and swagger that is sorely lacking across the NFL and sports as a whole.
The History of 88
It can be argued that there have been 4 notable eras of Dallas Cowboys football. The first is the 1970s, when the moniker of “Americas Team” took shape and Roger Staubach was the face of the franchise. The second was in the 1990s, when the Cowboys dominated the decade with 3 Super Bowl wins with Troy Aikman. The last two eras have run concurrently since 2006 behind two quarterbacks: Tony Romo and Dak Prescott.
All 4 of these eras were also defined by a unique wide receiving talent that wore the number 88. In the Staubach era it was Drew Pearson (Hall of Famer, 3x Pro Bowler, 3x All-Pro). In the 90s it was the iconic Michael Irvin (Hall of Famer, 5x Pro Bowler, 1x All-Pro) and in the modern era he was followed by Dez Bryant (3x Pro Bowler, 1x All-Pro) and CeeDee Lamb (3x Pro Bowler). These receivers have been elite weapons for each of these Cowboys eras and have helped lead to a lot of wins. But beyond sharing a number, wearing 88 means more in Dallas.
To Cowboys fans, a receiver wearing the number 88 means that they are a playmaker. A player that needs and demands the ball to make things happen. Pearson, the original 88, was known as “Mr. Clutch” and lived up to that moniker by being on the receiving end of a Hail Mary pass from Roger Staubach in a 1975 playoff win against the Minnesota Vikings. Pearson was an undrafted free agent that through good play and good fortune thanks to injuries and trade requests became the number one receiver in Dallas and held on to that title throughout his Hall of Fame career.
Michael Irvin followed Pearson, and was given the nickname “Playmaker” because of his uncanny ability to make big plays at crucial points in games during his time in college at the University of Miami and in the pros as a Dallas Cowboy. Irvin is often regarded as one of the best wide receivers of all time, best known for his physical style that made him an impossible matchup for cornerbacks during his era. His style was so physical in fact, that the league changed some rules to prevent future players from emulating Irvin’s style.
Irvin was followed by Dez Bryant, who despite not being a part of a Super Bowl roster (as Pearson and Irvin were) played with an electricity and personality that befitted the number 88. Bryant became the focal point of defenses when they played Dallas, and most Sundays that didn’t seem to matter. Bryant has been succeeded by Lamb, who ironically played at rival colleges (Bryant attended Oklahoma State, whereas Lamb is an Oklahoma product). Lamb has proven himself to be capable of carrying the mantle of the number 88 with tremendous speed and big play ability. For these reasons, the number 88 has become a brotherhood of sorts, which is unusual in the professional ranks. But it is this unique characteristic that makes the number 88 so special in the legacy of a position in the NFL.
Creation of a Legacy
The passing down of numbers is something that we see a lot of in college football. LSU awards the number 18 for high character team players and the number 7 is one that is passed down from elite player to elite player as a sort of passing of the torch at the illustrious football factory. The number 1 at the University of Michigan is also notable as it is given to elite wide receivers that attend the university. And there are countless other examples of this throughout the college football landscape that are steeped in tradition. But the same rules do not apply in professional football.
The standard in the NFL is typically jersey retirement. When a great player's career is over, oftentimes their jersey is retired or at the very least many people avoid using the number out of respect for that player's legacy. That is what makes the legacy of 88 in Dallas so special, that the number is associated with the team and the feats that they accomplished. In football, which has always felt more like a collective group effort than a sport like basketball, the lineage of a jersey number is special.
The closest other sports have to this, that I can think of, is in international soccer where jersey numbers designate a position, such as a goalkeeper wearing number 1 or a striker wearing number 9. This helps create a legacy for new and old players. An example of this is the number 10 (which typically denotes an attacking midfielder) for the Argentina national team. The two most famous Argentine players in history are Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, and both wore number 10 for their country. So when Messi wore the number, there was a sense of connection to a great player of the past which makes succeeding that much more valuable.
Such is the case for 88 in Dallas. There is added pressure for a player like CeeDee Lamb to perform because of the excellence that was achieved by Pearson, Irvin, and Bryant. Most elite athletes crave that pressure, to prove that they are the next in line for greatness. Which begs to question why this isn’t more common in football across other teams.
There are a few numbers of significance across the football landscape that have had importance. The number 12 is one that comes to mind for quarterbacks. Great players such as Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Jim Kelly, Terry Bradshaw, and the aforementioned Roger Staubach have worn 12. Additionally, the Seattle Seahawks are also well known for the number 12 as it was retired to pay homage to their fans, who are called the 12s as representation of the 12th man of the franchise during home games at Lumen Field. On defense, the number 52 has some notoriety with linebackers which has been worn by Ray Lewis, Patrick Willis, Khalil Mack, and Clay Matthews. But the tradition of a number on a single team has not quite been adopted outside of Dallas.
What if notable Houston Texans edge rushers started to wear the number 99 in honor of the recently retired J.J. Watt? Or what if 87 became the hallmark of pass catching tight ends in Kansas City when Travis Kelce decides to retire? This would create a fraternity of similar players bonded by a team and a number, creating a deeper legacy between great players. The downside is of course that individual jersey retirements would not be as common if this was the case. But I would argue that being able to collectively talk about a great group of players bonded by a team and number could be more historically impactful. Imagine if Randy Moss, Stefon Diggs, and Justin Jefferson (all legendary Minnesota Vikings wide receivers) all wore the same number. That would create a mythology around the number, team, and players that simple jersey retirement cannot accomplish.
We do not need to imagine this sort of mythology for the leading receiver of the Dallas Cowboys. There is a collective bond between the receivers that have worn the number and elevated their teams to new heights. There is something beautiful about that. A lot of former players often describe the NFL as a brotherhood that stands the test of time. Dallas Cowboy number one receivers have established a true brotherhood through excellence and a shared number. I just wish that more teams had more unique numbers associated with them.