06 November 2008

Set Spotlight::::Upper Deck football....and some comments on the hobby

A busy spring and summer has curtailed my card trading, although for some reason I keep buying cards. I guess the main hassle involved is that they're mostly low-end products. I'd noticed it before, but as I've tried to get back into the trading groove online the last couple weeks, it's hard because 99 percent of traders post on trade sites looking for autos and patches and Lettermen cards, or cards of that level and seemingly ONLY that level. Don't get me wrong, I love that stuff too. Check my site (link to the right) and I'm looking for all kinds of autographs and game-used cards, but limiting what I'll take to those reeks to me of snobbery. There's a lot of that going around these days when it comes to a hobby that's supposed to be based in fun, right? It started creeping in around the time I got back into collecting in 1999, when traders here and there would voice their disgust with cards produced by Collector's Edge and Pacific. God knows that, now, I wish I had somewhat fewer numbers of those cards, but they did (Pacific more so) put out some good product, and had some unique ideas. Some (they were among the first to put out game-dated game-used cards) worked better than others (Pacific Card-supials?). As game-used cards became gradually easier and easier to pull, now a simple jersey card isn't enough for many collectors. It has to be an autographed patch or letter card numbered under 500. It has to be a high-end rookie from 2008. Card bloggers blast Topps and Upper Deck (Topps more so) for putting out gimmick cards. They blast Beckett for their influence in the hobby. Hey, all three companies are in it to make money, that's what business is about. Don't look down on collectors, though, who want to use Beckett to set book values for trades or continue to buy Topps and Upper Deck product without the disgust in maybe getting a gimmick card. It'd be different if they were tripling their pack prices because of those cards, but they aren't. If you want to boycott them and rail against Beckett tyranny, that's your right, but don't act like its gospel truth and don't act like it's sullying a pristine hobby. It all boils down to....too many people take what's supposed to be a fun hobby waaaaaaaay too seriously. I've been guilty of it myself at times, I'll admit that. It's hard to find that balance between feeling your getting what your cards are worth and feeling that somebody is trying to feed you a crap deal. Anyway, that snobbery is, in my mind, the number 1 problem with the hobby today. Which leads me to the point of this topic, which is a set spotlight on Upper Deck football, which reflects on a company that has given us the good and the bad in the hobby today. They were the driving force between autographs and game-used in packs, which started as a cool, rare pull and has now evolved to where it smothers the industry.

When I was a kid, the thought of ever being able to have a piece of a jersey worn
by Barry Sanders or, earlier than that, John Riggins or Art Monk or Joe Montana, wasn't even in the picture. You'd see memorabilia of full jerseys and stuff, but as a kid that's completely out of your price range. In 1991, with the debut of Upper Deck football, a certified autograph of a legend on a card became a possibility, and in 1996, thanks again to Upper Deck, getting that Sanders or Montana jersey in a card without spending the hundreds of dollars on a full jersey became a possibility. Over the years UD has tweaked and stretched the ideas that started with those sets in the 1990s to help create a monster that now allows a collector to own a jersey card of virtually any player in the game, whether that player ever actually plays in a game or not. It's created a climate in the hobby where now a simple jersey card isn't enough, and where sets issued without the added benefit of autos or jerseys included are mostly the lower echelon, fodder only for the hobby's bottom-feeders. It's impossible to acknowledge the greatness of Upper Deck without also realizing the side effects of the company's impact.

Collectors know that Upper Deck burst onto the scene in 1989 with a landmark baseball set. One year later, the company issued its first hockey set and, for the 1991-92 basketball season and 1991 football season, those sports, too, had a debut Upper Deck product. Let's take on Upper Deck timeline style, year-by-year....

1991: A football card industry that expanded to three brands in 1989 began to explode by 1991 as Fleer and Pinnacle had joined the industry and companies began to issue multiple products. Upper Deck made its mark, however, by issuing a 700-card two-series set featuring a key rookie of then-unknown QB Brett Favre, plus the added innovations of holograms, as had been incorporated into the company's baseball products. The key addition, though, were two 10-card insert sets honoring the careers of Joe Montana and Joe Namath known as the first of the football "Heroes" insert sets. The sets also included a chance at a random pull of an autograph of Montana or Namath, which made the product as high-end as cards got in 1991. The rarity of the cards led UD to entice collectors on low-series boxes to "Find the Montana". As Pro Set and Score mixed artwork in with their sets, UD followed suit with subset cards of painting-style artwork of key players for team checklist cards. UD even threw in its first short prints in football by adding a card honoring Darrell Green as the Fastest Man in the NFL and marking coach Don Shula's 300th win.

