Once again, Topps issued a 528-card football set in 1981, with airbrush work obscuring the team logos. At the same time, the company used most of the same subsets and gimmick they'd been using for years. However, there was a return to In Action cards that had been last issued as part of the 1972 set, and a very iconic rookie card that has given the entire set a lift over the years.
Card fronts feature a player photo, with a banner-shaped icon below. The part of the banner stretching out from the flagpole names the player's team, and his name appears after the fold. His position is listed in the space below the team name. For the first time ever, Topps used its logo on the front of a football card; it appears in the upper right corner. The banner theme is continued on the back, with the player's name and position as well as the card number inside various folds across the top. A list of vital stats, year-by-year career statistics (for most players) and a biography fill out most of the back, with a cartoon about the player off to the left.
Players who were named to the previous year's All-Pro team are given a black stripe across the bottom of their photos. For the third straight year, each team checklist card features offensive and defensive statistical leaders from the previous season on the front. The team checklists and five regular checklist cards are seeded throughout the set. Cards #1-6 feature the 1980 conference leaders in several statistical categories, cards #331-336 feature individual highlights from the season and cards #492-494 recap the conference championships and the Super Bowl. One new subset called Super Action appears that shows several top players in game-action shots. Oddly, the Super Action cards are seeded throughout the set, rather than following that player's base card numerically.
The key card is Joe Montana's rookie card. His presence gives the entire set a boost that the 1978-'80 football sets were lacking. Other notable rookies include Art Monk, Dwight Clark, Dan Hampton, Billy Sims and Kellen Winslow.