Who Is the True Face of the NFL?
Is the Golden Boy grin of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady the true face of the NFL? Maybe it's the steely gaze of his coach, Bill Belichick, or the aw-shucks grin of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning?
Maybe the face of the NFL is a deeply bonded team, the Ravens' or Saints' pre-game chants. Might the face of the NFL be a diehard superfan, like the New York Jets' Fireman Ed?
Nope. It's Roger Goodell.
Not a Player
Unlike most other sports, football makes players anonymous. There are so many players on the field, TV doesn't even bother showing them all. The full-body uniforms and closed helmets keep us from strongly tying the bodies we see on the field to the faces we see see off it.
With free agency, non-guaranteed contracts and the punishing wear and tear of professional football, most non-quarterbacks don't have the chance to become the faces of their teams, let alone the face of the entire NFL.
There are iconic players. Brady and Manning are two of few men who are perennially dominant on the field and household names off of it. But even two of the best quarterbacks of all time don't singlehandedly take over, game in and game out, quite like a LeBron James or Lionel Messi can.
Not a Coach
Successful NFL coaches can come from any walk of life, espouse any personal or football philosophy and carry themselves however they want. Belichick is dour and aloof. Rex Ryan is bawdy and boisterous. Mike Tomlin speaks softly, but the look in his eyes lets you know he carries a big stick.
But none of these men embody the league. "NFL Head Coach" is one of the most pressure-packed jobs on the planet; every success and failure is magnified 100 times. As a result, coaches are paid, partly, to put up a front.
Yes, they get plenty of face time before, during and after games. But when they're successful, they deflect credit to the players; when they aren't, they (for the most part) put the blame on themselves. They speak in tired clichés and inscrutable metaphors.
For most head coaches, the best press conference seems to be one where they say nothing of significance—hardly iconic.
When it comes to being the face of the league, coaches have the same problem as players: They just don't stick around long enough. Per NESN's Jeff Howe, going into the 2011 season the average NFL head coach had been with his team just 3.25 seasons.
Even the few coaches who do become synonymous with their franchises aren't safe from the relentless pressure; Mike Shanahan was unceremoniously dumped by the Broncos after a slightly-less-than-awesome 2008 season (via ESPN.com).
Really, the NFL is the face of the NFL. The league itself, the quality of the football and the production values of the TV broadcasts are ubiquitous. When you're watching NFL football, you know you'll likely see a competitive game played at the highest possible level.
The NFL pioneered concepts like ticket revenue sharing and ordered rookie drafts—things we take for granted now, but which help ensure every team is competitive. Thanks to its mostly-balanced schedule and perfectly tuned playoffs, nearly every NFL game is meaningful.
Most NFL fans, like fans of any sport, have a favorite team. But unlike many other sports, the NFL inspires even casual fans to tune in to games they have no stake in (or, possibly, only a fantasy football stake in).
The NFL's product—and brand—is so strong, so compelling, it pulls people in regardless of the players, coaches or teams involved.
Right now, Roger Goodell is the NFL. While his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, was a gifted consensus-builder and negotiator, he never seemed comfortable as the public face and voice of the league. Goodell owns the podium.
Every year, Tagliabue uncomfortably muddled through his NFL draft emcee duties. Goodell's confident speeches, hugging and dap-exchanging routine gets as much discussion as the picks themselves.
In a more practical way, Goodell has used his authority to punish players, coaches, executives and teams who've stepped out of line. He hasn't flinched in bringing down the hammer on off-field legal problems or on-field dangerous plays.
Right now, Goodell is acting as spokesman, chief security officer and CEO. He's the face of the league office, and the league office is the face of the NFL.
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