Grade: A (all grades are for UD regular set)
Best RC: Favre, easy.
Highest $$$ card (whole set including inserts): Joe Montana auto

1992: As the football card industry continued to expand, Upper Deck followed up its successful 1991 debut with a slight sophomore slump in 1992. The main problem was the lack of a good rookie class in '92, and the base set design wasn't as attractive as in 1991. The holograms were back and, more importantly, the Heroes insert sets returned to feature Dan Marino and Walter Payton, with Payton autos a rare pull in low series packs and Marino autos available in high series packs. The company did change some things up to add a "gold" insert and a few other new inserts, including the debut of a Pro Bowl insert set. The draw of the Payton autos has kept prices steady on boxes of the product even today. The base set is highlighted by one of the few RCs of WR standout Jimmy Smith, and UD included two more SPs for '92 to honor wideouts James Lofton and Art Monk for career milestones. As competition in the industry increased, the importance of putting out a more unique set continued to increase as well. Instead of the Smith, I put an Elway card up there. I wasn't an Elway fan but I do miss the old Broncos unis.

Grade: B
Best RC: Jimmy Smith, but he doesn't get much competition.
Highest $$$ card: Walter Payton auto

1993: The football portion of the industry got more crowded as Playoff joined the field and as card brands continued to branch out, Upper Deck was wise to start a new higher-end card product with the debut of SP. A good rookie class led by Jerome Bettis, Drew Bledsoe and Robert Smith didn't hurt either SP or the regular UD product, either. Perhaps because of the addition of SP, UD dropped the autographs from the regular UD set for 1993, moving instead to a "Rookie Exchange" program seeded with exchange cards one in every 72 packs. The set was also trimmed to 530 cards issued in one series. There were no SPs or holograms in '93 but the Pro Bowl insert was back along with an insert set honoring the Dallas Cowboys and a "Future Heroes" insert honoring young stars of the game. The changes marked the start of a three-year run where the Upper Deck regular set seemed to be put in the backseat while the company established the SP brand name, although it was done to much success for SP. Wasn't a Kelly fan, either, but, man, I miss the old Bills unis too.

Grade: C
Best RC: The Bus, but Bledsoe was at one time the best one.
Highest $$$ card: no one card really.

1994: Companies had the chance to make some hay in the football card industry in 1994 thanks to the baseball strike and the number of offerings from card companies was bigger than ever. In reaction to the success of SP, Topps joined the high-end fray with the debut of Finest, Collector's Edge got about as high-end as it would get with Excalibur, Skybox put out Skybox Premium and Playoff debuted Select. Upper Deck took a rare misstep in some ways with the debut of Collector's Choice as a low-end product, putting the base UD set smack dab in the middle between CC and SP. The Pro Line sets continued to try and corner the market in autographs, and UD stayed out of that race for the time being. Instead, SP featured foil RCs of Marshall Faulk along with new die-cut parallels and a "holoview" holographic insert. Upper Deck followed the '93 formula, with a set further trimmed to 330 cards, but threw in the new "electric gold" and "electric silver" parallels, a new "Predictor" insert offering prize cards for the cards from the set that marked award winners and league leaders, and jumbo rookie inserts. Faulk and Isaac Bruce keyed the rookie class in the set but, again, SP was at the forefront for the company.

Grade: C
Best RC: Marshall Faulk.
Highest $$$ card: again, nothing too pricey. Favre or Elway Pro Bowl insert, maybe?

