NFL 2012: Comparing Quarterbacks to Rock Stars
I find myself perpetually seduced by the possibility of comparing seemingly disparate entities. I look for similarities between French new-wave films and reality television, debate whether athletes’ sponsorship deals shed light on the sociopolitical climate in America and consider what rock stars the NFL’s most renowned quarterbacks resemble. This article seeks to provide something of a fleshed-out answer to that last idea.
Why compare NFL quarterbacks to rock stars, you ask? Several reasons.
For starters, quarterback is the most coveted position in American sports today. It has displaced heavyweight champion of the world, Olympic track star and power hitter as the most high-profile and recognizable position among fans and non-fans alike.
Quarterback play is dissected to an absolutely mind-numbing degree, and the best NFL quarterbacks now constitute their own celebrity subcategory. People with zero interest in football would have a better chance at recognizing Eli Manning than Kevin Durant—and Manning didn’t just spend the summer winning a gold medal for the United States.
Quarterbacks can no longer get away with simply leading their teams on the field. They must serve as faces of their respective franchises.
Teams take on the personality traits of their quarterbacks—their strengths, their weaknesses and everything in between. The New York Jets are considered an unsafe bet because Mark Sanchez lacks confidence. The Green Bay Packers are a powerhouse with the cool Aaron Rodgers and his swagger at the helm. The Buffalo Bills are underdogs because smart kids like Ryan Fitzpatrick aren’t supposed to be good at football.
Nobody considers how the personalities of middle linebackers affect the team as a whole. That would just seem weird.
Professional sports are a form of entertainment, and when it comes to entertainment, personality matters. Rock stars ooze personality even more than they ooze music, and quarterbacks are the rock stars of the modern athletic scene.
With the 2012-13 NFL season nearly upon us, it behooves us to compare the most compelling quarterbacks—the men who will be the most publicized athletic-celebrities over the next five months—to rock stars from bygone eras.
Here is the list. Have at it.
Cam Newton: Michael Jackson
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When Michael Jackson was in his prime—roughly the period of time between Off the Wall and Bad—he was the most talented musician in the world.
He had that electrifying voice, signature dance moves and an unrivaled creative vision.
Is there another musician that could have taken a simple (some would even say silly) song like “Thriller” and use it as the backbone for a visionary music video?
The 1980s saw the creation of lots of great music, some of which is arguably better than the work Jackson produced. But during that time, he was unquestionably our most talented musical star.
Cam Newton is the Michael Jackson of the NFL, because he is—with all due respect to Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers—the most talented quarterback in the game today.
Ever since Randall Cunningham set foot in Veterans Stadium, pundits and journalists have salivated over the prospect of a modern NFL quarterback who could combine the rushing skills of a running back with the passing skills of a classic pocket-passer.
Several players, from Donovan McNabb to Michael Vick, came close to bringing this vision to fruition, but none of them ever had as much success as traditional pocket-passers like Troy Aikman and Brady.
Newton is in a position to change this. He has the passing and rushing skills to become, in essence, the perfect quarterback. In his first season in the league, he broke the league record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback and became the first player ever to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 500. He also broke Peyton Manning’s record for most touchdown passes by a rookie.
Newton has Michael Jackson-esque talent, and like the late singer, the young quarterback has a sense for the dramatic. Before he even completed a pass in the NFL, he told Sports Illustrated he wanted to become a nothing less than an “entertainer and icon.” That MJ-like ambition will serve him well.
Peyton Manning: Elvis
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Elvis is and always will be the King of Rock and Roll.
He was the musician who cemented rock music’s place in the mainstream while making it subversive at the same time.
Yet 10 years after Elvis broke onto the national scene, few rock fans would have labeled him as the world’s greatest living rock star.
By 1966, British acts from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones had supplanted Elvis at the vanguard of rock music. Elvis was still the King, but others were making more relevant music.
The NFL is currently in the midst of a golden age of quarterbacks, and Peyton Manning is the player who kicked off this era. As a heralded rookie from the University of Tennessee, Manning set the then-record for most touchdown passes by a rookie, foreshadowing a career in which he would break and threaten other individual records.
But 10 years after his rookie season, Manning was no longer the best quarterback in the NFL. That honor belonged to Tom Brady, a player who had three Super Bowl rings to Manning’s one and had often got the best of Manning during their playoff confrontations.
Ben Roethlisberger and Manning’s younger brother Eli also have more memorable playoff performances to their names. Manning is still an icon, but others have surpassed him in terms of career accomplishments.
Manning is now trying to come back from a neck injury that sidelined him for the entirety of the 2011 season. He is in his ‘68 Comeback Special mode. We’ll see if the former king can have one last hurrah.
Tom Brady: Kurt Cobain
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Soft-loud. Soft-loud. That was the musical style introduced by The Pixies but perfected by Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, whose vocal range allowed him to sing the understated verses and over-the-top choruses of Nirvana’s best songs with equal levels of conviction.
