Color me surprised. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had the first pick to choose their uniform combination for Super Bowl LV at their home stadium and instead of going with the historically more intimidating red (or pewter) jerseys, the Bucs have opted for white jerseys and pewter pants on Sunday. That means the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs get to slip into the same uniforms they were in last year when they won Super Bowl LIV — the familiar red jerseys and white pants. Do jersey colors really matter? By the smallest of margins, yes.
Last year I wrote a long piece about the first-ever red vs. red Super Bowl. No Super Bowl before last year featured two teams with their dominant color being red. Now it's happening for a second consecutive year. Rather than copying and pasting last year's story and switching out the 49ers for the Buccaneers — that'd be self-plagiarism! — I'm revamping the piece into a much shorter one for this year's Big Game.
Super Bowl LV is almost here, and you can watch it for free on the CBS Sports App.
The color red has been an important color for as long as we've understood colors. It means blood, passion, aggression, activity, romance and assertiveness, and its meaning to us as humans can be traced through tens of thousands of years of human evolution. A study more than a decade ago showed judges favor athletes wearing red, perceiving those athletes as more dominant.
Last year, I asked Mark Frank, who authored a study on the impact of jersey colors on sports, and Russell Hill, an evolutionary anthropology professor, whether the Chiefs wearing red would have an advantage over the 49ers in white.
"Let's see. How do I word this? Yes, but it's just tiny," Frank said. "It's got a slight advantage, but one ill-timed fumble wipes out that advantage. One ill-timed pass. One arm being hit while thrown will probably override whatever advantage that would be."
Hill agrees, and he does so while painting a picture of Sunday night.
"The way we would probably expect it to operate anyway is not the buildup to the game but on the field itself ... athletes on the line of scrimmage, in opposition of another. They very much are facing one another as the ball is snapped," Hill said. "I think in those particular contexts where it could have an impact on the San Francisco players, those athletes all looking at athletes dressed in red, each of whom is displaying this color that has this evolutionary association with power and dominance.
"It's in that particular context and in those very fine margins that we expect it to have a difference. If it just takes one or two percent off the degree that these players go into impact, the energy that they put into it, and these games are fine margins, that can be enough to tip the balance between winning and losing."
Surely Tom Brady, Bruce Arians and Jason Licht read this story last year. So why did they decide to go against this advice and put themselves at a disadvantage?
I have a few hunches. The first is that the Bucs wore red jerseys and pewter pants in their Week 12 loss at home to the Chiefs (who were in white jerseys and red pants.) In short, they tried it the first time and it didn't work.
More globally, the Buccaneers have been far more successful in white jerseys than their red or pewter jerseys. Tampa Bay is 9-2 in white tops, 3-2 in red tops and 2-1 in pewter tops this season.
Specific to this jersey combination, though, the Buccaneers are undefeated. The Bucs went 5-0 in white jerseys and pewter pants this year, with victories over the Panthers, Lions, Saints and Packers twice.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs have gone 9-2 in red jerseys (including 8-2 in red jerseys and white pants) and 7-0 in white jerseys this year.
And so now the decision to be in white jerseys is becoming clearer to me. The Bucs have eschewed whatever slight subconscious advantage the red jerseys may give them and instead have decided to don the uniform they have had their most success in all season long. Then they forced the Chiefs into a uniform that they've had less success in this season but won a Super Bowl in last year, thus creating what could be a false sense of comfortability heading into the game.
Ah, yes. The psychology — and reverse psychology — of Super Bowl uniform combinations.