1995: The high-end trend gained steam in '95 as Bowman's Best, Crown Royale (Pacific's high-end effort), Flair, Playoff Contenders and Zenith joined the fray. Collector's Choice returned for UD complete with an Update set, and the company branched out SP to also put out an SP Championship product later in the season. SP continued to be the cornerstone with foil RCs, SPs of Marino and Montana seeded 1 in 380 packs and the debut of the All-Pros insert set as the die cuts were shifted to SP Championship. The regular UD set followed the baseball set design and featured, at the time, a good rookie class that hasn't especially stood the test of time. The Predictor inserts and electric parallels returned with the main new additions being a special edition foil-style parallel and a "Joe Montana Trilogy" cross-brand insert to honor the retiring QB. Simply put, Upper Deck was still a mainstay in the card industry but the base set that established the company in the football side was starting to get stale. I used the Favre because I have a soft spot for 1995 cards. 1994 was my favorite NFL season ever. As a Niners fan, they won their 5th Super Bowl, marking the first team to 5 SB rings, and Prime Time helped lead the way. Plus that was the NFL's 75th anniversary season and all the teams had the cool throwbacks they wore that season. The Niners' version had a cool shadow effect on the numbers. I also remember the Broncos wearing their cool old '70s unis with the orange helmet with the white gangly looking Bronco on it.

Grade: C
Best RC: tough call, Steve McNair, I say.
Highest $$$ card: another snail race, guess one of the better Pro Bowl inserts.

1996: '96 was the year Upper Deck would up the ante. As the number of sets continued to balloon, keeping one's product "fresh" became more important than ever. Action Packed issued "Studs" cards including a diamond chip, plus the usual 24K gold cards. Collector's Edge issued a "Cowboybilia" autograph insert and game-used ball cards, including a set of Super Bowl game-used ball cards. The number of autographs available continued to increase; Playoff put out a set of leather-style cards and another set of pennant cards. Topps Chrome debuted. Upper Deck carved out its own chunk of history, however, by including a set of 10 game-used jersey cards in the regular UD product, seeded 1 in every 2,500 packs. For the first time, SP and the new SPx brand included autographs. Collector's Choice and its Update set returned, and UD also issued the Silver set with a design echoing the '95 UD design. A fairly good rookie class strengthened an already strong product in the regular UD set as the Predictors returned and some new inserts made their debut. The Game Jerseys were pretty much the story of the year, though, as the set featured Barry Sanders, Dan Marino (pictured), Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Steve Young, among others. Singles of the jerseys still book up into the $300 range, and the design of the first landmark jersey set has become a legend in the hobby.

Grade: A+ for hobby impact, B otherwise, let's make it a B+ overall
Best RC: Marvin Harrison
Highest $$$ card: Marino or Montana jersey cards

1997: The game-used and autograph boom echoed into '97 as the run of higher-end products continued. UD brought back a pretty-tired Collector's Choice brand for '97, debuted Black Diamond as another effort at a higher-end set, turned SP into SP Authentic for good, and issued another landmark set in UD Legends, which featured 162 autographs of retired players and was an all-around strong set. While SP Authentic continued to outclass the other high-end products and the Legends set was an additional big hit for UD in '97, the company pretty much stuck to the '96 formula for the '97 regular set. The Game Jerseys were back with a new design and featured new players, including Brett Favre, John Elway and Troy Aikman. The odds of pulling one stayed steep, however, at 1 in 2,600 packs, making the cards almost a once-in-a-lifetime pull. UD also went for rarity in issuing game-dated moment foil parallels of certain cards at a seeding rate of 1 in every 1,500 packs. Some new inserts and a serial-numbered MVPs insert were added, and the base set was bolstered by a decent rookie class. With a rookie class to beat all rookie classes in '98, UD would continue to hit its stride.

Grade: B
Best RC: probably Tony Gonzalez
Highest $$$ card: Favre or Elway jerseys

1998: '98 was the boom year the football card industry had waited for as the driving force of Peyton Manning and a stellar rookie season from Randy Moss along with a group of other talented rookies gave all products an added kick. Upper Deck responded by adding numerous serial-numbered cards to its Black Diamond set and adding a Black Diamond Rookies set, putting out the best SP Authentic set yet with an expanded group of autographs, adding a serial-numbered heavy SPx Finite set, and also adding the UD3 higher-end set and UD Encore set late in the season. Collector's Choice was changed up to be called UD Choice in '98 and, although it was improved, the set was on its last legs. The success of the rookies, which were short-printed for the first time in set history (available 1 in 4 packs), combined with another solid group of not as hard to pull game jerseys took the set to another level. UD switched things up by making the first 10 of the 20 available jersey cards available in the usual 1 in 2,500 packs. The last 10 cards, however, including one of rookie Manning, were available 1 in every 288 hobby packs, making them a much more possible hit for the collector. UD added a bronze parallel #d/100 and a gold 1/1 parallel of the base set along with a new batch of inserts in '98. In a year where many products had their best year ever, UD didn't disappoint as the short-print rookies were a hit and the RCs proved to hold their value over time. The 1998 set became the foundation for many Upper Deck base sets to come.

