The Dark Uniform Era of the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s: Documenting the AFC

It’s hard to believe that as I sit here and write this article the 1990s is listed at #4 on terms of decades. The 2020s obviously grace the #1 spot, the 2010s at #2, the 2000s at #3, and finally, the 1990s. For those of you reading this who were born in the 1970s, which would be listed at #6 and the 1980s at #5, some of us in the younger generation do crave advice. How do you cope with this inevitable process of aging?

Perhaps we can bring it down to NFL uniforms as is the niche of this blog, depicting an era beginning in the 1990s and lasting until about 2016ish, of what I call the Dark Era not just in the NFL, but in the four major North American sports leagues. Think about how many teams switched to darker colors beginning in the 1990s.

Let me give you a list:

Buffalo Bills (2002-2010), New England Patriots (2000), Miami Dolphins (1997), New York Jets (1990 and 1998), Cincinnati Bengals (1997), Tennessee Titans (formerly Houston Oilers, 1999), Jacksonville Jaguars (2002), Denver Broncos (1997), Philadelphia Eagles (1996), Detroit Lions (2003), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1997), New Orleans Saints (2000), Atlanta Falcons (1990), Seattle Seahawks (2002, 2012), San Francisco 49ers (1996-2008), St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams (2000).

That’s nearly half the league switching to darker colors.

But let’s get more in-depth with the American Football Conference before hitting the NFC in another article, starting with the AFC East.

Buffalo Bills

In 2002, the Bills ditched their royal blue jerseys and opted to include navy as the primary jersey color while also adopting navy pants. When one looks closely at the helmet stripe, they will see both navy and nickel in the stripe pattern. This look lasted until 2011 when the Bills then opted for a return to a classic look featuring white helmets and royal blue jerseys along with modern upgrades.

Miami Dolphins

The team added navy blue to their 1997 uniform upgrade. The navy stuck around on the uniform, including the 2013 redesign until 2018, where the navy has been all but abandoned except for accented colors within the helmet logo.

New England Patriots

The Patriots underwent a uniform redesign in 1993, introducing silver within the look and making blue a primary color while relegating red to secondary status. Red was further scaled back in 1994. In 2000, the Patriots dropped royal blue for navy and also introduced navy pants. The look has remained ever since.

New York Jets

The Jets first added black to their color scheme in 1990 and while they abandoned the look in 1998, reverting to a classic look instead, the team used a darker shade of green called hunter green. This remained until the redesign of 2019, which reintroduced elements of the 1990-1997 look, where black again became a team color.

Baltimore Ravens

Since the Ravens were an “expansion” team in 1996 I didn’t include them on the initial list.¬†However, they are the first team in NFL history to regularly wear dark jerseys over dark pants at home upon their 1996 inception. While they dropped the look the following season, the overall dark color scheme of the Ravens which coincides with the era of their founding defines this age in NFL history. Purple and black has remained with the team ever since.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals first introduced black socks in 1997, replacing orange socks they’d worn since their 1981 uniform redesign. They then augmented the presence of black on the uniforms in 2003, prior to the 2004 rebrand. Since 2004, the Bengals have worn black on black at least once each season.

Cleveland Browns

I neglected to include Cleveland on the initial list because while the team switched to darker jerseys from 2006-2014, these jerseys were actually modern upgrades of a past look – explaining the switch to black shoes and gray facemasks as well. Starting in the 2008 preseason, the Browns unveiled brown pants, which were made as an alternate option during the 2006 redesign. These became a mainstay for a season in 2009 before relegating back to alternate status and finally, the team ended up pairing a brown on brown look starting in 2013, which the team has worn at least once a year ever since, culminating with the team wearing its brown on brown Color Rush combo seven times in 2019.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers finally joined the Dark Ages in 2016 when the team unveiled their Color Rush design, which paired an inverse pant design (black pants, yellow striping) with a classic jersey. The team, despite their traditional approach to the uniform, fully embraced the look and has worn it as an alternate ever since.

Houston Texans

And finally, the third team I didn’t include, but they chose a darker shade of blue, known officially as Deep Steel Blue, as their primary uniform color. Many may not realize the Texans intended to go with white helmets prior to their 2002 uniform unveiling, only to switch to navy helmets by the time the uniforms were unveiled.

Jacksonville Jaguars

A team that adopted teal and black as their colors were founded in 1995, about a year prior to the huge, frenzied switch to darker colors. But nonetheless, the Jaguars only grew darker as the years progressed, adopting black pants to pair with a black jersey in 2002. Today, the team uses the look as a primary following the early portion of the season where the team either opts for teal or white at home.

Tennessee Titans

When the Oilers rebranded as the Titans, the team added navy blue to their palette, and also added navy pants and socks. This look remained in various forms throughout the next nineteen seasons before another rebrand saw the Titans switch to navy helmets, darkening the look.

Denver Broncos

The Broncos ditched sky blue for navy blue and orange, also adopting blue jerseys for the first time in the team’s existence. This look remained paramount until 2012, when the team relegated navy to alternate status and once again used orange jerseys, which were introduced as alternates in 2002. What’s interesting is when the Broncos unveiled the changes in 1997, they also introduced a navy on navy look which they wore during the 1997 preseason. The look has become a staple during select seasons.

San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers

Other than a game pairing navy on navy in 2003, the team resisted the league’s trend to darker colors until 2017 – while the white helmet was reintroduced the team paired navy on navy again in 2017, 2018, and 2019.

So, is the switch to darker colors gaining ground or losing steam?

Honestly, it might be a little mixed.

Here’s a profile of recent trends.

Buffalo Bills

As mentioned, the team reverted to a classic look in 2011.

Miami Dolphins

Ditched navy in all places but the logo.

Cleveland Browns

Unveiling new, probably old, uniforms in 2020 – remains to be seen if the brown on brown look will remain at least as an alternate.

Denver Broncos

As mentioned, the team promoted orange to primary status in 2012.

Los Angeles Chargers

Promoted the powder blue alternate jersey to primary status in 2019 – also unveiled yellow-gold facemasks.

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