Listen to the song “In Bloom” off the album Nevermind. Cobain’s nuanced vocal delivery during the verses suggest he could have had a successful career as a singer/songwriter à la Jack Johnson, and his visceral singing during the verses is more moving than the screams of some of hard rock’s other notorious frontmen.
Cobain possessed the best of both worlds and could turn from one to the other on a dime.
When I watch Tom Brady play football, I sometimes feel like I’m watching the physical manifestation of Cobain’s singing style.
Most of the time that Brady spends on the field, he projects a Zen-like calm. Unlike his chief rival Peyton Manning, who is always gesturing wildly at the line of scrimmage, Brady surveys the field calmly and deliberately.
On the bench, he often stares off into the distance while a forlorn expression graces his beautiful face, as if contemplating something much deeper than football.
But every now and then, Brady just explodes. When he scores a touchdown, he spikes the ball with more power than any other quarterback in the league. He’s not afraid to lose his cool on the sideline or talk trash to middle linebackers. And no other quarterback celebrates a touchdown with such punctuated, emotional fist pumps as Brady.
He may appear reserved 90 percent of the time, but there’s always a well of raw emotion just waiting to be released at the right moment. And yet in post-game press conferences, Brady always reverts to that soft-spoken demeanor. Soft-loud, soft-loud.
Drew Brees: Paul McCartney
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I don’t think Paul McCartney has it easy.
On some level, that statement seems absurd, since the life of a billionaire musical icon can’t really be that hard.
Still, I don’t think it’s particularly fair that McCartney, one of the most talented songwriters in the history of rock music, is always falling in the shadow of his greatest band’s other lead singer.
Think about it. McCartney penned some of The Beatles most iconic songs (“Yesterday,” “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be”), came up with the idea of producing a concept album (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), and some sources credit him with devising the idea to create a medley from unfinished songs for the B-side of Abbey Road.
Those are some indelible contributions to pop music. You could even make a case that he, more than Lennon, played the most significant role in shaping The Beatles musical direction. But for the rest of eternity, we will always read song credits for Beatles music as Lennon-McCartney. It’s never easy being seen as No. 2.
Drew Brees is in a Paul McCartney-like situation. Over the past six seasons, he’s been the most consistent—and one could argue the best—quarterback in professional football. Since joining the New Orleans Saints in 2006, Brees has passed for more than 4,000 yards and 25-plus touchdowns each year. He’s won the Offensive Player of the Year award in 2008 and 2011 and was the MVP of Super Bowl XLIV.
Yet I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sports journalist consistently make the case that Brees is the best the NFL has to offer. That moniker goes to Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning.
Pundits often temper Brees’ accomplishments by arguing that Sean Payton’s offensive system is a big reason why he has been able to put up such mind-blowing numbers. That seems like nitpicking at its very worst. Brees is an extremely accurate passer who deserves his success. His individual accomplishments are on par with all of his peers.
With Sean Payton serving a one-year suspension for his role in Bountygate, Brees has the opportunity to show detractors that he can succeed without his head coach. As for McCartney, let’s hope fans recognize all of his musical achievements even though Lennon’s name will always precede his on the credits.
Eli Manning: Brian Johnson
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Is there a more underappreciated rock star than Brian Johnson?
Johnson replaced the late Bon Scott in 1980 as the frontman of the Australian hard rock band AC/DC, and promptly went on to provide amazing vocals on Back in Black, one of the greatest rock albums ever conceived.
Johnson’s voice is recognizable to music fans of all ages, since AC/DC songs from that album onward serve as the soundtracks at events from football games to frat parties. Yet critics often treat him as something of an afterthought, like he’s just the guy who happened to replace Scott.
Let’s be honest: Johnson is a fantastic vocalist whose screaming delivery on songs like “You Shook Me All Night Long” is a big reason why AC/DC’s music remains relevant. His work demands recognition.
Like Johnson, Eli Manning is not an original. He is similarly underappreciated. He may be the younger brother of Peyton, the standard-bearer of the modern super quarterback, but at 31 years of age, it is the younger Manning who is quietly putting together one of the greatest postseason resumes in football history.
He has twice won playoff games at Lambeau Field. He has led the New York Giants to two Super Bowl victories against the vaunted New England Patriots. And in both of those games, it was Manning who helmed game-winning drives in the fourth quarter. Clutch performances like those are still what separate the great quarterbacks from the good ones.
Yet Manning remains underappreciated. When writers list the best quarterbacks, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and others always precede him. Last year, he was universally mocked when he claimed to be in the same class of quarterback as Brady. The mocking stopped after Manning’s Giants bested Brady’s Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.
You can’t spell elite without Eli, just like an AC/DC song off Back in Black wouldn’t be the same without Johnson’s singing.