Grade: A-
Best RC: competitive this year....Peyton Manning
Highest $$$ card: Manning jersey

1999: The 1999 year saw the market flooded even further with football product. Upper Deck killed off the Collector's Choice/UD Choice product and replaced it with an equally ill-fated but slightly better UD Victory one-rookie-per-pack product. Another good group of rookies helped keep the buzz from 1998 going to some extent, and UD put out another strong SP Authentic product complete with a Walter Payton auto and jersey auto insert, and a bevy of buyback autos from previous products. The new SP Signature set was a to-that-point expensive buy by the pack or the box but promised an autograph per pack with a good lineup and nice card design. SPx also made the leap to include autographed RCs for the first time as Playoff had used the concept to success with Contenders SSD in '98. Those two sets would set the standard for all the auto-RC sets we have seen to date. SPx also debuted the "Winning Materials" game-used set as UD began to expand its jersey offerings. Other new sets like UD Ionix, UD Century Legends, UD HoloGrFX, the lower-end MVP, Retro, the concept set PowerDeck with CD cards, and Ovation joined the lineup with each having its share of autos and/or game-used cards. It was Upper Deck's biggest output ever. In the middle of all this, the regular Upper Deck set was the anchor, bringing back the short-print RCs and jerseys (this time with a patch version seeded 1 in every 7,500 packs). UD made the split between hobby and retail by seeding jerseys 1 in every 288 packs for the more elite players in hobby packs and 1 in every 2,500 packs otherwise. PowerDeck CD cards were also seeded into regular UD packs as an insert there. Other new insert sets were introduced, including one honoring Denver RB Terrell Davis' milestone '98 season. Following the boom in '98 UD continued to be at the forefront of success in the hobby. I opened a ton of '99 UD football and, for the most part, wasn't that lucky. I did pull a Quarterback Class insert of Tim Couch #d to 25 that I flipped for something good while it still had value. Never did get any of the good RCs (OK, I had one Culpepper) or a jersey, but at that point it was hard to expect a jersey card in that product.

Grade: B
Best RC: Donovan McNabb, for now
Highest $$$ card: Terrell Davis auto jersey???

2000: As the 2000s dawned, the football card industry was getting....bloated. The 2000 listings in Beckett Football span over 16 pages, as an example, when it took 16 pages to list the sets from 1986 to midway through the 1996 sets. The successes of 1998 and '99 had every company jumping on the bandwagon and it was starting to get stuck in the mud. Upper Deck was doing its part to bloat the industry as most of the laundry list of '99 products returned for 2000. Black Diamond added jersey rookies; SPx expanded its autographed rookies to auto jersey rookies in a trend that holds to the present day; Ultimate Victory was added as a higher-end companion to the basic Victory product; Gold Reserve was added as basically a parallel to the base set; and Pros and Prospects debuted early in the season but didn't exactly take off. The regular Upper Deck set was expanded to include more jersey and autograph versions and the company responded to the growing Internet presence in the hobby by offering "e-Card" prizes where collectors would pull an insert, and enter a code online for a chance to turn the card into a jersey, ball, autograph or jersey autograph card of that player, including a few rookie players. The set was supported by a solid but mostly unspectacular group of rookies until 2001 when Tom Brady emerged and took the 2000 products that included his cards to a higher level. The game jerseys returned at the same old 1 in 287 pack rate. I think I finally pulled one that year, and it was Brian Griese. I was still happy to pull it. The jerseys came with autographed parallels, as did the patch insert. Another jersey auto insert set was added with Game Jersey Greats autos, which were included in several UD products and featured players like Johnny Unitas, Terry Bradshaw and Bart Starr, among others.

Grade: B-
Best RC: Brady
Highest $$$ card: probably one of the Game Jersey Greats autos

2001: The industry lost a player in 2001 as Collector's Edge finally went under but Upper Deck powered on with another full slate of game-used and autograph-laden products. The company bade farewell to Black Diamond, SP Authentic took the leap into jersey and jersey auto RCs, SP Game Used and UD Game Gear pushed the game-used "envelope" to a new high, SPx had one of its best sets yet, and the company introduced a new high-end product with UD Graded. Other new sets included the late season quasi-parallel Rookie F/X, somewhat forgettable Top Tier, and here-and-gone retro-styled UD Vintage. The regular Upper Deck set included more jerseys then ever and it was even easier to pull one. Odds for a jersey pull ranged from 1 in 144 packs up to Premium Patches in 1 in every 5,000 packs. Short-printed RCs had become a mainstay in the product and UD gave the e-Card concept one more try before dropping it all together for 2002. Basically the 2001 set ended up only adding more water to an ever-more-saturated memorabilia market as more and more everyday players got their own jersey card. But the company did come through again with a good base set design and nice quality inserts, so at least they were doing it in style.

Grade: B
Best RC: LaDainian Tomlinson
Highest $$$ card: Manning jersey auto?

2002: Upper Deck took advantage of a new season to revamp its lineup. SP Authentic and SPx continued to be high-end products, and SP Legendary Cuts joined that vein in offering collectors a chance to pull rare autos, albeit at a 1 in 192 pack chance. All three products continued to beef up their jersey and autograph lineups, and UD contined to push the envelope with Sweet Spot, which included the high-end Impressions autos, oversized football swatches and special jumbo commemorative patch cards in every box. UD Graded was back for a second year and UD Authentics and UD Piece of History made one-year appearances along with XL. Upper Deck Honor Roll also started a 2-year run. As usual, the regular UD set was a solid offering with a new wrinkle of a 1 in 12 packs Sunday Stars subset to go with the short-print RCs. Buyback autos were included randomly and the easier-to-pull jerseys were back again. UD moved further into the "Rookie Premiere"-worn arena by including Rookie Futures jerseys for the first time at a rate of 1 in every 72 packs. There would be 14 autographed or game-used insert sets included with 2002 UD compared to only three regular insert sets. The game jersey and auto saturation would apparently reach its peak as 2002 was the final year for Pacific products, which were a main culprit of spearheading the jersey craze. As a final note on 2002, I have to say it's one of my least favorite base designs of UD football, especially the year after a really nice 2001 design. '02 UD was disappointing from that standpoint.

Grade: C
Best RC: Clinton Portis or Brian Westbrook
Highest $$$ card: probably one of the Buyback autos

2003: With the demise of Pacific, Upper Deck scaled back the jersey saturation in its regular set but, again, had a ho-hum base set design for the product. With Donruss-Leaf-Playoff joining UD in taking high-end products to a new level, SP Game Used was back for '03 in place of Legendary Cuts, and SP Signature made its return at the $30 per pack level. UD also issued Ultimate Collection for the first time in football as an ultra-high-end product. Sweet Spot had made a name for itself in '02 and returned to include a new helmet-style signature card for '03. UD Patch Collection was short lived and featured commemorative-patch-style cards and inserts that weren't very toploader-friendly. Standing O also made a one-and-done appearance in the lineup. The Finite brand was brought back complete with the heavy serial-numbered format and Honor Roll, MVP and Pros and Prospects made their final appearances. A significant move that has paid off for the company came in the regular set as UD brought back the short-printed Sunday Stars subset, the 1 in 4 pack SP RCs and added new levels of rookies short-printed to 1 in 8 packs (hobby packs only, to boot) and 1 in 24 packs. One of the hobby RCs was a Tony Romo RC that has helped keep the rookie class in the product one of the best this decade. Six incarnations of jersey card versions plus the Rookie Future jerseys and auto version were back, but it was still a far cry from the 14 auto or game-used inserts in the '02 product. The Rookie Premiere insert was included in retail packs and only two other inserts were included with the product. As the football card landscape continued to evolve, so too did the UD regular set, although more changes were on the way.

Grade: C+
Best RC: Romo, for now, altho my money's on Grossman (kidding)
Highest $$ card: Brady nameplate patch

2004: With several '03 products scrapped from the lineup, the '04 Upper Deck roster of products included some new brands. Reflections made its debut with serial numbered RCs and parallels and a cadre of jersey and auto inserts. SP Game Used returned but SP Signature did not. UD Diamond All-Star joined as a lower-end product, as did UD Diamond Pro Sigs. Ultimate Collection was back to go after the collectors with deeper pockets. Finite returned as Finite HG and with more game-used inserts than '03. UD Foundations and Rookie Premiere also debuted along with kid-friendly Power Up. UD Legends also made a welcome return from the 2001 lineup. The regular set also underwent some changes. The subset SPs were dropped and rookies were inserted either one per pack or one in every 8 packs for the SP selections. Printing plates were inserted to offer collectors 1 of 1 pulls. Jerseys returned to echo the base set design with the usual patch variations intact. A "Rewind to 1997" jersey insert was included to honor stars still in the league from that year, and the Rookie Futures event-worn jersey insert was again back. Rookie Prospects was the only non-jersey or autograph insert in the '04 regular set. The set was pretty much a lateral move from '03, on one hand you could get a rookie in every pack but the value suffered, other than the SP RCs. It was easier to pull a basic game jersey or Rookie Futures jersey but hard to get a variation or one of the other jersey inserts. UD had also scaled back the autographs available in the set.

Grade: C+
Best RC: probably end up being Eli
Highest $$$ card: Stephen Jackson auto/39? or, in the end, maybe the Brady patch when all is said and done

2005: Another one bit the dust in 2005 when Fleer collapsed and was later purchased by UD, so a good chunk of sets were gone from 2004 across the industry. DLP pushed jersey and auto pulls to yet another level with Gridiron Gear and Throwback Threads, and UD decided Ultimate Collection wasn't quite high-end enough so Exquisite Collection was released. I don't know how you can get more ultimate than "Ultimate", but I guess UD felt "Exquisite" was even more swanky. They put out Ultimate, too. The product was full of auto, jersey and patch hits, although it had better be for the price. Reflections returned to the lineup but SP Game Used was booted. UD put out Mini Jersey Collection, and UD Portraits with jumbo signature cards. The first UD set issued under the Fleer name was '05 Ultra as the product pretty much kept its traditional style. UD moved into Arena Football League card production with an AFL set in '05 and also hooked up with ESPN to produce the UD ESPN set focusing on player cards and inserts related to the sports network. Kickoff and Rookie Debut joined the low-end products while Foundations, Legends and Rookie Materials returned. The 2005 regular UD set followed the '04 model with a rookie in every pack and 25 rookies short printed to 1 in every 8 packs. The Heroes inserts from the early '90s returned to honor Barry Sanders and Troy Aikman and, this time, included jerseys and an auto numbered to 5. The number of jersey cards was again scaled back but game jerseys and rookie futures jerseys were seeded 1 in every 8 hobby packs and 1 in 24 retail packs. Predictors returned for the MVP and Rookie of the Year awards and the Rookie Futures jerseys included dual versions for the first time at a much harder to pull 1 in 288 pack rate. UD also kept autos as a hard pull from the product with another round of Signature Sensations numbered to each player's jersey number. By the time the dust settled on 2005, UD was larger than ever.

Grade: C+
Best RC: still up in air, I say Frank Gore, but Aaron Rodgers could give him a run
Highest $$$ card: probably a Sanders or Aikman Heroes auto

2006: The main change for Upper Deck in 2006 was further resurrecting the Fleer brand name as UD put out another Ultra set plus regular Fleer, Hot Prospects and Flair Showcase. Hot Prospects made a splash with the company's first autographed "Lettermen" cards for rookies. SP, SPx and Sweet Spot had become mainstays and Exquisite and Ultimate Collection sets returned. A second AFL set came out and Rookie Debut was beefed up a little as Foundations, Reflections, Portraits, Mini Jersey Collection and Kickoff were gone. The '04 and '05 rookie formula was followed in the regular set with more non-game used inserts included to mark the 10 Sack Club, the 1,000 Yard Receiving and Rushing clubs and the 3,000 Yard Passing Club. An exclusive Gridiron Debut insert was put in Wal-Mart packs and exclusive rookies were put in Target packs. The Heroes inserts honored Joe Theismann and Roger Staubach, complete with jerseys and the autos /5. The '06 Rookie Futures jerseys not only came in duals but, with a big rookie class headlined by Reggie Bush, Vince Young and Matt Leinart, variations were offered for autos and dual auto jersey cards. The Target exclusive rookies also had an auto variation, and Upper Deck created another big pull with XL jerseys featuring four swatches of material. A better balance had been created in the set between the premium inserts and regular inserts compared to recent years past. Boosted by the rookie class, it resulted in one of the company's best regular set offerings in years.

Grade: B
Best RC: arguable, I'd lean toward Jay Cutler or Reggie Bush, Leinart could still be in running
Highest $$$ card: probably Staubach auto, altho Bush jersey auto /10 isn't bad either

2007: More changes took place as the company entered its 17th year of football production. The Fleer brands, other than Ultra, were dropped, and Exquisite Collection and Ultimate Collection were joined by UD Premier as another ultra high-end product. The company also went more high-end with SP products expanding to SP Chirography (auto heavy set), and SP Rookie Threads. Artifacts and Trilogy also joined the company ranks. Rookie Debut was replaced by UD First Edition and Legends was given the year off in place of the aforementioned Artifacts. UD revamped its regular set inserts to include a 1964 Philadelphia-style insert, a College to Pros insert, a Football Heroes insert of '07 rookies, expanded auto offerings including bringing back the Inkredible auto name and adding a Rookie Ink and NFL Ink insert. The MVP and ROY predictors returned along with a Super Bowl predictor insert, and the odds for jersey and auto pulls were weighted toward hobby packs for the '07 set. Rookies were also seeded 1 in every hobby pack but 1 in 8 retail packs. Target exclusives were again included and other exclusive rookies were included in "fat packs". Overall, I'd call it a small step back in some ways and a step forward in other ways. Hobby buyers had no complaints, I'm sure, but the retail value wasn't near what it was in '06.

Grade: C+
Best RC: Adrian Peterson
Highest $$ card: Adrian Peterson NFL Ink auto???

2008: And that brings us to 2008. The company is bigger than ever but also faces its stiffest competition ever. Topps and DLP have been willing to try and slug it out in the ultra high-end market with UD. Upper Deck continues to try to keep fresh ideas out there, as the company has already released several new products for '08 -- UD Masterpieces (artwork based set), UD Draft Edition (rookie based, heavy with autos), Heroes (expanding on the insert set with the addition of parallels and more autos and jerseys), and Icons (Lettermen-heavy, also a lot of parallels and jerseys, also including some celebrity autos). The company dusted off its old StarQuest insert from '98 UD Choice for a return in this year's regular set and First Edition. The regular set versions have several parallels and are seeded 1 in each pack. Rookies were reverted to where now there's 2 in every retail pack and 4 in every hobby pack, although, again, a chunk of them are short-printed. The College to Pros insert is back for year 2, and UD inserted a 10-card Masterpieces Preview. Rookie Autos were included along with rookie jerseys this year and, again, the Target exclusives return. Another rookie insert, Potential Unlimited, is included while Superstar honors league stars and a new jersey insert is called Team Colors jerseys. With the company's strength in tradition, I'm sure we'll see some more new things out of UD this season.

Grade: B+
Best RC: Matt Ryan has early edge
Highest $$$ card: McFadden or Ryan rookie auto?

To sum it up, Upper Deck has outlasted its competitors and made its bones on continuing to stay a step ahead, or to take what other companies have started and take it one notch further. This year's new offerings show the company's commitment to keeping their products fresh, although in this day and age there is rarely anything THAT new in the card world anymore. I can't say I've always thought UD provided the best value for the money, especially in the higher-end products, but as far as the UD regular sets have gone, that product has almost always been a good buy. Even if you don't pull a big hit, you usually get something that holds value, and the rookies are among the best of any of the middle-grade products for holding value over the years. UD planted the seeds of the autograph and jersey craze we see in all sports in the hobby today, so there is a mixture of credit for innovation and blame for creating an environment where it's not good enough for a card even to be a plain rookie anymore to be placed. UD shouldn't be singled out, however, as all the companies are guilty in that case. One thing for certain is that, if there's something new or innovative associated with the football hobby (or any sport, for that matter), UD is usually involved.